John Arnold: Day I planted a red rose on the coffin of my friend, Donncha O Dúlaing

In his weekly column John Arnold recalls the loss of his friend and broadcaster Donncha O Dúlaing
John Arnold: Day I planted a red rose on the coffin of my friend, Donncha O Dúlaing

RESPECT: John Arnold adored Donncha Ó Dúlaing on the radio and the two ended up becoming friends. He was buried last week.

WE sang De Banks with gusto in Dublin last week - not outside Croke Park or on the street near Barry’s Hotel. We weren’t daydreaming that Cork had won the Liam McCarthy or Sam Maguire Cups, nor were we half imagining a Munster Final victory in Thurles or Killarney.

No, all those occasions came crowding in the mind’s eye sure enough as we begun “Oh how oft do my thoughts in their fancy take flight...”, but we were far from the madding crowd as the Cork anthem wafted on the September air.

Back in 1984 - the Centenary year of the GAA - a new cemetery was opened in Shanganagh in Shankill in Co. Dublin. It is a ‘sister’ burial place of the much older Dean’s Grange cemetery.

Shanganagh is beautifully laid out in a sylvan setting – only a stone’s throw from Dublin city but with the ambience of a rural heartland. It was here that Donncha O Dúlaing was laid to rest last week, six days after the burial of his beloved wife, Vera.

Another Corkman, Daniel Corkery, wrote 'The Hidden Ireland' back in 1924. In it, he looked at the remnants that still survived of the old Gaelic bardic culture that once flourished in Ireland. Nearly a century ago, Corkery discovered and chronicled a rich tapestry of poetry, story-telling and ‘seanachais’ that was still there but not always publicly ‘visible’. 

From the 1960s onwards for nigh on half a century, as an RTÉ broadcaster, Donncha O Dulaing traversed the dusty boreens, highways, byways, mass-paths and narrow roads of that same ‘hidden’ Ireland.

Growing up, there were three ‘wireless voices’ that I was mad about. On Saturday afternoons we always listened to the Waltons-sponsored Programme on Radio Eireann. Leo Maguire was the presenter and always finished with the advice ‘if you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song’.

The voices of Noel Purcell, Joe Lynch, Charlie McGee and his gay guitar, Martin Dempsey, Bridie Gallagher and Liam Devalley wafted across our dinner table most Saturdays. Then, on Sunday mornings, the golden voice of Ciarain MacMathuna brought us Mo Cheol Thu for 35 years from 1970 until 2005, a mixture of Irish song, music and story., MacMahuna was husband of that great singer Dolly McMahon.

The third part of my RTÉ triumvirate was Donncha O Dúlaing, a man I first met in the 1970s, probably over in Doneraile. With a Kerry father and an East Cork mother, Donncha himself was born in Doneraile, then moved to Charleville, then to college in Cork city. After a number of early ‘trial’ jobs, young Denis Dowling joined Radio Telefis Eireann and for over five decades was the true voice of the Hidden Ireland, through a series of radio programmes.

The Gaelic version of his name was so easy on the ear, and so Dowling was forgotten and Ó Dúlaing became a well-loved figure all over the country.

Donncha never saw himself as the ‘people’s champion’, no, he simply loved meeting, greeting and talking to people. ‘Tis sometimes said ‘God, he has a great voice for radio’, well that was Donncha to the fingertips.

Like Seamus Ennis, who collected a musical heritage and legacy, the man from Doneraile just wanted to record and broadcast the stories and lore of the plain people of Ireland. He had that special gift and knack of making people feel at ease.

Many of those he chatted with in the 1970s were born before the year 1900 and grew up by candle light. They never saw a microphone or a tape recorder but told their scealta to Donncha in a most beautiful manner. He knew when to ask a question or give a prompt, but then, like a good orchestral conductor, when the conversation started flowing he let it come naturally with little interference.

His radio programmes including Munster Journal, Three O One and Highways And Byways are magical. Like Jim Fahy with his Looking West series, Donncha captured the very essence of the life stories of ordinary people in ordinary places who had an extraordinary store of information stored in their heads.

