McCann, Seán (1929–2015), journalist, author and rose expert, was born on 7 May 1929 in Dublin. He was the eldest child of three, followed by Brian (b. 1931) and Moira (b. 1933), of Seán ‘Jack’ McCann from Foxrock, Co. Dublin, and his wife Annie (née Murnaghan) from Anny, Co. Monaghan. The family lived at 24 Beaufield Park, Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, and Jack McCann worked at the nearby Leopardstown Racecourse. Having initially aspired to be a jockey, Jack worked as an odd-job man and tended horses, including, at one point, those of the Aga Khan. He also held jobs as a coal merchant, bred greyhounds for racing at Shelbourne Park and elsewhere, and occasionally travelled to England when more lucrative job opportunities arose. Annie McCann was a housekeeper whose employers included John Charles McQuaid (qv), when he worked at Blackrock College, Co. Dublin, author Maurice Walsh (qv) at his home in Stillorgan Park, Blackrock, and occasionally Samuel Beckett’s (qv) family in Foxrock.
Seán McCann attended St Laurence's boys’ national school in Stillorgan but did not continue to secondary education. An avid reader and writer from an early age, he took some classes at a technical school in Blackrock and continued to educate himself informally. After school he worked as a telegram delivery boy for Blackrock post office.
Jack McCann moved to London permanently with his youngest son Brian in the mid-1940s where he continued to pick up varied work, including as a painter-decorator and security guard. The rest of the family, including Seán, followed him to London in 1946, settling in a flat at Ponsonby Place near Pimlico in Westminster. In London, the teenage Seán McCann pursued his love of soccer, joining Charlton Athletic as a goalkeeper, though he did not play on the first team. He held down various other jobs including as a chef, to try to supplement his meagre income from soccer (two shillings and sixpence per week), before reluctantly joining the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an intelligence officer. Prior to joining the RAF, he met fellow Irish emigrant Sally McGonigle from Garvagh, Co. Derry, at a dance in Lewisham, south London. The couple married on 1 August 1950 in Port Said, Egypt, while McCann was on a brief posting there. On their return to England, McCann secured work as a sports broadcaster covering local soccer matches for BBC radio, and writing gigs with publications including the Angling Times and various newspapers of the Messenger Group. (He had long been writing short stories and non-fiction pieces – his mother’s former boss Maurice Walsh was an early supportive reader – and McCann had his work published in Ireland’s Own and elsewhere.)
Three of the McCanns’ five children were born in England. In 1963, the family decided to move to Dublin where McCann had secured a job in the features department of the Evening Press; he would ultimately become the newspaper’s features and literary editor. During his time at the Press he displayed a gift for mentoring up and coming talent, and for creating new opportunities, especially for female contributors and staff writers. He started a ‘women’s page’, titled ‘Petticoat panel’, which ran until 1984. Despite the Victorian-sounding name, the page showcased the work of women writers including Mary Morrissy and June Considine, and feminist activist Nuala Fennell (qv). He also hired impressive talent into staff writer roles, including Clare Boylan (qv), Noeleen Dowling (d. 2014), Mary Kerrigan (d. 2023), John Boland and Liam Ó Cuanaigh (d. 2014), who would become co-founder of the charity ALONE with Willie Bermingham (qv). McCann gave celebrated sportswriter Con Houlihan (qv) his first break, with the latter reportedly posting his earliest pieces from Kerry, written on sheets of butcher's paper taken from the shop where he worked.
In the 1970s McCann gave writing classes at the trade union-affiliated People’s College in Dublin. Among his students were future dramatist Bernard Farrell (b. 1941) and aspiring novelists Dermot Bolger (b. 1959) and Kathleen Sheehan O’Connor (b. 1930s). In the late 1960s he was involved, with his close friend David Marcus (qv), in establishing the ‘New Irish writing’ page in the Irish Press, which became an important outlet for emerging literary talent. The two men also adapted Brian Merriman’s (qv) ‘The midnight court’ for the stage in 1968, using Marcus’s translation of the text.
McCann was a disciplined journalist, and while not teetotal, was rarely seen in the pub with his Press colleagues. Instead, he would return home to Clonkeen Road in Deansgrange, south Dublin, in the afternoons to pursue his second career as an author. He produced twenty-seven books, including a series of novels for children about a prodigal young soccer star Georgie Goode (a nod to George Best (qv)), primers on Irish writers including Sean O’Casey (qv), Oscar Wilde (qv) and Brendan Behan (qv), compendia of witticisms, and books on gardening and rose breeding. So popular were some of his books that he received a mention in the 1980 song ‘Dance stance’ (first released as ‘Burn it down’) by Dexys Midnight Runners, amongst a list of well-known Irish writers. When he wasn’t working on these books in his shed-cum-writing-room he could be found in his greenhouse tending his roses.
McCann retired from the Evening Press in 1989, aged sixty. (The Press closed due to the collapse of its parent company, Irish Press Newspapers, in 1995.) In retirement, he dedicated much of his time to rose cultivation, a hobby that began, so the story goes, in the 1960s when the newspaper office was gifted with some rose bushes, and, with no other takers, McCann decided to plant them at home. Over time he became an expert in breeding roses and periodically travelled to America to lecture on cultivation. ‘Roses rule my life’ he told the Irish Times on 13 June 1998, his garden then filled with some 1,000 rose plants, many the results of his own experiments with breeding new varieties. He had around thirty of his own named rose varieties on sale worldwide (including one named for his wife, ‘Sally Mac’), was made honorary vice president of the British Royal National Rose Society and received many awards and accolades for his flowers. He also a regular judge at rose competitions in Ireland, America, Australia and other places around the world.
A wine enthusiast, from the late 1970s he wrote articles on the subject for the Evening Press, and after retirement continued to produce a syndicated wine column ‘Sip by sip’ that was published in various regional newspapers around the country into the 2000s. Locally, he was involved in Cabinteely Football Club and was a member of a ‘glee’ singing group.
Requiring a wheelchair for the last years of his life, Seán McCann died at home aged eighty-five on 24 February 2015. A funeral mass was held for him on 27 February at St Brigid’s church in Cabinteely, followed by burial in Dean’s Grange cemetery. Among the many tributes to McCann after his death, his colleague John Boland recalled him as a ‘civilised and unfailingly charming journalist of the old school’ (Irish Independent, 28 Feb. 2015).
The McCanns had five children Siobhan, Sean, Oonagh, Colum and Ronan. Colum McCann (b. 1965) became a successful novelist and winner of the US National Book Award among several other international honours. McCann was a great influence on his son, who from a young age shared his love of literature and, despite his warnings, followed him into journalism before moving to America and dedicating himself full-time to novel-writing with his father’s enthusiastic encouragement.