Thursday 15 November 2018

Cathal O'Shannon A great broadcaster, devoted husband and charming 'girl-chaser'

It was a love story that grew even stronger when his big-hearted wife forgave him, writes Kim Bielenberg

He was a man with a mischievous and winning glint in his eye. Unlike some of the current crop of broadcasters, Cathal O'Shannon, who died on October 22, aged 83, was not prone to self-righteousness.

How many broadcasters nowadays would invent an entirely fictitious news report about a non-existent writer of erotic fiction from Loughrea?

With a straight face, he once told RTé viewers how the saucy scribe Margaret Kildysart had won an award from this newspaper as "the tallest lady novelist of 1917''. It was all an elaborate April Fool spoof.

It was this impish charm that helped O'Shannon to get great scoops -- blagging his way to interview the Beatles backstage in Dublin in 1963 and beating everyone to the punch to question Muhammad Ali for an hour on RTé.

The endearingly mischievous streak enabled him to entertain as well as inform, but it also led him into trouble.

He was married for 51 years to Patsy Dyke, a Londoner who became a well-known gossip columnist in Dublin, and none of his friends doubt that it was an intense and loving relationship.

When his wife died five years ago he was heartbroken -- on anniversaries he quietly placed moving memorial newspaper notices, saying how she was missed constantly.

But unusually for a well-known figure who had come to be seen as "a national treasure'', the broadcaster also came out in his final years and admitted infidelities.

His close friends may have been taken aback, but they were not surprised.

In an interview for a TV documentary, made by his close friend Paul Cusack, he said: "I have always delighted in the company of ladies. There are people who would say, 'O'Shannon, you're a girl chaser'.''

Cathal and Patsy met in London when he was sent there as a correspondent for the Irish Times. He took a fancy to her immediately when he was shown a picture of a glamorous, dark-haired beauty by her brother, a Reuters reporter. He resolved to meet up with her.

After they married, his work brought him back to Dublin, and they cut a dash on the social scene at their homes in Mespil Road and later Anglesea Road. Friends say she was as charismatic as him.

One former RTé colleague said: "They were fabulous hosts and they always had a great cocktail party on Good Friday. All sorts of people would be there, from broadcasters to politicians to writers.''

After an early stint on the BBC, Cathal became one of RTé's most versatile presenters, with a taste for the quirky and occasionally madcap -- including stories about fairy trees, cock fighting and the hunt for lake monsters.

He was equally at home presenting in-depth documentaries on the Spanish Civil War, Ireland's Nazis and famous Irish murders.

Some of his interviews were the stuff of legend. Once on live TV, he was interviewing the Reverend Mother of Kylemore Abbey about funding cutbacks when she complained: "You know, Cathal, that we used to have over 200 girls boarding here and now, we're down to 80. It's terribly sad."

Cathal said: "Oh, sister, you poor hoor, you must be broken-hearted about that!"

On another occasion, he was interviewing a female centenarian on the Aran Islands and he said: "You've reached that ripe old age and you have never been bed-ridden.''

She replied indignantly: "Oh yes, I have been, several times -- and once in a canoe.''

According to Cathal's account, when his wife Patsy arrived in Dublin in the 1950s, she found the city "rather odd and old-fashioned''. But she integrated quickly, writing a social column for the Sunday Press.

After her death in 2006, the broadcaster said: "Fifty-one years does not mean 51 years of peace and tranquillity. I strayed, I was unfaithful and it was discovered. I admitted it and with her big-heartedness, Patsy forgave me. That united us more than ever.''

Cusack said: "Patsy was an incredible woman. When she died it left an enormous gap.''

So what gave O'Shannon an enduring appeal that enabled him to continue a journalistic career spanning six decades?

Cusack added: "He had a beautiful, natural voice that was unique -- calm, clear and warm.''

He never adopted the mid-Atlantic cadences that became fashionable in Montrose in the 1960s. As one friend put it: "His voice was scraped up off the gravel of Dublin streets.''

Cathal had grown up in working-class Marino, the son of a well-known trade union official. Before he became a reporter, his adventurous streak led him to run away from Dublin at the age of 16 and join the RAF, where he became a gunner on Lancaster bombers.

He touched on his RAF service towards the end of his life in his programme Ireland's Nazis. He said: "I came back to Dublin in 1947 and at that time you held your head low if you had been in the British forces. There was a very strong anti-English element in Ireland that supported the Germans.''

In truth, O'Shannon never held his head low and for that the viewing public should be grateful.

His friend Maeve Binchy perhaps best summed up his appeal: "He taught me an important lesson. You should always take your work seriously -- but not yourself seriously.''

He was predeceased by his two sisters, Grania and Fionnuala, described by friends as "indomitable and forthright'' -- just like him. There were no children from the marriage.

He had asked for a small funeral, but there was no surprise when a huge throng of friends -- including broadcasters who have spanned RTé's history -- turned out at his funeral at Glasnevin on Wednesday.

In his tribute, Cusack told the mourners he was "a most loveable man, a wonderful friend and a great colleague''.

There were tears but also laughter, as friends remembered the glint in the eye and the clear, resonant voice that turned him into a legend.

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