Charlie Bird on RTE Washington job: 'My partner was in Ireland - it's hard to keep a relationship going across the Atlantic'
Charlie Bird says his time in the US as Washington correspondent was a lonesome period
Published 10/06/2015 | 10:37
There is something very serene about Charlie Bird in person as opposed to the dogged, determined and often quite stressed looking man who used to appear on our TV screens for RTE news bulletins.
Early retirement, which he took after 38 years with the national broadcaster in 2012, appears to suit him.
"I don't understand the word 'retired'. It's not in my vocabulary," Charlie grins. "I am retired, but I am doing lots of things. In a way, I should have moved from RTE; I shouldn't have spent 38 years there, even though they were the most fantastic years of my life, and I owe everything to RTE and the viewers and listeners for anything that I have achieved in life."
"I consider RTE as my family still, even though I am not in there anymore, but I still visit," Charlie adds. "And I suppose, to be really honest, I still have withdrawal symptoms. I wake up some nights with this recurring kind of stress dream."
However, not being in the thick of breaking news stories, which he did with such gusto for so many years, holds a growing appeal for the 65-year-old.
"Do I want to be standing outside Leinster House today? The answer is no because, for everybody, there is a time and a place and people move on," he explains.
Charlie is now enjoying the enviable freedom he has to take on passion projects. Last year, he travelled to the Arctic for the Irish Times and this year promises even more adventurous work.
And Charlie's travels, which have taken him to both the Arctic and the Antarctic in his time, have left him with a lasting impression about the world and where it is headed.
David Andrews making a call after Bertie Ahern's election to the leadership of Fianna Fail
"In our houses we have all got refrigerators and we couldn't live without them," Charlie explains becoming increasingly animated.
"The Arctic and the Antarctic are the refrigerators of the world and we are fecking them up in a big way and some day, if we don't stop fecking them up, our refrigerators will be broken.
"So, if there is one thing that I am passionate, it is this. I am not an expert, but I am still a journalist, I suppose, so that is one of the things which is keeping me occupied and I love doing."
Before Charlie joined RTE, he had never been on an aeroplane. Now he has been to almost every country in the world.
"I have had some great opportunities. And, you know, I failed all of my exams. I failed my Inter Cert, I failed my Leaving Cert. I failed them because you had to have maths, but I did fail them," he says. "So I always tell people 'don't be afraid'. When I joined RTE I had a dictionary in my pocket. I was nervous and sometimes I would go out to the loo to look at it."
"I think it's really important that young people starting off shouldn't be afraid," Charlie adds softly. "You should just own up to yourself and work to achieve whatever you want to do. Young people especially shouldn't get so stressed out."
Charlie concedes, however, that the breaking-news business was, in his experience, cut-throat, high-stakes and, at times, very lonely.
"Cut-throat is the word for it," he grins. "Every journalist wants to have the scoop; they all want to steal a march on the others. The news cycle now is so short - when I joined the RTE newsroom in 1980 and a story might last a whole day. Jesus, now a story could last a half-an-hour and then you move on, so god knows what happens."
Charlie with Claire Mould
"I think journalism is going through a tough period in one sense, but I think there will always be a need for good journalism," Charlie adds. "Journalism needs new people to come on too, and take over, because we all get a bit tired and you get under pressure. You do things and say my god, and do you want to take that risk again?"
Charlie knows all about taking risks. He was at the epicentre of many high-profile scoops throughout his time with RTE.
"In my own journalism career - all of the battles with the banks and the libel trials - there is no doubt that takes an effect on you and makes you think about whether you want to take that same risk again," he admits. "I ended up for a month down in the High Court, in what is considered the longest single libel trial in the history of the State and it is not something that I would wish on anybody. Things do take a toll on you."
In January 2009, Charlie took up the post of Washington correspondent with RTE News. It was an exciting time in the US, with the election of President Obama and his historic inauguration, but with the benefit of hindsight, Charlie tells me that he regrets the move.
