Whether he’s playing host extraordinaire in his role as hotel general manager at Harvey’s Point in Donegal or the dazzling showbiz guru on TV3, Noel Cunningham always does his job with style and a sunny disposition.
Unlike many people on our screens that smile is a genuine one, and it’s that very authenticity that he radiates that makes him one of Ireland’s best-loved public figures.
But behind the sparkle are the struggles he has had to overcome to become the happiest, most fulfilled version of himself that we see today.
Speaking openly about his past, Noel admits his decision to return to Donegal 20 years ago, after building a prosperous career with some of the best regarded hotels in London, wasn’t one he made on his own terms.
“I say that when we are planning, God is laughing. My life at that stage had gone a little off track. I was drinking heavily, and I needed to make changes in my life.”
“Then at that point, sadly my beloved sister and her husband were killed in a car accident in Donegal, and they had three children. Another sister of mine was also in the accident and she was badly injured, so our lives were turned upside down.”
“But out of all that turmoil, stress and misery, so much good has come. I came home and got to know my nephews and nieces who I had missed growing up when I was away. The many blessings we’ve had since that since that awful tragedy have been unbelievable.”
“I found sobriety. I found a new start with my own family. I found an even more deep-rooted love for my Donegal and its people.”
While now completely at home in his home county the Donegal man says he didn’t always feel this to be the case when growing up. “At that time it was very hard to admit to be being gay, and it was very hard to live as a gay.”
“London was a huge surprise coming from a quiet part of rural Ireland. It was a very exciting place to be at the time. In some ways it gave you the opportunity to be more yourself, but at the same time irrespective of where you are if you have issues in your own life you carry them with you so it doesn’t it necessarily cure all ails.”
“I never came out to my family per se, but when I came back to Ireland I had to, at the ripe old age of forty-plus, decide that I had to be myself otherwise live another twenty years of abject misery. I had to be myself and just let people read between the lines.”
“In order to move forward you have to hit rock bottom. I have been there and from that emerged me, living a fulfilled life for the first time in my forties.”
He speaks with pride of “that glorious afternoon in Dublin Castle when the results of the referendum were made public,” but says that even today the apparent widespread support for equality and gay marriage “can also mask the fact that young people in Ireland can still find it very difficult to be openly gay.”
“It’s still very hard for young people to admit that they are who they are.”
He goes as far to say that if he was to have children in Ireland today he would wish they weren’t gay. “It would be easier for them, and that’s a fact.”
While he believes there is still progress to be made, Noel says he was welcomed back to his home county with open arms, giving him the courage to be himself for the first time in forty years.
“One of the marvelous things about the last twenty years has been the people of Donegal. The people raised by the sea, with salt in their blood, they are warm and welcoming.”
This acceptance is something that Noel feels far beyond the green borders of Donegal, be that a wave from a well-wisher on the street or a random acts of kindness, like on recent visit to Dublin when he went to pay his tab at a café only to be told it had already been taken care of by a complete stranger.
Two aspects of his life and career have played a big part in helping Noel find peace and happiness. His work in both hospitality, first in a small restaurant near his family home where he worked for nearly 12 years and now at Harvey’s Point, and on TV.
His showbiz career began 15 years ago on TV3, and now along with a regular presenting role on he’s regarded as the TV channel’s resident ‘Royal Expert’.
He explains his regal connection was established while working in the UK after he was invited to become involved in both National Children’s Home, of which the Queen was patron, and Birth Right, a charity in which Diana Princess of Wales was heavily involved – and a result of his established links it was Noel who was chosen to greet Prince Charles and Camilla Duchess of Cornwall when they visited Donegal Town.
He says of all the people he has met throughout his career Diana is among those who have left the biggest impression on him, “simply for her compassion. She is sadly missed today,” along with Pope John Paul, who “changed people’s way of thinking and broke down barriers of hate.”
“I’m really very lucky. I have such a varied life. People ask me if the whole showbiz thing is the draw for me but it’s not about that. All of those things that I do help give me a bit of a profile and a platform to help the other things that I do.”
Those other things include lending his name and giving his time to many community and charity organisations, and his work with schools, where he shares his story with young people, helping, he hopes, to “normalise” being gay in Ireland.
Along with his admirable charitable efforts, Noel sees promoting Donegal as his other calling, which he does which aplomb and panache from his base at the four star Harvey’s Point.
“I wanted to keep a firm connection with Donegal and promotion of my home county and Harvey’s Point because of its reputation and myriad of awards it gives me that opportunity to do that.”
“Deirdre McGlone has the same focus as me, to get people to Donegal, be it to Harvey’s Point or elsewhere in the county, and the rest will follow. Create the right environment and promote the destination and people will come.”
He first made the connection to the hotel when he began hosting and presenting events there before getting involved in guest relations six years ago, which in turn evolved into the full-time role he has today as General Manager – still managing to fit in his weekly TV segment.
“The hotel business and show business are so closely linked it’s unbelievable. It’s two sides of the same coin.”
And whether he’s walking into the hotel lobby at 7am or in the TV studio he takes the same attitude.
“Nobody in any business can’t say some mornings they wake up and say ‘I can’t bear the thought of that today,’ but you get the suit on, you fix the hair, you put the bow tie on and then it’s light, camera, action.”
While he seems a natural on-screen and his personality spills over to his hosting duties at Harvey’s Point Noel says that considering this as a career as a young man in Donegal would never have been option for him.
But over the past 20 years new dreams have found fertile ground to grow and he hopes that the opportunity to have his own TV show is still on the horizon.
“I have a few ideas in the pipeline at the moment and I am talking to a few companies. I am really into the area of etiquette and manners and I would love to do a programme of this nature. I would hope it would come to fruition sooner than later as I am not getting younger and I don’t want the hair to get any greyer!”
“If I ever was to take up public office one thing I would really love to see are classes on etiquette in schools as I think manner and table manners are gone completely in Ireland today.”
His remarks of a political persuasion are not unfounded. In 2016 he was revealed as one of eleven of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s personal Senate nominees.
“If an opportunity came up in the Senate I would be delighted as it would give me a platform to make a difference in the different areas I am passionate about. It’s not for ego. It’s not to get invites to every showbiz party in Dublin.”
“I’ve always been passionate about politics, and perhaps more so about young people and tourism. I have been approached by all the major parties to run in elections.”
“At different times I was tempted. At this point with our new leader, I am hanging my hat on the hook of Fine Gael, following my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather.”
“I will have to speak very nicely to Leo Varadkar…”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.