Derek Mooney tells Kay Doyle about his life and career at RTÉ which dates back to the early 1980s, and how he remains as passionate as ever about his radio show which has brought so many listeners closer to nature and wildlife in a fun and entertaining way
The rich scent of an Irish harvest being reaped hangs on the air of a pleasant autumnal morning, and Derek Mooney has just returned from a visit to County Louth, to the home of his show’s resident beekeeper, Philip McCabe.
On one hand, Derek kick starts some pre-lunch salivation as he champions the merits of natural honey (for many Irish people, truly ‘nectar from the gods’), while on the other he imparts the alarming news that the Asian hornet has infiltrated its way into Ireland, and the dangers that it poses for our honeybees.
Listeners to his Mooney Goes Wild radio show, which airs on Monday nights, are well aware of how ‘at one with nature’ the effervescent Dubliner is ever since he delivered his popular Saturday morning offering Habitats – his first venture into wildlife programmes – over twenty years ago.
Derek is fresh from a return to daytime radio where he recently filled in for Ryan Tubridy, and as we chat the memories come flooding back from his career with the national broadcaster that stretches back to the early 1980s. From the age of eleven he knew that he wanted to work in RTÉ, and the youngster quickly devised a plan to get his foot in the door.
“Joe O’Donnell was the head of young people’s programming at the time,” says Derek. “I used to write to him and drive him mad. Eventually he invited me in to have a look around while programmes like Bosco and Murphy’s Micro Quiz M were being made.
For me it was a dream come true, especially when you consider that I used to sit at home watching The Late Late Show and visualise myself presenting it!”
Derek grew up in Donnybrook back in the day when it held a ‘village-like feel’, at odds with the sprawling urban abyss. His parents had six children, and they all sauntered the streets safely, secure in the knowledge that everybody knew everybody else. Even the school which he attended, St. Mary’s, only had 32 students on its books when he graduated.
A famous landmark in Donnybrook in the 1980s was a bakery called Quinlan’s, and Derek used to help his brother, Colm, deliver bread there, just for the conversations that he would strike up with the staff and customers. Young Derek’s interest in talking and interacting with people was a trait that would stand to him in later years.
“I was huge into sport as a teenager. I was captain of the junior team of the Donore Harriers Athletic Club up in Islandbridge, and I was also Dublin high jump champion,” he explains.
“I also used to referee soccer games every weekend. It was pocket money. I used to get paid four or eight pounds a match depending on which league you were doing, and that was a lot of money in 1985.
“But my organisational skills outshone my skills on the football field. When I was fifteen, I used to run the old folks club in Donnybrook. Bingo was held every Friday night, which turned out to be perfect training for Winning Streak when it eventually came along. I knew songs like ‘She wears red feathers and a hooly hooly skirt’…and all these little old ladies used to come along and have a great night. I was only young, but I didn’t have any age barrier in my head when it came to talking to people.”
Back at RTÉ, Derek was making a name for himself as a very capable and reliable young man, working as a runner on sports programmes such as Saturday Sport. He picked up little nuggets of advice from a string of “gentlemen presenters” such as Liam Nolan, Jim Sherwin, Jimmy Magee and Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, to name a few, whose inspirational words prepared him for when his big break would eventually come.
“One day, Paddy Glackin sent me over to The Yacht pub in Clontarf during the Italia 90 World Cup. Ronan Collins was doing a live show, and I was sent to do telephone reactions to some of the games,” Derek recalls.
“I had never done anything like this before but I used to hound Paddy for jobs, and he told me to go over and do this and see how I would get on. I had a taste of what it was like ‘going live’ and I loved it!”