Saturday 18 November 2017

Obituary: Don Cockburn

Renowned retired RTE newsreader kept a diary for 70 years

LOVED RADIO: RTE’s Don Cockburn who has died aged 87
LOVED RADIO: RTE’s Don Cockburn who has died aged 87
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Donald 'Don' Cockburn, who has died at the age of 87, was an accidental news reader in the sense that his early ambition was to join the Irish diplomatic service, to which end he learned Russian and Spanish - an interest he maintained for the rest of his life.

Born in Washington Street, off the South Circular Road in Dublin, in 1930, he grew up in an area where there was a great interest in broadcasting and the media and which produced Eamonn Andrews (born 1922) and Gay Byrne (born 1934).

All three attended the Christian Brothers School in Synge Street, where Don's best friend and schoolmate was the well-known Sunday Independent journalist and writer Des Hickey.

Coming from a devoutly Catholic background his parents applied to the Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid for permission to send him to Trinity College, which he duly attended, graduating with a B.Com.

He and Des Hickey bought a Singer car together and at a time when Dublin had a 'small town' feel they were well-known figures, driving around, attending the pictures and dances and looking for girlfriends.

This interest gained a narrower focus when he spotted the beautiful Marie Scully on the back of John Byrne's motorcycle riding up Francis Street and pursued her. The couple embarked on a courtship that included a holiday in Spain together before they married, something that was highly unusual at the time, the late 1950s, and to which their parents gave consent on the understanding that they would sleep in separate rooms.

While still at school he had auditioned for a position as 'announcer' in Radio Eireann which he didn't get. So to foster his prospects of joining the diplomatic corps he took a job as an accounts clerk with Dublin Corporation.

With his keen interest in music and theatre he became a member of Actors Equity and was eventually offered a job with Radio Eireann. By this time, 1958, he was married and living first in Ballymun and didn't want to forgo his "steady job" and pension for a short-term contract. But he was taken on as a 'substitute announcer' the same year.

This involved getting up at 5.30am to do his shift in the Radio Eireann offices in the GPO in Henry Street, before going over to the 'day job' in the Corporation offices. He would sometimes have to return for an evening stint. "I always felt Dev (Eamon de Valera) was listening," he said in an interview, indicating how austere the radio station was at the time.

"It was fairly tough on my mother as she had two young children to rear on her own in those early days," said his son John, a professor of radiology in Canberra, Australia. His elder sister Evelyn Cockburn is a presenter on Lyric FM.

Like newsreaders Maurice O'Doherty and Charles Mitchel, Don Cockburn came from an entertainment background rather than journalism. He believed that reading the news was not just about the content, but about "performance and delivery". He was on duty the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and recalled how the US president was referred to in the Irish language in the earlier broadcasts.

He loved the "purity of radio" and only reluctantly switched to becoming a newsreader on the main Six O'clock News on RTE television where he had finally become a full-time employee in 1972. "I still regard it as 'the senior service'" he told David Harvey last year for the documentary The Wireless: A Century of Irish Radio. "It is immediate, there are no constraints, you are free to broadcast what you feel needs to be broadcast."

"He was incredibly shy," said his son John. Presenting the news, one of the most watched programmes on television at the time, thrust him into public life, something he did not relish. But he was unfailingly polite when his life became peppered with 'how are you, Don?' from people he didn't know.

In one profile his habit of cycling to the RTE studios in Montrose has been described as an "eccentricity".

Rather, he was just ahead of his time, even if his bike and bicycle clips became something of a running joke in RTE, where the young 'stars' of broadcasting liked to park their expensive and showy motor cars.

He loved watching television programmes like The Tommy Cooper Hour and Fawlty Towers, he went weekly to the theatre, mostly to The Gate and The Abbey, and read widely and wrote poetry.

He kept a dairy every day for more 70 years. His son said that the entries are newsy, but he gave them his own "personal twist" with insights into his personal and work life.

He retired from RTE in December 1992 and had been involved in the community and been a daily Mass goer ever since.

He died on September 4 and was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery after Mass in St Therese's Church, Mount Merrion, last Thursday.

He was predeceased by his wife Marie and is survived by his two children.

Sunday Independent

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