Foley, Donal (1922–81), journalist and editor, was born 4 September 1922 in Ring, Co. Waterford, seventh among twelve children of Daniel Joseph Foley, headmaster in Ferrybank, Co. Waterford, and Catherine Foley (née Power). His childhood was idyllic, between the small village of Ferrybank, from which both his parents came, and Ring, the Gaeltacht area where they spent every summer, and which he later described as the place in Ireland he loved best. He grew up bilingual; his father had a passion for the Irish language and taught sport through it, on the grounds that it should always be associated with pleasure. His mother was from a diehard republican family, while his father was a socialist and stood in Waterford as Labour party candidate in the general elections of 1932 and 1937; when Éamon de Valera (qv) canvassed in the area Mrs Foley lit a candle in the window for him. Daniel Foley received 3,147 votes in 1932 and 3,179 in 1937, though he barely canvassed as he was ill from the cancer that killed him on 20 July 1937. The family had to leave the official residence assigned to the headmaster and move to a corporation house, and Donal was sent with his brothers to St Patrick's College in Waterford city, run by the De La Salle Brothers, one of whom, a friend of his father, paid his fees.
On leaving school he worked on a number of unskilled jobs, including postman (which he loved for the twenty-mile (32 km) rural cycle), worker in a flour mill, and railway labourer, before emigrating (September 1944) to London, where he spent the next nineteen years. After working for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway and as a clerk for a fruit-buyer in Covent Garden market, he began journalism with the Irish News Agency in 1948, and later with the Irish Press, to which he contributed freelance articles before joining the newspaper's London office in 1953. He married (July 1946) Patricia Dowling, whom he described as English, but who seems to have had Kilkenny origins.
In the mid 1950s he joined the London office of the Irish Times, then staffed by two ‘honourables’ – the Hon. Michael Campbell (qv), son of Lord Glenavy (Gordon Campbell (qv)) and the Hon. John Arnott, son of the family that owned the paper. Foley was very much his father's son – a Gaelic-speaking, sports-loving trade unionist – and he injected what journalist Wesley Boyd described as a much-needed sense of Irish realism into the office. He made good contacts, especially among British Labour politicians, and found the experience of working on the Sunday Review, a short-lived tabloid paper started by the Irish Times, invaluable in teaching him how to condense information into short, readable pieces. He was later famous among journalists for his insistence that 1,500 words was more than enough to say anything. In 1963 he was headhunted by the new editor of the Irish Times, Douglas Gageby (1918–2004), to return to Dublin as news editor.
Gageby sought to turn the Irish Times into a modern, pluralist paper along the lines of the British broadsheets, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, and Le Monde. His objectives were to broaden content so that there was something for everyone; be first with news; and use colour and opinion pieces for entertainment, and specialist correspondents for depth and authority. Foley, with his rural background and his Fleet Street connections, was crucial to Gageby's strategy and was, from the start, his right-hand man. Journalists referred to them as a team, Douglas and Donal, and the newsroom as a family. Foley was a good counterpart to the protestant, Belfast-educated, Fianna Fáil-tending Gageby; between them they extended the paper's reach. It was probably Gageby's initiative to send a correspondent to Stormont; certainly Foley's to report more from the west and to introduce the weekly half-page Irish-language section, ‘Tuarascáil’, which covered Irish affairs and Gaeltacht news. His passion for Gaelic culture and games reached other parts of the paper; he rarely missed a Munster hurling final and regularly wrote the colour piece on the all-Ireland finals, while his championing of the Merriman summer school, Co. Clare (of which he was press officer from its foundation in 1967) was a key factor in its success. For his ‘Saturday column’ he wrote of local publications and festivals.
Journalist James Downey termed Foley ‘one of the great news editors, not in the usual sense of a first-class hunter for news … his strength was his instinct for the zeitgeist and how the paper should respond’ (Whittaker, 24); and Conor Brady, one of Foley's recruits and future editor of the Irish Times, also wrote of his ‘instinctive feeling for politics … and his enormous sense of the country in all its moods and flavours’ (Brady, 27). This was seen to great effect in his coverage of religious affairs; he immediately understood the tide was turning, and the Irish Times's reportage of Vatican II was a major feature of the era.
The Douglas and Donal team produced quick results – when they took over, the paper's circulation was 35,000, by 1968 it was over 50,000. They aimed for a spread of backgrounds among their journalists and recruited from provincial papers and college papers. Brady was brought in from Campus UCD News. But Foley was most famous for his ground-breaking recruitment of female journalists. He had ‘an easy, comfortable rapport with women, unusual among Irish men of his generation’ (Brady, 27). Many among his phalanx of female journalists became household names and had long, distinguished journalistic careers – they included Mary Maher, Maeve Binchy, Elgy Gillespie, Christina Murphy, Nell McCafferty, and Caroline Walsh. Collectively they were known as ‘Foley's babes’ and a 2003 collection of their writing, entitled Changing the Times, opens with the statement: ‘It all began with Douglas Gageby's news editor … Gageby had unleashed an unpredictable, intuitive and wholly original intelligence inside the newsroom that resulted in a feminist army of sorts’ (Gillespie, 9). Foley trusted in his journalists’ ability to go beyond the traditional ‘female’ subjects of cooking and fashion and write about news, politics, law, and foreign affairs.
Foley combined such innovations with an old-fashioned way of doing business. Three-hour lunches in the Harp were usual, and alcohol was a constant lubricant, while the newsroom thrived on rows. At his initial job interview, Brady found Foley ‘mumbling and vague … He was often like that. A lively imagination and a mind that could move with astonishing alacrity were trapped behind a larynx that only seemed to achieve full elasticity with a few pints on board’ (Brady, 35). He was a disaster on the phone, all grunts and monosyllables, and his external appearance could be deceptive; ‘to some few people he was a slightly bumbling, overweight, myopic figure, drinking slightly more than was good for him in slightly unfashionable pubs’ (Irish Times, 9 July 1981), but colleagues greatly appreciated his kindness, humour, and generosity, and he was affectionately nicknamed ‘Teddy Bear’. The frequently caustic Gageby wrote: ‘he was to us his colleagues, the most loveable man we will ever meet’ (Irish Times, 8 July 1981).
Although remembered chiefly as an editor, Foley was also a witty and talented writer; his surreal imagination was given full rein in the ‘Man bites dog’ columns, which were collected into ten volumes, one a year till 1981. These anarchic, satirical takes on Irish life and politics were in the vein of the Irish Times's greatest columnist, Myles na Gopaleen (Brian O'Nolan (qv)), and Foley was held by Myles's biographer, Anne Clissman, to be the only one of his successors who corresponded in any way to his mixture of fantasy, nonsense, irony, and inversion.
He died in office, after a short illness, on 7 July 1981 and was buried in Deansgrange cemetery, after removal from St Lawrence O'Toole church in Kilmacud, south Co. Dublin. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and two daughters; a third son, Brendan, born with physical disabilities, predeceased him, dying aged seventeen.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).