Donal O Shea – A Man For All Seasons

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Donal O Shea
Donal O Shea

Donal O Shea was a man for all seasons. Family man, health manager, patient advocate, strategist, mentor, erudite and Irish language and culture enthusiast, who carried his learning lightly, writes Maureen Browne.

And he was no saint, except perhaps to his beloved wife, Bairbre and his equally beloved children and grandchildren.

To those of us who worked for him, he expected long hours, total commitment to the health services and the patients who depended on them. He took no prisoners and did not suffer fools at all.

He was for innovation and change, if it would improve the health services and if he thought you knew what you were about, he would not interfere, but would provide endless encouragement.

His focus was on patients not himself. He rarely mentioned his own achievements; it was only at his funeral mass that many of us learned that he had achieved the  highest results in the country in his Leaving Certificate, the year he sat the exam.

He started off as an Engineer, graduating from UCC, then joined Irish Dunlop, becoming their Production Manager. At this time, he spent time in Sweden and spoke fluent Swedish.

He also spoke fluent Irish and loved the Irish language and culture.

He moved to the health services, becoming CEO of the North Western Health Board and the North Eastern Health Board, before being appointed CEO of the new Eastern Regional Health Authority. He was interested in the media and was Chair of NW Radio.   He was later appointed Chair of Beaumont Hospital Board.

I knew him only slightly when he offered me a job as Communications Director with the newly appointed ERHA.  When I, very politely, turned it down, he wanted to know why. Conscious of his acerbic reputation, and thinking I needed to shut down the conversation quickly, I told him I didn’t think I would like working for him.  He said he wasn’t too impressed by what he knew about me ether, but he needed somebody to handle communications and I probably needed the job.  He suggested we try it for a month.

It worked well. He taught me much, mentored me, challenged me daily and supported me when I went out to bat for the health services in the media world.  

I was always on the other end of a ‘phone, but not always in the office.  He rang me to drop into his office to discuss an interview I had just done on the radio.  It wasn’t my best effort and I was glad to be able to remind him that I was on holiday. “Are you down the country” he asked.  “I’m in the African bush,” I told him, as an elephant obligingly roared affirmatively in the background.  He didn’t miss a beat.   “Well, the reception was excellent.”  Probably in deference to my holiday, he didn’t mention the content!

He lived in Sligo and had a particular affection for the North West and his colleagues there and that was reflected at the attendance at his funeral.   There were four former CEOs of Health Boards, a former County Manager and a number of well-known business people in attendance, as well as a host of other former colleagues, who had worked with him in the North Western Health Board.  Many there expressed the  debt of gratitude they owed to him and spoke of how they  valued the pride and interest he took in their careers after the North  West.

A friend who was at his funeral remarked that he was  given a fitting farewell.  “He was laid to rest beneath bare Benbulben’s head. The setting sun lit up the face of the mountain as we walked from the church to the cemetery.”

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal .