Claire Byrne: 'I'm never going to be the type of person who was going to stay at home and that's it'
Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30
Claire Byrne is having a Cinderella moment. Summoned to the recent RTÉ autumn schedule launch in Dublin, she has skilfully MCd the event, joined a huddle of blondes for the photoshoot, and then skedaddled, leaving behind only a room full of praise and a smudge of shocking pink lippy on her water glass.
The red carpet is unfurled, the selfies are being snapped, Tubridy and Miriam are still working the crowd, but Claire - the station's golden girl since she topped the polls with her handling of the pre-election Leader's Debate earlier this year - is nowhere to be found amongst the glitterati, and the detritus.
And then: "Meet in Marker" flashes up on my phone, before the addendum: "Sorry, that message wasn't finished! Blunt!". And I find Claire, sitting poised in a quiet corner of the hotel adjacent to the RTÉ launch venue. And she's happy, very happy, to have "escaped the other journos" as the media bandwagon outside continues on regardless.
Does she spend much time with the other RTÉ presenters? Not really. "When you're working, you're really only with your team. Those are the people that matter to you." Byrne says much by saying little.
In January 2015, Byrne returned to work at the national broadcaster 10 weeks after the birth of her second baby, to launch the television current affairs show, Claire Byrne Live, and present Saturday with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1. And in that time, she has blossomed. All dressed up for the launch when we meet, she looks fabulous - her blonde bob is thick and sharp, and the mauve tones of her dress are enlivened with what remains of that shocking pink lippy. Rumour has it she styles herself.
"I have a little mantra - keep it simple; no patterns; nothing flouncy; make sure things fit. I have a duty to look well presented [for my job] so I'm not a distraction," she says.
But what is really comforting for those who watch our television stars stay frozen in time while the rest of us age, is that the 41-year-old Laois native also looks real.
"I don't have time for all that anti-ageing stuff," Byrne says. "I'm just not that kind of person, I'm not that into it. I have better things to be doing with my time."
Doesn't ageing in the eye of the hypercritical nation worry her? "I don't think about it. You're there because you can do your job, but if you're that uncomfortable about [how you look on camera], you shouldn't be in the job in the first place."
Reconciling yourself with the ageing process, she says, is about "being confident and comfortable that you're not going to look 21 any more".
"I don't think I'd like to look 21 again anyway. I was an idiot then. I'd hate to think that I needed to look like 21 or even 31 in order to be able to do my job," Byrne says.
In the past Byrne has said that women in TV get "tossed aside" as they get older. Today, she says that isn't necessarily true. "You see it in other countries though, where the rolling sports coverage is presented by 22-year-old women with long hair who are stunningly beautiful - which is fine, but if you've got no diversity then that's not fine."
Byrne might have made a Cinderella dash away from the limelight at the RTÉ schedule launch earlier, but her polite reticence places her closer to Frozen's Princess Elsa on the Disney princess scale. She is at all times mindful of her professional duty to appear impartial, and her personal duty to ensure that her private life remains just that - private. It's as if the real Claire Byrne is always encased elsewhere, like a steel panic room, or an icy palace.
"There are so many bits to me…" she trails off when asked to describe herself. Yet when I have interviewed Byrne in the past, she has described herself variously as "motivated, industrious, not very well organised" and "destructive when I'm bored". Today she just laughs and offers: "I'm just someone who destroys good clothes in the washing machine."
As her career has progressed, and areas of her private life have been mined in the press, Byrne has become ever more sphynx-like. Undoubtedly, she has strident views on the Olympics ticket touting scandal, and on issues such as Repeal the 8th, but the public are never going to glean them.
That's not to say she shies away from the difficult questions. As a public service broadcaster, Byrne says, "you have to ask the question everyone is screaming at the TV for you to ask, but it has to be fair and it can't be personally insulting."
Recently, there was controversy over RTÉ's failure to ask Olympic Council of Ireland board member Sonia O'Sullivan to comment on the Rio ticket touting allegations, when she appeared as a commentator during the broadcasters' Olympics coverage. Byrne says she "would have to have asked the question".
