The media's new darling
PROFILE: MARIE-LOUISE O'DONNELL - DCU COMMUNICATIONS LECTURER AND MEDIA PUNDIT:Her mile-a-minute enthusiasm and taste for drama made Marie Louise O’Donnell a radio star this summer – but becoming an overnight sensation required a long apprenticeship
ANYBODY WHO’S anybody knows Marie-Louise O’Donnell, but the rest of us have only become aware of her since her rapid-fire southside soliloquies came gushing from the radio this summer. For the first time since 9/11, Irish broadcasting experienced a silly season this year and, apart from Ivor Callely, O’Donnell was virtually the only show in town.
Many listeners to RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Pat Kennywere left wondering about the source of these florid commentaries on everything from baling hay to the banking crisis. Her weekly jaunts into the less urbane corners of Irish life and her epiphanic zeal about surfing, farming or fishing caught the ears of the nation, but didn’t win over some of the chatroom classes.
“Her sensationalist description of countryside life was akin to a member of the starship Enterprisegoing back in time and describing the life of a caveman. I reckon she thinks most people outside the Pale still eat with their hands,” wrote one irked listener on boards.ie.
But many listeners love her and O’Donnell can now be picked up across the media spectrum: discussing Caesarean sections on The Midday Showon TV3, sounding off on T onight With Vincent Browne,explaining opera on John Kelly’s The Viewor parsing the bank recapitalisation scheme on Pat Kenny’s newsmaker panel.
O’Donnell is here to stay.
Marie-Louise O’Donnell has lectured in communications at Dublin City University for 20 years. Her teaching speciality is radio and her students are reportedly enamoured of her quirky, colourful approach. “Everything is a performance with her,” says a former colleague. “Her students love her for it, she’s so unusual in her teaching style. It’s all theatre. Every year she wins awards for her teaching.”
O’Donnell believes passionately in the importance of engaging undergraduates with a strong delivery. “She worries that the new focus on research in the universities is moving the emphasis away from the role of the lecturer,” says a close friend. “She wants to maintain the standard and value of undergraduate level teaching, the real stuff of university life.”
O’Donnell has now undertaken a PhD on the subject of teaching in the university. She has just started her second year in St Patrick’s College.
Theatrical delivery comes easy. Her mother, Maire Cranny, is a speech and drama teacher of considerable renown in south Co Dublin. Currently in her 80s, Cranny is continuing a career that has touched thousands of people along the 46A bus route. O’Donnell reputedly brought her mother to class recently, to help students with their delivery skills. She was a big hit.
O’Donnell has followed the family script and is deeply involved in theatre, helping to set up Classical Stage Ireland with Andy Hinds in 2004, and playing a key role in the early development of DCU’s Helix Theatre. In the early days of her career she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and trained as a professional actor and theatre director. On her return to Ireland she was appointed head of drama at Carysfort teacher training college.
When O’Donnell joined DCU in the early 1990s, the “high-tech’’ college was still in its teenage years and arts was very much a backwater. O’Donnell put a lot of time into developing the arts scene at DCU. She was involved in the production of drama projects for the fringe theatre space and was a particularly talented fundraiser, one of her colleagues recalls.
“It’s extraordinary the amount of people she knows and counts among her friends,” he says. “Gay Byrne, Charlie McCreevy, many Fine Gael TDs – she’s genuinely close to many people. I accompanied her on a trip to America at one stage and she even had a network there. I don’t know how she does it.”
However, O’Donnell was ultimately drawn back to the classroom.
“She is utterly committed to teaching,” says a friend. “She is manfully struggling with research methods in St Pat’s at the moment, in order to get going on a PhD exploration of good university teaching practice. She’s more interested in that than in Fine Gael or the banking crisis.”
Nonetheless, O’Donnell is happy to hold court on any number of topics on air, and her media shadow is lengthening. What’s her real ambition? Well, right from the start, O’Donnell has been building a media career, say her friends.
“It’s one of those ‘overnight success stories’ that was actually years in the making,” says one. “She trained in radio production and presentation with the BBC and presented programmes for BBC Radio 4.”
While she is only becoming a household name now, it’s been a long time coming.
“Marie-Louise has a lot of opinions and she loves to perform,” says a colleague. “Media is a natural fit for her. Whether you’re sitting across a table from her or listening to her on the radio, she doesn’t change. She’s always jumping in and out of this quote or that, this voice or that – she’s always acting. Now she’s finding her own voice and she’s enjoying it.”
As well as riding the airwaves, O’Donnell can be heard at after-dinner engagements and most recently at the W3 talks, travelling the country talking to groups about parenting issues with respected RTÉ presenter Caroline Murphy.
The talks are not about the business end of parenting – sleep, nutrition, discipline – but are an attempt to inject a bit of inspiration into the role. An experienced interpreter of Anglo-Irish literature, O’Donnell talks to parents about enjoying the stories and poems that their children are learning in school and re-imagining the idea of a good education, away from the points race and other utilitarian concerns.
O’Donnell has one grown-up son, a medical student. In private, she entertains with piano playing and singing and has boundless energy.
“Marie-Louise is looking for value for every hour. She loves communication, in all its forms,” says a colleague.
A former boss cannot help but be impressed by her. “She’s a phenomenon, an in-your-face extrovert that you cannot help but like. Whether in private or in public, she’s always on stage. Whether you agree with what she’s saying or not, you just get dragged along. She doesn’t let go of you.”
All this mile-a-minute enthusiasm is shot through with a “basic streak of personal decency”, he adds.
Expect to see and hear a lot more of O’Donnell, say her peers. Says one colleague: “She’s a very unusual person in that she fills every moment with activity and energy. She covers a lot of subjects in media and it would be easy to think she’s bluffing. But she’s not – Marie-Louise really does know a great deal about opera, drama, politics, teaching, public life and people. But most of all, she knows about communication, and that covers just about everything.”
Marie Louise ODonnell can now be heard across the media landscape, with Vincent Browne, Pat Kenny, John Kelly and and the Midday panel and Ireland Am on TV3. Her contributions cover a wide range of topics from the political to the personal, but her responses are always vivid, energetic and very Marie-Louise.
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