Claire Byrne

The re­turn­ing host talks to Donal O’Donoghue about me­dia, mother­hood, and a big year ahead on the po­lit­i­cal front

RTÉ Guide - - Contents -

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

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