GAA Football

Tribute to leading Donegal photographer Michael ‘Jack' O'Donnell

LIFETIME OF MEMORIES: Michael O’Donnell, who passed away on Saturday, shared the ups and downs with the Donegal county teams during his 40 years as a leading photographer. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Gerry McLaughlin

The great Michael "Jack" O'Donnell passed away at 4.30pm on Saturday after a brave battle with illness

He was the “King” of sports snappers in Donegal and one of Ulster and Ireland's best-ever photographers – but you would never know it.

He was grounded, witty, feisty earthy, neither looked up or down on anyone and always knew who he was – a proud Ard Patrick, Naomh Conaill and Donegal man.

Even though we knew things were not good it is hard to believe that we will no longer see those darting dark eyes full of mirth and mischief and hear those lightning one-liners that stayed in the press box long after he was gone.

Dressed in black, the long lens and the black leggings for the weather and that great Zapata moustache that gave him a gravitas that he was totally unaware of.

In life, he overcame difficulties but always with a smile and a bon mot.

He was also a great story-teller and had all the social graces and great time for the vulnerable.

And this writer learned so much from him about how to put people at their ease before getting the pic of all pics, "Jack" loved people and they loved him and only he could get away with those epic captions in the Donegal Post.

Nobody loved his county more and nobody did more to promote it through the lens and there will never be another like him

But he was also a master craftsman, often staying up until 4am sorting out the perfect shot.

His photographs were as clear as a summer sky and he had the ability to get the great shot… time after time.

He produced some magnificent sports pics, and he has left a priceless social history of the GAA and his native county in his 40 years behind the lens.

Though hugely gifted and a great asset, there wasn’t a materitalistic bone in his body.

In his earlier youth, he was a bit like Michael “Jack” the Mexican with a Zapata moustache, a camera hanging from his neck and two dark eyes dancing with devilment.

And from 1981 to around the mid Noughties his sports pictures adorned the pages of the Donegal Democrat.

In more recent years his pictures lit up the Donegal Post and he was a regular contributor to the Irish News and many other national publications.

For he has always had the eye for the quirky, those silent moments when we reveal who we really are, and Michael “Jack” has captured so many of these treasures in 40 years behind the camera.

They are all there, wonderful sharp black and white photographs and memories of Tir Conaill in all its magnificent moods, the ecstasy of All-Ireland triumphs, the sorrow of narrow defeats, the laughter of friends who share a bon mot.

It could also be a sunset that caught his artistic eye and there is a mighty one of Matt Gallagher standing tall, the man behind the wire at the Canal End before his people, at Croke Park, with his hand raised in triumph after Donegal defeated the Dubs in 1992.

And there is also that wonderful moment when the gods smiled on Tir Conaill and Michael “Jack’ forgot the camera to do a tango of sheer delight with Declan Bonner, on that same sacred Sunday evening in September.

And there was nobody prouder when his Ard Patrick neighbour Jim McGuinness took Donegal to another Sam Maguire Cup in 2012.

But the county final victories of his native Glenties in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2019 were his greatest days of joy.

Slán go Fóill a Chomradaí, and I just know we will meet again in a place where there is no more pain, and the sickle moon is an angel's wing.


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