Anne Doyle: 'I never had a plan that I would be married with kids by a certain point and it isn't a regret'
Ahead of her return to TV, Anne Doyle invites our writer into her home, and opens up about retired life, why she has no interest in marriage and researching her family's links to the 1916 Rising.
Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30
When I arrive at Anne Doyle's four-storey Georgian house in the centre of Dublin, the former newsreader announces that she's "cranky" and has been all day. To say that this is disconcerting is something of an understatement - as anyone who has ever met her will testify, the former RTÉ newsreader exudes an ice-cool, almost regal presence that strongly suggests she doesn't suffer fools. And that's when she's in a good mood.
Happily, Anne ends up being extremely welcoming, funny and gracious - and I even end up disappointed not to see the "wicked tongue" that she professes to have.
Anne retired on December 25, 2011, a month before she turned 60, and exactly 32 years to the day after her first bulletin. True to form, there was no gushing display of emotion as she took her leave. "And that's the news this Christmas night, from all of us, take care, and from me, it's been a pleasure," she said, warmly. "Good fortune, goodbye."
"I was very happy to retire," she tells me today. "In an ideal world, I would probably have liked to go earlier, but you have to stay with RTÉ until you are 60 to get a pension. It wasn't as strange as it should have been at first, as obviously you lose part of the structure of your day, but I rationally presumed it would be fine and it was. It could have been awful, but it just felt right for me.
"I used to go in to work around 2pm, so I always had the mornings to myself, and I'd finish at 9.30pm so I was a creature of the night. My job wasn't glamorous or exciting like people presumed it was, but it was a good, satisfying job and generally speaking, I did the best I could, and I'm content with that."
When she left, Cillian de Paor, who was then MD of RTÉ News and Current Affairs, said that Anne's on-screen professionalism made her a favourite with audiences. "We know her for other things," he added. "For her wit, her lively personality, her legendary loyalty to friends, her meticulousness and her formidable skills in argument."
In tandem with Anne's long career, many changes took place out in Montrose, both in broadcasting and technological advances under the watch of many different management regimes. Would it be safe to assume that Anne, who at one point was the staff representative on the RTÉ Authority, deployed those "formidable skills in argument" at various junctures of such changes?
"I would always fight my corner," she nods. "If I was to be critical of myself, maybe I was a bit overly-confrontational as I have a wicked tongue sometimes and can get myself into trouble. Sometimes I was a bit silly and bristled a little too much, as we all have to get used to change. When things settle, you think, 'What was I so annoyed about?' And while I wouldn't have a problem apologising if I was really wrong or did something stupid or impulsive, coming to that realisation is the tricky bit. If it dawns on you 10 years later that you were a bit harsh with someone, there's really no point in saying sorry. But with a bit of luck, the enemy is long gone anyway."
Anne says that RTÉ was good to her and she made great friends there - indeed, she gave former colleague Aengus MacGrianna away at his wedding to Terry Gill in 2014. She speaks very warmly of the organisation, and says that she strongly believes in public service broadcasting.
"Overall I found it a good place to work, but in later years, it did get to be too much of a treadmill," she admits. "I did a lot of radio, so I was just reading headlines every half an hour, so by the time it came to the nine o'clock news, I was ready to go home. News reading can be a bit lonely and isolated as you are usually a solo flier, but it was always interesting and gave me an opportunity to do something worthwhile."
These days, Anne (63) describes herself as a "very boring person" who reads a lot, keeps a nature diary, and enjoys the company of her friends and a bit of craic.
Originally from Wexford, she grew up a couple of miles outside Ferns as the youngest of John and Lizzie Doyle's seven children. She was a bit of a tomboy as a child - there were 11 years and five brothers between herself and her sister Eilís. As a result, she didn't grow up shy of the opposite sex.
"I've always had an understanding of the weaker sex," she jokes. "My five brothers regularly had friends over, so I was used to men. I was brave as a child, much braver than I am now, and I got away with a lot being the youngest. I was quite independent, and my mother was very good and sensible - she took a chance with letting me do things that she didn't approve of because she knew she couldn't lock me up."
