Broadcaster and author David McCullagh is a stalwart in current affairs, but what are his interests away from the coalface of politics? Donal O’Donoghue pitches the questions
Donal O’Donoghue sits down with the broadcaster and author
It had been a hectic seven days for David McCullagh. One week before we meet, the RTÉ broadcaster hosted his first Prime Time presidential debate. The following day, Wednesday, his new book, De Valera: Rule, was ‘launched’ by Brian Cowen. On Thursday, he was getting readying for Election Day and on Friday, he was monitoring exit polls on The Late Late Show. Through Saturday, he was knee-deep in election coverage. Come Sunday, he rested by listening to This Week, the RTÉ radio show he has anchored since September (he got the day off). Now, direct from a Prime Time meeting, McCullagh seems slightly anxious. “There’s not much news about,” he says, those distinctive eyebrows knitted in worry. But I suspect that won’t be the case for long.
David McCullagh is a bright spark. His two-volume biography of de Valera ( De Valera: Rise was published last year) is, if not the definitive publication on the subject, most likely the biggest. “I had to cut 140,000 words from the first volume,” he says. “War and Peace was mentioned by the publishers and not in a good way.” He smiles. McCullagh has a wry sense of humour, someone who once did a TV broadcast from outside Government Buildings in jacket, shirt, tie and shorts (he was filmed from the waist up) and gave us the funniest line from that Presidential Debate. “Perhaps in seven years we’ll have three candidates from Ireland’s Fittest Family,” he quipped when challenged by one of the Dragons’ Den candidates for describing them thus.
Last month, the Dubliner marked 25 years with RTÉ, having joined the national broadcaster in 1993, following his first “proper job” as a reporter with the Evening Press. In RTÉ, he worked on radio and television news before being promoted to Political Correspondent, his dream job since his school days at Newpark Comprehensive in Blackrock, Co Dublin and the reason he studied politics at UCD. In 2013, after 12 years as political correspondent, he joined the Prime Time team. De Valera: Rule is his fourth book, following Rise, The Reluctant Taoiseach (a biography of John A Costello) and A Makeshift Majority, a history of the first inter-party government carved from the carcass of his PhD thesis.
He lives in Dublin with his wife, Anne-Marie Smyth (who also works in the RTÉ Newsroom), their daughter Rosie and their dog, Max, the “other love of my life”. He has been a Bruce Springsteen “fanatic” (33 gigs and counting) since first seeing the Boss as a 17-year-old at Slane Castle in 1985. “Springsteen often talks about music having the ability to make a difference to a person’s life and I believe that to be true,” he says. In 2004,
McCullagh joked that his ambition was to “make it to retirement without being sued”. Is that still the case? “My biggest ambition of all is to get to retirement without being found out and that hasn’t happened yet.” en he laughs long and loud, but I’m not sure if he’s laughing at himself or the world: maybe a bit of both.
My favourite Bruce Springsteen track
It has to be Land of Hope and Dreams, not his best perhaps, but the most emotional for me. Our daughter, Rosie, was born 18 years ago tomorrow. My wife, Anne-Marie, was very sick following the pregnancy and spent a month in hospital. So I was driving in and out of the Coombe with Rosie in the baby seat and Bruce Springsteen’s Live in New York City on the CD player. On that album is the song, Land of Hope and Dreams. “Dreams will not be thwarted…faith will be rewarded” and that had such a resonance with me at the time. ankfully, my faith was rewarded and everything was OK in the end.
Why I love Star Trek
A er Anne-Marie and I got married, we started getting into e Next Generation, the reboot with Patrick Stewart. en we went back and watched all the original shows and every series to date apart from the latest ( Star Trek: Discovery) as we have the Leaving Cert happening at home. It is great escapist entertainment but it also carries the message that there is hope for humanity, the reverse of a dystopian future. Whoopi Goldberg, who appeared in one of the Star Trek movies as well as e Next Generation, has said that seeing a black actress on telly in the original series [Nichelle Nichols, Uhuru] was important to her because if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I wore my Star Trek cu inks (another present from his wife) during the Presidential Debate.
Our Wedding Songs
Our rst dance was to Move Over Darling by Doris
Day. I have two le feet so I went for dance lessons beforehand and was able to do a class of a tango to that song. Everyone assumed I couldn’t dance. We had our 25th wedding anniversary recently and I was thinking maybe I could do another dance but no, it’s all gone. Our second dance song for the wedding was It Had To Be You by Harry Connick Jnr and the third was Better Days by Bruce.
is is going to sound really boring but I would have to say, FSL Lyons’ Ireland Since the Famine. Our history teacher at Newpark Comprehensive, James Ryan, got us to read that rather than the simpli ed course book. It was, is, a beautifully written book and made you think about history in a di erent way than if you had just stuck with the textbook. It in uenced the direction I took in life and showed all of us in the class that we could go beyond the super cial level of history that was being taught at the time. Having said that I only got a C in my Leaving Cert in History and that still rankles.
Probably Laurence Rees’ Nazis: A Warning from History (1997). ere was one moment in that which stood out for me. A woman, asked what it was like to live in Germany under the Nazis, said that it was terrible and shocking and so on. en the programme-makers produced a letter which she had written to the Nazis denouncing her neighbour. It was just one of those moments where the pretence and denial of what people had done under that regime was stripped away and she was faced with what she had done. at was a powerful piece of TV.
The living person I most admire
Bruce Springsteen, as a performer and artist and a force for good, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. He was once referred to as a “true American hero”. I don’t know if he is a hero but he is someone who believes that the arc of history bends towards justice. In his own way, I believe that he tries to do his best to live up to that and help it along.
The most expensive item of clothing I ever bought
When I was a student working in London I bought a leather blouson jacket of which I was inordinately proud. I can’t recall how much it cost exactly but it was a signi cant portion of the money I saved for the summer.
I really loved that jacket, Anne-Marie not so much. So the jacket was eventually consigned to the back of the wardrobe and hasn’t been seen in years.
My greatest extravagance
e tickets for Bruce Springsteen on Broadway when Anne-Marie brought me to New York for my 50th birthday last December. I’ve spent so much on Springsteen down the years that I reckon he owes me a fortune now.
The piece of technology
My favourite piece of technology would have to be my MP3 player. It is a Microso Zoom which is on its last legs, an ancient thing, but it has every piece of music I ever owned. I’d be lost without it.
De Valera: Rule by David McCullagh is published by Gill
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This Week, Sunday, RTÉ Radio 1