Shy newsreader who was one of Ireland’s best-known faces

Don Cockburn: born March 13th, 1930, died September 5th, 2017

RTÉ newsreader Don Cockburn.  Photograph: RTÉ Archives

RTÉ newsreader Don Cockburn. Photograph: RTÉ Archives


Don Cockburn, who has died in his native Dublin after a short illness, was for many years one of the most recognised faces in Ireland, as anchor of the main television evening news on RTÉ until 1992. He was not comfortable with being so well-known, being a deeply shy and private man.

He was old-school in the positive sense, setting himself high standards. He went out of his way to be correct in his pronunciation of names. He never tried to lose his accent, but kept a crystal-clear enunciation. There was a natural authority to the way he presented the news. Beforehand, he was always calm and collected. He belonged to a time when newsreading was about presenting content gathered by journalists, the two being perceived as separate skills. That was reflected in his being a member of Irish Equity, the actors’ union, for a long time and only transferring to the National Union of Journalists later in his career.

On a personal basis, he was helpful, particularly to young journalists, kind, courteous, and had a sense of humour. Every Christmas Day, even if not working, he arrived in the newsroom with a couple of bottles of port to share with his colleagues.

Though he became best known through television, for him radio was always the superior medium. That was because it relied on sound, particularly the human voice.

Donald James Alexander Cockburn was born off Dublin’s South Circular Road in March 1930, only child of James Cockburn and his wife Evelyn (née Hyland). His father was an auctioneer, and for a period Dublin City marshal. He attended national school locally, then received secondary education at Synge Street Christian Brothers School.

Home-made newspaper

From an early age, he was attracted to the media. As a child, he produced a home-made newspaper called The Washington Post, named after Washington Street where the family lived.

After leaving school, he worked as an accounts clerk with Dublin City Council. He also obtained a BA and BComm degree through night classes at Trinity College. For the arts degree, he studied Russian and Spanish. Attending Trinity meant receiving a special dispensation from the formidable archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

At one point in his career with the City Council, he was assigned to the council’s abattoir. He found this so awful that he decided he had to find another career. Thus he answered an advertisement for a part-time continuity announcer and newsreader on Radio Éireann. This career began in 1958, when Radio Éireann was still based in the GPO, and there was no television service.

Photograph: RTÉ Archives
Photograph: RTÉ Archives

As a continuity announcer he had to quickly choose music to play if there was an unexpected gap in programming. One Sunday, when he was presenting, the broadcast Mass ended unexpectedly early. He played a Chopin tune until the next programme was due. Though he was a devout Catholic, some of the zealous protested that he had played dance music.

After leaving RTÉ in 1992 he enjoyed quarter of a century of retirement, though the last years were blighted by the death of his wife. He was a lover of language, knowing Russian, Spanish, and some French. He loved literature, and had a great book collection – though loans to family members made some headway in diminishing this. He was particularly fond of the English poet Philip Larkin.

Occasional verses

He wrote poetry, though not for publication. These were occasional verses, sent with cards to friends and acquaintances, and marked with a mixture of humour and encouragement.

He was environmentally aware before such became common. He was noted for always cycling to work. He collected rainwater, used to water his garden. He was a recycler, always using old sheets of scrap paper.

He was a man of deep Catholic faith, active as a layman in his parish. He liked to sit in a side chapel in the church, and reflect. In the parish he took part in a discussion group, the Patricians. During discussions he would take pleasure in occasionally lobbing in a bombshell to provoke controversy. In doing this, though, he was always careful to be kind rather than confrontational.

Some time before he died, he told his family that he disliked hearing the deceased being lionised at funerals. “Whatever you say about me, make sure I’m recognisable,” he told them.

He is survived by daughter Evelyn, son John, and grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife Marie (née Scully).