When I worked as a newsreader for the BBC at a large city radio station, I became pals with one of the warmest guys in the business, a Catholic man of many interests who believes vocation is not only about priesthood and the religious life.
When he was 33, Eamonn O’Neal took the risk of quitting his secure and promising job as a deputy headteacher of a Catholic primary school and taking up a role with the BBC. Then, after a successful career as a popular broadcaster, he went on to become an influential figure in regional television, newspapers, and hospice care, as well as being an indefatigable trustee and fundraiser for several charities, all of it underpinned by a “living faith” which inspires kindness and compassion to others.
Now, by royal appointment, Dr. O’Neal is High Sheriff for Greater Manchester in the north of England.
For at least a millennium, there have been high sheriffs in the country. Originally known as “Shire Reeves,” they originally enforced the King’s interests by collecting revenues and maintaining law and order, which included sitting in judgment at monthly courts. While they’re still nominally the titular head of the county judiciary, these days their role tends to be ceremonial and carries no powers. Neither does it attract any stipend, nor expenses.
Eamonn’s duties include attending royal visits, supporting Her Majesty’s High Court Judges, and giving active support and encouragement to the police, emergency services, and voluntary organizations. “This year has been unique in the history of High Sheriffs, owing to Covid-19 restrictions,” he points out. “Much of the pomp and ceremony has been reduced, postponed, or cancelled. So I’ve been able to spend much more time with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. For example, I’m proud to have instigated the High Sheriff Special Recognition Awards and the Young Citizen of the Year Awards.”
Constitutionally, the Queen is the United Kingdom’s head of state, but she has neither a political nor executive role. The power and ability to make and pass legislation rest with the elected Parliament. As Eamonn puts it, Her Majesty acts as “a focus for national pride,” giving a sense of continuity and officially recognizing success and excellence as well as advocating the pivotal notion of voluntary service.
Eamonn’s first encounter with the Royal Family happened when he became an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, an organization headed by His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, and committed to providing the skills, support, and experience young people need to succeed in life. “I found Prince Charles to be a dedicated individual who was single-minded in his beliefs and objectives,” said Eamonn. “I first visited Buckingham Palace to represent the Manchester Evening News at a reception before the 2012 London Olympics. Once successfully through all the security checks and the formal line of presentation to the Queen, I was a little surprised at the informality of the event. Journalists, broadcasters, aides, and royals mingled and chatted easily.
“Later, I relieved a waiter of a delicious (but tiny) cucumber sandwich (without crusts), only to turn round and almost collide with Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Prince’s wife. Once I got past her extremely posh English accent, she was delightfully curious and engaging, with a twinkle in her eye. Amazingly, she then introduced me to the Cambridges, William and Kate. I can’t claim to have had a full conversation with them but, again, they were charming.
“After I was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater Manchester in 2014, my wife, Sheila, and I were invited to a Royal Garden party. Buckingham Palace’s back garden is enormous and, once again with cucumber sandwiches on our plates, we jostled for the best view of the Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, as they made their way to the royal tent. Whether or not you agree with the principle of a monarchy, there’s no question that our Sovereign has selflessly dedicated her life to her duty and her presence has made a huge difference to our country’s reputation.”
Although Eamonn was born and brought up in England, his teacher parents came from Ireland. Catholics of strong faith, his father was from Belfast and his mother from County Kerry “so both ends of the island were covered.” He is the eldest of five siblings who “all benefitted from an excellent Catholic education at all ages.” His two brothers are both senior airline captains. One sister is a psychologist while the other runs a number of hotels in Killarney, Ireland.
“While we were proud to be practicing Catholics, we were never tempted to constantly wear the faith on our sleeve or thrust it upon others. Our parents were thoughtful and selfless, leaving us with a great fundamental legacy of compassion and kindness. I like to think of that as faith in action, with nothing outwardly to prove.”
