NOEL Cunningham is Donegal’s Person of the Year for 2019. The flamboyant hotelier received the award before a packed audience in the Black Door Piano Bar in Dublin on Friday night. He takes over the role from Everest conqueror and adventurer Jason Black.
In a frank interview ahead of the ceremony, Mr Cunningham spoke of his life, his sexuality, his battle with the bottle and his deep pride at being asked to represent his home county.
“Who would have thought many years ago when attending the function in the Gresham Hotel where my uncle Willie Joe Cunningham was honoured with Donegal Person of the Year, that all these years later I am to be the recipient of the same honour. In many ways that little bit of history makes this award all the more special. Words cannot describe my sense of pride that I shall carry this title, so richly associated with my beloved county.”
Born in Kilcar in the 1950s to parents Catherine and Jim, Noel Cunningham recalled a happy and carefree life where money was scarce and they depended heavily on fruit and vegetables grown on the family farm. He was educated in Fintra National School followed by Derrylaghen National School. Afterwards it was the Technical School in Carrick until he attended Rockwell College in Tipperary to do his Leaving Certificate and a hotel course.
He began working in the hospitality industry with Jury’s Hotel Group in Ireland followed by Trust House Forte in the UK. He then left dry land to work on cruise ships with P&O and Cunard.
From a young age Noel Cunningham knew he was gay but admitting it was not an option during what were less tolerant times in Ireland. Keeping it a secret took a serious personal toll on him.
“I realised from very young that I was gay and true to the times I lived a lie. My sensitivity, and I suppose gentle nature, led to bullying and a fairly unhappy life in general. This bullying and victimisation extended to all aspects of my life and it was not a happy time. This indirectly led to my life going off kilter for a period. Alcohol became my friend and I was soon a full blown alcoholic.”
Amid the turmoil a great tragedy befell the Cunningham family when Noel’s sister Marie and her husband Donal were tragically killed in Donegal.
“They had three children so our lives were to change completely,” he said.
“I returned to Donegal and thanks to prayer and a wonderful moment of honesty from my niece who had lost her parents, my life took a turn for the better. I thank my sister for her intervention from above and I began the long road back to a life that was in the words of Alcoholics Anonymous ‘a life beyond my wildest dreams’.
“My friend Hugh O’Donnell offered me a job and I happily managed Kitty Kelly’s for 13 years. I had stopped drinking and to this day over 20 years later I am happily sober. I yearned for my old hotel career and when Deirdre McGlone asked me to join Harvey’s Point I did so with a song in my heart. Ten years later I am still here happily flying the flag for Donegal and tourism.
“My days of alcoholism taught me many lessons in hindsight. The greatest of these is gratitude and giving back. I am actively involved with my community and with various charities.
“My Donegal, family, friends, community and the beauty of hills, mountains, sea and valley have been my healing. My gratitude is to forever sing that song ‘My Donegal’ in thanks for what it means to me, it is my heart and soul, my life, my joy and my everything.”
Looking ahead to a year as the face of Donegal, Mr Cunningham added, “As Donegal Person of the Year 2019 I will most certainly devote my time to do what I always do and that is to promote my county far and near. Added to this I am making a commitment to a personal project for young people in schools and colleges on a theme of inclusion and tolerance. It is at an early planning stage but I wish to give something back that is tangible and relevant in the times we live in.
“I want to be remembered as someone who championed and encouraged our great young people to live better lives and to live that life with a better acceptance for all.”
Noel Cunningham will be inaugurated at the Donegal Person of the Year Gala Ball on Saturday March 14 in The Ballsbridge Hotel, Dublin. Tickets are limited so to make a reservation contact 087 2554966, 085 7709066 or 087 9051300. Or contact any committee member or buy online at www.donegalassociation.ie
Posted: 8:30 pm January 31, 2020