The returning host talks to Donal O’Donoghue about media, motherhood, and a big year ahead on the political front
Afew days before we meet, Claire Byrne was interviewed in a Sunday newspaper. e article’s opening salvo told how, as a 14-year-old, Byrne had bacterial meningitis and was given the last rites. It was a dramatic, terrifying story that the broadcaster had told before but this time it prompted headlines and questions, not least in Byrne herself. “Since that interview was published, it has been going through my mind, especially the question ‘Did it have a lasting impact on me and my life?’” she says now. “Would I have been a di erent person if that hadn’t happened? Well I don’t know, because I am who I am.”
It’s a week before the return of Claire Byrne Live (“Yesterday I got a zz of anticipation”). Its host has come into RTÉ early so she can leave at lunchtime to take her daughter Jane (3) to ballet class. Byrne may love her job, which includes co-anchoring the News at One with Aine Lawlor, but family come rst. Bright-eyed and vivacious, even before the makeup team swoops in, the journalist is good company. Yet she is also wary, evasive on certain matters (religious beliefs, gender issues) and while conceding she’s not much for self-analysis, she’s also unlikely to spill her heart to a media who tracked her closely through the break-up of her rst marriage and a High Court battle with TV3. In any case, hers is not an unexamined life, just one fuelled by pragmatism and self-belief.
From the beginning, the girl from near Mountrath, Co Laois, knew where she was going. As a ve-year-old, she framed herself in a cardboard box to present ‘the news’; at 12, she read Gay Byrne’s autobiography and at school she wrote letters to e Sunday Tribune and e Irish Times. Such sureness seems almost scary. “Yes I was lucky that I always had that certainty,” she says. “But it was di cult to attain my goal. Initially, when I went to college I did the wrong course, studying sociology, politics and psychology at UCD. I wondered ‘What am I doing?’ en when I did journalism I thought ‘ is is great, but I’m still in college and I need to be out working.’ I was a very impatient person but also very clear about what I wanted, which is surprising because nobody in my family was a journalist.”
Barely 17, Byrne didn’t last the year in UCD. “It was terrifying going to a class with 900 people in this vast theatre where you couldn’t get a seat if you arrived late and had to sit on the steps, where you felt everyone was looking at you. I felt lonely and lost. I remember thinking I didn’t have the right clothes and didn’t know how to dress. I was wearing my brother’s jeans and I’m sure I was ne but I felt that I didn’t t in for lots of reasons.”
Journalism at DIT in Rathmines was the right t, socially and otherwise, but the teenager was already champing at the bit. Local radio in Wicklow was followed by 103FM in Jersey and Channel 5 and ITV News in London, before she returned to Ireland in 1999 and TV3’s newly launched Ireland AM as a reporter and news anchor. When she moved to Newstalk in 2006, TV3 pursued her to the High Court to stop her broadcasting until a er the end of her contract with the channel. e case was later settled.
Since 2010, she has worked in RTÉ as a contractor, moving from daytime TV to current a airs and news, working across radio and TV. “I never plan,” she says at one point. And yet in a way, she does. “I like to change what I’m doing every few years. It used to be every three years, now it is every ve years. I believe that you shouldn’t stand still for too long. I just changed again last February to the News at One. But I don’t make a plan in that I look at a programme and think if I don’t get that in two years time I’ll be devastated. I just keep going and the opportunities present themselves. I always come back to the idea that if you’ve mastered the job you’re doing, that earns you the next step.” Claire lives in Co Wicklow with her husband, Gerry and their three children, Patrick (4), Jane (3) and Emma (1). She is one of three women among RTÉ’s top ten earners. “I have refused to see gender throughout my career,” she says. “I have just operated as a person working in the industry.” But what of others who do see gender? Does that impact? “Maybe it’s the bullish part of me but I just keep on keeping on. I refuse to see those things and if I do see them I just brush them aside and keep going. at’s my strategy. I believe that the best weapon you can have in this business is to be good in your job and be hard-working and nothing else should matter.” But sometimes it can matter, can’t it? “ at hasn’t been my experience,” she says and the shutters come down.