Anne's father was a quiet man who worked as a farm labourer on other people's farms, and like her mum, he left school at 12 or 13 to go to work. "Daddy was a man from the past," she says. "He was a ploughman but never learned to drive, and the industrial revolution kind of passed us by. He didn't get to have an education, but I think he would have enjoyed an opportunity for intellectual development.
"My father was old-fashioned, but my mother, who was 11 years younger, was more modern and a real free spirit. She was fabulous and great craic, and was unusual-looking as she was really sallow with almost blue-black hair. She was very lucky, as she seemed to have the gift of happiness."
While her parents were happily married, interestingly six out of seven of the Doyle children didn't marry. Why does she think that's the case? "We were really happy when we were children, so I wonder if that made it hard?" she muses. "Our mother never focused on the marriage and children side of things, because all she cared about was that we got a good job and were independent. She would have loved to be a solicitor, but she had seven children and little choice.
"I don't think I ever really wanted to get married," she adds. "Maybe when I was in the first flush of some love affair, I might have thought about it but I never followed anything through. It just didn't figure on my agenda. I wasn't against it, but I also didn't have positive inclination towards it, and if you don't, then you are probably as well leaving those things alone."
Even so, Anne's stance might be considered somewhat unusual as she has been in a relationship with restaurateur Dan McGrattan for around 12 years, and had several serious relationships before that, one lasting almost 20 years. Her much-publicised, six-month relationship with former minister Jim McDaid caused a bit of a stir in 1998 as he was a married man. "I don't regret anything," she said afterwards. "There were no lighthouses to guide us."
Today, she lives with McGrattan, whom she describes as "a lovely man". They don't spend a huge amount of time together, however, as Dan is busy putting in long hours running his bar and restaurant, McGrattan's, on Fitzwilliam Lane. Anne, who doesn't drive and used to take a taxi (paid by herself) to RTÉ every day, will often wander over to have dinner with him in the evening.
"Our paths don't cross hugely, which can be lonely at times, but in some ways, it suits me," she says. "I know it works for some people, but I couldn't imagine a life where you do everything together as I'm too set in my ways. Dan is a very nice, practical man, and he's very smart. While I don't agree with him on everything, he never gives a stupid opinion, and I may even think later on reflection that he might even have had a point.
"I wouldn't be too difficult to live with - maybe I'm a bit cranky at times, but I don't set out to be difficult. Life amuses me really, and I have a sharp tongue and find my own little quirky things that amuse me. I'm happy and I enjoy life."
Anne says that while she isn't particularly romantic, she is not against it. Dan isn't romantic either, but he would be known to buy a bunch of flowers and to mark special occasions. "He might leave a few bob in the house for me to buy myself something," she deadpans. "Now that's what I call romance."
Anne's one married sibling is her brother Tom, who lives in Cork with his wife Pat. Anne loves her two nieces, and four grandnephews.
Would she have liked to have had children herself? "I never really had a wish to have children, sure I'm a child myself," she laughs. "I never had a plan that I would be married with kids by a certain point. It just wasn't in my head, and looking back, it isn't a regret. My eldest niece, Clare, is very like my mother and Martha is probably more like the Doyle side. They're tiny little girls and very pretty."
Anne's connection to her family and their heritage is one of the reasons why she was delighted to take part in Ireland's Rising, a new four-part series for RTÉ One. It sees Ryan Tubridy, Jim McGuinness, Fiona Shaw and Anne return to their ancestral home to explore its connections with 1916. For Anne, filming took place in Wexford, where one of the most significant Risings outside of Dublin took place in Enniscorthy.
Her own family were farm labourers in 1916, and her grandfather John was 35 at that time. For the TV series, she visited the farm he worked on to find out more about his daily life, and spent time at Ballinahallen Woods to gain an insight into what it might have felt like for the Ferns Volunteers, who waited there as confusion reigned as to whether the Rising was going ahead or not.
"I think it's a lovely programme," she says. "It was a really interesting and moving experience for me, and it was emotional as Wexford is still very much my home place. I have been gone 46 years, but my roots go very deep there."
