Michael O’Regan obituary: Astute political journalist and proud Kerryman to his core

He was sceptical but not cynical, and relentlessly fair, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the constituencies

Born: November 3rd, 1953

Died: February 18th, 2024

Michael O’Regan, who has died aged 70, was a former Irish Times parliamentary correspondent, political analyst, broadcaster and a Kerryman to his core. He spent more than 40 years in journalism and his melodious voice and passion for politics ensured that he was a popular guest on current affairs shows on radio and television.

He was the third of five children born to Patrick and Mary O’Regan in Annagh, west Kerry. His father was a baker while his mother looked after the small farm and reared the children, three of whom would go on to work in journalism at a national level. They grew up in a house full of books and newspapers. O’Regan began reading his father’s large collection of books and developed a lifelong love of history. His eldest brother Gerard created mock newspapers in copybooks which greatly appealed to him. It may have been the catalyst that led to him winning a coveted place to study journalism in the College of Commerce in Rathmines.

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Gerard would later follow him into journalism, going on to edit three national newspapers, while his younger sister Eilish would become the Irish Independent’s health correspondent.

After college O’Regan got a job as a junior reporter with the Kerryman newspaper. “It was regarded at that time as probably the leading provincial newspaper with a very, very strong reputation for being professional,” he recalled in a 2021 interview with Maurice O’Keeffe for the Irish Life and Lore’s oral history archive. “You have to remember… print was king, print was huge.” It gave him an insight into local politics and he often said that nothing could rival the bear pit that was Kerry politics.

When future Kerryman editor Ger Colleran joined the newsroom, he recalled a reporter who was destined for greater things. “He stood out as a man of great integrity from the first moment I met him, both personal and journalistic, in terms of his devotion to the notion of fair play and truth in the job he did,” Colleran told Radio Kerry’s Jerry O’Sullivan. “He had the most extraordinary voice for TV and radio and I often thought he would have been superb as an RTÉ presenter.”

O’Regan won a national journalism award in 1980 and joined The Irish Times the following year. It was in Dublin that he met his wife, nurse Elizabeth Henry, from Sligo. They married in 1984 and went on to have two daughters, Deirdra and Alyson. It was a source of great pride to him that their children continued the family tradition of journalism, taking up jobs in institutions such as the Washington Post and the BBC.

O’Regan covered the Kerry Babies tribunal for The Irish Times in 1985 and wrote a book, Dark Secrets, about the case, with Ger Colleran. “It’s hard to believe this was 1980s Ireland,” he later recalled. The treatment of the [Hayes] family was appalling.”

While he enjoyed general reporting, he found his true calling in 1988 when he moved into politics. This gave him a front-row seat to observe every political crisis that emerged in the following three decades. The political intrigue of Leinster House energised him and he never tired of analysing the motives of figures such as Charles Haughey, Dick Spring and Albert Reynolds.

O’Regan came into his own when elections loomed. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the constituencies and liked nothing better than to predict the winners and losers. An affable and entertaining presence in the office, he delighted in regaling colleagues with stories of political shenanigans. He was always happy to talk to younger reporters and offer advice and, if they had the good fortune to come from Kerry, the encouragement was even greater.

Editor of The Irish Times Ruadhán Mac Cormaic remembered him as “a generous colleague and a first-rate journalist who leaves behind a body of work that chronicles a country in flux”. He noted that few people had observed life in Leinster House more closely than O’Regan had. “He was sceptical but not cynical; his job was to understand politicians, and he did.”

BBC journalist Mark Simpson said O’Regan was a giant of Irish journalism and was always a joy to hear on the airwaves. “Forever emphasising the human nature of politics, even the most complex story became accessible”.

That ability to make politics interesting led to his regular appearance on current affairs shows on RTÉ, Newstalk and TV3, now Virgin Media. He particularly enjoyed appearing on programmes hosted by Vincent Browne and Pat Kenny. He was at one time a stand-in presenter for Kenny on his Newstalk show. “I remember having many a verbal joust with Vincent Browne and both of us giving as good as we got,” he recalled. Browne said there was never a risk of radio silence when O’Regan was in the studio. “And I say that in a friendly way. He was always a valuable participant in any television or radio show.”

O’Regan also appeared on Radio Kerry’s Call From the Dáil slot on the Kerry Today show, where he would provide a lively retelling of the week’s political events. “He was always incredibly fair in his telling of it and had a wicked sense of humour which was the perfect thing to bring it all together,” said Fiona Stack, Radio Kerry’s general manager.

Many tributes to him praised his sense of fairness. He told Maurice O’Keeffe that every journalist had their own opinions but “you have to stand back and be professional. I hope I did that”. When he retired, his former colleague and editor Geraldine Kennedy said he was never accused of being biased. “He was always seen as fair.”

This was echoed in the tributes which came from across the political divide. President Michael D Higgins said O’Regan was from a school of journalism that prioritised context, so his writing was always supported by significant research. “Michael was always warm and engaging in conversation on the many topics which were for discussion. He was incredibly courteous, and a perfect judge of when an injection of the humour, upon which he drew from his proud Kerry background, was needed,” Mr Higgins said.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin remembered him as “an outstanding journalist, raconteur and man of integrity. A political journalist for all of my Dáil career, Michael was engaging, objective, and great company”.

Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly was his friend and together they fretted that their Kerry characters were being diluted the longer they spent in Dublin. NUJ secretary Séamus Dooley said he was “a man of wisdom, kindness, humour. He could be provocative, even annoying, but never dull – the very best of company. He loved story telling. It was what he did best”.

O’Regan was diagnosed with a tumour in his leg in July 2018 and this was followed by kidney failure and multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. He never complained about his run of ill-health and remained stoical. His illness meant he was unable to vote in the presidential election that saw Michael D Higgins re-elected, marking the first time he had ever missed a chance to use his vote.

He retired from The Irish Times in 2019 but continued his broadcasting work. With more time on his hands, he enjoyed his role as a doting grandfather. He also took to posting on Twitter, now X, with gusto and mischievously promoted “Kexit” – his vision of Kerry gaining independence from Ireland. Publicly he brushed off personal abuse from mainly anonymous trolls, and accusations that he was a government propagandist, but privately he said the vitriol was so terrible he had considered leaving the social media platform. But he stuck with it because it allowed him to promote the Kerry Association.

His election as president of the association was a memorable moment for him. The association said he was a proud Kerryman to his core. “Michael understood that all politics was local and he never lost his sense of place and pride and love of his áit dúchais which made him a wonderful ambassador for his county and his county people,” it said.

In 2019, he wrote about his cancer diagnosis in this newspaper. Despite getting cancer twice, he said there was no room for self-pity when he considered the plight of younger cancer patients. “I was in my 60s, having had a relatively privileged life and many years of good health,” he wrote.

He was his usual ebullient self last Friday when he appeared on Radio Kerry and was still tweeting the day before he died, praising political colleagues for their work and celebrating the Kerry women’s football team for achieving a draw with Mayo.

It would have pleased him greatly to see that an article about him was the most read story on The Irish Times website on Monday, and his name was trending on Twitter all day.

Despite his ill health, he retained his optimism. “Well, the dialysis continues,” he wrote in that Irish Times article. “I have finished chemotherapy but am still on medication. I feel I am over the worst.”

He is survived by his former wife Elizabeth, daughters Deirdra and Alyson, sons-in-law, grandchildren Luna and Levi, siblings Gerard, Marie, Frank and Eilish, and extended family.