For Donal

Dec 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Donal Broughan died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack at his Mountrath home at 5 am yesterday.  To attempt to encapsulate his  character in words would involve a vocabulary that has become platitudinous, and Donal did not like platitudes.

My first encounter with him was in August 2010, he appeared at a Wednesday evening service in Borris-in-Ossory. His prayer book made his presence immediately noticeable amongst the dozen regulars – while we had ordinary, green covered books, Donal had a red covered deluxe edition!  At the end of those midweek services, he would often have a battery of questions, regarding the sermon and wider theological matters.

Donal was a polymath, wide ranging and diverse in his competencies; reflecting on mediaeval philosophy at one moment and 1960s rock music the next; delighting in the natural world and then turning to DIY.  Whatever he did, he did it meticulously, his Saturday morning RTE radio programme was never a gathering together of a few records, every item was researched and prepared with care.

Donal had an incisive mind, never content with sloppy answers or arguments that lacked coherence.  He would read posts here and occasionally feel compelled to comment.  On 18th October last year, he was prompted to react to my suggestion there would be no more Protestant poets.  Donal believed I was mistaken, his comments included a quote from a great Welsh poet:

I’m sure you are familiar with one of the greatest lyric poets of the 20th century; and certainly one of the greatest religious poets of all time, the Anglican priest R. S. Thomas. So, this is for anybody who might stop by and who hasn’t read him:

The Belfry

I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One’s whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

Despite a hugely paradoxical personality, he wrote with ferocious honesty and stark clarity about nature and about the nature of the human soul. His ‘Collected Poems’ is a constant bedside companion.

Donal was always more charitable to the church than I, and more conciliatory in his assessment of the relationship between theological reflection and scientific fact.  If Donal knew his Anglican poets, he also knew his Anglican scientists and was dismissive of a suggestion that there might be no point in the church’s existence, in a comment last April, he observed:

While it is fascinating knowing about how the universe works, it has no direct implications for theology. Why there is something instead of nothing isn’t a scientific question at all. To paraphrase Rev Professor John Polkinghorne – God is as much the Creator today as God was 13.7 billion years ago.

There’s a worldview offered by an Anglican priest that is part of the reality I experience, so I see every point in the church’s existence.

The soft voice and gentle questions have gone, and at his funeral tomorrow no poem or song or reflection will be adequate.

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  1. Such a sweet post for someone who sounds like a gentle man. It’s always so sad when someone dies at Christmas. How wonderful to have soft voices and gentle questions…rare commodities these days.

  2. I shared a number of classes with Donal in Secondary school at Oatlands College, Stillorgan, Co Dublin in the early seventies. He was constantly inquiring, delving deeper and was often frustrated with the teacher’s responses. I used to find it wildly amusing in a charming way. One day he held his arms out in exasperation to the teacher and exclaimed ‘But why!’ -“Look Broughan, you’ll learn ‘why’ next year” – came the sidestepped reply.

    I had, like we all do, been meaning to make contact, if only to tell him how much I enjoyed his early morning Saturday shows – such a well thought-out eclectic, catholic mix of styles, genres, traditions – always seeing the beauty and wonderment in all strands.

    My kindest thoughts to his wife, family and friends

  3. I was listening to Donal’s show last Saturday AM and am really shocked to hear of his passing. His radio presenting style focused on the musuic rather than himself and featured artists who were unlikely to get radio exposure in many other quarters.
    My sincerest sypathy to his family and friends.
    May he rest in peace.
    A fellow broadcaster.

  4. Donal was my friend for over 30 years
    He was a gentle, honest and reflective person. His lovely family and music were his dual passions.
    We met first when we were in a band together – the Noise Boys – in 1978. He was a fine singer and frontman who even upstaged Ian Dury one night at the Olympic Ballroom. As life went on his mellow voice became an early morning feature in RTE as did his perfect taste in music of whatever genre. He just did not have it in him to present bad music – he felt it too much
    We played guitar and sang together for the past 20 years just for pure fun. He’d bring a song, I’d bring a song and the time would just fly by.
    He’ll be hugely missed

  5. Like so many I just stumbled into his early Sat morning programme; I marvelled at the breadth of his musical sensibility. I did’nt always like what he played but the assurance with which he introduced it often won me over, shook me out of my comfort zone, so to speak. I liked him. I was sad to hear, on Sat morning, of his passing. God Bless him.

  6. I went looking for Donal’s programme tonight and was so saddened to find out that Donal had died. My thoughts are with his family at this sad time. I so enjoyed his early morning programme – living in Belfast – there was something in his show that brought me back to my early morning listening to Rte with my father in Donegal in the 1970’s. I loved Donal’s voice, his thoughts and the beautiful music he brought to us. He will be missed. X

  7. I listened when at work on saturday mornings, I will miss him greatly, he was my introduction to much eclectic music. My sympathy to his family.

  8. Donal was very welcoming to me when I visited his home- what a kind man he was(and an awesome cook!)
    How very sad to learn of his death.
    My sympathy to his wonderful wife and sons.
    Jayne Chase
    Florence, AL USA

  9. I only learned this morning of his death. I feel sad and am thinking quite selfishly, that I will really miss my Saturday morning oasis of music. He had the ability to draw listeners in and make us feel we were part of his tribe.

    My sincere condolences to his family. Thank you for sharing him with us.

    I think though, that Donal has given us another parting gift by mentioning RS Thomas. I read that poem and as with so many of Donal’s recommendations it has sent me off on a trail of discovery I would never have imagined.

    Thank you

  10. It is a year tomorrow – 19th December – since my friend Donal Broughan passed away. Suddenly and at great loss to all who knew him. I simply want to mark his anniversary and hope that he will be remembered fondly tomorrow, mainly as a good man, a champion of great music and someone who always valued his fellow travellers equally. I will sing a few songs in his memory this Christmas.

    Tim McStay

  11. On this anniversary, I tried to find words from R.S. Thomas that seemed appropriate.

    Given Donal’s deep faith, I chose ‘The Other’.

    There are nights that are so still
    that I can hear the small owl calling
    far off and a fox barking
    miles away. It is then that I lie
    in the lean hours awake listening
    to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic
    rising and falling, rising and falling
    wave on wave on the long shore
    by the village that is withoutlight
    and companionless. And the thought comes
    of that other being who is awake, too,
    letting our prayers break on him,
    not like this for a few hours,
    but for days, years, for eternity.

  12. Four years today since Donal passed
    He is not forgotten and always fondly remembered by those who knew him
    My thoughts are with his lovely family today

    When he left us in 2011 I penned a few amateur lines of reflection which I hope its OK to share now

    The Dreary Distance

    The ticking clock
    The passage of time
    The dreary distance between then and now

    The too fast retrospection
    The sadness becoming fact
    And all the while the purpose disappearing

    It’s too much judge
    And not enough jury
    It’s too soon for such a good life
    Too soon for orators and dark cold ground

    I see oldness in eyes that should be young
    And music chased out the door from willing dancers
    Tim Mc Stay 22.12.2011

  13. Thank you, Tim. Each time I hear RTE on a Saturday morning before the eight o’clock news, I think of Donal and the thoroughness with which he chose his music.

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