A liberal dose of honesty
GP turned radio presenter Ciara Kelly tells Patrick Freyne about being a late bloomer, Ireland’s drink problem and the first time she told a patient they were going to die
Ciara Kelly recently auditioned for a part in the Dún Laoghaire Musical and Dramatic Society’s production of Jekyll and Hyde. She had never done anything like that before. “It was hilarious and terrifying in equal measure,” she says. “I was really, genuinely, madly anxious in a way I would not be going on air.”
What was the part? “It was the part of this prostitute who gets killed.”
She can’t stop laughing and cringing as she recalls all of this. She tells me one of the songs was called “Bring on the Men. I was almost crying with embarrassment trying to sing it . . . I’m brave in some ways – I’m brave enough to give an opinion – but standing up and singing Bring on the Men is very challenging for me.”
According to Kelly, all of the other women auditioning were 25 years younger, highly confident, highly skilled and, in some cases, fully costumed. In contrast, she messed up the tune, mangled the words, did a Cockney accent, shimmied and accidentally printed out only every second page of the script so she didn’t quite understand what was going on. “My kids said, ‘ Did they think you were simple?’ ”
Why did she do it? She always wanted to be in a musical, she says, “And I decided I wanted a hobby because I work a lot but I’m not going to join a golf club.”
She’s going to stick with it, she says. “I don’t think I’ll get that part [ but] there’s an old bat woman who is the governor of an asylum or something, so I think I might have a chance of getting that.”
As she was leaving the audition, she says, she called out, “I would take any of the lesser prostitute roles as well.”
Kelly clearly has a strong desire to get out of her comfort zone. The audition came almost one year after she left her GP practice to become a full- time broadcaster on Newstalk’s Lunchtime Live. “I do think there’s something late bloomery about me, in that an awful lot of things I would probably have liked to have done when I was young, I’m doing now,” she says as we sit upstairs in a Dublin restaurant.
Apart from a short spell living in the city centre in young adulthood, she has spent her life in Greystones, where she now lives with her husband and four children and, until last year, worked 100 yards from her house.
What was she like at school? “I was terrible. I was a little cheeky thing, always gobby. I used to like debating and civics class. It often got me in trouble and I was talkative and that used to get me detention.”
She depicts herself as a young Lloyd Cole lookalike with pudding- bowl hair, a polo neck and a suede jacket. She had strong views, she says, many the same liberal ones she holds now. “I always felt it was important to have opinions and for them to mean something and to have a moral compass . . . The idealism of being a teenager!”
She wanted to study drama but she failed to get in. She makes her interview at the TCD drama department sounds a little like her more recent am- dram audition, with her being a little overwhelmed by more assured and flamboyant contemporaries.
Her next steps couldn’t be more different – three years studying commerce in UCD, which she hated – followed by a much more pleasurable period studying medicine. “I liked that instead of writing a semi- waffly essay on logistics or business strategy, in medicine you’re either right or wrong. ‘ Does the kidney do this?’ ‘ Yes it does.’ And I liked the people. It’s a bit like being in the trenches. Being a junior doctor is like military training. I’ve had jobs where my week was 120 hours long.”
Did she feel like there was a changing of the medical guard with her generation? “Most d o c t o r s were d r a wn f r o m middle- class or upper- middle class backgrounds,” she says. “So there was a conservative – and in Ireland that often meant Catholic – bias that flowed through the profession. There were definitely consultants [ who were] paternalistic and patronising, who could never even start to get their heads around what it meant to be a young woman or a working- class person . . . There was a lack of awareness that maybe you would be a better doctor if you were able to empathise differently with your patients or gave them more of a role or a say in their own care.”
A lot of the older school of doctors let people down, she says. “I remember, in UCD in the late 1980s, the conversations in the bar among girls,” she says. “You didn’t know which GP would prescribe the pill or the morning- after pill, and I remember talking to a friend of mine who went to a GP who more or less threw her out of the surgery
I remember the first time I told a patient they were dying. You never forget. I remember her name and I remember the room. I remember all of it