As I battled cancer my baby boy was born, it was a joy to hold him
Tony O'Donoghue talks exclusively to Dave Kenny about his illness, family, and his passion for music and sport
Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30
Tony O'Donoghue is standing on Castle Street, Dalkey, south Dublin, with a coathanger-in-mouth smile. He is wearing a sharp, shiny suit and looks like the manager of a hardworking First Division soccer team. He has a healthy colour and his usual mischievous air about him.
Tony and I have been friends for over 20 years. Whenever I see him in 'Full Metal Jacket' – suit, polished shoes – I remember evenings shared in the RTE newsroom back in the Nineties. Sometimes Tony would read the sports bulletin in collar and tie and emerge from behind his desk, grinning, wearing the foulest tracksuit bottoms and runners I had ever seen.
Then there were the times we would meet for a pint and he would still have 'pancake' on his face.
"Are you wearing make-up?" I ask today. He laughs.
"I always make sure to take off my make-up after work. Ever since the time I was presenting and rushed off to play seven-a-side at UCD. Afterwards, the make-up ran in the communal shower. The slagging cured me."
This may be a crass segue, but it was make-up that potentially saved Tony's life. Or, more specifically, a make-up artist in RTE. She spotted a lump on his neck and hounded him to have it seen to. It turned out to be bad news. He had treatment but the primary cause of his cancer has not been found. He has dealt with his illness bravely. He is still the same garrulous, entertaining, perplexing, funny, smart, argumentative, annoying and loveable 'TOD'.
Tony is one of the best-known faces on RTE. He is the station's soccer correspondent. Last week, he was handed a mixed bag of blessings. He is not going to Rio but has been given the reins of RTE's flagship highlights show on Network Two every afternoon from 3.30. "We're going to have a bit of fun with this programme. We'll do previews and show all the highlights from the matches that people were too tired to stay up for. We'll also have all the stories from Brazil with live links and lots of guests like Nicky Byrne, Bernard O'Shea, Ireland's senior women's manager, Sue Ronan, Katie Taylor, and Trapattoni's interpreter Manuella Spinella."
Tony has remained clam-tight about his private life and the personal struggle he has endured over the past three years. He has agreed to this interview because of all the support he received.
"It was amazing. I couldn't believe the amount of people who gave me advice and help when I was sick," he says, adding. "And I'm not just talking about the Cork Mafia."
Cork always has a way of finding its way into a conversation with Tony. He is a Leesider through and through and has his 'compatriots' ' gift for communication.
"I was drawn to the media because I like to talk and hear people's stories. I remember the shop down the hill had the Guardian and I used to buy it as a teenager. I know that sounds poncey, but it helped build my awareness of other stuff that was going on in the world.
"I had been editor of the school newspaper, the Deerpark Stag Mag. At UCC – where I studied history and economics – I edited the college mag, The Raven. In one issue I had an interview with Simple Minds and GAA legend Mick O'Dwyer – music and sport. They were always my twin passions."
Tony's love of music led him to manage one of Ireland's best nearly-made-it bands of the Eighties, Cypress Mine. He also spent his time campaigning for CND (he was a founder of Youth CND), working for MCD, writing for Hot Press and organising gigs, like the 2FM Lark By The Lee.
"I organised the Peace in the Park concert in 1984. We had loads of great acts but, unfortunately, the power went. Sunday's Well tennis club is next door to Fitzgerald Park so we ran in, unplugged the fridge in the kitchen and ran a cable out to the stage. The entire concert, including lights, was run on a 13 amp fuse from a fridge."
He had his own show on RTE Radio Cork (89FM) called The Rock Slot. Being a sports fanatic, he began doing soccer and GAA reports.
"I did my first GAA commentary 25 years ago during the county final between Glen Rovers and Sarsfields. The same year, RTE sent me to Russia to cover Cork City and Torpedo Moscow. I then joined Saturday Two to Five with Jimmy Magee as programme editor. I was still doing the band promotion, but had to make a decision: music or sports journalism."
The decision was made for him when Jimmy moved on and he ended up presenting the show.
In 1995, he switched from radio to TV news as sports reporter, then correspondent, then sports editor.
"I had some amazing experiences. One of the most difficult was my track-side interview with Sonia O'Sullivan in Atlanta 1996. She had just broken down during her race and was in a terrible state. It was awful. I hated having to interview her but I had to do it. It was great to see her ultimate comeback. She's a real champion."
Tony faced the truest test of his own mettle in 2011, when he was diagnosed with cancer.
"It was February and I was about to co-present the football awards show. I went to make-up and was struggling to tie my collar when Siobhan Power noticed that I had a lump on my neck. She nagged me so much that I got it checked out at Blackrock Clinic where they took a biopsy. I was in Bray when I got the call. They'd like me to come in. Even the memory of that phone call is chilling: I knew it couldn't be good.
"Professors John Armstrong and John Crown were my oncologists. This may sound stupid, but some of my first thoughts were 'what about the Champions League and the European Championships. Would I still be able to go?'. Now I know I was in shock. Prof Crown looked at me and said: 'Tony, I want you to be well for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022'."
"I had the lump removed. It was massive. They were worried about the head and neck area so I got my tonsils and other stuff removed. My saliva glands were burnt off and I find now, as a broadcaster, that I often dry up on air. I always make sure to have some water nearby.
"Then I began radiation and chemotherapy. As someone said: 'they burn you and they poison you'.
"I'm still humbled by the huge support I received when word got out that I was sick. There was a great moment when the Shamrock Rovers mascot, Hooperman, carried a banner around the stadium saying 'Get Well Soon Tony O'Donoghue'. There was even a Facebook page.
"They never found the primary cause with me. I get a camera up the nose and down the throat every three months."
Tony was previously married to Drivetime presenter, Mary Wilson and they have a daughter, Aoife, 17. Last November, he married Sarah Symmons in a quiet ceremony in Wicklow. They met on a flight to Newcastle.
"In 2007, I was heading to Roy Keane's first game as manager of Sunderland in the Premiership and got chatting with Sarah and her dad. A week later, emails were exchanged and now we're married. I suppose I owe Roy Keane a pint for that."
The couple were expecting their child, Tim, when Tony was diagnosed with cancer.
"For a wife to be pregnant and husband to have cancer at the same time is pretty unfortunate. Sarah had a difficult pregnancy, but we had to get on with life. There was no alternative. You couldn't wish it away. I remember being in St Vincent's with her heavily pregnant. I had to give her the bed to lie on. It was a difficult time, but we just had to deal with it."
Another difficulty was telling his daughter, Aoife, about his illness.
"That was very hard. I had my speech ready and thought about how I would break it to her. We went for a long walk and I was about to tell her when she asked, 'Is Sarah pregnant?' It stopped me in my tracks. We didn't realise it was so obvious. So I had to tell her about both life-changing events at the same time."
Tim was born in September, and is a healthy, happy child. What's it like to become a dad in your late 40s? Tony pauses.
"It feels lovely. Joyful. Sarah's a great mum and he's a great kid. He's so innocent and giving, and he watches the football and rugby on the telly with me. He's such a sweet kid."
How does it feel to hold a new life in your hands while you are staring into the abyss? Does it reinvigorate you?
"Yes, it does. It felt sensational to hold him for the first time. I'm an older dad and I have a lot to tell him. It sounds like a cliche, but I want to be alive for him. It's another reason to make it."
Tony O'Donoghue's World Cup Highlights Show airs from 3.30pm daily on Network 2