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Sunday 23 March 2008

Una O'Donoghue

Little ball of gaiety made the dullest sparkle, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I was reading an interview with a Hindu prodigy the other day who produced a line that shouted out Una O'Donoghue to me: "You should have a very rich heart, then you have a very rich human". And what a rich heart our beloved, cherishing, life-enhancing, hilarious Una had, along with a sense of mischief that infected everyone around her. As a mutual friend said the other day, "All I ever wanted socially was to be near Una, because it guaranteed I'd have a great time."

All by herself, this little ball of gaiety and irreverence could lift any gathering and make the dullest sparkle. Her wit was effortless. "My computer keeps saying: 'Don't show me this again'," she observed. "That's not what they used to say to me when I was young. Au contraire!"

As I was writing this, a friend emailed: "Just been told about Una. I'm really sorry. She was a doll and very kind to me. What happened? She was bloody bursting with life." Jason is half Una's age, and met her only twice, but she had that effect on people of all ages, not least because she was interested in everyone: our friendship began when I was 12 and she was 19. When Una, who was born in 1936, spoke of her nine grandchildren, all of whom she adored, she brought them alive with their quirks and their repartee. As with all children, including those to whom she once taught history in Sallynoggin, she treated them like grown-ups -- showing them respect but teaching them how to laugh at themselves.

Although disorganised, unpunctual and, she would say, fabulously lazy, Una went to enormous trouble to cherish her family, her friends and, indeed, any strays they brought with them. Her kitchen might be awash with dirty dishes, but there would be something delicious in the oven and champagne in the fridge.

As a confidante, she was unparalleled, because she was unshockable, wise and full of empathy and such a mistress of black comedy that one ended up laughing at misfortune. Her favourite story about the time she had breast cancer was of our friend Eadaoin's first words when she arrived to visit: "You're looking great, Una. Cancer suits you."

After I had told her that the Irish writer, Charles Handy, divided people into drains and radiators, she sent me from Spain a postcard of an utterly hideous shivering crone hunched up by a radiator with the message, "Is this what you mean about me being a radiator?"

In a dark year, when her husband John, the broadcaster, had a most terrible series of hospital-acquired diseases, with the help of their four daughters Una kept him alive through what seemed to be pure willpower. She wasn't able to do the same for herself, although this gallant little creature succeeded until the last week in kidding herself and everyone else that what was terminal cancer were just aches and pains.

She died, said the press notice, "to the devastation of her family and friends". And how, Una. And how!

Una O'Donoghue

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards