Doonican is the youngest of eight children of Agnes (née Kavanagh) and John Doonican. He is from a musical family and plays in his school band from the age of six. His father dies in 1941, so he has to leave De La Salle College Waterford to get factory jobs fabricating steel and making orange and grapefruit boxes. He begins to perform in his hometown, often with his friend Bruce Clarke, and they have their first professional engagement as a duo in 1947. He appears in a summer season at Courtown, County Wexford. He is soon featured on Irish radio, sometimes with Clarke, and appears in Waterford’s first-ever television broadcast.
In 1951 Doonican moves to England to join the Four Ramblers, who tour and perform on BBC Radio shows broadcast from factories, and on the Riders of the Range serials. He also begins performing at United States Air Force bases. The Ramblers support Anthony Newley on tour and, recognising Doonican’s talent and potential as a solo act, persuades him to leave the singing group and go solo. He is auditioned for radio as a solo act, and appears on the radio show Variety Bandbox. Soon he has his own radio show and is performing in concerts and cabaret. In the late 1950s, he becomes one of the artists managed by Eve Taylor, the self-described “Queen Bee of Show Business,” who remains his manager until her death.
After seeing Doonican in cabaret in London in 1963, impresario Val Parnell books him to appear on Sunday Night at the Palladium. As a result of his performance, Bill Cotton, then Assistant Head of Light Entertainment at BBC Television, offers Doonican his own regular show. The TV shows are produced by Yvonne Littlewood and run for over 20 years. The shows feature his relaxed crooner style, sitting in a rocking chair wearing cardigans or jumpers, sometimes performing comedic Irish songs as well as easy listening and country material on which he accompanies himself on acoustic guitar. Being variety shows, his TV programmes give a number of other performers, such as Dave Allen, early exposure. Regular guests include Bernard Cribbins, Bob Todd, the Norman Maen Dancers, the Mike Sammes Singers, and the Kenny Woodman Orchestra. At its height The Val Doonican Show, which features both American and British acts, has 20 million viewers. In the United States, The Val Doonican Show airs on ABC on Saturday evenings from June 5 to August 14, 1971.
The Palladium performance also kick-starts Doonican’s recording career. Between 1964 and 1973 he is rarely out of the UK Singles Chart. The album Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently reaches Number 1 in the UK Albums Chart in December 1967 and knocks The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band off the top of the chart. The 1966 single release “Elusive Butterfly” reaches a UK chart peak of #5 and #3 in Ireland. In all, he records over 50 albums. After a time with Philips Records in the 1970s he also records for RCA Records. He also sings the theme song to the film Ring of Bright Water.
Behind the scenes, Doonican is described as “a perfectionist who knew his limitations but always aimed to be ‘the best Val Doonican possible.'” He is sometimes compared to American singer Perry Como, though he claims his main influence is Bing Crosby. He appears on Royal Variety Performance three times. On December 31, 1976, he performs his hit song “What Would I Be” on BBC One‘s A Jubilee of Music, celebrating British pop music for Queen Elizabeth II‘s impending Silver Jubilee.
Doonican wins the BBC Television Personality of the Year award in 1966. He is the subject of This Is Your Life in 1970. Eamonn Andrews meets him at the 18th green of the South Herts Golf Club as Doonican plays a round of golf. He writes two volumes of autobiography, The Special Years (1980) and Walking Tall (1985).
Doonican officially retires in 1990 but is still performing in 2009. He has a second home in Spain and is a keen golfer and a talented watercolour painter. Another hobby he enjoys is cooking. In June 2011, he is recognised by the Mayor of Waterford bestowing on him “The Freedom of the City.”