Anne went to Ferns National School and then boarded at Loreto Abbey in Gorey on a county council sponsorship. It was "OK" and, while she didn't have a bad experience or find the regime difficult, she would much preferred to have stayed at home. There was no coming home at weekends back then, despite being only 10 miles away, and as she points out: "Really, once you leave home for school, you're gone."
"I never dreamed of telling my parents I didn't want to go because it was just the way things were in those days," she says. "You were getting a shot at something they never got, so you weren't going to screw it up for them. Depending on when Easter fell, you could have 13 weeks at one go without going home. We were allowed to have a visit at weekends, but the roads of Ireland were useless back then so many girls didn't have a lot of visits. Luckily my sister Eilís was great, and she would have ferried in my mum or my aunt to see me."
Straight after her Leaving Cert in 1969, a 17-year-old Anne came to Dublin to study English and History at UCD. Her sister was a national school teacher, but Anne didn't want to go that route. She managed to play for time by convincing her mum she could do an arts degree and then a HDip to become a secondary school teacher - that way she wouldn't have to learn sewing and singing, which her mother knew weren't exactly her strengths.
"My plan was to avoid work as far as possible," she says. "The big thing was that if you got the call to be a teacher, you took it, but I knew I wasn't cut out for it because I wasn't great with children."
Anne was booked in to stay at a kind of hostel for young people run by the nuns for the first year, but she ended up being "fecked out" after Christmas. She moved into a bedsit in a student house in Harold's Cross, where she had a ball.
"I was always coming in late and maybe I was a bit cheeky, but I can't exactly remember," she says of her eviction. "It wasn't forceful, but they suggested that I would be better off living elsewhere. Thank God they didn't tell my parents though, and there were loads of students living in the house and we had a great time. It wasn't continual assessment in those days, so you could just cram at the end to pass. I don't recommend that as an education, but it gave me a hell of a good time. I had a boyfriend who was very good and knew how to study where I hadn't got a clue, so really I got my exams thanks to him. We crammed together and luckily I had a good short-term memory."
After she completed her degree and HDip, Anne went to work in a library, and then got a job in the Department of Foreign Affairs for four years. She was doing a very mundane job to do with the upkeep of Irish embassies around the world when she applied for an advertised newsreader position in RTÉ aged 26. After several auditions she got the job, but found going into news cold with no broadcasting experience difficult. "It was a 'be careful what you wish for' situation, because I was thinking, 'How the hell am I going to do this?'" she says. "Everyone else there was long-established and knew what they were doing."
Now out the other end of a successful career that spanned three decades, retirement is clearly suiting Anne. Getting older doesn't bother her, either, as she says that not everyone gets the privilege of growing old. Indeed, Anne's beloved mum died suddenly aged 64 the year after she joined RTÉ. Her father had passed away three years earlier, in 1975. Her sister Eilís died of cancer aged 48 in 1989, and her eldest brother John of the same illness in 2000 - both deaths deeply affected Anne.
Now, only herself, Phil, Pat, Joe and Tom remain. "Even with this new show, I found myself saying, 'Eilís or John would have known that,' and you actually forget for a second that they're not around to ask," she says. "My sister didn't drink or smoke and had a healthy lifestyle, so I protect myself by not living too cleanly!"
I wonder would she reconsider both the clean living and the retired status in favour of a high profile job - perhaps one in Áras an Uachtaráin? "The current President is very well settled, and I would say there will be lots of aspirants there," she says plainly. "To be honest, at this stage I wouldn't really run for anything, and that's not because I think it's only for the young and the rest of us should lie down and die.
"I was asked to be an ambassador for UNICEF recently, so I'm looking forward to working and travelling with them. I'm not trying to sound like a do-gooder, but being retired does give you time to give back. I have been lucky, as a lot of people born in my time in a similar background wouldn't have got the breaks I got, and without the breaks, you get nothing. Everything I got was more down to that than native wit or cunning."
Photographs by Tony Gavin
The four-part 'Ireland's Rising', begins on RTÉ One on November 29 at 8.30pm