I can clearly recall a brilliant interview he did one time with Kilkenny hurler John T Power. From Piltown, Power was born in 1883, the year before the GAA was founded. He was on the Kilkenny team for the 1907 All- Ireland Final, played in 1908, when the Cats beat Cork (Dungourney) led by Jamesey Kelleher. More than 70 years later, Power was still full of praise for Kelleher, who he described as ‘the best hurler’ he ever saw.

I knew former Blackrock and Cork hurler Larry Flaherty when he used drive the Rochestown priests out the country collecting alms, and to hear Donncha asking John T about the 1912 All Ireland Final, in which Kelleher, Flaherty and himself played, was like hearing a ‘commentary’ of the game!

In Cloyne this week to bid farewell to Bunty Cahill, I stopped by the statue of Christy Ring and remembered that brilliant interview Donncha did with Christy.

I was milking the cows on the Sunday morning that the news came that Donncha had died. I had been in contact with Donncha Jnr earlier in the year and knew his father was not well, but still the death of such a broadcasting legend was hard to take.

I can remember him here in our haggard years ago when he was doing a programme on Holy Wells in this area and we had a great few hours. Over the years we met in different places and valued each other’s friendship.

I rang a friend in Donnchas’s home town of Doneraile, Eamonn Horgan. We reminisced and laughed as we recalled the life and happy times of a great man and resolved we’d go to the funeral in Dublin if we could at all.

Later, I rang Donncha Jnr to sympathise and just talk about his father - and my friend.

When the ‘arrangements’ were made, I contacted him once more and he said we would get a ‘Failte Isteach’ if we came up. So at 5am on the Wednesday I left home to meet Eamonn at Mallow Railway Station to get the 6am train to Dublin. It was just 5.30 as I crossed the Awbeg River in Castletownroche near ‘the old rustic bridge by the Mill’ and at that very moment the RTÉ Radio ‘Station Signal’, the opening bars of O Donnell Abu was played. I recalled Donncha’s ‘Winter March’ retracing the steps of O Sullivan Bere to Ulster and another programme he presented dealing with songwriter TP Keenan, who penned the song about Castletown’s rustic bridge.

The Funeral Mass was at 10am in Merrrion Road Church and we were in plenty time. We had a great chat with musician Paddy Cole, like us he was awaiting the funeral cortege. A brilliant storyteller in his own right, Paddy regaled us with tales of journeys he made with Donncha to Crossmaglen during ‘the troubles’ and meetings they had with ardent Nationalist and GAA personality Paddy Short.

Soon the hearse bearing the Red and White draped coffin arrived. For us two Corkmen, it was a poignant moment as Donncha’s four sons bore their father into the Church. 

It was a lovely Mass, a true gaelic celebration of the life of a ‘Fior Ghaeil’ - we cried but we laughed and sang too as tri Bearla agus Gaeilge, the story of a proud Corkman, was recalled.

At the graveside in Shangannagh, two young pipers played beautiful tunes of Carolan and other laments as Donncha was laid to rest just six days after his beloved Vera and alongside their dear daughter Sinead. By the grave was a vase of red roses. One by one his family each placed a bloom of Red Rebel Cork on the coffin. Just two were left in the vase and myself and Eamonn, the men from East and North Cork, were honoured to be asked to take these and place them on the coffin of our friend, Donncha O Dúlaing.

We mightn’t have won the All-Ireland but we still gave an emotional rendition of The Banks Of My Own Lovely Lee – Donncha would have liked that, as he might say ‘Wherever Cork people gather, it’s imperative we sing de Banks’. He deserved nothing less.

Oh what joys should be mine ere this life should decline

To seek shells on thy sea-girdled shore.

While the steel-feathered eagle, oft splashing the brine

Brings longing for freedom once more.

Oh all that on earth I wish for or crave

Is that my last crimson drop be for thee,

To moisten the grass of my forefathers’ grave

On the banks of my own lovely Lee

To moisten the grass of my forefathers’ grave

On the banks of my own lovely Lee.

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