Monday 24 July 2017

Miriam O'Callaghan: Home and Away

Sarah Caden

Although she gets regular offers to go back to the BBC, Miriam O'Callaghan feels she's been there and done that. Anyway, she feels she's finally cracked the broadcasting lark with RTE.

But it all comes at a cost, she tells Sarah Caden, because whatever you think your kids want, they want you to be at home with them. Yet, as much as she loves them and her husband Steve, she values her independence and recognises you can't live for your kids. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes

'I'm on my way to see the Queen," says Miriam O'Callaghan with a laugh, "and all I'm thinking is, 'Did I put ham in Conor's lunch this morning?' Because that's what he told me he wanted."

"And, no, I didn't!" she exclaims. "I gave him cheese. He said he didn't want cheese, and I gave him cheese. I don't think most men would worry about ham or cheese or anything like that too much on their way to a significant work meeting."

Miriam is not moaning. She is a person who is acutely and actively aware of her good fortune in having eight children, a husband she adores and a job she thoroughly enjoys and for which she is appreciated. Miriam also understands, however, that the roles of mother, wife and broadcaster make demands on her that she's never sure she fully meets, or ever will. She's pulled in several directions, she will "stress the small stuff and, she wonders if she's doing the right thing for everyone, every day. Like every other woman, then, despite the manner in which it is assumed that Miriam O'Callaghan is the woman who has it all.

A "mad feminist" at heart, Miriam has given much thought over the years to the differences between men and women and how we operate in the world. As the mother of eight children -- four girls with journalist Tom McGurk and four boys with her second husband, Steve Carson -- she has also seen up close the contrasting "hard-wiring" of the genders from the get-go. And she is no closer to offering any absolute answers.

"Boys start out so innocent, and they never know where they've left their shoes, and they're happy if you just give them a hot chocolate and put them in front of the television," she says, "but then they end up running the world. I'm still not quite sure, and maybe never will be, how that happens, but it's just how it is. Maybe it's because we [women] want to have babies and the world isn't yet structured enough to allow women to have babies and cope with work. There's too much pressure, but, then, women put too much pressure on themselves."

"Men don't sit in work thinking about who's going to bring the boys to soccer or who's picking them up after school," she adds. "And I'm married to the best husband, the best father, who is fantastic with doing homework with them and brilliantly hands-on, but I will never come in late from Prime Time and find the dishwasher has been emptied. A man just doesn't see that, doesn't think of it. And, yeah, if you don't have the shopping done or the washing done, the world isn't going to end, but I stress that small stuff. Women do."

Miriam's phone rings several times and beeps regularly with texts in the time we spend together. She checks it each time, explaining that the only time she worries about a repeat call -- or answers it -- is if it is from a child. She's a woman practically glued to her phone, famously an ardent tweeter and a constant texter. The children, she laughs to admit, get many texts a day telling them she loves them, and Steve, RTE's Director of Television, receives many more daily, informing him of the same. The break-up of her first marriage, in the mid-Nineties, which was closely followed by the death from cancer of her 33-year-old sister, Anne, convinced Miriam that you must never take life or love for granted. You must count your blessings, she believes, and you must be free with your feelings, even if, Miriam adds, you then run the risk of being cast as an over-emotional woman.

"The reason I text Steve so much is that he does the same throughout the day to me," she explains. "He is the rock in my life, the foundation stone from which my happiness arises. I adore all my children, but Steve's unqualified love gives me the security and the emotional energy to be able to give all eight the love they need. I am eternally grateful that I found him in my life."

Steve Carson often tells Miriam that she shouldn't publicly count her blessings too often because things can go wrong and life can surprise you, but she knows the flipside of happiness, too. And it is this that people understand about her, Miriam says, when absolutely forced to examine why she is embraced as Ireland's foremost female broadcaster. Her success, particularly as a woman broadcaster, is astonishing, encompassing current affairs, on Prime Time, through radio, with Miriam Meets, and into her annual summer TV chat show, Saturday Night With Miriam.

"People know it's hard won, though," she says. "They know I've had dark times. But I am really lucky. I've been lucky eight times with my children, and in work, I'm in a very privileged position and I'm extremely well paid. There isn't a moment that I'm not aware of that, but, my God, I worked hard for it. So that's what I say to other women; go for your dream. And be economically independent. You might never use it, but, without it, you're trapped."

We meet on the afternoon before Miriam O'Callaghan is presenting the RTE coverage of the Queen's evening at Dublin Castle. It's a key event in the monarch's four-day visit to Ireland, and Miriam is, to many minds, the only person for the job. She'll be wearing green, she tells me, will be opening the procedings in Irish, and is really looking forward to the Queen's speech. "For me," Miriam says, "having spent so much of my career in the sitting rooms of predominantly working-class Northern Irish people whose children had been killed, on either side, I'm finding the whole visit amazing."

"And," she laughs, "hasn't it been sweet to see two women, the Queen and Mary McAleese, leading the way and being followed by two men? Ha!"

Scratch the surface, and Miriam O'Callaghan is all about the sisterhood. The week after we meet, she's due to cover Barack Obama's visit to Moneygall, where she's likely to meet the man himself, but she's most excited about meeting his wife, Michelle. When she talks to groups of women around the country, as often she does, she always says that women have to band together and support one another.

She believes that any perceived rift between women who work inside and outside the home is a misconception, that both sides understand the slog of the other. And when women approach her to talk about her work and tell her what they think, she always leaps on those who say, "Oh, I only work in the home," to remind them that everyone knows that it's the hardest job in the world.

