Donough O’Brien was born in London on 23rd April 1939. Evacuated to Kent to escape the ‘Blitz’ and then to Norfolk to avoid the V1 ‘Doodlebugs’, he has vivid memories of the latter stages of the war.
At Stowe he was hoping to emulate his father Toby O’Brien who had been the first History Scholar to go from that school to Oxford. However, when Donough was made Captain of Swimming, his highly successful but very eccentric History Tutor was so offended at the thought that he threw him out of his form – something that would be totally illegal today!
So after a year learning languages (not very well) at Paris and Munich universities, Donough went off to do his National Service, but was so happy in the Irish Guards that he signed on for an extra two years, ending up Transport Officer for his battalion in Germany. At this time under in influence of his grandmother who was a professional painter for six decades, he started to draw and paint racing cars. This turned into a lucrative semi-professional career, with pictures for Shell, BP, Mercedes and Porsche and culminating with the painting presented by Shell to Graham Hill when he won the World Championship.
In 1962 he joined The Rank Organisation, and after a stint in Spain, then helped to run a series of advertising, public relations and design companies, eventually selling one of them to Martin Sorrell’s WPP Group. Out of three decades, he considers his four years of helping to promote Northern Ireland’s industrial development as his most important achievement (‘David Ogilvy once told me he was much prouder of his work for Puerto Rico’s economy than just selling more Rolls-Royces or Hathaway shirts and I had great sympathy for that view, while claiming the additional benefit that my efforts might also contribute to people not shooting or bombing each other!’)
Donough is married to Liz Cowley, a top advertising copywriter, who is the author of several successful books of poetry, described by Joanna Lumley as ‘witty, poignant and straight from the heart’.
One of his biggest influences was his father. ‘Toby’ O’Brien had been recruited from The Daily Telegraph to help run Britain’s propaganda against the Nazis (credited with the song ‘Hitler has only got one ball’) and then was the Conservative Party’s first ‘spin-doctor’, before becoming the best-known public relations consultant in Britain. He was an excellent writer, having worked for several newspapers.
So there are two interlocking creative influences on Donough’s books – the written word from his father and the world of art from his mother’s family, into which Bobby Bevan (creator of the legendary ‘Guinness for strength’ advertising) had married. Bobby’s father was the painter Robert Bevan, a leading member of the Camden Town Group, including Sickert, Gore, Gilman, Pissarro and Augustus John.
So it’s not surprising that Donough enjoys not just the writing of his ‘quirky history’ books, but art directing them as well.