‘I knew from a really early age my father was not an ordinary dad’: a tribute to Michael O’Regan

Michael’s daughter Deirdra Schroeder gives an insight into the personal life of the political journalist who died last week

I knew from a really early age that my father was not an “ordinary” dad. One of my earliest memories of him is sitting in a cafe in the old Pye Centre, in Dundrum, Dublin, watching night vision footage on the TV while he explained the intricacies and nuances of the beginnings of the first Gulf War. I was four. While to be honest I had very little interest then, I did go on to study international relations; on some subliminal level it must have made an impact.

My dad was undoubtedly a huge intellect but, better than that, he was really passionate. He wasn’t a generalist, but get him talking about Irish politics, history or, even better, the politics and history of his native Kerry and he would light up and go deep. But, despite what I often told him as a teenager, he was never a bore.

There’s been much talk since Michael’s death last week of how he was an impartial and objective journalist, but this carried over into his personal life too. My dad was non-judgmental. He lived through decades of huge social change and I think his understanding and appreciation of context gave him great empathy towards different people and situations.

Michael genuinely had no personal or political ideology beyond following what he believed to be right and fair. I remember one time many years ago asking him if he’d ever consider entering politics and he snorted so hard with laughter that he spat his coffee out. He was an interested observer and a storyteller; he had no wish to be the story himself.


But much has already been said about him as a journalist, so let me tell you more about Michael O’Regan, the private person; the dad and the grandad.

When we were kids he was always singing, in the flamboyant style of a great tenor, but without the talent. He was playful. He would regale my sister Alyson and me with tales about the adventures of Darky, his childhood dog growing up in Annagh. We actually only recently confirmed that Darky was in fact a real dog, though I really doubt he lived the wild and exciting life Michael would have had us believe.

I have an early memory of sitting on the stairs listening to Michael “call” Fossett’s Circus to ask if I could join. I had earlier refused to leave after a performance; I’d decided circus life was for me. After the call, my dad kindly explained that the manager said I could definitely join, but I must finish school and do well in my exams first.

This was typical of my dad. Education was hugely important to Michael and, along with my mom, it was their one firm wish for us growing up. Having both left rural Ireland in the 1970s, they knew education was the passport to better things. Michael has left specific wishes that his legacy be used to support the education of his current and future grandchildren.

Alyson and I have such clear memories of Michael’s typewriter, and him holed up in his office tapping away to make a deadline. Later he had a very early word processor and I remember us thinking that was practically space age. Not so long ago my mom found an old dictaphone that Michael had used to record my first broadcast interview, questioning me about my favourite games in the garden. We’ll treasure that now.

For someone who immersed himself so deeply in history, he was very forward-looking and embraced new technology to the best of his ability.

I actually set up his Twitter account and showed him how to use it. Back then, being a broke student I think I charged him €20 for the service. In recent years we joked I should have added a clause charging by the follower. Twitter went on to be a huge platform for him, and company and a community during a gruelling battle with cancer and an isolating pandemic.

Despite moving in circles of power and influence that a boy from the foot of a mountain in 1950s Kerry could have only dreamed of, my dad never took himself too seriously. He was self-deprecating and always happy to be the butt of the joke. I recall him taking my awkward preteen self and Alyson to a Joe Dolan concert to which he had got free tickets (one of the perks of being the kids of an esteemed Irish Times journalist). He gamely bobbed along beside us while we watched in horror as hard-core fans threw an assortment of underwear at the stage.

Michael’s dad was a baker, and maybe that’s why he could never turn down a cream bun or a slice of apple tart. He was also a huge walker, and was frequently spotted walking around Dundrum and Ballinteer or his beloved Marlay Park. I guess one habit cancelled the other out.

Michael truly was not a materialistic man, probably a good thing for a journalist these days. He was a man of words and ideas, not things. Beyond the books and papers he carried everywhere in his Hodges Figgis bag, he wanted for very little, bar a good meal. Like I said, he was always up for a good feed.

I have a vivid memory from Christmas 2018 when Michael was very sick. I had flown home from Washington, DC, where I was living at the time, and truly thought he would never make it out of the hospital. I recall that not as a sad memory but as evidence of the strength and force of the human body, spirit and mind.

Because he did make it out. He grew stronger, the vibrant red returned to his hair and he began to live his life again. Maybe it was not the retirement he planned, but he made the best of it. Like most of us, Michael didn’t win every battle in his life but he sure as hell gave it his best shot.

When someone bounces back from such a grave illness, you kind of believe they’re invincible. And although I obviously worried about Michael’s health, I truly believed he’d still be with us when he was 90, boring his teenage grandchildren with stories of Seán Lemass and de Valera.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. But they’ll have his books, his love of reading, and although they’re only three and four, all evidence suggests they already have that stubborn Kerry spirit. In fact, there’s a little red-headed raconteur in Kildare right now, probably raising hell as I write.

It would be remiss of me not to thank the many, many people who showed Michael extraordinary kindness during his illnesses. From the doctors and nurses, his home help Tracy to all of you who called, emailed, met for coffee. The paramedics and gards who came to our aid on Sunday – I now know there truly are angels on Earth. There are far too many to name here but you know who you are and please know you were so appreciated by Michael and by us, his family.

Michael was a great man for a quote and in thinking about his life and legacy I came across this from American author Clarence Budington Kelland: “My father didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”

Alyson and I learned a lot from watching our father’s life. Some lessons that stand out are:

  • Your circumstances don’t define you, your decisions do
  • If you find joy in the simple things – good books, strong tea and apple tart – you can find happiness in the darkest of days
  • And beyond everything, humans are incredibly resilient. The power of the human body and spirit to overcome is incredible

In the last year, Michael had begun writing some thoughts and notes on his life for posterity. His brief response to the question “If this was the last thing you wrote, what words of wisdom would you share?” was, “Honesty, integrity, and being true to yourself, are all very important. Avoid chancers and spoofers!”

Good advice, Dad.

I like to think I got some of my father’s talent with words, but summarising such a big character, a man as multifaceted and nuanced as him, is beyond me right now so I’ll borrow from another great Kerryman, John B Keane, and his poem, My Father.

I am terribly proud of my father,

Bitterly, faithfully proud.

Let none say a word to my father

Or mention his name out loud.

I adored his munificent blather

Since I was his catch-as-catch can.

I am terribly proud of my father

For he was a loveable man.

Rest in Peace, Old Man.

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