"And relentless!" Miriam adds, "And thankless, and arduous. Staying home and minding your kids is the best thing you can do. I think women, like me, who work outside the home, are fooling themselves when they think, 'It's OK, they're happy, they're fine with me working.' They aren't. They really want you at home. And I don't just work because I enjoy it; I work because I do need to. I have eight children, I need the money, but even if I didn't, I would probably make the selfish decision to work, because I love what I do.

"But every day," Miriam goes on, "my five-year-old will say, 'Mummy, where are you going? Do you have to work today?' And if he's up late, and if he happens to see me on telly, apparently he'll say, 'Mummy is so slow coming home today.'"

Still, Miriam doesn't do regrets. She accepts her choices and she accepts that her choices have consequences and that's liberating, she says. She wouldn't change a single choice, but, she'll admit, that having eight children, ranging from 23-year-old Alannah down to five-year-old Jack, is the ultimate life-shaping choice.

"It is," Miriam says, "and sometimes you feel you don't get to breathe enough. I take a deep breath when I walk in the front door, because you have to give equal attention to everyone there. Even if half the time I just want to walk in and lie down on the bed."

"The notion that they need less time as they get older isn't true, either," she continues. "I actually think they need more time as they get older. Because they need you to sit down and talk about life with them and give them all of your mental attention. But, then, they also need you to give them space. I hate talking about children, because I hate people who preach to other parents, but my way has always been to give them a lot of space and freedom."

The daughter of a civil servant father and a school principal mother, Miriam is one of five O'Callaghan children, all of whom were reared to do well academically and behave themselves properly. And Miriam respects the strict manner in which she was brought up, but has chosen to be "more liberal than most" in her own parenting. If the girls, Alannah, Clara, Jessica and Georgia, ask to go to Wesley or some such, Miriam's first instinct is to allow them. Then she warns them that if she hears of any drinking or carry-on, or catches them out in a lie, she'll be "down on them like a ton of bricks".

"And, to be honest," she says, touching wood, "nothing terrible has happened so far and my mother only commented recently on how sensible Alannah is."

"I worry about them," Miriam continues, "but you have to live your own life, too. I worry about women who live their life for their children. Because they grow up. And they grow up so fast. I even notice it now with my 12- and 13-year-old boys; they love me and they love their dad, but, frankly, they already have their friends. So I think if you live only through your children, you could be lonely later. It's like birds; you're equipping them to fly away, hoping they will then come back to you."

In between travelling to Cork to cover the Queen's visit there, and then heading to Offaly with Barack Obama, Miriam was planning to take in a weekend in London with her husband. He was going there for a funeral and suggested she join him, and she jumped at it, without any thought for how exhausted she might be.

"No, I don't think like that," she insists. "Life is too short and I want to fill it as much as possible. And I love the idea of a weekend in London with Steve, catching up on old friends we worked with on Newsnight and taking a break."

Any move back to England is entirely out of the question, though, Miriam insists, even though offers still come with great regularity. "No, England doesn't interest me," she says, "because that's where I started my career. I feel I've done that."

As a young woman who trained in law, Miriam O'Callaghan's first job in television was as a researcher on This is Your Life. She then moved into current affairs and, ultimately, got her "dream job", on Newsnight. "I was a staff member of the BBC for 10 years," she explains, "and when I decided to leave, I was about to present Newsnight, so it wasn't because things weren't going well. It was for personal and family reasons, but I've never regretted it.

"I understand that people want to go to the BBC because it is, in theory, the best broadcaster in the world -- though I like RTE just as much -- but I have no desire to go back there. People start here and then they look at the BBC and think they haven't quite made it unless they go there, but I've been there. I've been on the best current affairs show in Europe; I've made it. And all our friends from Newsnight are now running the place and I'm offered serious stuff, a big radio offer the other day, but, no, I've no interest.

"And maybe I should pretend and use it as some sort of bargaining tool, but I have no interest. Anyway," she laughs, "I literally need a double vodka before I fly, so it's out of the question. I'm happy here, I like my home, my family are happy here; I'm satisfied."

Realising, with a laugh, that she's probably jinxing herself by saying it, Miriam claims that she feels recently that she's finally cracked the broadcasting lark. It feels like she's with the people in their living rooms, and it's a good feeling. She loves Prime Time and loves the seasonal chat show, but she really, truly loves the radio and Miriam Meets. "Or Miriam Weeps, as I've heard it called," she jokes.

"I love it, I think I prefer it," she says. "It's easier for me to do a radio interview because all the optics are gone. TV is in your face and it's instant, but, for a female presenter, you know that half the time people are thinking about whether they like your dress, or if your hair looks right, and they're not listening to what you're saying. They can do nothing but listen with radio, and I love that.

"I have to stop making people cry, though," she adds. Steve always tells people, socially, to plead the Fifth Amendment, the right to silence, when Miriam inevitably homes in on some childhood loss or trauma and begins to quiz them on it. "I find things like that very interesting," she explains. "So, for me, the radio show is a transferral of my own life into the radio studio."

An avid reader of the bad reviews as well as the good, Miriam points out that her tendency to focus on the emotional has been criticised, and not without reason. "There was an interview where I didn't need to go on about how much the father and son loved each other, but then," she says, "that's how I go on in my own life, but I need to change that on air. I do constantly tell people I love them, but you can overdo that professionally."

Life, love and work, it's all about keeping the balance. Not constantly, that's impossible, but as much as one is able. As much as one woman is able, even a woman as able as Miriam O'Callaghan.

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