Doonican, Val (1927–2015), singer and musician, was born Michael Valentine Doonican on 3 February 1927 at 10 Passage Road in Waterford, the youngest of eight children (four boys and four girls) of John Doonican, a metal worker, and his wife Agnes (née Kavanagh). To distinguish him from the many other Michaels in the locality, he was known as ‘Val’. The family’s poverty was aggravated by his father’s gambling and heavy drinking, which left Val with a lifelong wariness of alcohol. His childhood was however largely happy, and he was close to both parents. He recalled long Sunday walks with his father as they chatted together and foraged for wild plants. The family was musical and Val’s brother John taught him to play the mandolin. Educated at the local St Declan’s national school and De La Salle College, he played in the school band from the age of six. He also sang and played guitar with friends, cousins and his local scout troop, and played the bass drum in the scouts’ pipe band. Regular cinema-going introduced him to American music and he made a point of learning the songs of ‘singing cowboys’ such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
His father died from throat cancer when Val was aged fourteen, prompting him to leave school and join his brothers John and Ned in the local Graves factory, where his father had also worked. He progressed from assembling wooden boxes to constructing metal girders but was more interested in music and teamed up with a local pianist Bruce Clarke, who managed to get them a spot on the Radio Éireann talent show Beginners please; he also lent Doonican £20 to buy a Gibson guitar and financed making a promotional record. In 1947 they had their first professional engagement, playing a summer season in a hotel in Courtown, Co. Wexford. The following year they joined a touring band for six months, with Doonican playing the drums, and gained valuable experience in venues throughout Ireland. Afterwards they managed to secure a short twice-weekly sponsored show on Radio Éireann for Donnelly Meats, singing the praises of the firm’s sausages and black pudding. This considerably raised their profile and by 1949 the two were earning a living playing in theatres and with dance bands.
In 1951 Doonican received an offer to join the popular harmony singing group The Four Ramblers based in England and, not seeing himself as a drummer, jumped at the chance. The group were regulars on BBC radio programmes such as Workers’ playtime and the western themed show Riders of the range, and for eight years Doonican toured extensively with them throughout Britain and Ireland. In 1959 they supported the singer Anthony Newley on tour. Recognising Doonican’s talent, Newley encouraged him to start a solo career. It was also on the Newley tour that Doonican met his wife, the cabaret singer Lynette Rae (stage name of Sheilah Doherty (née Walker; 1929–2016), whom he married on 1 April 1962.
After his marriage he secured his own show, Your date with Val, on BBC radio’s Light Programme. As well as singing, he introduced the show, welcomed guests, and read out letters and requests. He also toured extensively and once found himself billed as ‘Ireland’s leading soul singer’ at a club in Mildenhall, Suffolk; the expectant audience did not appreciate his blend of easy listening and novelty songs and he recalled being ‘lucky to get out alive’ (My story, 136). His career progressed slowly and in early 1964 he appeared on BBC television shows such as Singalong Saturday and Barn dance. His big break came that year when he was booked twice in two weeks on the popular ITV variety television show Sunday night at the Palladium and made a strong impression. This was followed by offers of his own television show, recording contracts, a choice of summer season shows and bookings for major cabaret venues. He was given a six-week variety show on BBC, airing on 7.30 p.m. on Wednesday nights, although it clashed with the popular ITV drama Coronation Street.
Despite the competition, Doonican’s show was a modest success and in 1965 he was given a second series at peak viewing time on Thursday evenings. Within a year The Val Doonican music show was attracting audiences of over eighteen million viewers. He also recorded twenty-five Christmas specials, usually broadcast on Christmas Eve, which became fixtures in the festive viewing of many families. His show featured a range of guests with whom he would duet and engage in gentle banter, but was largely built around Doonican’s own personality. His singing voice was perfect for television: smooth and relaxed, but distinctive and resonant. He was also an excellent raconteur and charmed viewers with his natural modesty and self-deprecating humour. Casually dressed in a cardigan or sweater, he sang mainstream material that ranged from pop to country, and usually finished the show singing in a rocking chair. His repertoire included Irish novelty songs such as ‘Delaney’s donkey’, ‘Paddy McGinty’s goat’ and ‘O’Rafferty’s motor car’ (written by English music-hall composers such as William Hargreaves (1880–1941) and Tommie Connor (1904–93)). These proved so popular that he published the book Val Doonican tells the adventures of O’Rafferty (1969).
Popular among showbusiness colleagues, he was generous to other acts and his show helped launch the career of the young Dave Allen (qv) who appeared as a resident comedian in 1965–6. While his shows always appeared relaxed, they were the product of meticulous preparation and those who worked with him were impressed by his professionalism and attention to detail. He was a talented musician and arranger, who supplemented his income by writing orchestral scores for many other artists. An astute businessman, he was represented (1963–83) by Eve Taylor, one of the toughest managers in British showbusiness. From his early career he financed his own recording costs and then sold the finished product to the record company that offered him the best deal; crucially, this also allowed him to retain the ownership rights of his master recordings.