"I would have said to producers, we have to ask the question and let her [Sonia] say 'I can't talk about that' for whatever reason. But there may have been reasons why that was not done. I don't know and I'm not privy to that."
The middle child of a family of five sisters and one brother, Byrne grew up on a farm in Mountrath, Co Laois. She attended local, single-sex schools before heading to UCD in 1993 to study sociology and politics. As an 18-year-old, she says, she was daunted by the size of the university and dropped out, before opting to take up journalism at the then Rathmines School of Journalism.
Her journalism career took her to the Channel Islands and on to England, before she was lured back to Ireland with a presenting job at TV3. In 2006 she left to join Newstalk's breakfast current affairs programme (the TV station took legal proceedings to restrain her from broadcasting elsewhere for three months after her notice period had expired) before her move to RTÉ.
Earlier this year, Byrne was praised when she chaired the broadcaster's leaders debate ahead of the general election. At the time, RTÉ's managing editor of television current affairs, David Nally, described her as having "an innate sense of fairness". "If that's true," she says, "I'd be very happy with that on my tombstone. If I have a tombstone. I'll probably get cremated."
Byrne was recently also crowned queen of the radio waves, as the new JNLR listenership figures showed her Saturday radio show to be surging ahead, with 6,000 new listeners bringing her to a total of 244,000. However, the leader's debate remains the high water mark in her career.
"It was such an adrenalin rush. It was just electric. I was trying to keep everything calm, and not have it look like I was paddling like crazy underneath - which I was a little bit," she says. Preparations for the debate were all going as planned until the head of news and current affairs at RTÉ came to wish her well. Then the head of RTÉ came to wish her well. Then the chairperson of RTÉ, Moya Doherty, came to wish her well - and Byrne really began to feel the pressure.
"I actually felt like saying: 'Would you all ever go away?' At one stage when they came to wish me well, I was wearing a jumper and jeans and I was asked was I going to get changed. I said: 'I better ramp this up'."
Byrne has no mantras or mnemonics for preparing for a live show. She says she has learned over time that she is not going to win by panicking, so she just has to "put a lid on it" and pretend she's not nervous. "And the more you pretend, the more you don't have to pretend, and you begin to act."
A few days before the leaders' debate, however, she was in a panic. "I said to myself, if I mess this up it's all over… everything I've worked for is over. I was in a mini crisis and I thought, 'Right, you've done the work, just do it now and do it well. And forget about this cry-baby nerves thing. Just get on with it."
It is likely that when the time comes for the country to address the 8th Amendment issue, Byrne will be called on by RTÉ to step up once again. Did she follow the recent @TwoWomenTravel tweets, which purported to chart, on Twitter, the progress of a journey from Ireland to Britain for an abortion? She didn't. (Byrne reportedly shut down her Twitter account in 2013 to get away from the high level of abuse from trolls. Since then she says she "never reads anything that is written about me".)
However, she says: "I was aware it was happening, because I sought it out. But that is an area I am going to have to be very sensitive about, because there is going to be a referendum, and when that happens I've got to be straight down the middle."
We find a safe haven in the topic of wedding dresses instead. Byrne, who was married previously to British radio executive Richard Johnson, tied the knot with Microsoft consultant Gerry Scollan on June 23 this year. The couple have two children, Patrick (3) and Jane (2).
When their marriage plans were mooted in the past, Byrne said that she had no time for wedding dresses. But when the big day came, she ended up with two of them.
"It was really very simple," Byrne says. "Myself and Gerry went to the registry office in Dublin at 10.30 in the morning and got married. My best friend and one of his best friends were witnesses, and that was it. My family knew we had a celebration planned for later in the day and I didn't want to drag them all over Dublin, and that took the pressure off us too because it was done, we were married, the formal bit was over. I was going to wear a pair of jeans, completely dress down, but then I thought, 'Am I doing a disservice to the occasion if I dress down?', and then I spotted the dress and thought - that's the one. It was easy to wear but not casual. It was a Louise Kennedy shift dress, it was easy peasy."
The four had a glass of Champagne and then Byrne was off with her friend to get ready for the formal wedding reception taking place at 4pm that day.
