One of the best-known photographers, the late Micheal Jack O’Donnell passed away last weekend after a long illness.
Brian McDaid worked with him in the Donegal Democrat from the 1980s to the 90s. This week he shares a short history and some of the craic that was enjoyed in his company.
Did you ever try that one sir? “What’s that Bob – how far can you kick a ball in your bare feet’ Bob replied “Get off your shoes boys and I’ll go and get two balls for you.”
Moments before that the three of us were sitting along the banking of the River Finn in the training pitch alongside Mac Cumhaill Park waiting for the Donegal team who were training behind closed doors in the main pitch.
Both John Foy and Micheal ‘Jack’ O’Donnell were handy footballers in their day. ‘Go on you first’ ‘nah you go first’, Bob went first and much as Michael’s kick was a good one, John put his ball further down the training pitch.
“Best of three” Michael called, go on get them balls again Brian. Just then the Donegal team poured out of the tunnel and the two boys scampered to get their socks and shoes on again to get a few photos before the team headed home.
Things had changed over the years. Micheal would have felt insulted had this been ten years before that local papers would be locked out of a Donegal training evening. The two boys were passionate about sport all their lives. When I started taking pictures for the paper, the late John Foy who was affectionately known as Bob, was the sports photographer for the Donegal People’s Press and was a former Finn Harps player in his day.
His day job was a night porter in Jackson’s Hotel which freed him up to cover sport both Gaelic and his first love soccer by day. Micheal Jack O’ Donnell was the Democrat Sports photographer, a proud Glenties man who played Gaelic for his parish Naomh Conaill in his youth.
That night sitting on the banking the thought crossed my mind of the changes that happen in the development of photography and the buying up of newspaper titles meant that I was there to do what was once both their jobs for the Donegal People’s Press and the Donegal Democrat now all one bought up many times by different buyers.
It was supposed to make them more efficient but at the same time killing off a piece of them that made them unique. Bob was now covering this marking for the Derry People and Donegal News and Micheal Jack, who gave up his job with the Post and Telegraphs to work for the Donegal Democrat in the 1980s, was now working for the Donegal Post.
I would say the three of us that evening would have liked things to never have changed from the good old days happy with what we knew worked with the people that we worked within the newspapers for years, but that was never to be.
On weeks like this, I feel lucky to have saved a few old broadsheet copies of the Donegal Democrat. It’s my one connection with years gone by when I worked with the late Micheal Jack O’Donnell that sadly passed away this week.
I worked out of the Letterkenny office and mainly worked on news and a bit of sport, Micheal Jack O’ Donnell was our number one sports photographer. He covered mainly GAA and a bit of news. My first sport was rallying so my ‘Donegal’ and Michael Jack’s Donegal ‘was two different creeds. Micheal gave me his big sporting lens one year to covering the Donegal Rally, I remember him saying to make sure and don’t break the windscreen in that old lens with those loose chips on rally weekend sir.
The late Cecil King, the owner and the sports editor at the time Gerry McDermott were important team players in the development of the illustration side through photography of sport in the paper. It was harder to know what to leave out from the envelope of photos that Michael would send into the paper from the matches every week such was the quality of his work.
On a week like this it’s a photo with Micheal Jack in it is the one I treasure the most. Him with Martin McHugh in Donegal town at the 1992 reunion but him with Jim is his favourites.
“Hey McDaid, get a picture of us two Glenties men for the Democrat,” and I can still hear the joy in his voice, him as proud as punch, to the side of him the national press agency stood back and waited, in Croke Park.
This was Micheal’s proudest day with his fellow townsman Jim Mc Guinness, the now Donegal Manager on his journey which Micheal would have documented with pictures along the way. In Jim McGuinness’s book Jim mentioned Micheal Jack O’Donnell a few times. It was Michael who attended all the training nights on the run up to 1992 and would wait to give the young exhausted McGuinness a lift home falling asleep before they got as far as Fintown. Over the weekend I searched a few old hard drives for this photo and had nearly given up. Then on the night before the funeral I found it, that smile beaming out at my lens over his shoulder and another camera in the other hand.
It snowed on the 4th of May on Meenaroy, the day that Glenties Photographer Micheal Jack O’ Donnell was laid to rest. While most would be thinking of running for cover that’s the time Micheal Jack would be producing a beautiful photo speckled with snow at one of his many outside studio’s (better known to us as football pitches). Micheal wasn’t a fair weather photographer be it in good weather or when we were winning, he was there all the time wet gear on standby.
The master in action
An old cutting from 1993 from a soaking Clones reminded me of Micheal’s talent. It’s a picture taken in poor weather of Joyce Mc Mullen in the pouring rain slogging it out with Fergal Mc Cusker in an Ulster Final. His pictures anchored the sport pages, full of the atmosphere of Donegal’s big days, good and not so good. They backed up the words scribes like ‘The Follower’ and all the journalists who made the sport news back in the days. In that 93 paper too was a photo by Micheal Jack of his brother Dessie in action.
And then there was Abbeycartron! A sport marking in Co Longford that both Micheal and myself turned up to cover for the same paper, the Donegal Democrat. I still can hear Micheal say to me ‘sure it’s not our fault that we’re double booked’ “sure you cover the match and I’ll get a few offbeat photos and let them boys in Ballyshannon sort it out.” For anyone that has never been to Abbeycartron soccer pitch which was the former grounds of Longford Town.
Abbeycartron had to be the tightest pitch, space-wise in the league of Ireland in those days. Even the stands would only take two deep! Micheal started to get his lens he would use for the GAA set up on the tripod and the hood on it but after a couple of near misses nearly kneecapping the linesman he decided to pack up the big lens and switch to an older and smaller 105mm F2 prime lens that he had since he started taking photos for the Democrat.
Finn Harps, who were on a good run of games at the time, were on the road to a possible promotion but they didn’t produce the results on that day- but Micheal Jack did. The following Thursday when the Democrat came out Micheal produced a beautiful study of Finn Harps Manager Patsy McGowan, fingers pointing and fists waving finished off with one of Patsy posing for Micheal with a smile. That for me summed up the talent that Micheal Jack had week in week out recording Donegal’s sporting efforts and their travels.
On Tuesday morning the streets were full of great memories about Micheal as we spaced ourselves out and waited to say goodbye to a good friend and workmate. The blue and white flags were out for a passionate Naomh Conaill man as his heartbroken family walked with Micheal out of his beloved Glenties for the last time.
The shutter on his camera is now silent and the mirror in the prism of his camera has come to its rest.
His photos will be remembered for years to come anywhere from lighting sam or taking part in the Kellogg’s Cul Camp, for Micheal it made no difference.
Rest easy my friend.