Mairéad Ronan: 'Why do we have to make excuses for working, having a career or staying at home?'
TV presenting, radio producing, starting a business, 10km races… 2016 has been Mairéad Ronan's busiest year to date - and that's all before she gave birth to baby Eliza. But juggling everything involves hard work and sacrifice, as she tells our reporter
I am sitting in the plush reception of Iconic offices in Dublin's Merrion Street awaiting the arrival of broadcaster, presenter and producer Mairéad Ronan (née Farrell).
I have listened to her over the years on Today FM as D'Arcy's right-hand woman: that easy charm, that sharp wit, that unmistakable cackle that would rival that of any cockney barmaid - she has become the funny, gregarious girl-next-door that we can all relate to.
On RTÉ's The Panel, she held her own among the male comedians and took on Gráinne Seoige in a verbal catfight. There was playful repartee, some of it cutting, but they hugged it out.
In person, she is exactly the same; her manner familiar, friendly, unfiltered and frank. But above all, she's smart. Sometimes it's lightly worn, sometimes masked with humour - but make no mistake, she is a savvy media envoy.
When she arrives through the door with her new husband Louis Ronan and baby Eliza, who was born in September, she gives me a huge hug and hands me her daughter to mind while she gets prepped for photos. I immediately feel like I'm sitting down with an old friend. There is talk of her baby bump and having to 'squeeze' herself into some outfits, but just six-weeks post-partum when we meet, dressed in skinny jeans, cowboy boots and a cashmere jumper, she looks incredible, and very svelte. Her hair is remarkable: full, healthy, shiny with serious bounce.
"It's the breastfeeding," she laughs. "I've also just blow-dried it using my new magical brushes," she adds waving a brush in the air - on to business straight away. Mairéad, together with business partner Debbie Lawless, launched a new line of blow-dry brushes FARO (half Farrell, half Ronan) in April of this year, which are selling out everywhere, and have become the hot topic of beauty bloggers.
No such thing as taking it easy during her pregnancy then? "I've been the busiest this year that I've ever been," she remarks of her hectic schedule that has included producing The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show, filming Ireland's Fittest Families, travelling and filming Getaways for RTÉ and BBC NI, and launching her hairbrush line.
And what of having a baby at 36, nearly 10 years after her son Dara was born? "Bizarrely, it was much easier this time around, probably due to the fact that I'm much fitter now than I was in my 20s," - Mairéad is a self-confessed fitness junkie. Who can forget her taking on the world's fittest woman in a cross fit challenge for The D'Arcy Show? She joked about her tired physique due to her '6am gym start' and her 'weak wrists' but kept pace nonetheless.
This year she ran a 10k race when she was 19 weeks pregnant. Running is her thing, she 'hates' it sometimes but it's the best option when you're time-poor. "You can throw on your runners and slip out the door for 20 minutes, there's no driving to the gym."
Her passion for fitness made her the perfect choice for RTÉ's Fittest Families, her favourite gig to date. "There are so many reality shows on TV at the moment that have a mean element. Take the X-Factor and the early auditions where people embarrass themselves and they're ridiculed. I think people are tired of that now. Fittest Families doesn't have that mean element, families may be killing each other but they do the work and the winner is the winner. It's also almost live which means it can't be done again so, if someone falls flat on their face, that's being filmed, it's not scripted or fake in any way."
But does she think our fixation with health has gone too far? "I do think we're a little obsessed but there are worse things to be fixated on. Where we have lost our way is in cooking."
She was delighted to see that the menu they suggested for the celebrity version of Operation Transformation this year was normal, things she ate in school. "Karl Spain was given a brown bread sandwich with chicken, tomatoes and lettuce. OK, he took it too far by eating that every day for a week, but it's food I had growing up, what's wrong with it?" she says, a little irked. I'm guessing she doesn't own a juicer. "I can't be bothered with food fads, although I do like quinoa. Kale can take a hike, it's horrible," she wrinkles her nose. "I think the point is, just cook from scratch."
Beneath this down-to-earth, easy-going exterior there is a certain steeliness, a hard-working ethic that has catapulted Mairéad from coffee maker to producer of The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show, one of the country's most popular morning radio slots, with TV appearances in between. She seems to achieve her dreams by sheer force of will - it makes you wonder if there's any room for self-doubt.
