O'Shannon, Cathal Michael (1928–2011), journalist, broadcaster and public relations officer, was born on 23 August 1928 in the family home at 41 Casino Road, Marino, Dublin, the only son among three children of Cathal O'Shannon (qv), trade union official, and Margaret (Margherita) Doris O'Shannon (née Finn), from Cheshire, England. His father, a radically socialist republican, had been a close associate of James Connolly (qv) in both the ITGWU and the Socialist Party of Ireland, and by the late 1920s was one of Ireland's leading trade unionists as ITGWU head of movements. Reared in a 'household full of books' (Ir. Times, 24 October 2011) and sent to elocution lessons, young Cathal received primary education through Irish at Scoil Mhuire national school, Marino, and secondary education at Coláiste Mhuire, Parnell Square.
Aged sixteen and still a schoolboy, he and a friend, Frederick O'Donovan (qv), travelled to Belfast, where, armed with forged baptismal certificates to conceal their actual ages, they enlisted successfully in the RAF. Motivated partly by the lure of adventure (his dreams of becoming a pilot went unrealised), and partly by an idealistic commitment to the fight against fascism, O'Shannon was posted to Burma (Myanmar), where he served the last several months of the war on ground crew. During his three years in service, he was also posted to India and Malaya. (Recounting his service in later years, he sometimes implied that he had seen action as a rear gunner on Lancaster bombers, a claim he laughed off in an interview shortly before his death.)
Having written articles for service newspapers in the Far East, O'Shannon secured a job in 1949 as cadet reporter on the Irish Times, assisted by his father's fraternisation with the literati frequenting the Palace Bar, including the paper's editor, Robert Smyllie (qv). Remaining with the paper into the early 1960s, to distinguish himself from his well-known father, by then appointed to the Labour Court, he was by-lined as 'Cathal Óg O'Shannon'. Among the major stories he covered were two that broke in the same month (May 1957) and continued for some time thereafter: the boycott of protestant-owned businesses in Fethard-on-Sea, Co. Wexford, arising from disputation over the education of the children of a religiously mixed couple, Seán (qv) and Sheila Cloney (qv); and the controversy surrounding the production of the Tennessee Williams play 'The rose tattoo' in Dublin's Pike Theatre, leading to the arrest and prosecution of the theatre's director, Alan Simpson (qv), for staging an indecent and profane performance. O'Shannon fulfilled several stints in the Irish Times's London office, contributing to the paper's regular 'London letter'. In 1960 he was the first Irish newspaper correspondent dispatched to the Congo to report on the activities of the Irish troops deployed as part of the UN peacekeeping force. After accompanying the main body of the 650 Irish soldiers to the newly independent republic's capital of Léopoldville (Kinshasa) in late July, for the next two months he filed regular, on-the-spot reports from Irish-held positions in the eastern provinces. His past experiences as a military man in the tropics suited him for the assignment.
On the launch of Telefís Éireann, O'Shannon worked as a reporter on Broadsheet, the station's first flagship current affairs programme (1962–3). Having done occasional work from Dublin for the BBC current affairs programme Tonight, he was recruited to the programme as a roving reporter, based in London and travelling frequently on overseas assignments; he relished the opportunities to research, write, report and produce programmed material.
When Tonight was cancelled (1965), he returned to Telefís Éireann as a reporter and interviewer on Newsbeat (1965–71), a news magazine production, largely light in tone, airing five nights per week, presented by Frank Hall (qv), and combining studio segments with filmed outside stories. Writing his own crisply composed scripts, and making his name as an urbane and astute interviewer, he reported on such topics as the restoration of Kilmainham Gaol by a voluntary committee (1965), the displaced public statues stored in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (1967), Kerry mountain rescue (1971), the maiden flight of an Aer Lingus Boeing 747 from Dublin to New York (1971), and the 1971 Listowel Writers' Week. He interviewed a Manx nationalist and language revivalist, a Dublin butcher selling horse meat for human consumption, and John Huston (qv) on the set of the James Bond spoof Casino Royale at Killeen Castle, Co. Mayo (all in 1966). On April Fools' Day 1971, he presented a cleverly conceived and elaborately executed account of one Margaret Kildysart of Mogerley Hall, the forgotten erotic lady novelist of Loughrea, Co. Galway, esteemed contemporary of the literary revivalists, and cherished correspondent of Leo Tolstoy.
