Tuesday 27 September 2016

Tough guy exterior hid a heart bigger than the man himself

Published 14/05/2015 | 02:30

Derek Davis
Derek Davis
Big softie: Derek Davis

With Derek Davis, what you saw wasn't all you got. There was plenty to be got from the public personality of this larger-than-life character, in every sense of the phrase, but there was a lot more which only his family and friends were privileged to see.

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I was one of the privileged. Life kept bumping us into one another; first at school, then at university and finally in RTÉ. He was a self-made man - not in the usual definition of making money, but someone who had the talent and determination to become what he decided to be; from bullied schoolboy to bouncer in some of Belfast's toughest clubs; from showband roadie to news reporter for the American network ABC, then RTÉ; and from there to all-round entertainer and master of the 'Rose of Tralee'.

Derek Davis with Thelma Mansfield on ‘Live at Three’
Derek Davis with Thelma Mansfield on ‘Live at Three’
Derek Davis backstage at the the Rose of Tralee in 1995
Derek Davis with his wife Una
Big softie: Derek Davis

Read more: President leads tributes to RTÉ 'gentleman' Davis

He was, of course, the funniest guy I ever met. A lot of famous "ad-libbers", such as Morecambe and Wise, carefully scripted and rehearsed their lines. Derek was the real thing - lightning fast, sharp as a razor and always on target.

We teamed up as student debaters, winning the 'Irish Times' and 'Observer' prizes. Or rather, Derek won them and I performed a useful role as straight man. Later, his fondness for a great one-liner sometimes got him into trouble. One such case was when he reported on what was claimed to be the largest pothole in Ireland, and revealed that the county council was looking into it.

My own favourite, when Derek was covering the Moscow Olympics for the newsroom, proved too much for RTÉ to broadcast. He had come across a Roman Catholic church which the Communists allowed operate for the use of foreigners. It was situated in Lubyanka Square, near KGB headquarters, where, as he told the camera, confessions were also heard.

Then there was his role as MC for Ronald Reagan's visit to the ancestral village of Ballyporeen. At one point, Mr Reagan, who knew a bit about hamming it up, was heard to say to an aide: "Who is this guy?"

Who indeed? As Derek himself recognised, he did not easily fit in. The son of a Protestant father from Bangor, Co Down, and a Catholic mother from Bray, Co Wicklow, was always going to be a tribal outsider in the North and he was happy to leave. But he was the best kind of northerner, through and through. His determination to see the right thing done and avoid shabby compromise made for occasional difficulties in his career in the South as well.

Read more: 'A showman, but one of substance and experience' - Friends, fans and colleagues pay tribute to Derek Davis

Behind the tough guy exterior was a heart even bigger than the man himself. Many tributes have already been paid to his generosity, personal kindnesses and work for charity. The truth is that he was a great big softie. Suffering, cruelty or injustice cut him to the quick. No one embodied better the journalist's motto of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

His family saw much more of that side of him than I could, but the truth of it was obvious in the warmth of the relationships with his wife, Una, and their three sons. Alas, the new grandson of whom he was so proud will have to take their word for it.

Most of my encounters with Derek were tinged with envy; of his wit, his social skills, his broadcasting talent, his huge range of contacts and confidantes, not to mention his angling expertise. But perhaps we'll bump into each other again somewhere, in an even more unlikely setting, and he'll have me laughing until I cry.

Irish Independent

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