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Saturday 18 November 2017

Obituary: Frank Delaney

The ex-RTE newsreader was known best in Britain for reporting during the Troubles, but his passion was writing

Stories: Former BBC reporter Frank Delaney was ‘brilliant company’ and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. Photo: Christopher Jones
Stories: Former BBC reporter Frank Delaney was ‘brilliant company’ and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. Photo: Christopher Jones

Frank Delaney, who died last Tuesday aged 74, was a Tipperary-born journalist who became a household name on the BBC as a reporter in Dublin during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

He later moved to England, then the United States, to make his mark in the literary world as a novelist and leading arts journalist. He was described in recent years in America as "the most eloquent man in the world".

He was "an engaging broadcaster and populariser of literature" and became better known in Britain than Ireland through his extensive broadcasting work.

In 1978, he inaugurated the weekly BBC radio series Bookshelf, on which he interviewed more than 1,400 authors, including John Updike, Margaret Atwood and Anthony Burgess. He presented BBC Television's weekly arts series Omnibus and Radio 4's Poetry Please, had his own talk show, presented six-part television series The Celts (1987), and created the Radio 4 series on the English language, Word of Mouth.

Delaney served as literature director of the Edinburgh Festival in 1980, served on literary-prize juries, wrote the screenplay for an ITV adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (2002, starring Martin Clunes), created The Book Show on Sky News, and made dozens of documentaries about figures such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh.

For many years, Delaney was so ubiquitous that when the BBC announced that it was putting out a new series of the Radio 4 literary quiz, Say the Word, one critic noted that "to distinguish it from all the other literary quizzes on Radio 4 hosted by Frank Delaney, this one goes out in front of a live audience".

During his time as a broadcaster, Delaney also wrote five novels and six non-fiction books, including Betjeman Country and The Celts, and in 2002 he moved to the US to become a full-time writer, producing a series of best-selling books such as Ireland: A Novel (2005), Tipperary: A Novel (2008) and The Matchmaker of Kenmare: A Novel of Ireland (2011), in which he wove together elements of Irish history with his memories of growing up in Tipperary.

The youngest of eight children, Francis James Joseph Raphael Delaney was born on October 24, 1942, in Thomastown, a small estate village associated with the temperance crusader Fr Theobald Mathew.

Delaney's father Edward, a teacher, essayist, folklorist and author, was the headmaster of a primary school, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a kindergarten teacher.

The family did not have electricity or running water until Delaney was 15. He recalled: "We had a big black stove, which was kept going 24 hours a day, winter and summer, and two enormous kettles on the stove." He did his homework by candlelight.

While his mother was warm and a great storyteller, his father was "afflicted with awkwardness when it came to expressing emotion" and "generated an atmosphere of considerable fear, and that's how he disciplined the family".

Young Delaney found refuge in reading and had consumed "lots of Irish literature, all of Dickens and so on" by the age of 15.

As a result, he knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer.

He attended the Abbey School, in Tipperary, which was run by the Christian Brothers, some of whom "kept a leather strap up their sleeves to beat us", but who gave him a "fabulous education".

Nonetheless, he flunked his Leaving Certificate exams and had to put his literary ambitions on hold as his father insisted he find a "steady, pensionable job".

Aged 17, Delaney joined the Bank of Ireland, where he stayed for "11 years, four days, nine hours and 31 minutes". In 1972, he landed a job (on his 30th attempt) as a newsreader and continuity announcer at RTE, which only offered him a contract a few years later, when he announced he was moving to the BBC.

From his base in Dublin, for five years in the late 1970s he was, he recalled, called out to report on all sorts of incidents - bombings, assassinations, riots, shootings, robberies, jailbreaks, kidnappings and sieges - "that, if taken together, add up to a war".

Delaney published his first book, James Joyce's Odyssey (1981), during his early days as presenter of Bookshelf, when he was struggling with Ulysses and decided that the best way to get to know the book was to write about it.

Delaney's study won critical acclaim and sparked a lifelong love affair with Joyce, which yielded a personal Baedeker to Joyce's Dublin and, on Bloomsday 2010, the launch of a series of weekly podcasts in which he discussed and explained the allusions in the writer's work.

Delaney wrote six books of non-fiction, 12 novels, one novella, two anthologies, and a number of short stories. He also edited compilations of essays and poetry.

In 1995, he nearly died of septicaemia after cutting his foot while working out in a gym near his London home, and was later diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Deciding he needed to simplify his life, he left London for a sprawling 16th-Century house in Somerset.

In an article in the Mail on Sunday in 2001, Delaney explained that as a result of his brush with death, he had moved to "a complete, comfortingly stark atheism". But, he added, "When death does get me, I want a full Irish wake - the works! I want my body taken back to Ireland for the biggest, brassiest wake they've ever seen."

Delaney was married four times. His first three marriages, to Eilish Kelliher, Susan Collier and the novelist Salley Vickers, were all dissolved, and in 2002 he married, fourthly, Diane Mier, an American with whom he moved to live in Connecticut.

She survives him, with three sons from his first marriage.

Frank Delaney was brilliant company, with excellent stories and a keen taste for fine wines.

He was one of the country's finest exports, and as important in his area of literary journalism and broadcasting as Terry Wogan was in popular TV and radio.

© Telegraph with additional commentary by Liam Collins and Campbell Spray.


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