A beloved part of many an Irish childhood, the artist, author, and environmentalist Don Conroy tells Donal O’Keeffe why he loves his ‘abusive’ friend Dustin the Turkey, why big men hug him at festivals, and why he worries for Greta Thunberg.
Don Conroy is a busy man. “Juggling, juggling,” he says. “You know yourself.” He’s en route from Wicklow to Dublin when he stops to take a call from the Irish Examiner. He asks what the weather’s like in Cork — overcast between showers — and says cheerily he’s been driving through “summer downpours”.
For 25 years, Conroy was the one constant in an ever-changing roster of presenters on RTÉ’s The Den, where his joy in drawing and painting beamed off of childhood TV screens. A man of great talent, he never seemed happier than when he was sharing artistic tips and talking about his love of nature.
He feels events like this are very important; hardly surprising, given he has introduced generations of Irish children to environmentalism. “I’ve been getting the message out for a long time, even when it wasn’t very fashionable,” he says.
“There used to be headlines about me. ‘Don Is Strictly For The Birds’. I was described as someone who was harmless. Harmless? That’s the state of the Buddha, so I didn’t feel insulted!”
It takes a certain serenity to take the worst Irish put-down and wear it as a badge of honour. He laughs gently at the memory.
He feels blessed that his quarter-century on The Den made him part of so many childhoods. “Sometimes you meet people at festivals,” he says. “They’re 40 years old and suddenly they’re 10 again!
“They’ll say, ‘You drew a picture for me!’ and they’ll give me a hug. Big, strong, burly guys, you know? Or showing me their tattoos!”
Has anyone ever shown him a Don Conroy owl tattoo? “I actually have had people ask me to draw tattoos for them. I’ve done a few, but for the most part I don’t want to brand people with my images.”
It seems quite a compliment that Conroy’s artwork is so much part of some people’s lives that they would want to wear it on their bodies. He laughs, a little uncomfortably.
“For me, the nice thing about meeting people who grew up watching The Den, is when they say they’ve become animators or something, because one sparked an interest in them. It’s always nice to hear things like that, you know?”
Was The Den really as anarchic and as much fun as it seemed? “Absolutely! It was crazy. Because it was live, and there was no real control, we got away with an awful lot.
“A psychiatrist once wrote to me and said ‘I sat down and watched The Den with my granddaughter and all I can say is, it’s an insane programme, but you’re an oasis of calm in this otherwise deranged show’.
“We all got along really well. We didn’t necessarily hang around afterwards, but we were always there for each other.”
Conroy admits a particular fondness for one former colleague, a certain turkey-vulture builder, politician, Eurovison entrant, and Unicef ambassador. “Dustin always gave me the most abuse, and I really like him. He’s a great guy. He pays compliments through abuse, like all good Irish people.
"He always went a little easy on me. Occasionally he’d glue my books together, so I wouldn’t be able to open them. Live on TV. And he’d say things you wouldn’t hear, because he’d cover the mic, but I would hear it!”
Sometimes the madness could help sell a message, and make it memorable. “I brought in a mountain of cans one day, and I was saying ‘Every one of these cans can be recycled’, and then the next minute Dustin hit them a bang and they went all over the place.
“People laughed at the joke, but they got the message, too.”
It’s impossible these days to talk about environmental concerns without mentioning Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist. Asked his opinion of the campaigner, the man who introduced generations of Irish children to environmentalism is hesitant, and says he is concerned that children should be allowed be children. “She seems very sincere, but I think it’s important that young people are not exploited, no matter what the cause.
“The trouble with some of the messages now is that they’re so negative, and they’re traumatising children, whereas I much prefer to show to show young people the wonder and the magic and the beauty and the mystery that is right at the corner of their eye.
This is the Don Conroy beloved by so many fans of The Den, and he’s in full flight. “And the swallow comes to Ireland, maybe hoping to have a family, and it’s raining. Now, what do they do? They can’t eat any midges. So they go into a barn or an outhouse and they sleep up.
"They go into a state called the torpid state and they literally shut themselves down for four or five days until the sun stimulates their brain again and they wake up and they come out and start looking for midges.
“I’ve never been into what the Americans call ‘fear porn’, because every night of the week we’re being traumatised by all kinds of stuff, and I think, hold on a minute, it’s wrong to deprive people of their future, even in their imaginations, you know?”
Don Conroy, favourite artist of so many an Irish childhood, is as busy as ever, having just completed his
latest book, Shakespeare and Ratbag, and for all the gloom and panic of today, he remains hopeful for tomorrow. “Man has always managed to survive, from even the most terrible wars, and there’s a lot of wonderful people out there, who are thinking hard.
“We should celebrate the ingenuity of humanity rather than closing down with fear and anxiety. I don’t really push that message of negativity. Of course there’s pollution, and all kinds of terrible stuff, but we can address that, just by making simple little positive adjustments.
“And that’s why events like the SSE Airtricity Protect Our Planet weekend are so very important. We just need to realise that we’re so very privileged to live on this beautiful, beautiful planet.”
Dublin Zoo hosts the SSE Airtricity Protect Our Planet weekend, from midday to 4pm, August 24-25. Don Conroy will give a workshop on Sunday