Donncha Ó Dúlaing: Renowned broadcaster with natural ability to relax interviewees

‘Champion of the ordinary person’ broadcast on RTÉ radio and TV for more than 50 years

When he retired  from RTÉ in 2015, Donncha Ó Dúlaing was described by the then head of RTÉ Radio One as the ‘epitome of the public-service broadcaster’

When he retired from RTÉ in 2015, Donncha Ó Dúlaing was described by the then head of RTÉ Radio One as the ‘epitome of the public-service broadcaster’

 

Born: March 15th, 1933

Died: September 4th, 2021

The Cork-born broadcaster Donncha Ó Dúlaing, who has died, presented cultural and traditional Irish music programmes on RTÉ radio and television for more than 50 years. Renowned for his effortless storytelling style and his natural ability to make people relax in front of the microphone, Ó Dúlaing was a household name in Ireland throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Ó Dúlaing began working in the Cork office of Radio Éireann in the early 1960s and moved to work in the Dublin RTÉ studios on the third floor of the GPO in 1969. He was best known for his RTÉ Radio One series Highways and Byways, for which he travelled the country talking to musicians, teachers and others about their life stories, songs and folk tales. The Saturday evening programme Fáilte Isteach, which he continued to present into his 80s on the station, was also hugely popular – particularly among Irish emigrants in England, the United States and elsewhere.

Donncha’s Sunday on RTÉ Radio One and Donncha’s Travelling Road Show on RTÉ television were other popular programmes. In August 2014, President Michael D Higgins presented Ó Dúlaing with a specially commissioned sculpture in recognition of his contribution to Irish culture.

Ó Dúlaing, who was head of features for RTÉ Radio One for a short time, was also widely appreciated for his fundraising walks in Ireland, the UK, France, Israel, Argentina and among the Choctaw Native Americans in the US. The many walks he led raised thousands for various charities including the Irish Wheelchair Association, Concern, Rehab and the Irish Heart Foundation. He also ran marathons in Dublin and Cork to raise money for charities and won a People of the Year award for his charity work.

Peter Woods, head of RTÉ Radio One, said Ó Dúlaing was a legend of Irish broadcasting. “He loved the road and in an era when radio outside broadcasts usually came from a mobile unit, Donncha adapted early to technology and ranged across the country with a tape recorder.” Politics was also a big part of his life and he sometimes got into trouble, particularly around Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which prevented the voices of those from proscribed organisations to be broadcast during the Troubles.

In 1984, Ó Dúlaing wrote a book entitled Voices of Ireland which contained conversations with the many famous people he had interviewed. In 2014, he wrote an illustrated memoir, Donncha’s World – the Roads, the Stories and the Wireless, with co-author with Declan Lyons. It was launched by his friend the singer Daniel O’Donnell, who described Ó Dúlaing as “a champion of the ordinary person”.

In the book, Ó Dúlaing recalls the many famous people he interviewed including former Irish President Éamon de Valera, Pope John Paul II, writer Edna O’Brien, trade unionist Rosie Hackett, American novelist John Steinbeck, singer Mick Jagger, mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, Cork hurling icon Christy Ring and actors Gene Kelly and Maureen O’Hara.

Self-deprecating manner

On Ó Dúlaing’s retirement from RTÉ in 2015, the then head of RTÉ Radio One, Tom McGuire, said Ó Dúlaing was the “epitome of the public-service broadcaster” and that “his good humour, self-deprecating manner, anecdotes and memories brightened many a lonely evening for those living a solitary life but also became the focus of debate and argument in kitchens and corner shops”.

Baptised Denis Patrick Dowling, Ó Dúlaing (who took on the Irish version of his name when he started in RTÉ) grew up in Doneraile, Co Cork, the eldest of three children of Kerry-born garda Daniel Dowling and his wife, Helena (née Cashman), a bookkeeper from east Cork. His family moved to Charleville when his father was stationed there. Ó Dúlaing attended the Christian Brothers school in Charleville until he was 15 and spent the next eight years working as a dental technician.

In interviews, he spoke about how he met all kinds of people when his father brought him to the Mallow races on the bar of his bike. He also spoke about the sadness of his father’s death when he was just 14 and how his mother observed strict mourning for a year, even covering the radio with a black cloth. A fluent Irish speaker, Ó Dúlaing was an avid reader of Irish poetry and Penguin paperbacks. He had a lifelong passion for the GAA and attended numerous football and hurling finals, often with some of his children in tow.

Further education

He met his wife, Vera Galvin – a teacher – while he was working as a dental technician in Charleville. She strongly encouraged him to further his education and he went on to complete an arts degree in University College Cork, graduating with honours at the age of 28.

The couple married on St Valentine’s Day in 1961 in the Honan chapel at UCC. They settled in Cork where their five children – Feargal, Ruairí, Sinéad, Donal and Donncha – were born.

After a brief stint as a teacher, he took a job as a trainee manager with Ford in Dagenham, England, before returning to Ireland to take a job as a programme assistant at Radio Éireann’s regional office in Cork. His first interviews were for a weekly magazine programme called A Woman’s World and A Munster Journal. His big break came when he approached President de Valera to do an interview about his early life in Bruree, Co Limerick. De Valera, who had attended the same school at Ó Dúlaing in Charleville, agreed and a series entitled The Boy from Bruree was made.

Ó Dúlaing moved to Dublin to take up the job of head of features at RTÉ Radio in 1969 but subsequently resigned from the post to get back on the road. His tape recorder went everywhere with him and every event and every meeting was an opportunity for a programme. He was happiest in a crowd or in front of a microphone – one of his favourite expressions was: “Keep your eye on the ball even when the ref has it.” And while Ó Dúlaing was away from home a lot, Vera managed the household finances and looked after the children’s education while working as a teacher in St John’s national school, Ballybrack. The family lived in Stillorgan near the RTÉ headquarters in Donnybrook. A great singer, he and Vera encouraged all his children to play a musical instrument and shared a love of tenors, especially Mario Lanza and John McCormack.

He and his family were grief-stricken in 2010 when Sinéad, a producer in RTÉ, died at the age of 44 from a brain tumour. Ó Dúlaing had a stroke in his early 80s which slowed his down somewhat. He spent his last few years in a nursing home but sadly Vera, who had remained in the family home, died six days before him.

Ó Dúlaing is survived by his sons Feargal, Ruairí, Donal and Donncha, his eight grandchildren and his sister, Kitty. His wife, Vera, his daughter, Sinead and his sister, Sr Mary Dowling, predeceased him.