Following the cessation of Newsbeat, O'Shannon moved to a successor news magazine, Tangents (1972–4). He was the primary presenter of Spot on, a weekly, interview-based current affairs programme, launched in autumn 1976. His most famous interview was with Muhammad Ali, filmed before a studio audience at RTÉ, and broadcast on 18 July 1972, the night before the boxer's bout against Al 'Blue' Lewis in Dublin's Croke Park. Though O'Shannon would later ascribe the success of the encounter more to Ali's expertise as an interviewee than his own skills as an interviewer, it was clear that his self-effacing and amiably respectful demeanour, in marked contrast to the confrontational and provocative approach towards Ali adopted by contemporary American and British media, put Ali at his ease. This facilitated an air of relaxed expansiveness, as when Ali conspiratorially confided to O'Shannon and the Irish audience that his opinionated outspokenness and arrogant braggadocio were contrived to outrage a significant segment of white America and thus enhance his marketability as an uppity black man whom outraged whites would pay big money to see 'whupped'.
O'Shannon's most significant work of the 1970s was on two RTÉ documentaries that he scripted and presented, and for each of which he received a Jacob's broadcasting award. Even the olives are bleeding: the Irish in the Spanish civil war (1976) was 'a beautifully balanced and moving recording of history' (Ir. Times, 7 March 1978), comprising interviews with veterans of both sides in the conflict and visits to locations of significance to the Irish involvement. The interviews were remarkable for revealing the differing retrospective perspectives not only between the republicans and nationalists, but also among the veterans within each of the opposed camps. Memorable vignettes included the memories of elderly nuns in an Irish convent in Lisbon visited by the nationalists en route to Spain, and the troubled humanity of republican volunteer Frank Edwards describing the psychological impact of the horrors he witnessed, leaving him with an abhorrence of war. For his next documentary subject, O'Shannon conducted extensive interviews with Emmet Dalton (qv), Redmondite British soldier decorated for his service, turned nationalist revolutionary and Free State general, and accompanied him on his first, poignant visit to Béal na mBlath since the ambush in August 1922 when Michael Collins (qv) died in his arms. The resultant production, Emmet Dalton remembers (1978), was scheduled for broadcast in April 1978, but following Dalton's sudden death was moved forward to 7 March, the day of Dalton's funeral. The Jacob's award citation commended O'Shannon's 'sympathetic interviewing style' (Ir. Times, 31 March 1979).
However, he became increasingly discontented at RTÉ – his proposals for documentaries on the civil war and the 1939–45 emergency were not approved, and he was described as 'one of the best but least used television interviewers in the business' (Ir. Times, 6 March 1978). Attracted by a salary five times his RTÉ earnings, in March 1978 O'Shannon became public affairs manager of the contracting company constructing a bauxite refinery at Aughinish, Co. Limerick (an island site in the Shannon estuary), and public relations consultant (later public affairs director) to Aughinish Alumina, the company owning and operating the facility. Anticipating that the varied disruptions occurring during the construction phase and long-range concerns about environmental impact might cause frictions with the local and broader communities, the companies headhunted O'Shannon as both a skilled media operative and a familiar and trusted television personality. Built over five years (June 1978–September 1983, when some 6,500 Irish and foreign construction workers were directly employed), the 1,000-acre plant was both Europe's largest bauxite refinery and the largest single overseas industrial investment in the Republic of Ireland. The good community and media relations enjoyed by the facility were attributed to O'Shannon's public relations skills and the company's scrupulous adherence to operating conditions attached to the planning permission, including a baseline environmental study, forestry plantation and bird sanctuary (the latter facilitating an increase in species and numbers). At O'Shannon's initiative, a baseline sociological study was also commissioned, investigating the attitudes and experience of the local population, with a follow-up study several years into operation.
