Dunn, Joseph (1930–96), priest and television documentary-maker, was born 11 May 1930 in Sandymount, Dublin, fourth in a family of three daughters and two sons of Paul Dunn, senior partner in a wholesale fish business, and Sylvia Dunn (née May), a catholic convert and insurance broker. Educated first at a local national school in Pembroke Road, Dunn entered Belvedere College, Dublin, in 1938. He enrolled in Clonliffe seminary (1948), attended UCD (graduating BA in 1951), and subsequently studied at Maynooth College, where he played a prominent part in student life, including drama and debating and as cartoonist with the student newspaper Silhouette. Ordained a priest for the Dublin diocese (1955), he began teaching religion in Rialto and the Clogher Rd vocational school in Crumlin, Dublin. In September 1959, together with fellow priest Desmond Forristal, Dunn was sent by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv) on a broadcasting course in Manchester, and to the Academy of Broadcasting in New York, to familiarise him with the making of documentaries, as McQuaid sought to prepare a younger generation of priests for the imminent arrival of television. For Dunn this was the beginning of an outstanding and pioneering career in communications, which witnessed the launch of the Radharc programme on Telefís Éireann (1962), a series that led to 450 films in seventy-five countries, affording him ample opportunity to develop his hands-on, multi-skilled approach to film-making.
Dunn's expertise, backed by financial support from McQuaid, lay in tackling real-life moral and humanitarian issues such as poverty, faith, political oppression, labour exploitation, and the problems facing emergent nations, and in his own words, ‘in the ways and means of making public-affairs documentary films’. Appointed a student chaplain in UCD (1960), he believed documentaries were much more effective than sermons to congregations. In 1965 a successful filming trip to Africa culminated in an UNDA award (the religious programmes equivalent of an Oscar). Inspired by the doyen of catholic religious broadcasting in Britain, Angelus Andrew, a Franciscan friar from Glasgow, and assisted by Forrestal and Fr Peter Lemass (qv), he went on to be involved in films covering events in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Thailand, Guatemala, Russia, and the West Indies, often finding access to these politically sensitive areas easier due to his status as a cleric. Much of the work was done during their spare time or holidays, and received international acclaim, including the last interview with Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador before his assassination on 24 March 1980, and an award-winning documentary on refugees in Cambodia. In 1969 he founded the Catholic Communications Institute, which specialised in television and radio research and development. He was also closely involved in the launch of Veritas publications and the Intercom magazine for priests. Holding strong views on the Irish media, Dunn believed RTÉ's monopoly was unhealthy, and in 1975 suggested it should be split into two independent channels to encourage more freelance programme-making.
Although his devotion to catholicism was resolute, he was strongly influenced by the radical catholic church in Latin America, and continued to court controversy in his trilogy of books on his experiences of authoritarian Irish catholicism: No tigers in Africa (1986), No vipers in the Vatican (1989), and No lions in the hierarchy (1994). They were publications that ensured, in the words of one commentator, that he would ‘occupy a central place in the stormy history of church–media relations in post-Vatican II Ireland’ (John Cooney, Sunday Tribune, 21 July 1996). In these works he critically examined the personalities of leading church members and the intrigues surrounding the appointment of papal nuncios and bishops. In 1994 Dunn's third book was repudiated by the catholic archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell – the first formal rebuke delivered by an Irish prelate to a publication by a priest since the abolition by Pope John Paul XXIII of the index of forbidden books more than thirty years previously. It contained criticisms of the ‘safe, tame, and dull clerics’ who were a product of Maynooth College, and the pessimism of Pope John Paul II, who (he wrote) ‘has no concept of a loyal opposition. So he fills every post around him in his own image’. Dunn died of stomach cancer at his home in Blackrock, Co. Dublin on 16 July 1996.