"I was riddled with self-doubt up to two years ago," she admits. "I remember sitting in a hairdresser's and reading this article about a woman who claimed she had imposter syndrome and thinking 'that's me'. That, at any moment, someone was going to come up to me and say, 'You've been caught out, you're not as good as you said you were, or we thought you were. Please clear out your desk and leave.' I'm confident now, but years ago, I didn't take risks or chances because I was too afraid to rock the boat."
Nowadays, she doesn't really care what people think, despite being on the sharp end of public opinion about her weight, and she has a good attitude to the whole circus and happily laughs it off. A few months ago, while filming RTÉ's The Farm, she revealed she was 'not fat but pregnant' after receiving unkind opinions about her weight. "I hadn't told anyone I was pregnant and that evening I saw a thread online saying I should be the presenter of Ireland's Fattest Family not Fittest Family, they even included a pig emoji at the end," she hoots with laughter.
"But the best was a chat I saw where one person tried to defend me saying, 'She's obviously pregnant and hasn't told anyone, lay off'. The reply was priceless: 'Well her face isn't pregnant.' I can't wait to use that line with friends, it's just brilliant."
She does feel the pressure to get back in shape post-baby, but only from herself. "I pinch my muffin top and whinge to Louis who tells me to zip it," she smiles. "Just yesterday I was delighted with myself, I hoovered the house, changed the sheets, fed the baby. I felt like I'd climbed Everest. Then Louis and his dad came by and gave out to me for trying to do it all, they told me I should be resting."
I empathise with her. It's the age-old female dilemma of multi-tasking, or if we're honest, having high expectations of ourselves. Is it really possible to have it all? "No," answers Ronan emphatically. "It's crap but there's no having it all, something's got to give."
She's clearly frustrated by the injustice of it. But what really annoys her is the excuses and justification we make for our choices. "Why do we have to make excuses for working, having a career or staying at home? We should do what suits us best at the time.
"I took my husband's name last year when we got married and you wouldn't believe the stick I got for it. Why should I have to justify that decision and choice I made?"
Her husband Louis works but was a stay-at-home dad for five weeks while she was away filming for Getaways, which airs this January. "It worked because he's so hands-on and it wouldn't bother me if he was to be a stay-at-home dad long-term."
Mairéad met Tipperary man Louis at a singles event that neither of them was attending. "I had the Republic of Telly wrap party the night before and would never drink because of the early morning show, but this time I did and was horrendously hungover. We were hosting a singles event in Punchestown the following morning and Louis was down watching the races.
"He is good friends with D'Arcy's wife Jenny and popped in to say hello. Jenny was so busy doing my job as well as her own she left Louis to look after me. He brought me drinks and food. I remember that he smelt nice but not much beyond that.
"After that we kept bumping into each other. He's wonderfully old fashioned, sometimes it feels like he's from a hundred years ago," she laughs, rolling her eyes, "but he's a gentleman to his fingertips." It is clear she is blissfully happy with Louis but as the conversation segues into personal territory and the subject of her first marriage, she is evidently uncomfortable.
It was right after the death of her mother when she was 21 and she was, in her words, 'grieving', 'very young', and 'filling a painful hole in her soul', but is quick to add that she has lots of happy memories and has her wonderful son Dara from her first marriage. Relations with her first husband are good. Subject closed.
The mere mention of Dara, on the other hand and her face is alight. "He is such a good kid. My dad used to say you could rear him on a mountain - he just rows in with everything. And, he loves Eliza. Just yesterday I was calling him to put his shoes on. I got so frustrated I went looking for him, only to find him lying on the bed with her, cooing."
Ask her what makes her angry and her answer is anything or anyone who upsets Dara. Said with tense angry eyebrows. That, and passive aggressiveness. "Just bloody say what you're thinking."
So, what is Mairéad herself thinking? What are her thoughts on the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, for instance? She's not sure; she's all for choice but being recently pregnant has toyed with her emotions. Ask her again in six months, she offers.
As a mother of twin girls and a little boy myself, I worry about the digital landscape and the pressure it puts on children and teenagers. It's hard to avert your eyes from a half-naked Kardashian since they occupy practically every social media platform out there. There seems to be huge pressure to be perfect on every level. It's a worry that Ronan shares, having just welcomed her own daughter into the world. But she holds the same worries for her son Dara who is not allowed use social media.
"He's too young. He has an iPad but it's registered to my email address so he can't use anything without asking me. I'm very aware of what's out there, you just have to be vigilant and be able to communicate with your children."
