Australian Women’s Weekly NZ
FINDING JOY: broadcaster Noelle McCarthy’s surprising journey to happiness
The past few months have been busy for broadcaster Noelle McCarthy. Not only has she got married, but she has quit life in Auckland for a quiet country town in the Wairarapa – and turned 40. She talks to Nicola Russell about “growing up” and the joy of sl
When broadcaster Noelle McCarthy moved to New Zealand in 2003, she carried a notebook with two names written in the back – musician PJ Harvey and writer Jane Austen. “It was a reminder to myself as a woman that I didn’t need to have a husband and children, and those sorts of domestic trappings, in order to be fully realised.”
The Irish-born star with the distinctive brown curls was 24 then, and was beginning her broadcasting career as the news and editorial director at bFM. Sixteen years on, Noelle is happily married to author John Daniell. Together they have an almost two-year-old daugher, Eve, and have recently moved to the countryside in Featherston, Wairarapa. Noelle is learning to garden and has a chicken house ready to fill with a brood of hens. It wasn’t in her plans – it all happened in a whirlwind just before she turned 40.
“I still hate the narrative that marriage is when your life starts in earnest,” says the journalist best known for her eight years hosting RNZ’s Summer Noelle. “But when it came down to it, the actual decision to be committed to John felt like a natural progression and made me feel quite calm and happy. Because I’m not looking to another person to fix me or constantly stimulate me – all those things I can do for myself. And I feel like I’ve got something to bring to the party.”
A different kind of party from her 20s. While she’s still the charming and lively fashionista (except sometimes when she’s sporting Marmite stains and tending the hydrangeas), Noelle is now fiercely focused on her work and her family.
“My life has changed so much in the last 10 years and it has been a process of growing up. When I was 30, the idea of whiteware filled me with great fear. ‘Oh my goodness, a fridge? Who would want to be responsible for that?’ So the last 10 years have been about learning the joys of personal responsibility,” she says.
Some of that came as a result of giving up drinking in her 30th year. Most of it came from learning to trust her decisionmaking. She says turning 40 has changed her. “I feel like something ticked over, and I’d been on the planet long enough
to have that sense of my own capacity and to have real confidence in my ability to make decisions. I used to really struggle with that.
“As a broadcaster, you’re always afraid that whatever gig you have will be your last, and you want people to really like you. Part of growing up for me was going ‘it might get uncomfortable if I say no or negotiate, but I just have to hope that the next thing that comes along is going to be great’. And, you know, it’s been my experience in the last 18 months that that has absolutely happened.”
The opportunities have come thick and fast since she and John made the decision to combine their skills to make podcasts, just over two years ago. They are now working on their fifth series, Good Ancestors, about climate change, and the pair has just received the news they have been funded by New Zealand on Air for their sixth series, Getting Better, about the journey of a Maori medical student. Noelle has also been back at RNZ for three weeks filling in for the formidable Kim Hill. She’s excited about the gig, which she says fulfils her love for live, long-form interviews.
Thankfully, Noelle and John’s new hometown has a train station, meaning access to Wellington for work is a breeze. “As we refined what we wanted to do for work and had Eve, we were feeling like living in a big city wasn’t necessarily right for us. The trick for us was how do we pull off living in the country and do our work?”
The answer lay in Featherston. Which brings us to the 100-year-old, red house, with its wraparound verandah and its acre of land blooming with purple hydrangeas and gardenias.
And to the dining room with its bright yellow walls – which Noelle planned to paint but then decided she loved – and to a war she is waging on daddy long legs. “It’s all old wooden doors and wooden windows and a very high stud so it gets pretty dusty. It’s like this place is a United Nations haven for daddy long legs!”
The pair conceived the plan to move to the country on the flight home from their wedding in November last year. They married in Perpignan in the French countryside, where John was living when he met Noelle in 2014. He had been there writing his second book, The Fixer. They were introduced when a mutual friend set them up on a date while John was home visiting family in New Zealand.
“My friend Damaris [Coulter] had met John in France. Her partner Ollie is an old friend of John’s. She set us up on a blind date at her restaurant,
Coco’s Cantina, and watched it unfold. “What I didn’t know until afterwards was, when John arrived for our date, it was a really hot day and he was sweating, and so Damaris put him in the chiller and said to the barman, ‘Ignore the six-foot-six guy in the fridge, he just needs to cool down.’ After five minutes she went in to take a look at him and said, ‘Nope, we need another five minutes,’ so by the time I met him he was cool as a cucumber.”
Three hours later they were still chatting, and a few months later, Noelle was living with John in France. They stayed there for five months before moving back to New Zealand together.