His popularity peaked in the mid-1960s, when he had five top ten hits in the UK: ‘Walk tall’ (1964), ‘The special years’ (1965), ‘Elusive butterfly’ (1966), ‘What would I be’ (1966) and ‘If the whole world stopped loving’ (1967). He also had five successive UK top ten albums, including Val Doonican rocks, but gently (1967) which spent three weeks at no. 1 between 31 December 1967 and 20 January 1968, displacing The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top position after six months there. This was the first time that an album by an Irish artist had topped the UK charts. He recorded over fifty albums throughout his career.
Doonican made three Royal Variety Show appearances and won the Variety Club of Great Britain’s BBC-TV Personality of the Year award three times (the first in 1966). In 1970 he was the subject of a This is your life tribute presented by Eamonn Andrews (qv) on ITV. With popular music (and much else) changing rapidly, Doonican’s mainstream material, avuncular style and old-fashioned courtesy appealed strongly to middle England. From the 1960s to the 1980s he was one of the best-known Irishmen in Britain. At a time when the Irish were regularly portrayed as either dim-witted or violent, Doonican’s genial personality contributed to more positive preconceptions. His ambassadorial role was much valued by the Irish in Britain, and he had a strong following in Ireland itself, where he was voted Irish entertainer of the year in 1972. His performances in Ireland always drew strong audiences and, although he never had an Irish no. 1 single, ‘Walk tall’, ‘The special years’ and ‘If the whole world stopped loving’ all reached no. 2 in the local charts. Even his comic songs proved popular in his homeland, his tongue-in-cheek delivery mitigating their stage Irishness.
In 1970 he left the BBC to take up a lucrative offer from the commercial British network Associated Television (ATV) which guaranteed him a series of one-hour shows that would be transmitted all over the English-speaking world. He tried to forge a career in America as the host of The Val Doonican show, a summer variety hour on ABC in 1971, but it was not a success, mainly he believed because American television had tried to ‘slick him up’ too much. He had better luck in Australia and New Zealand, where his ATV shows were regularly aired and audiences took to his down-to-earth personality. From the early 1970s he toured both countries regularly and built up strong followings.
Although success in America eluded him, he regularly appeared alongside top American stars such as Perry Como, Andy Williams, John Denver and Tony Bennett. He was often compared to Como, both of whom were renowned for their effortless style and cosy knitwear, but insisted that Bing Crosby was a greater influence. Having admired him since childhood, he recorded several of his songs and released the album Val sings Bing in 1982. He regarded being described as ‘the poor man’s Bing Crosby’ as a compliment and in August 1975 was overjoyed to play golf with him for BBC 2’s International pro celebrity golf.
While some found Doonican’s performances and persona rather bland, serious interviews revealed an intelligent and reflective character that belied his middle-of-the-road image. After an appearance on the BBC Parkinson chat-show in which he spoke movingly of his father’s illness and death, he was approached to write his autobiography and in 1980 published The special years, followed by Walking tall (1985) (later combined and updated in My story, my life (2009)). At the height of his popularity, he was game enough to appear on ‘The intro and the outro’ recorded in 1967 by the psychedelic Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. He did not take himself or his fame too seriously and insisted that entertainers like himself ‘are simply a little light relief’ (My story, 162).
In 1976 he returned to the BBC to do the live Val Doonican music show on Saturday nights. It maintained a steady popularity until the early 1980s and ended in 1986. Afterwards he concentrated on doing afternoon live shows which, he said, ‘suit me and my ageing fans … we can all be home well before bedtime’ (Guardian, 2 July 2015). He still made television programmes such the BBC series Homeward bound in 1989, in which he travelled through Ireland and featured local artists such as The Dubliners, The Chieftains, Mary Black, James Galway, Mary O’Hara, Daniel O’Donnell and Enya. Although light in tone, the programmes attempted to give British viewers greater insight into Irish culture and society, and one included a lengthy interview with former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald (qv). In a similar vein he visited Waterford to make the music video Songs from my sketchbook (1990) which featured the extended Doonican family and some of the city’s best-known landmarks.
He continued to play occasional live concerts until 2009. Among the more notable was ‘An evening with Val Doonican’ on 7 October 2007 at the London Palladium which featured special guests such as Frank Carson (qv) and Nana Mouskouri and celebrated his sixty years in showbusiness. During a predictably relaxed retirement, he divided his time between his home in Knotty Green, near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and a house in Spain, playing golf whenever possible. He had always mixed well with his local community and was a member of Beaconsfield Golf Club and Chiltern Painters. Drawing was a lifelong hobby and he became an accomplished water-colourist. He maintained a great fondness for Waterford, where he made regular appearances for charity and voluntary organisations. In 2011 he was made a freeman of Waterford, having previously been grand marshal of the city’s St Patrick’s day parade. He remained in good health until the final year of his life when he moved to Chilton House nursing home near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Aged eighty-eight, he died there on 1 July 2015 and was buried in the catholic cemetery in Beaconsfield. He was survived by his wife and two daughters, Sarah and Fiona; his first-born daughter Siobhán died in her cot aged seven months in 1964. Although by the time of his death he had been long out of the public eye, his songs, shows and style were fondly recalled as reminders of a gentler, more innocent era, and there was a flood of tributes to his modesty, warmth and unaffected charm.