Eamonn’s faith remains robust: he sees himself as someone who lives the faith rather than as a person who frets about rules and regulations. Although he rarely speaks of his spiritual practice, he discloses that his private prayers are usually directed to Our Lady or the Holy Spirit.
“I take great consolation from the guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit,” he says.
“I am just reading Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. I subscribe to his view that we should not want to return to the old normal. We should all play a part in creating a new normal—one where those on the margins become those in the center. Our bishop is leading us through an active program to reflect on Pope Francis’s social encyclical Laudato Si’. Everyone—from the clergy to parishioners and schoolchildren—is taking more notice of our common responsibilities, and taking steps—often small ones—to do our bit to make our world a better place.”
A drama graduate, Eamonn became deputy head of St. Winifred’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Stockport, which became famous for its choir and number one hit in 1980 with “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma.” It’s more than three decades since since Eamonn took the plunge into broadcasting, and now, at 67, he still presents a program every week on BBC Radio Manchester with his brother-in-law, Jimmy Wagg. It’s acclaimed as one of the funniest radio phone-ins and the hosts are now in their 32nd year.
The broadcasters have built up a huge following “because we are ordinary lads living with the community who comprise the audience. We allow everyone to celebrate their shared experiences. We’re regarded as two men who stumbled into a radio studio and started talking nonsense for three hours each week. City or local radio is the closest any presenter can get to the audience. When done properly, it is personal, immediate, relevant, and authentic.”
After some years as a television and newspaper executive, as well as a hardworking charity fundraiser, Eamonn was invited to become voluntary chair of the trustee board at St. Ann’s Hospice in Manchester, which had previously looked after some of his family members. He was later appointed its chief executive officer. Hospices in the UK are independent charities, with no statutory funding. St. Ann’s has a contract with the local National Health Service care providers which brings in about a third of the required income. The rest is raised from community activities, charity shops, and a lottery.
“Hospices are not sad places,” Eamonn points out. “St. Ann’s is full of hope and kindness, with the specialist palliative care allowing patients and their families to live as full a life as possible in the time they have left.
“Last year, a young lady in her early thirties came to us, following some years of gruelling treatment for an aggressive cancer. She had a husband and two boys, aged four and six. She faced her circumstances with great bravery, her only concern being the future of her boys. I sat with this young lady for an hour one Thursday evening before I left for home. She was in and out of consciousness but was peaceful and trying to smile. I promised we would look after her husband and two lads for as long as they needed us. I was only 10 minutes into my journey home when the call came to tell me she had died.
“We went to her funeral and her wake. We helped her family celebrate her life. Almost 14 months on, we are still keeping an eye on her boys, with her husband coming to us for counseling, and the two youngsters visiting as often as allowed. Being a senior executive in a charitable hospice is not the most glamorous or exciting job I’ve ever had, but it is, without question, the most rewarding.”
For all his public commitments, family lies at the heart of Eamonn’s life. He and Sheila, whom he had known since their school days, married in 1989. Her first son, Christopher Bisson (Eamonn’s stepson), is an actor and longstanding cast member of the British television soap Emmerdale. Eamonn and Sheila also have a son, Kieran, an assistant director for television drama productions, and a daughter, Laura, a production coordinator in studio-based TV programs.
Eamonn’s High Sheriff motto is Omne Benevolentia Amicitiae—which he translates as “Kindness and Friendship are Everything”—is lived out in all he aspires to publicly and privately. “I think we need to interpret the word vocation more liberally,” he reflects. “My professional work has taken me from teaching to radio to television to newspapers and to hospices. My voluntary work has comprised health care, homelessness, deprivation, and fun activities. My vocation runs through all of that and more: the way our children and two grandchildren have been brought up, the small acts of compassion we try to incorporate into our daily lives, and the way we ground ourselves in the belief that everyone is equal, no matter what circumstances or status. All of that is a manifestation of vocation.”
Michael Ford is an author and former BBC journalist. He lives in England. His email is email@example.com.