“I think one of the big questions for us since we met five years ago has been, ‘Where will we live?’ Europe is a massive part of our story but New Zealand’s a huge part of our story as well, because John was born here and I love it and feel really connected here.”
After the lengthy plane ride home from their wedding, it didn’t take long for the idea of living in the country to take shape. “The day after we got back, John showed me the house on Trade Me and I thought it was amazing. He said it was in Featherston and it was like a light went on in my head, because it’s in the Wairarapa but that little bit closer to Wellington and it has a train station so we can get to the city when we need to.”
They viewed the house the following Monday and by Saturday they had bought it at auction. “As soon as I walked in, I knew. I just felt like I lived there already,” Noelle says, remembering that first walk through the bright yellow kitchen.
“We signed the papers and went back to Auckland and sat in our house there and went, ‘What have we done? Oh my gosh, what we have done?!’”
There wasn’t a lot of time to panic
though. Just a few weeks later, John was driving to the Wairarapa with their belongings crammed into a van. “It was like The Beverly Hillbillies,” says Noelle with a laugh. “He was driving away and I couldn’t see him through the back window. I could see a baby bassinet, the kettle was there, it was just the most hilarious thing to see your possessions driving away.”
Noelle stayed on in Auckland to finish some work and met him in the Wairarapa on December 23 – a significant day. “I woke up the morning of my 40th birthday, did a radio show, got my baby and left Auckland. I felt it was just a really exciting next chapter. It was terrifying but it was great.”
Sense of familiarity
Featherston is a familiar place for
John, who grew up in Wellington. Five generations from his father’s side have lived in the Wairarapa, and his mother now lives there too.
Noelle, who grew up in Cork, says Featherston invokes a surprising sense of home for her too. “This part of the world, with its mountains, pines and the country roads, reminds me a lot of Kerry, which is the county next to Cork where we had our holidays. I have a very strange sense of familiarity when I look out the dining room window at the view in the evenings.”
They have settled into life at the property well, despite some initial fears on Noelle’s part. “Suddenly we had this established garden with fruit trees and I was terrified I’d kill everything! I just stared at John and said, ‘What do I do?’ He handed me the hose and went, ‘Just water it. Water it in the evening, water it in the morning and see that there – that’s a weed, pick it out.’ I pulled up some weeds from the raspberry patch and felt a great sense of achievement.
“It’s a new relationship – we went up to Auckland to visit and when we came back, it had been really hot, and John went to sort of stroke the hydrangeas and give them a drink.”
Unsurprisingly, Noelle and John’s talents are already being called on in the community – John, who was formerly a professional rugby player, has been roped into coaching and Noelle has been involved in the Featherston book festival, Book Town.
The couple are aware that working and living remotely means they will have to take city breaks to “keep the oxygen flowing”, but the long, hot summer saw a steady stream of visitors. “Oh, everyone wants to visit when you live in the country!” says Noelle. “Which is great because we try and rope them into working bees. ‘Welcome! Now, paint the chicken house while you’re here!’”
After living away from Ireland for the better part of 16 years, Noelle is used to communicating by phone and social media with her family and friends. She knows she will need to work on staying in touch with her friends in Auckland too. “It gets hard when you get so out of the flow of people’s daily lives that you have almost too much to catch up on, so it’s really important, I think, just to have a little bit of regular contact.”
And she says a mischievous toddler has been an excellent way to make new friends in the local community. “Having a child means you go to events and the kids talk, so it makes it easier for the adults. I use Eve as my icebreaker!
“People have been super kind, they chat here. When you go to the post office and the supermarket they say, ‘How are you?’ and they actually want you to answer, they have time for that. I know that’s a cliché but it’s true.”
Eve, she says, has loved racing around in the space the countryside provides. “When we were in Auckland she couldn’t really run around. Here, she’s got this massive lawn out front and she can just run and hide in the trees and there’s a swing she can swing on. It’s those simple, physical things.”
When Noelle was pregnant she wrote a letter to Eve in The Australian Women’s Weekly – her wish was that she be “skilled at catching happiness”. So far, she says, this has been well realised.
“She’s pretty amazing at happiness catching. I am sure every parent says it, but she is a joy. She just has so much mischief and delight in the world. She makes every day sort of extraordinary and what I’ve loved about coming down here is seeing it through her eyes. She’s getting to the age now where she can see that a bird is a bird and how magnificent that is. It’s such little things – that feeling you get from making her laugh, like you’re the best person in the world. You know, if I’m being silly and I get a giggle, I just sometimes think I’ve nailed the day.
“I loved becoming a mum in my late 30s. I felt like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ I feel so lucky that things didn’t happen until I was ready.”
“I loved becoming a mum in my late 30s. I felt like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”