So what has changed for the once bullish career person to the person she is now? “My children coming along have made me so er, a bit more understanding,” she says. “I’m probably still bullish when it comes to my professional life but having children has given me greater empathy. We sent our oldest child (Patrick) o to school on Friday, his rst day. I could only get as far as the door of the school and I let my husband take him the rest of the way as I could feel the tears coming on. Even though my son was being very brave, I could sense his nerves and I felt very sorry for him going in there, his rst day into the unknown.”
Does she feel a mother’s guilt? “I’d love to take my boy to school every day but on those days I’m doing the News at One I can’t. My refrain to them, particularly to my daughter who can understand it (Jane), is that while I love being here with you it’s also really important for me to go to work. I hope it will give them the sense growing up that mammy had another purpose in life, apart from them. I nd that the very action of saying that to my children helps me with my guilt in that I’m not just Mammy, I’m also something else.”
From this week, she’s back at the TV coal-face with Claire Byrne Live. “ e audience is the most important guest in that room on any night,” she says. Of course, the audience played its part in the most talked about Claire Byrne show of last season, a live debate ahead of the Repeal the Eighth referendum. “Nasty and brutish,” was how one critic described the show, with others likening the studio to a bear pit. “I completely stand over that show,” says Byrne now. “We wanted to create a forum where people could have a free debate and openly express their opinions. If you don’t agree with something, do you just sit in your chair and sit on your emotion and not express your view? I don’t think that’s my job. We had moments when inappropriate things were being said by the audience and I absolutely stopped that. But I’m not going to censor my audience.”
Byrne, who quit Twitter in 2014, worries about the “constant connected life” of modern living. Earlier that morning, on her drive into RTÉ, she noticed all the school-bound teenagers wrapped up in their phones. “I wonder what it is doing to us?” she says. She was prompted to quit Twitter by her then boyfriend, now husband, Gerry, who asked why she was bringing all these people and their negativity into their home. “ at still stays with me as the most convincing reason not to be on social media.”
She worries about the impact of social media on her children. “I’m terri ed at the thought. ankfully, we’re not at that stage yet with our family. I know too much about social media through work and the damage it does.” But like their mother, her children are book lovers and right now Jane is obsessed with the original Disney lm of Sleeping Beauty. “We have a DVD player in the car and we were driving back from Leitrim the other day when Jane exclaimed ‘Oh, she has just touched the spinning wheel! Oh, she’s fallen on the oor! Oh, she’s dead forever!’ I’m in awe of how con dent Jane is. I don’t know where that came from.”
Motherhood was a steep learning curve for Claire. “At one point I thought I’d never get to grips with it,” she says. “It’s only been in the last ve years that all of this has happened for me but you just get on with it. ere is no instruction manual and it is the most important job in the world. Life has changed so much for me. Had I not had children and remained as I was, I would have found a happy path too and accepted that path. ere comes a point in life when you have to say, this is the way it’s going to be, so let’s just get on with it.”
e night before we spoke, Byrne was out running, a hobby she took up again a few months back. It was dark by the time she got home and unable to sleep, she settled down with John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky. By one o’clock, novel to one side, her brain was still ring and sleep did not come easy. is, I suspect is not unusual. She recalls how last month, on the occasion of his 84th birthday, she sent a congratulatory message to Gay Byrne. e iconic Irish broadcaster is perhaps the closest thing to a mentor Byrne has had. I tell her that his line was always ‘Keep her going Patsy’ and she nods in agreement. “Yes that’s so true because what other option is there, you just get on with it,” she says again. You think of that 14-year-old girl who was given the last rites and how life has panned out since, but I suspect the die was cast long before that.
Having children has given me greater empathy