Meteorologist Joanna Donnelly, who has lived many lives and overcome many challenges, has just published her first book, with a little help from her children. Donal O’Donoghue meets her
“The first time I did the weather forecast on the Six One news my husband didn’t want to show me the online comments.” Meteorologist, broadcaster and freshly minted author, Joanna Donnelly, pauses just long enough for the ‘Why?’ “Someone had written ‘Great! Another old woman on the television!’. I didn’t take those comments personally because I knew where they were coming from. There are so many young people who feel that they look good and have much to offer. And yes I am old ( she’s only 48) but I have experience. I’m also a scientist and pragmatic and the fact that I’m 48 means that I haven’t died yet. So I have no problem with being seen as ‘old’. Anyway, what’s the alternative?”
Even before I switch on my recorder, we’re off: a cut on my forehead prompting Joanna Donnelly to recall an accident from 2012 when she fainted and hit her head during a routine mammogram. She lost so much blood she feared for her life and subsequently developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She talks about these things in a completely matter-of-fact way, even though I imagine it was anything but. “Wait, I have to switch on my recorder,” I say eventually, having planned to ask the mother-of-three about, among other things, living with insomnia, undergoing IVF and growing up in a poorer suburb of Dublin in the bleak mid-’80s. “I have so many stories,” says Joanna, as she pours the first of many cups of tea in a conversation that reels in the years, the life of someone who is funny, engaging and very smart. We are meeting to talk about Donnelly’s first publication, The Great Irish Weather Book. It is indeed a great book, physically and otherwise: too big to fit into my bag and bursting with scientific facts and figures as well as enthralling illustrations
(take a bow, Fuchsia MacAree). In her afterword, or ‘Goodbye’ as Joanna has it, she writes that this is a book with real scientific facts and is suitable for all ages and curiosities, despite being pitched at younger readers. At the Irish Book Awards announcements last month, it was nominated for Best Irish Published Book. “People tell me that they can hear my voice when they read it,” says Donnelly of a warm and elegantly written work that was a lifetime in the making. “All my life I’ve loved science and how it explains everything.”
Joanna Donnelly grew up in Finglas South in the 1980s, the second youngest of four. In The Great Irish Weather Book she likens herself to Matilda, Roald Dahl’s book-loving heroine (although she confesses that she was never a fan of Dahl). “I grew up in a chaotic house like Matilda’s,” she says. “My dad died when I was three years old and my Mom was pregnant with Emmett, the youngest. At that time in the 1980s, Finglas South was in a terrible state. We lived in the heart of cowboy country, a hard place to grow up. My Mom, Marie, was a single mother trying to raise four kids, which was not easy. Her mother had died when she was pregnant with my eldest brother. So I retreated to the local library to escape the chaos of all that.”
Joanna never knew her father, Frank. “All I heard from people was how great and marvellous he was but that didn’t really tell me anything about him,” she says. “My Mom never talked about him probably because she too was sad. So I spent my growing-up years too embarrassed to ask anything about him. I remember once asking what colour his eyes were and my elder brother William got really annoyed that I didn’t know. But how could I know? Then when I was at DCU, I started playing poker and got so good I figured I’d better stop before it became a problem. Then when I was 21, and my Mom told me that my dad was a gambler. It was the first human thing I’d ever heard about my father. The best thing, too, as now I could connect to him.”
At school, Donnelly was a bit of a know-it-all, constantly questioning her teachers. “Maths was my subject and I remember in primary school correcting the teacher by telling her that she was getting the question wrong. I was a really difficult child. When that teacher came back after her break she said, ‘Sorry Joanna, you were right’. I was only ten or so and remember thinking ‘Fair play to her.’ But I was quite smart like that in school, always causing trouble and I did get suspended once. I don’t recall if that was with Miss Mulligan, who I terrorised or Miss Douglas my French teacher. I met her years later in DCU and she told me that I was the only student that she had ever to leave the classroom for because I was so bold.” >>
Bold but bright, Joanna went on to study applied maths at Dublin City University (DCU): her achievements perhaps partly explained by a mother who wanted her daughter to be the best she could be. “My mother grew up in a very patriarchal house, raised to get married and have kids. That was her future. Then when she had the four children, her husband died. So she had to work really hard and subsequently raised me in a ‘that’s-not-goingto-happen-to-you’ way. I’d come home with my school reports saying that I was first in my class but that I “could do better”. And my mother would only see the ‘could do better’ line. She was strict with me but that was alright. We’re very close now.”
