Donnelly, Catherine (1948–2014), advertising copywriter, arts advocate and novelist, was born on 29 April 1948 in Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow, the youngest of four girls and two boys to Thomas Donnelly, a spirit merchant and wine importer, and Margaret Donnelly. Her earliest years were spent in the family home of Dunleckney Manor, Bagenalstown, where she was cared for by a woman named Eileen Sheehan who imbued her with a great love of books and reading. The family also owned stables where they bred thoroughbred horses, and Catherine developed a lifelong love of horses.
From the age of five she was educated at the Sacred Heart School, Mount Anville, Dublin, becoming a boarder there in 1955. After leaving school in 1965 she initially registered for an arts degree in UCD (then located at Earlsfort Terrace) which she abandoned after a year, transferring to a BCL course in which she failed to progress, before transferring to a BL course. She then enrolled in King’s Inns to train as a barrister, but the death of her father in June 1971 cut short her studies. She had not enjoyed the course and was relieved to leave it behind to work as an editorial assistant with John Ryan (qv) at the Dublin Magazine. The job was badly paid and she was, by her own account, very poor at it. In an interview with Máirín Johnson in 1989 for her book Dublin belles: conversations with Dublin women, Donnelly described that period in her life as directionless and impoverished. She lived for free in a friend’s house in Rathmines, selling her books to a local secondhand bookshop to make ends meet, and lasted only three days working for a travel agent. Although she had friends who worked in advertising, it never occurred to her as a potential career until later in 1971 when, on a friend’s advice, she took a copy test for ARKS Advertising and was offered a job on a month’s trial basis. In contrast to her previous experiences in education and employment, Donnelly immediately found her feet. She loved the ‘quicksilvery’ nature of the people at ARKS and the immediate gratification of writing advertising copy: ‘the quickness was the pay-off. You didn’t have to labour for nine long years for someone to recognise you. You wrote it at nine o’clock and someone loved it at ten. Or hated it!’ (Johnson, Dublin belles, 131–6).
For the next decade she rose through the ranks at some of Ireland’s top advertising agencies: she was given the position of writer at Young Advertising in 1973 and senior writer with Peter Owens Advertising in 1975. She returned to ARKS in 1976 and then moved on to COP Advertising in 1978. In 1980 she was appointed creative director at McConnell Advertising, a position she held until 1991, and while there won multiple industry awards for her campaigns for brands including Ballygowan, Ryanair and Kerrygold. In August 1991 she moved on a part-time basis to Irish International Advertising and in 1994 wrote one of the best-loved and most enduring Christmas radio commercials for Barry’s tea entitled ‘Train’, about a father reminiscing about a childhood gift of a toy train; it has been broadcast regularly since and stands as the longest-running radio commercial in Irish advertising history. The quality of Donnelly’s work was recognised on numerous occasions. In 1986 and 1987 she was the winner of the National Newspapers of Ireland grand prix (where she wryly observed that her success allowed her bank manager Mr Joy to live up to his name), and she won numerous Institute of Creative Advertising and Design (ICAD) awards, including four craft awards for copy.
From 1991 Donnelly’s interest turned increasingly to writing outside the realm of advertising and to supporting the arts. In her younger years she had published fiction in Over 21 and Young Irish Writing, as well as what she described as ‘execrable poetry’ in the Dublin Magazine, but in November 1993 RTÉ One television broadcast a play she wrote entitled ‘Tossed salad’, which was well received. Throughout the 1990s she was a regular columnist for the Sunday Independent and Irish Tatler, writing on fashion, food and politics, and in 2003 she published her first novel, The state of Grace, which Nuala O’Faolain (qv) described as ‘a story told with increasing joie de vivre’ (Ir. Independent, 19 Oct. 2014). In addition to serving on the board of the Gaiety School of Acting, she was the first chairperson of the Rough Magic Theatre Company, a position she held for twelve years. She never wavered in her steadfast support for Rough Magic: the company’s artistic director Lynne Parker described her as ‘a warrior queen [who] believed in us more than we believed in ourselves’ (Ir. Times, 14 Oct. 2014).
In 2009 Donnelly married her long-time partner Frank Sheerin, a fellow copywriter from her days in ARKS Advertising, and the couple moved to Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. She died on 8 October 2014 at Milford Care Centre, Limerick, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Her funeral mass was held at St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin and she was afterwards cremated at Mount Jerome cemetery. In November 2014 she was posthumously awarded the Louise Jesson award at the Love Radio awards for her services to the radio advertising industry. Such was the outpouring of affection and warmth following her death that in January 2015 her family and friends gathered at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin, to celebrate her life, and in April 2019 Lynne Parker directed a posthumous staged reading of Donnelly’s radio drama Powerplay at the Project. In 2018 ICAD created the Catherine Donnelly Lifetime Achievement Award, its first such award, to honour one of Ireland’s most respected and best-loved copywriters.