Keelin Shanley obituary: An ‘accidental journalist’ known for her curiosity, empathy and versatility
From a family of medics and scientists, she studied biochemistry before switching to media
In the RTÉ radio studio, while presenting the summer programme Sunday with Keelin Shanley in 2018.
Keelin Shanley, who has died aged 51, was an accomplished journalist and broadcaster known for her curiosity, empathy and versatility. Her interviewing style could be as sensitive or as resolute as the subject required, while her ability to communicate complex issues in a nuanced but accessible way was valued by both colleagues and audiences.
Shanley’s appointment as co-presenter of RTÉ’s Six-One news bulletin, a role she began in January 2018, brought her into people’s homes on a daily basis. The job, one of the highest profile positions within RTÉ News and Current Affairs, came on top of a stellar, award-winning career as a reporter for Prime Time, an RTÉ documentary maker and a presenter of television programmes including Morning Edition, Crimecall and The Consumer Show.
Among her many accolades, she won three Irish Film and Television Academy awards (IFTAs) for her reports on sex trafficking, the care of people with intellectual disabilities and the cocaine trade. A regular, welcoming voice across the RTÉ Radio 1 schedule, she enjoyed the opportunity radio gave her to do in-depth interviews, at which she excelled.
She was born in 1968 to Orna Shanley (née MacMahon), a physiotherapist who died in 2006, and Prof Derry Shanley, a former dean of the Dublin Dental University Hospital and dean of medicine at Trinity College Dublin. Shanley grew up in Greystones, Co Wicklow, before the family moved to Monkstown in Dublin when she was 10. The eldest of five children, she described herself as quite a shy child, one who would have been surprised by her future occupation.
Coming from a family of medics and scientists, she had always loved science and thought she would become a scientist. She studied biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin in the 1980s and after her degree she moved to Italy, where she was an assistant researcher in the school of pharmacy at the University of Bologna. There she found her research project, involving the neurochemistry of rats, to be hard and gruesome work, while at the same time she was meeting “a whole new set of people” who inspired her to pursue journalism. After a year in Barcelona, she went back to Bologna in the early 1990s to set up a desktop publishing and translation business with a friend.
“It was very much an accidental falling into journalism,” she said, but she believed the scientific requirement to prove hypotheses provided solid training: “In journalism, you can’t just make assertions, you need sources.”
Shanley returned to Dublin in 1993 and worked in an educational video unit in Trinity. By the following year she was contributing film reviews to RTÉ daytime show 12.2.1 and reports to a Radio 1 evening culture slot called Four by Fifteen, while in 1995 and 1996, she appeared on the arts programme Black Box on Network 2 (now RTÉ2), working alongside acclaimed documentary maker Mary Raftery, who she said gave her “an early introduction to professional courage”.
In her early years at RTÉ, Shanley distilled her scientific background into radio programmes such as Science Light and Spectrum, which aimed to show “the science behind everyday life”, while after Black Box finished, she continued appearing on Network 2, fronting music specials and co-presenting technology series such as 1998’s Tech TV and 2000’s Dot.what?
Shanley had started on Prime Time, RTÉ’s flagship current affairs series, when she relocated to Paris in 2001 with her new husband, advertising copywriter Conor Ferguson. “You wouldn’t pass up an adventure like that,” she said of the two-year French experience, during which she worked for Radio France Internationale and CNN World Report.
After the couple resettled in Dublin, she rejoined Prime Time. Her journalism for the programme and its sister title Prime Time Investigates documented social problems such as homelessness, poverty, drug abuse and child sexual exploitation, and her reports were praised for avoiding sensationalism, considering the structural causes of societal ills and giving voice to the vulnerable. “I saw first-hand how a child’s future is all too often set by the family and environment into which they’re born,” she said later. “It’s not just about money, it’s about opportunity, support and having role models.”
In January 2002, her report Complex Problems: St Teresa’s Gardens, about social deprivation in Dublin, won the first annual Radharc Award, presented by then president Mary McAleese. The three IFTAs - two with colleague Janet Traynor and one as part of the Prime Time team - then came in a decade in which Shanley proved her broadcasting credentials as a stand-in on key Radio 1 slots. “Shanley settled into the demanding seat as if it was made for her,” wrote The Irish Times’s radio reviewer of her stint on Drivetime in 2007.
She reported from developing countries for both Prime Time and the series Far Away Up Close and was also hailed for lending her journalistic skills to RTÉ One’s The Consumer Show, which she began co-presenting with Eddie Hobbs in 2010.
Her status as a rising star within RTÉ was confirmed when she was chosen to helm Morning Edition, a news and magazine programme that ran on RTÉ One throughout 2013 and 2014. Although RTÉ ultimately abandoned its bid to carve out an audience in the in-between time slot of 9am and 11am, Shanley was the perfect presenter for its “light and shade” format. She said the solo role, which meant being live on television for two hours a day, was “a big step” for her and “daunting” at first, though it would have been hard to tell this from her natural and warm manner on air.
The programme arrived after a difficult personal period for Shanley. Soon after Morning Edition launched, she appeared on The Late Late Show to raise awareness of Irish Cancer Society fundraising event Daffodil Day. She spoke about how on the morning of the 2011 general election, she had found out she had breast cancer during a medical appointment slotted in between late-night election work (on the show Eleventh Hour) and an assignment at a count centre. The diagnosis had been “a shock”, she said, but two years on from her treatment, she was feeling great.
After Morning Edition, her first role was on Radio 1’s The Late Debate, but she soon became the holiday stand-in for Today with Sean O’Rourke and other peak-time radio programmes, while during the 2016 general election, she hosted a television debate filmed at Facebook’s Dublin offices.
She was presenting Radio 1’s News at One and the monthly television series Crimecall when RTÉ bosses approached her about becoming the new anchor of the Six-One bulletin alongside Caitriona Perry. Shanley felt the high visibility of their all-female pairing was important for women on the principle of “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. In interviews, she often paid tribute to female journalists who she admired, tweeting her sadness in January 2020 after the death of colleague Marian Finucane, who she wrote had been “a hero” to her.
Outside RTÉ, Shanley was a sought-after master of ceremonies at events such as the Irish Book Awards and the Business-to-Arts Awards, among many others, and supported charities including Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, for which she was an ambassador.
She shared a love of cinema with her husband Conor, who she first met as a teenager in the early 1980s when they were both fans of Goth bands. After “years and years and years” of being friends, they reconnected after her return from Italy, meeting at the Dublin Film Festival and marrying in 2000. The couple lived in Portobello in Dublin after their time in Paris and had two children, Lucy and Ben. In recent years, the family moved to Dún Laoghaire, where they were close to Shanley’s father Derry.
She is survived by Conor, Lucy and Ben, Derry, her sisters Muireann, Emma and Niamh, and her brother Eoin.