Daire Brehan: Dancer, actress and barrister, and broadcaster on Radio 5 and the World Service
Her 'Pick of the World' show on the BBC was listened to by around 30 million people
Saturday 01 September 2012
Despite having her life curtailed by cancer at the age of 55, Daire Brehan squeezed in several distinctive and successful careers. She started off as a show dancer, and was later an actress in her native Ireland. In the 1990s she became a popular BBC radio presenter after answering a humorous Irish newspaper ad looking for "the new Terry Wogan". Diagnosed with cancer in 1999, she returned to the Law, which she had studied 20 years earlier, and became a barrister both in the UK and in Ireland. In the last few years, she worked part-time as a popular health and fitness "complementary therapist." She also became a qualified London tour guide, which in 2009 won her the Freedom of the City of London with its quirky perks (see below). It was a shock to those who knew her that a lady of such talent, verve and fitness, who advocated healthy living, pain management and holistic treatments, should be cut down in her prime.
During the 1990s Brehan was one of BBC Radio's most prolific presenters, perhaps best-known for Radio 4's The Afternoon Shift; for Radio 5 or 5 Live programmes including Nightcall; and not least for the BBC World Service, where, from Bush House, her programme Pick of the World was listened to by 30 million people. At the peak of her radio career at the turn of the millennium, when she was first diagnosed with cancer, her voice, warm, rich in tone and conversational in style, was being heard somewhere on BBC Radio every weekday, and in every world time zone. She described her own accent as "posh Dublin."
During her tenure on The Afternoon Shift she chaired hundreds of discussions on wildly disparate subjects. She was equally at home doing searching interviews with the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wole Soyinka, pioneering heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard or Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Independent on Sunday's then radio critic, Sue Gaisford, wrote: "Brehan particularly is a fine, dispassionate interviewer, allowing guests ample time to air their views and unobtrusively bringing them back to the point when they wander." What listeners could not see was a handsome woman, tall and slim, with blue eyes under a mop of red curls, who cut a striking figure in a long black coat and black, flat-brimmed Cordoban hat as she swept in and out of the BBC buildings.
Daire Mary-Assumpta Veronica Holahan was born in Dublin in 1957, the third of four children of civil servant parents who separated when she was eight. She studied Legal Science at Trinity College and was the All-Ireland Debating Champion before opting for the theatre and changing her surname to Brehan. It was in her Dominican Convent school in Dun Laoghaire, and at Trinity, that she first showed the characteristics she would display in her legal and radio careers: an inquiring mind, a fierce intelligence, verbal fluency, a highly developed sense of justice and a gaelic taste for a good argument. While she was still at school her mother sent her to elocution lessons, as well as classes in drama and dance, where she excelled in ballet, tap and "modern" dancing.
Soon after graduating from Trinity, she chose acting over law and in 1983 won a scholarship to study acting and directing in Poland with Kazimierz Braun, Artistic Director of the Contemporary Theatre of Wroclaw. The same year, she married the Polish actor and director Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski. Returning to Ireland in 1984, the couple founded the award-winning company Theatre Unlimited in Kilkenny, with Brehan acting in many productions inspired by modern Eastern European theatre or Irish cultural tradition. She also acted on television, winning fine reviews as Emma in the 1984 TV film Raic, set in 1940s Connemara, and as Cara Blair in the Irish series Inside in 1985-86.
In 1987 she answered the offbeat ad (not from the BBC) which read: "Do you want to be the new Terry Wogan?" She was taken on by RTE Radio One, speaking into a radio microphone for the first time on her 30th birthday in August 1987. She went on to present programmes including Sounding Out and Brehan's Law, the latter drawing on her earlier legal training.
In 1990, when the new BBC Radio 5 was searching for fresh voices, Brehan, having moved to London, quickly became one of their regular reporters, providing features for the citizen-help programme Sound Advice and for Johnnie Walker's AM Alternative. When it became 5Live in 1994 she hosted its late Sunday phone-in Nightcall but moved soon afterwards to Radio 4's You and Yours, where her experience of consumer broadcasting, underpinned by the disciplines of her law degree, were put to use. But it was the demise of Radio 4's Anderson Country that provided her best opportunity. She occasionally stood in for Gerry Anderson, and when the show was replaced by The Afternoon Shift in 1995, Brehan presented Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, Laurie Taylor Mondays and Fridays.
After it ended in 1998, she continued to present for BBC World Service and briefly for RTE Lyric FM, but, with her radio work overshadowed by ill-health, she returned to the Law. She was called to the UK Bar in 2002 and to the Bar of Ireland in 2005, practising as a criminal barrister. She was the founder and honorary secretary of the Inner Temple Residents' Association.
Having received her ITEC diploma in Holistic Massage in 2006, she went on to achieve diplomas in Lymphatic Drainage Massage and Sports Massage. Pilates was recommended to her for the treatment of osteoarthritis and in 2007 she obtained her OCR certificates in Fitness, Exercise and Pilates instruction. Among the health centres she gave classes in was Robert Lowe's Sports Centre, St George's, at the University of London, where she taught until her health deteriorated late last year.
Fluent in Polish, she maintained her interest in theatre and, having been divorced in 2004, married the Irish actor Dave Marsden in 2009. Instead of wedding gifts, they "adopted" the village of Damaang (population 150) in Ashanti, Ghana, asking friends to help them pay for health, hygiene and household latrines.
After serving as a part-time tour guide in London she was given the Freedom of the City in 2009. She was as proud as she was amused that she now had the right to drive sheep across London Bridge, walk the streets with drawn sword and be drunk and disorderly, all without fear of arrest. She had not yet decided in which order to exercise these rights before illness robbed her of the chance. She is survived by her husband Dave and the two daughters from her first marriage, Klara and Niamh.
Daire Mary-Assumpta Veronica Holahan (Daire Brehan), actress, broadcaster, barrister and health and fitness instructor: born Dublin 7 August 1957; married 1983 Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski (divorced 2004; two children), 2009 Dave Marsden; died London 30 August 2012.
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