The late Dermot O'Neill was one of the country’s most informed and best-loved gardeners. Donal O’Donoghue chronicles a life and a passion.
Some years back, during a public interview at Bloom, Dermot O’Neill invited me to feel the physical damage inflicted on him by illness. As I tentatively placed a finger on his skull – the gardener had undergone surgery for cancer – I could also feel the audience reaching out.
In that moment, I realised how much the broadcaster was loved (as well as his natural talent as a showman). Of course, I’d glimpsed this before, whether at the Botanic Gardens or amid the aisles of a horticultural centre or even out on the streets. People asked Dermot about battling greenfly or saving their roses as if quizzing a friend .That wasn’t surprising, as he had probably been part of their gardening lives since his TV debut in 1982.
Dermot O’Neill died unexpectedly on July 1. He was just 58 and had lived a life devoted to his passion, a TV celebrity (Live at Three, Open House, Dermot’s Secret Garden) who brought the outdoors into our homes and later dispensed invaluable advice on radio as a contributor to Derek Mooney’s show and The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk.
He was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland, was a founding committee member of the Irish Garden Plant Society and had a magnolia (Magnolia campbellii 'Dermot O’Neill’) and a rose named after him. Roses were his passion and his specialty, with his 2010 book, Roses Revealed showcasing his expertise and encyclopaedic knowledge of his top 200 varieties.
Dermot delivered his first gardening talk (on flower arranging) at the age of 16, before going on to a flourishing career as a gardening expert across TV and radio. On St Patrick’s Day 2008, he was interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey show while touring the US with Roses Revealed.
But his most personal TV project was Dermot’s Secret Garden. Over two seasons, he chronicled his restoration of Clondeglass walled garden in the foothills of Slieve Bloom, a garden he hoped to spend his latter years tending. The show also documented Dermot’s diagnosis with cancer and subsequent treatment. Afterwards, he would say how Clondeglass kept him going through the darkest times, days when all he could do was cry. While he subsequently had to sell the garden, the TV series remains his finest hour as a broadcaster.
He also published a number of books, was editor of Garden Heaven magazine and wrote a number of garden columns, including a long-running one with this magazine. In recent years, he contributed to the RTÉ Guide’s gardening supplement, Grow, offering tips and advice on everything from preparing for the rigours of winter to choosing the best tools for the job (Dermot was a big fan of copper: light, long-wearing and good for the soil).
Ever curious, he was always looking to learn, just as he was ever ready to dispense his wisdom, gleaned over the years from his beginnings working at Marlfield Garden Centre in Dublin with his garden hero, and mentor, Barney Johnson.
Back in the day, the RTÉ Guide photographer, John Cooney, would accompany Dermot on an annual pilgrimage to the Chelsea Flower Show, afterwards regaling me with tales from the herbaceous borders of SW3. "We’d be up at cockcrow to be first in the door," John recalls. "Dermot was a great man in wangling his way into the best receptions with his call of ‘Irish press’, and so we got to hobnob with the great and the good of the gardening world."
Dermot also travelled far beyond Chelsea, lecturing in the US and hosting tours of the great gardens of Europe and Asia. No mean cook, he was one of the few contestants to garner a five-star review on the TV show, The Restaurant, but it was with a handful of soil he was most at home.
The last piece Dermot O’Neill penned for Grow magazine was a celebration of his love of roses. He listed his favourites (among them ‘Harry Edland’, ‘Zephirine Drouhin’ and ‘Fragrant Cloud’) and recalled how his passion was first cultivated by a rose-loving grandmother.
"I can remember as a young boy, around seven years of age or so, helping my grandmother tidy up her roses. I have wonderful memories of the roses growing in her garden."
That day at Bloom in 2017, Dermot was inevitably asked about roses, and afterwards, stepping from the stage, he was swallowed up by his congregation as they pitched their questions and asked after his health. The smile on his face was near-beatific, a man in his element among his own.