Her opinion on childcare costs is one most of us share. "Prohibitive. It's another mortgage. I love my work but I'd prefer not to have to work as much." Just two years ago Mairéad made the decision to change jobs within Today FM and admits it was like 'wiping Vaseline from her eyes'. "The fog lifted. I used to have a 5am start and, while I was home to collect Dara from school, I found myself shouting at him about trivial things. I changed my hours and everything got better, even my cooking," she laughs.
Her fo into radio was one that took several detours. I'm surprised to learn that growing up Mairéad was incredibly shy. She would listen to Tony Fenton's hotline list doing her homework every night. She'd regularly ring the number and when she got through would hang up.
The radio was a constant in her house, The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show a family favourite. "When I started working for Today FM, Ian Dempsey said hello to me one morning and I texted my sister to say, 'Ian Dempsey knows my name!' And now, as producer of his morning radio show, I get to talk in his ear every day, but not in a creepy way," she laughs.
At 17, Mairéad found herself regretting her decision to study HR Management and dropped out, taking up a media course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education where they 'threw her into a studio on her first day'. "Baptism by fire," she smiles. "I remember my dad saying: 'But we don't know anyone in radio, how are you going to do that?' He was old-school, where you followed in your parents' careers or you knew someone that could help you. But it was the best thing that could have happened. Ballyfermot really prepared me for what was to come." While studying at Ballyfermot Mairéad held down a job in Arnotts right through her six-week trial at Today FM, six weeks that has never ended.
Today, in her role as producer for The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show, she spends hours locked in a room with Dempsey and Mario Rosenstock, working out sketches and ideas for the show. Sounds like the kind of office day most of us would envy. I'm intrigued as to whether she finds it challenging working with mostly men. "It's true that air time is mostly male-dominated but you'll find it's mainly women behind the scenes, oiling the machine. The head of RTÉ is female, the head of Communicorp, that owns most radio stations in Ireland, is female, my boss is a woman, the producer of The Anton Savage Show is a woman."
Does she think women are better behind the scenes than men are? "I think we are. Don't get me wrong, we are great entertainers, too, but I think our attention to detail is better and sometimes," she adds sheepishly in a half whisper, "they need a little bit of mothering and we're better at that."
The public can also be harsher on women on air, she adds. "Hilary Clinton's clothing was constantly being remarked upon, whereas it was never about what Donald Trump was wearing. I'm addicted to Gogglebox, just the other night these women were commenting on Claire Byrne's figure. You'd never hear them do that to Pat Kenny."
Her radio career has seen a vast ar of interesting guests and downright ridiculous scenarios. Her fish manicure springs to mind -Mairéad screaming down the airwaves for a good 10 minutes. "Ugh, that was weird and just so ticklish, I couldn't bear it." All in the name of entertainment.
A favourite guest wasn't a celebrity but a girl who had decided to have a baby on her own. It was very powerful, she tells me. The worst guest, on the other hand, was a celebrity - actress Natascha McElhone who had agreed to come on the show to promote a product she was endorsing on the proviso she would talk about her husband who had passed away tragically. At the last minute she decided she didn't feel like talking about her husband. "It was a disaster and I had booked her so, I felt responsible," she says, putting her hands to her face and groaning.
On her successful transition from radio to TV, she is pragmatic. "There's no such thing as just a TV career in Ireland. Ryan Tubridy and D'Arcy have the biggest shows on TV and even they have radio jobs. I just like being able to move between them because it keeps your perspective fresh."
In a career that has spanned radio and TV for nearly two decades, it's surprising to learn that the highlight has been the launch of FARO this year. "I love what I do but this is really something I did myself, with my own money, and it's proving successful so that's a huge achievement for me."
When asked of her bucket list entries, Ronan pauses, clearly musing over what she hasn't done to date, which, it seems, is very little. "I never took a year out like all my friends," she answers. "I was too busy working and I said I would do it when Dara is 10. That's next April," she remarks, glancing at baby Eliza on her lap and pulling a dubious face. "But the best advice I ever got was to trust your gut. I've had so many of those feelings and never acted on them. Six months," she pauses, "I better get my skates on."
Portraits by Fran Veale.
Shot at The Merrion Building, 18–20 Merrion Street, Dublin 2. With thanks to Amy, Gill and the team at Iconic Offices, (01) 905 3508, iconicoffices.ie