"I did wear a proper dress for that, but even [finding that dress] was easy," she says. "I went to Knightsbridge in the Powerscourt Centre [in Dublin] with two of my sisters and the fittings were very relaxed. I didn't want any fuss or stress and I didn't want it to be a big circus around 'TV presenter gets married' because that wasn't what it was."
Had she sworn her wedding guests to secrecy? "Not really. People respected the fact that it was quiet," she says.
So the first the nation heard about the wedding was when Ivan Yates slipped it into his Newstalk broadcast that he was off to his friend Claire Byrne's wedding that rainy summer afternoon. And aside from two official photos of the bride and groom released from the event, that's about all we are going to hear about it, too.
Byrne says that she "just didn't want to be doing interviews beforehand, saying 'Oh my dress is from here and my shoes are from here'. In truth, she says, she wore a four-year-old pair of shoes which were "perfectly fine" for the day. "I just didn't want it to be about the stuff. It was about the two of us getting married, and our children. It wasn't necessarily that I was keeping it quiet, but I was really pleased that it was so quiet," she says, laughing.
Byrne believes that people who are in the public eye often "overestimate how much other people care" about what public figures are doing. "People don't want me in their face telling them what underpants I am wearing on any given day. If you're out there all the time… You're already on the television and the radio - do you really need to be out all the time talking about your private life? You'd sicken people.
"I just bore myself. My life is going to work and getting dinner on the table and getting the clothes washed - it's ordinary. It's not glamorous. It's trying to raise children and not lose it when they put the plug in the sink and have it overflowing all over the carpet just as you are leaving for work - which is what happened yesterday when I was meant to be in charge.
"In retrospect you say, 'Oh this child is growing and learning to do new things, but at the time you just think [of the child] 'You've been put on this earth to make my life really difficult!'" The day after her wedding, she says, is a case in point. "We went back to the children at 12 the next day and they were screaming and… I threw my wedding dress into the washing machine," she says, half with horror, half with glee.
"We had been dancing all night and it was just rancid at the bottom and it was hanging there getting in the way. I thought, 'I can't deal with this now.' So I put it in the washing machine. It was symptomatic of me being slightly in shock the next day. But that's life," she says, adding that the dress didn't fare so well.
The couple do plan to have a honeymoon - in about 15 years' time when the children are grown. Talking about her children, it's clear Byrne is full of the complexities all working mothers experience, but for her, the choice between being a working mum or a stay-at-home mum is clear cut.
"I'm never going to be the type of person who was going to stay at home and that's it," she says emphatically. "That's just it. I don't apologise for that. I think my children will appreciate that when they get older. They're secure and they are loved but I'm a working mother and that's how it is.
"If you want to leave working mothers out of the workforce, that would be a grave mistake."
She continues: "I've been off for the summer and my son said to me this morning: 'What are you doing?' I said: 'I have to get ready to go to work.' And he said: 'No, you're going to make sausages for me!' I thought: 'OK, it's Monday morning and I need to get back to work because this child thinks my job is just to make sausages for him.'"
It's not that it isn't difficult, however. "You get to the end of the weekend and think: 'I'm really glad to be going to work.' And then that brings its own guilt. And then you get to the end of a working day and you're just so, so delighted to have time with them. I can already see that I'm going to look back on this period and just think 'that was a blur'. She hasn't yet decided what type of schooling the children will receive. "I went to single sex Catholic schools and that's the only type of education I know. I'm reluctant to make decisions about their education until I get to know my children."
It's that "very straightforward, Irish rural upbringing" that keeps her on track - an experience she shares with her husband Gerry. "We want our children to grow up with this honesty, no airs and graces or sense of privilege. I want to give my children every opportunity, but they will know - just as I did - that someone has had to work very hard for it. Myself and Gerry were brought up like that - to know damn well how much hard work went into achieving what we have achieved."
'Claire Byrne Live' begins on Monday, September 5, at 10.35pm on RTÉ One. 'Saturday with Claire Byrne' returns to RTÉ Radio 1 on September 24
Photography by Naomi Gaffey