Then & now Don Conroy, artist


IN THE 1980s and 1990s, every Irish kid (and many Irish grown-ups) tuned in to The Denon RTÉ TV every afternoon. The names will stay with us forever – presenters Ian Dempsey and Ray D’Arcy, aliens Zig and Zag, Dustin the turkey and Socky the sock puppet. Last September, the show was finally mothballed, to be replaced by a new children’s programming strand, but, as Zig might say, we’ll always have the planet Zog.

But let’s not forget another colourful character who was a regular guest of The Denfor much of its 24-year run. Smiley face, blond mop and always with a pencil and drawing paper to hand, Uncle Don was The Den’sin-house artist, sparking viewers’ imaginations with his vivid cartoons and passion for nature and wildlife.

Dubliner Don Conroy grew up with a love of art, writing and conservation and, most importantly, a child-like sense of wonder. He studied art at the National College of Art and Design and speech and drama at the Royal Irish Academy, and got his first job as a junior graphic designer in an ad agency.

He bagged his first TV gig on the Late Late Showin 1982, then presented his own show, Paint For Fun, before The Denstarted getting him on every week to share his tips on drawing and painting with young viewers. He demonstrated how to paint wildlife and landscapes, and how to draw witches, monsters, dinosaurs and super-heroes. His favourite animal to draw was an owl; his favourite fantasy creature was a hobbit.

As a youngster, Don used to regale his friends with stories he made up on the spot. This storytelling talent stayed with him, and he wrote several children’s books, including the acclaimed wildlife fantasy trilogy, On Silent Wings, Wild Wingsand Sky Wings. He also published books on drawing, such as Cartoon Fun with Don Conroy.

Conroy’s passion for nature covers a wider canvas. He’s an active conservationist, and was involved in a major project to reintroduce the golden eagle to Ireland. He also lent a hand in setting up a whale and dolphin sanctuary off the Irish coast.

The Den may be dead, but Conroy continues to crop up on TV and radio every now and then. He had his own TV series, The Art of Don, in the mid-noughties, and is a regular visitor to Dublin Zoo, where he conducts animal-drawing workshops. It’s not just kids who benefit from his knowledge – he has also been hired by Bank of Ireland and other corporations to help develop team creativity through art. Last month, he held a Draw With Donworkshop at Dublin’s Bernard Shaw pub, as a guest of the Bodytonic club collective. The event was over-18s only, but you can bet it was packed with people who grew up watching Don on The Den.