Cathal O’Shannon, Irish journalist and television presenter, is born in Marino, Dublin, on August 23, 1928. He is a reporter with The Irish Times, and television reporter/presenter and documentary film maker with RTÉ. The Irish radio and television broadcaster Terry Wogan describes O’Shannon as possibly the greatest Irish television journalist of the 20th century.
O’Shannon is the son of Cathal O’Shannon (Sr.), a Socialist and Irish Republican. He receives his formal education at Colaiste Mhuire School, in Parnell Square, Dublin. Despite his father’s politics, as a 16-year-old he volunteeres for war time service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Belfast in 1945 during World War II. He utilizes a forged birth certificate to disguise being underage for enlistment with the British Armed Forces. After air crew training he is posted to the Far East, as a tail gunner in an Avro Lancaster bomber to take part in the Burma campaign, but the war ends with the downfall of the Japanese Empire before he is required to fly combat sorties.
O’Shannon first becomes a journalist with The Irish Times on leaving the RAF in 1947. Later he joins the Irish state broadcasting service Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ).
In July 1972 O’Shannon records a notable television interview with 31-year-old Muhammad Ali, when Ali is in Dublin to compete at Croke Park in a bout with Alvin Lewis.
O’Shannon receives a Jacob’s Award for his 1976 TV documentary, Even the Olives are Bleeding, which details the activities of the “Connolly Column” in the Spanish Civil War. Two years later he is honoured with a second Jacob’s Award for his television biography Emmet Dalton Remembers (1978).
In 1978, O’Shannon leaves RTÉ to join Canadian company Alcan which is setting up an aluminum plant at Aughinish, County Limerick, in 1978. He is head-hunted to become its Director of Public Affairs, an important post at a time when there are environmental concerns about the effects of aluminium production. He admits that he was attracted by the salary, “five times what RTÉ were paying me,” but he also later says that one of the reasons for the move is that he had become unhappy with working at RTÉ, stating in an interview that “The real reason I got out of RTÉ was that they wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do journalistically.” He had submitted proposals to the station’s editors for a television documentary series on the Irish Civil War, and also one on the wartime Emergency period, but they had been rejected. While he enjoys the social life with lavish expenses which his public relations duties involve, his friends believe that he missed the varied life and travel of journalism. He retires early from Aughinish in 1992, and returns to making television documentaries with RTÉ.
In January 2007, O’Shannon’s last documentary, Hidden History: Ireland’s Nazis, is broadcast by RTÉ as a two-part series. It explores how a number of former Nazis and Nazi collaborators from German-occupied Europe go to live in the Republic of Ireland after World War II — the best known of whom is Otto Skorzeny, who lives for a period in County Kildare. Others include such Breton nationalists as Alan Heusaff, Yann Fouéré and Yann Goulet, as well as two Belgians, Albert Folens and Albert Luykx.
O’Shannon announces his retirement at the age of 80 on January 12, 2007.
O’Shannon is awarded lifetime membership in the Irish Film & Television Academy in 2010, to which he says is “particularly gratifying that it occurs before I pop my clogs.”
After weakening health for two years, and spending his last days in hospice at Blackrock, O’Shannon dies at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin on October 22, 2011. His body is reposed at Fanagans Funeral Home in Dublin on October 25, 2011, followed by a funeral the following day at Glasnevin Cemetery Chapel, where it is afterwards cremated.
O’Shannon’s wife, Patsy, whom he met while they were working for The Irish Times office in London, dies in 2006. They are married for more than 50 years. In a 2008 television documentary O’Shannon admits that throughout his marriage he had been a serial womaniser, who had repeatedly engaged in extra-marital affairs unbeknownst to his wife.
Director-General of RTÉ Noel Curran says O’Shannon had brought into being “some of the great moments in the RTÉ documentary and factual schedule over the past five decades.” In tribute, RTÉ One shows the documentary Cathal O’Shannon: Telling Tales on November 10, 2011. It had originally aired in 2008 to mark his 80th birthday.