Dermot O’Neill: Deeply respected “gentleman” gardener, entertainer, writer and cook, “with a passion for what he did – and very kind to it”

Dermot O’Neill, described as “one of Ireland’s most beloved gardening personalities”, died suddenly but peacefully at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin on July 1, aged 58. A prominent contributor to radio and television programs on RTÉ and BBC Northern Ireland, he has also contributed to a wide range of newspapers and magazines including the Sunday Independent, RTÉ Guide and specialist gardening publications.

‘Neill grew up in Blackrock, Co Dublin and was educated at Christian Brothers College near Monkstown. His grandmother encouraged him to take an interest in gardening from an early age, showing him how to grow and care for plants from seed.

Under this early guidance, he acquired a passion for horticulture which developed into a full-fledged career. He gave his first lecture on gardening at the age of 16 – an address to the Mothers’ Union on flower arranging.

Initially working at the Marlfield Garden Center in Cabinteely, Co Dublin, he moved on to the horticultural unit at University College Dublin.

In 1982 he appeared on RTÉ’s children’s programs and got a gardening slot on live togetherthe popular afternoon chat show hosted by Thelma Mansfield and the late Derek Davis.

He also contributed to The garden room, Open day and Today with Pat Kenny as well as tackling horticultural issues on Derek Mooney’s RTÉ Radio 1 programme. In 2008, he was a Saint Patrick’s Day guest on the hugely popular American television show, The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Besides gardening, another of his great passions was cooking for his friends and family, especially when it came to fresh vegetables that he himself had planted and grown.

He was a guest conductor on RTÉ television Restaurant on August 6, 2016, where the “Dermot Menu”, as it was known, included a choice of starters of fresh crab, asparagus and legume salad and potato rösti, followed by duck confit and sea bass optional roast for main course, washed down with white wine from France, red wine from Australia and Taittinger champagne.

Guest reviewer Jenny Bristow described it as “a spectacular meal”.

He also appeared on the travel show Time on their hands.

O’Neill fell ill in the summer of 2009. What initially appeared to be a recurrence of a stomach ulcer, requiring routine treatment, turned out to be stomach cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and he was ‘horrified and shocked’ to learn he should have started chemotherapy immediately because the cancer was growing so rapidly.

He “cried and cried and cried” when he received the diagnosis.

As he made his way to hospital in Dublin, he felt that “I may never get out of here again”.

His weight dropped dramatically and a hole was drilled in his skull to fight cancer cells growing in his skull and cerebrospinal fluid. Despite all the side effects, however, the treatment was successful.

He was treated at Beacon Hospital, Beaumont Hospital and St Vincent’s Private Hospital. He left hospital in March 2010 and said at the time: “Six months ago I really thought I was already dead.

It had indeed seemed that the end was near: “There were several times when I thought I was so sick that maybe I wouldn’t survive.

“These moments were very scary, but I made it through.” He lost all his body hair and his weight dropped four stones. He was very appreciative and grateful for the high quality medical treatment he received.

O’Neill believed his enthusiasm for gardening gave him the focus and determination to fight cancer. “It was very difficult, and that’s where the gardening helped a lot,” he said afterwards.

“It helped me think about the future, it was a great distraction. I had planted a lot of bulbs, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, and I was looking forward to seeing them bloom.

“I could visualize them growing and I had beautiful magnolias, which I knew would be fantastic when they came out.”

Despite the difficult nature of his treatment, he continued to film his RTÉ series, Dermot’s secret garden. Influenced by his experience with cancer, he was determined to make the garden as organic as possible, avoiding the use of chemicals as much as possible and wearing gloves to protect his skin. During his illness, O’Neill’s sense of smell and taste had fallen to zero and he was delighted to once again be able to enjoy the wonderful scents of the flowers in his garden.

The struggle to regain his health has become intertwined with the TV narrative about the restoration of a 19th century walled garden in Clondeglass, County Laois, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains.

He originally bought the garden and its adjoining cottage in 2001. “I had been looking for a walled garden for many years, they are rare,” he told the Leinster-expresssaying they were usually too expensive or in the wrong place.

In the summer of 2008, he presented the RTÉ series, great gardenin which he mentored five people from different backgrounds competing to create “a real garden with a real budget” for the 2009 Bloom Festival.

In April 2016, he received the ultimate honor for his profession when a new magnolia variety was named in his honor. On a visit to Waterford’s Mount Congreve Gardens in the 18th century, curator Michael White told him that a plant created from a seedling there was to be called Magnolia Cambellii ‘Dermot O’Neill’.

This was in recognition of his contribution to horticulture over the years. Delighted with the news, O’Neill said, “I’m honored, I’m really overwhelmed by this.”

His books and other publications include Clondeglass: create a paradise garden (with preface by Carol Klein), Dermot Gardens, Roses revealed, Learn about gardening, gardening tips and Creative gardening with Dermot O’Neill. He served on the council of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland and was a founding committee member of the Irish Garden Plant Society.

Dermot O’Neill died suddenly but peacefully, surrounded by his loving family, last Friday at St Vincent’s Hospital, Elm Park, Co Dublin. Predeceased by his parents, Peter and Maura (née Hall), he will be sadly missed by his sisters Carol and Louise, his brothers-in-law Robin and James, his nieces and nephews Ciara, Jack, Leon and Hannah and his great-nephew Pearse as well as other relatives and friends.

Resting last Friday evening at Larry Massey’s Funeral Home in Rathfarnham, his Requiem Mass was held for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Foxrock yesterday morning, followed by a cremation service in Mount Jerome Victorian Chapel, Harold’s Cross.

O’Neill was a patron of the homeless charity Threshold and, in lieu of flowers, mourners were asked to donate to the Capuchin Day Center for the homeless in Dublin.

Speaking on his morning radio show last Monday, Ryan Tubridy said Dermot O’Neill was a ‘highly regarded and deeply respected’ person who was much sought after as a guest on RTÉ programmes. They last met recently at their local supermarket in Blackrock: “He was a gentleman, a gentleman gardener, as you know, but he just loved, he had a passion for horticulture and for what he was doing, and very nice with it.”