Donnelly joined Met Éireann in 1995 as a met officer and was promoted to meteorologist five years later. It was at Met Éireann that she met her future husband and fellow meteorologist, the Dutch native Harm Luijkx. They got to know each other during a working trip to the British Met Office in 2001 in the week following 9-11. “We were in lockdown, for security reasons, spending all that time together and very quickly a relationship developed.”
The following year she did her first radio broadcast for RTÉ Radio but it wouldn’t be until December 2015 that she appeared on TV. “It had never been on my radar because I had kids. Nicci was born in 2003, then Tobias (11) and Casper (9) and then I had my accident in 2012. But in 2014 I thought, ‘What now?’. I had been doing radio for so long and was looking for another challenge.”
In her personal life, there were other challenges. Since puberty, Donnelly suffered with insomnia. “When you are a teenager you just go back to bed,” she says, but that all changed with the birth of her first child, Nicci. “At one point I thought ‘God is hilarious! He has sent an insomniac a child who sleeps through the night.” Despite an active lifestyle (cycling, swimming, running), she still struggles with sleeplessness. “In 2016, which was a super year for me as I had done the marathon and triathlons, I remember thinking ‘I’m such a failure and disaster’ because I couldn’t sleep. You get so down, you start thinking ridiculous thoughts. But you eventually get to sleep and everything rights itself again. Now I put my phone out of the bedroom. And it has worked.”
Joanna also underwent three years of IVF before becoming pregnant with Tobias. “I was a scientist so I wanted the scientific answers,” she says, “but as all the tests were coming back as clear and normal, there was nothing we could fix. Eventually, they threw the kitchen sink at it and I did a full IVF cycle.” Then a few years later, Casper arrived naturally. “That is not that unusual because pregnancy can correct some of the problems that cause infertility, which is ironic,” she says.
Spurred by her own experience, Donnelly and the novelist, Fiona McPhillips, set up Pomegranate in 2010, a charity offering funding to people in the public health system dealing with infertility. “Now we’re hoping to go out of business because people should be able to get access to the treatments without a charity being involved. Hopefully, the legislation will go through soon.”
Her life has also been punctuated with panic attacks, fired by a traumatic accident in her college days. “I was in a stationery shop getting my thesis bound when I fainted and crashed into a glass case,” she says. “I smashed up my face, broke my teeth and the rest. After that, I started to get panic attacks. Following my accident in 2012, I was eating a bagel when it got lodged in my throat and I thought I would suffocate. I was running around my house, screaming and crying, and then realised that what was happening was that I was having a panic attack. But I knew that if I continued to behave like this I would do something stupid and serious.” She went to a counsellor who recommended EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), a form of psychotherapy that helps alleviate distress associated with traumatic memories.
Science is knitted into her life and that of her family. Her three children were the first readers of The Great Irish Weather Book. “They are the first test subjects of everything I do,” she says. “They always ask the questions. At home, we always talk about science as a matter of fact. Science is just part of the way we talk. In fact, Nicci asked my mother one day what the word nerd meant and my mother answered her: ‘Your Mammy and your Daddy!’” Preferring ‘realist’ to ‘optimist’ to describe her disposition, she is hopeful about the future if not quite optimistic for humanity. “Climate change is underway, temperatures are rising and the impacts will be dramatic and significant across the globe,” she says. “It will mean a whole new socio-economic situation for everyone. We are destroying the planet and thus destroying ourselves, rapidly and efficiently.”
Ask Joanna for the best piece of advice she ever got and she offers another story, how after winning a junior trophy in karate the judge said to her that she was the only one smiling when collecting her prize. A couple of years later, working at the check-out in a local supermarket, a woman approached her asking if she wanted a job. Turns out the woman made her choice by watching all the people working at the tills and the girl with the fair hair was the only one smiling. “Dolly Parton says that if she’s walking down the street and she meets someone who’s not smiling she gives them one of hers,” she says and smiles. “Smiling makes you feel better.”
We continue talking long after the machine is switched off. “You could write a book with all this,” says Donnelly more than once, adding we’d have to split the royalties. She still reads voraciously, fiction and nonfiction ( Milkman by Anna Burns and From a Clear Blue Sky by Timothy Knatchbull both get a thumbs-up), is a huge fan of musical theatre and once painted a room in her house purple because she loves Cadbury’s Twirl so much. For a laugh I ask her if we will get a White Christmas (“You’re not going to ask me that!?” she wails) and then she checks her phone for the name of an author. “If I don’t find out I won’t be able to sleep, she says and laughs, a scientist in a universe where God might very well play dice.
I spent my growing-up years too embarrassed to ask anything about my father