O'Shannon was an occasional panellist on the RTÉ quiz show Cover story (early 1980s). Enjoying the social life and lavish expense account of his PR position, but missing the variety, travel and creativity of broadcasting, he did occasional work on RTÉ, presenting a thirteen-part summer series, Perspectives and progress (1989), comprising interviews exploring the changes in Irish society since the early 1960s (interviewees included economist Patrick Lynch (qv), farmers' leader Rickard Deasy (qv), and religious affairs journalist and broadcaster Seán Mac Réamoinn (qv)); a programme on Paris (a city with which he enjoyed a long love affair) in the series France à la carte (1979); and The wine geese (1991), a six-part series on Irish emigrants in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French wine trade.
After taking early retirement from Aughinish Alumina in 1992, he worked regularly on RTÉ productions, including the travel programme Bon voyage (early 1990s), and The island: Ireland from the air (2006), which he narrated. He also returned to making documentaries, variously presenting before camera, narrating by voice-over, and scriptwriting. Thou shalt not kill comprised two six-part series broadcast in consecutive autumns (1994 and 1995), recounting famous Irish murder cases, ranging from the death of Ellie Hanley (qv), the 'Colleen Bawn', in 1819, to the Phoenix Park murder by Malcolm Macarthur in 1982. Adopting a docudrama format that intermingled O'Shannon's presentation and interviews with enacted sequences, and employing the talents of leading writers, directors and actors, the production was one of RTÉ's most critically and popularly successful documentary series. The four-part series Telling tales (1996), which O'Shannon both scripted and presented, dealt with Irish scandals, including the swindles of philatelist Paul Singer (qv), the deportation of the Leitrim communist James Gralton (qv), and the uproar caused by the novel The valley of the squinting windows by Brinsley McNamara (qv). O'Shannon narrated two multi-part documentary series entitled War stories: the first, treating Ireland's experience of the second world war, included the roles of veterans in various allied uniforms (2006); the second treated the Korean war (2008). He presented two documentaries in RTÉ's Hidden history series. Who was Gunner Mason? (2005) dealt with a Dublin-born British soldier who died of malnutrition in a Japanese POW camp. Ireland's Nazis, aired in two parts (2007), investigated the cases of several Nazi operatives, collaborators and sympathisers, who found post-war refuge in Ireland; O'Shannon contrasted their reception by church and state officialdom to the chilly attitudes toward returning British servicemen such as he.
O'Shannon was himself the subject of an RTÉ biographical documentary, Cathal O'Shannon: telling tales (2008). He received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Film and Television Academy, presented at a tribute event at Dublin's Conrad Hotel (22 September 2010). Throughout his career both in print and on air, O'Shannon communicated with impeccable care, precision and clarity. Keenly interested in human diversity, he was searchingly curious about people's motivations and contradictions. An unparalleled interviewer, with an 'individual skill … for turning inquisition into what comes across as pleasant conversation' (Ir. Times, 13 March 1978), he possessed 'the most envied of broadcasters' gifts: a seductive voice' (ibid., 27 October 2011). He married (mid 1950s) in Corpus Christi Roman catholic church, Maiden Lane, London, Patricia Jane 'Patsy' Dyke (d. 2006), an English journalist with Country Life whom he met while working in the Irish Times's Fleet Street office; it is not recorded that they had children. In declining health, after his wife's death and also predeceased by his two sisters, he suffered severe loneliness and depression, relieved by the unsparing attentions of his friend and broadcasting colleague Paul Cusack. Seriously ill for two years with cancer (he had been successfully treated for oesophageal cancer in the early 2000s), he died on 22 October 2011 in the Beacon Hospital, Sandyford, Dublin. His remains were cremated at Glasnevin crematorium.