"I shouldn't have gone there," he says, looking me straight in the eye.
"I was at a stage in my life where I was getting tired of standing outside Leinster House; even though I was chief news correspondent, most of my work was standing outside Leinster House in winter and summer - all the time - even when lots of other journalist weren't there.
"I was getting tired of it and also you grow out of things in your late 50s and into your 60s."
"I wasn't political correspondent so I wasn't inside doing that and I wasn't back in RTE. I never wanted to be Brian Dobson, that was never my ambition, and I wouldn't have been any good at it," Charlie explains.
"I was good at nosing out stories and meeting people. So you try and stick to what you are good at, but again in hindsight, I wouldn't have gone to America."
Charlie's time in the US was a lonesome period. "I had two daughters here, one of them was married and she had her first baby, my first grandson came along and I was missing that," he tells me.
"And I had a partner in Ireland; it is hard to keep a relationship going when you are across the Atlantic. So all of those things came together and it was stupid."
"The one piece of advice I always give anyone is if you make a mistake in life ever, admit it; it's the advice I think your mammy would give you.
"If you get into bother, don't keep digging a hole for yourself - get out," Charlie smiles. He interrupts himself to tell me about his admiration for fellow journalist and former news rival Ursula Halligan, who recently came out.
"One of the people who I used to stand on the plinth with in Leinster House all the time was Ursula Halligan and she has done more in one moment to help change this country than I have done in 30 years.
"It had a profound effect on me. I think she has been amazing - her courage and what she did, because from what I know of her, she was the most private person in the world," he says.
"I stood beside her for about 10 or 15 years and sometimes I would be giving out about her, but my god, isn't it just fantastic what she did? I haven't seen her since, but the day I do, I am going to put my arms around her and give her the biggest hug because she deserves it."
I make the observation that Charlie appears, not just his usual very passionate self, but incredibly content and healthy these days.
"I am really happy," he agrees. "I feel great. I do a lot of running and walking now, which I wouldn't have done when I was stuck in the newsroom in RTE."
Perhaps one of the most memorable things about Charlie's career as a news reporter was his ability to convey the devastation of certain events, taking viewers beyond the headlines and right into the story.
I tell Charlie about watching his reports of the Asian tsunami in 2004 and remembering the sheer devastation and honesty on his face, which alluded to what he had witnessed there.
"Some people give out about that," he smiles. "Take, for example, a recent story in the paper about 400 people lost after a boat went missing near China; the loss of those people has a huge ripple effect - they all have friends, relatives, cousins, brothers.
"We see numbers and sometimes we forget that these are real people. That it is not just in black and white and then you move on from it. To be honest, when I started to go away at first, I wouldn't ask people's names.
"So I am guilty of it myself, you would put the camera on and be interviewing this person in a crisis, but soon, you learned that this is a human being and it is so important to ask their name, but we had, in the past, been in such a rush.
"Over the years, I learned to correct my own mistakes. I learned that you had to put a bit of dignity and a face on what you see," Charlie adds.
"One of the last stories I did was the Haiti earthquake. I covered the Pakistan earthquake where 100,000 people died. I was in Sri Lanka to cover the tsunami and I think 15,000 died in Sri Lanka alone. I did so many of these disasters. I can tell you, I know what the smell of death is."
As we conclude, I ask Charlie what is next on his to-do list.
"On Monday, I am leaving Ireland for two weeks for a project and I am not going to tell you what it is," he beams a wry smile in my direction.
"It is something fascinating which will emerge hopefully by the end of the year."
Is he travelling far?
"Very far," he laughs. "I am doing the stuff that I want to do. So this project is not for television or radio, but it will see the light of day in a particular way. There will certainly be some amount of curiosity for people that I am doing this."
So watch this space.
One thing is for sure, we certainly haven't heard the last of Charlie Bird.