In Memory of Donagh O’Donoghue (1944–2021)

The death of Donagh O’Donoghue last month has been greeted with sadness across our university – but there have also been many expressions of admiration and gratitude for him too. His successes in business in Galway have rightly been celebrated, and his support for Druid Theatre and his contributions to our university have also been highlighted. Those are important legacies and they will reverberate for a long time to come.

But for those of us in Drama and Theatre Studies at the university, our primary link with Donagh is of course through the building that bears his family’s name: the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, which was built with Donagh’s philanthropic support, opening in April 2017.  

Since learning the sad news of Donagh’s loss, I’ve been thinking a lot about the formal opening of that building, a day full of great memories. There was the speech by President Michael D. Higgins to open the building, and Donagh’s own speech in response. There were performances by students, exhibitions from local theatre-makers, many meetings of friends and families. I remember it as an occasion full of laughter and happiness.

But one of my strongest memories of that opening day happened very fleetingly. I’d taken a short-cut through one of the classrooms to get to the foyer, where the speeches were about to begin – and I had to walk past two Drama students, who were gazing from the classroom door towards the stage. One of them caught my eye. “Is that Donagh O’Donoghue,” he whispered, pointing to the platform where Donagh himself was seated. When I said that it was, both students nodded their heads in admiration.

That was a small moment in a big day – but, thinking about it later, I realised that it captured perfectly the significance of what Donagh achieved by enabling the construction of the O’Donoghue Centre. He was not just supporting “the university” as an abstract entity; he was doing something that would literally change the lives of hundreds of students for the better. When new students arrive at the O’Donoghue Centre for the first time, they always tell us that they feel inspired: they know that someone believed in them, that someone felt that their future could be brighter if given the support of a dedicated Drama centre. That gives them huge confidence in themselves.

And what seemed to matter most to those two students at the opening event was that Donagh had once been where they were: that he’d been a student at NUI Galway too – a student who had staged plays, who had led the Drama Society, and who had used his time at this university as a springboard for great things. He gave those students a firm sense of their own potential, their own possibilities.

During the recent COVID-19 lockdown, I’d learned a bit more about Donagh’s own time with Drama at the university: we’d been speaking about plans to develop a history of the university’s Drama Society, focussing on the period of the 1950s and 1960s, when Donagh himself was a student here. This enabled me to form a much better sense of how that generation of students laid the groundwork for much that followed, including the emergence of Druid Theatre a decade later.

Barry Houlihan of the Hardiman Library has recently been able to uncover further evidence of that phenomenon in a minute book of the Drama Society’s activities from 1966, when Donagh was the society’s director. In his annual report for that year, Donagh had noted the loss of Professor Diarmaid Murphy, a professor of English who had done much to support theatre in Galway. The Drama Society’s debt to Prof. Murphy was, Donagh wrote, ‘irredeemable’. In that same report, Donagh also praised a production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, produced by Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh. ‘It aroused the student body from its apathy,’ he noted, approvingly.  

Fifty-five years later, those words seem to capture a great deal about Donagh, from his sense of appreciation of others (evident in his tribute to Prof. Murphy) to his belief that, for students and the world more generally, theatre at its best can be the enemy of apathy.  

People have very fond memories of Donagh O’Donoghue, and during the last month I’ve heard many people speak about his wit, the incisiveness of his judgement, and his generosity. But his contribution Drama at NUI Galway has been particularly immense. As a student, he did a huge amount to make the Drama Society the successful extra-curricular enterprise that our students so excel in now. More recently, he also made possible the establishment of Drama as an academic subject in the university. He has also made it possible for the university to stage professional art on-campus: the O’Donoghue Centre has already staged the world premiere of new work by Enda Walsh, a concert by Christy Moore, a new Irish play by Rough Magic Theatre Company, and much more. The growing impact of that influence will be felt for a very long time to come.

All of us from Drama at NUI Galway will miss him, and we extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Marcia and to the rest of the O’Donoghue family. But we also feel gratitude: it will be a privilege to be able to continue to tell people – with pride and enthusiasm, and for years to come – that we teach in the O’Donoghue Centre, a building that, thanks to Donagh, is not just a place, but a symbol – a symbol of belief in the theatre, in the university, and in the brightness of our students’ future.

Patrick Lonergan

Patrick Lonergan is Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway, and is based at the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance.