Desmond Fennell obituary: An independent thinker and purveyor of ideas

Lecturer, columnist, author and commentator, Fennell was also a gifted linguist

Desmond Fennell accepted his status as an outsider who critiqued society.

Desmond Fennell accepted his status as an outsider who critiqued society.


Dermot Fennell
Born: June 29th, 1929
Died: July 16th, 2021

Desmond Fennell, the author, essayist, newspaper columnist and public intellectual, has died.

Born in Belfast but raised in Dublin, Fennell was renowned for his passionate and fearless commentary on the Irish language and culture, nationalism, Catholicism and western civilisation.

An independent thinker and a purveyor of ideas who often challenged mainstream views, Fennell was an advocate for philosophical argument and strongly believed that public debate should incorporate a diversity of opinions.

Fennell was also a gifted linguist. He was fluent in Irish, German, French, Spanish and Italian

His son, Cilian Fennell, says his father decided from a young age that he “would fashion his craft with his mind and figure things out for himself”. “He always told us not to be a slave to any orthodoxy – ‘Don’t let them tell you what you should think.’ By giving us our own truth, thinking makes us more human, he often said.”

Widely travelled, Fennell was also a gifted linguist. He was fluent in Irish, German, French, Spanish and Italian. He became deeply immersed in the places he lived throughout his long life. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he spent several years with his then wife, Mary Troy, and their young family in the Connemara Gaeltacht island of Muighinis which he re-named Maoinis in honour of his admiration of Mao-Tse Tung’s revolutionary doctrines. He also lived in Sweden, Japan, Spain, Germany, the United States and Italy.

Fennell’s books include Mainly in Wonder (1959), which arose from travels in the Far East; The Changing Face of Catholic Ireland (1968); The State of the Nation: Ireland Since the Sixties (1983); Heresy: The Battle of Ideas in Modern Ireland (1993); and Third Stroke Did It: The Staggered End of European Civilisation (2012) in which he predicted that contemporary consumerist western culture would give way to another more coherent civilisation. His autobiography, entitled About Being Normal: My Life in Abnormal Circumstances, was published in 2017.

Desmond Fennell was born on the Antrim Road in Belfast – the eldest of three children – to Tom Fennell from Sligo and Julia (nee Carolan) from Belfast. The family moved to Dublin when he was three where his father worked in the wholesale grocery business. Fennell attended O’Connell’s Christian Brothers primary school in Drumcondra and Belvedere College where he came first in Ireland in his Leaving Certificate French and German.

In 1947, he won a scholarship to study classical languages at University College Dublin (UCD). While completing his BA in history and economics, he also studied English and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin. Following that, he did an MA in modern history at UCD which includes two semesters at Bonn University in Germany.

Drawn back to the European mainland, he spent the next three years teaching English in a new Opus Dei secondary school near Bilbao in Spain. And in 1955, he moved to Germany to work as an English newsreader for the German news channel, Deutsche Welle. In the early 1960s, Fennel wrote columns for several Dublin publications including the Sunday Press and The Irish Times. Travelling to Sweden and the Soviet Union during this time, he wrote a series of articles for The Irish Times, which are widely believed to be the first reports by an Irish writer from communist-ruled USSR.

In 1963, Fennell married Limerick-born English teacher and theologian, Mary Troy and the couple went on to have five children. Following the birth of their first son, the family lived in the German city of Freiburg for two years where Fennell worked as assistant editor of Herder Correspondence, the English-language version of a Catholic journal of theology, philosophy and politics.

After a brief time back in Dublin, the family moved to the south Connemara Gaeltacht where the couple became involved in the Gaeltacht civil rights movement which gave rise to Raidió na Gaeltachta, Údarás na Gaeltachta and TG4.

In his popular columns for the Sunday Press, Fennell wrote extensively about the need for an autonomous Gaeltacht region as well as how a decentralised civil service would revitalise rural Ireland and how a federal solution to Northern Ireland with British-Irish joint rule would include the recognition of the Unionist population as “the Ulster British”.

Irish economist, writer and farmer Raymond Crotty, Irish writer Francis Stuart, and Tom Barrington, founder of the Institute of Public Administration, are among those whose work he admired.

From 1976-1982, Fennell lectured in political science and tutored in modern history at University College Galway. Following the break-up of his marriage, he moved back to Dublin and lectured for a time in English writing at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

Throughout the 1980s, he shifted his focus away from nationalist issues to consumerist liberalism which he associated with the “smug literal elite” of the Dublin 4 media. And while he often decried the “intellectual stagnation of Irish Catholicism”, he remained a Catholic throughout his life. His book, Nice People and Rednecks: Ireland in the 1980s, was published in 1986. His 1991 pamphlet, Whatever Your Say, Say Nothing; Why Seamus Heaney is No 1, questioned whether poet Seamus Heaney deserved all the accolades he received and angered Heaney’s admirers.

Aongside that strong intellectual rigour, he was kind hearted, supportive yet challenging to young writers

Fennell later turned his attention to the United States, following a six-week holiday in 1994. And after a further 15 months in Seattle, he wrote about how western civilisation was at the point of collapse which started with the American nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, followed by the embrace of liberalism. Christianity, he argued, no longer bonded western civilisation together leading to socio-political, moral and intellectual chaos.

Toner Quinn, who edited Desmond Fennell: his life and work (Veritas, 2001), says when Brexit and Trump came along, Fennell’s writing on post western civilisation in the 1990s and 2000s seemed quite prophetic.

In his later life, Fennell lived in the Italian lake side town of Anguillara for 12 years. During this time, he fell in love with Miriam Duggan who became his partner for the next 24 years.

Sometimes frustrated by being sidelined by the Irish media, Fennell nonetheless accepted his status as an outsider who critiqued society. But alongside that strong intellectual rigour, he was kind hearted, supportive yet challenging to young writers, and playful and loving with family and friends until the end.

Desmond Fennell is survived by his partner, Miriam Duggan, his children Oisín, Cilian, Natasha, Sorcha and Kate, grandchildren Sorcha, Jessica, Thal, Maya, Zach and Anu and his sister, Rosemary. He was pre-deceased by his sister, Geraldine.