Miriam O'Callaghan on husband Steve Carson: 'He's part of my DNA'
As she begins the 10th series of her TV chat show, Miriam O’Callaghan tells Sarah Caden how, while she never relied on her looks, she’s getting better looking with age, and how her husband, Steve, is in her DNA and always by her side, despite his recent move to Belfast. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
Published 29/06/2014 | 00:00
Every year, before I meet Miriam O'Callaghan, she texts to reassure me that she'll think of something to talk about.
This is the ninth year that I have interviewed her, so the reassuring text has become something of a joke, even if it's only me laughing at Miriam for her insistence that she's the most boring person on the planet, with an outrageously uneventful life. And Miriam is nudged, willingly, into laughing along at herself, conceding that maybe she's kind of busy.
"But I love doing nothing, I really do!" Miriam exclaims, after listing off her engagements for the weekend after our interview, which include three charity appearances, two radio-show recordings and the First Holy Communion of her youngest child, Jamie, 8. There are only 25 people coming to the house, she says, and, yes, she's doing the cooking.
"I could do less busy, and I often do nothing," she adds when I ask when was the last time she actually did this nothing of which she speaks. "When Steve [Carson, her husband] was home from [the BBC in] Belfast the other night, I just made dinner and watched TV." Sounds nice. "And did the ironing," she says quietly.
That's not nothing, I point out, but maybe it is for Miriam. In the same way that 25 people for lunch isn't a big crowd when you have eight kids, maybe a spot of ironing while watching telly is down time when you're juggling several jobs on national radio and television.
Everything's relative, Miriam points out, and it's true. She thinks, year on year, that she has nothing exciting to share, but everything's relative, including her idea of what amounts to a quiet life.
Despite Miriam's protestations that there's nothing new with her, she has had a big year since we last talked. Significantly, at the end of last year, her husband, Steve Carson, left his job as Head of Programmes in RTE and took a job as Head of Productions with the BBC in Belfast. For him, professionally and personally, it was a move that was both easy and difficult. On the one hand, it was a return to the BBC, where he previously worked for over a decade, and where he first met Miriam, and also a return to his native city. On the other hand, it meant a relocation to Belfast, without Miriam and their family. And, for Miriam, it seemed to mean being left behind in Dublin. Or so it might seem to an outsider.
"My instant gut reaction was that this was really interesting," Miriam says of when Steve first told her about the BBC job. "Because that's me. I think life is an adventure. So he brought it up with me and I said, 'That's exciting. It's a new adventure.' He always says that's what's good about me. There was no, 'What about me?' He'll say that himself.
"And I never saw him in RTE anyway," she says with a laugh. "And any job I had in RTE, I had before Steve joined, apart from radio, but that had nothing to do with him. And, you know, now we have new people to talk about, and old people, people who are still there from when I was there. So, for me, it's exciting."
Is it not strange to be without him in the house, though, I ask. Then I stumble into, and regret, asking how long she lived alone between her first marriage, to broadcaster Tom McGurk, with whom she had her four daughters, and Steve, with whom she had her four sons. There was about a year when she was alone, Miriam says, but there is no comparison and, really, she doesn't think of it as Steve being away and it doesn't really feel like he's away.
"I'm out presenting Prime Time two to three nights a week," she explains, "and they're the nights he's away. Maybe if I was at home at six o'clock, waiting for him, it would be different, but I'm not. And he comes home on a Wednesday and then he's home at the weekend. And I go up to Belfast a good bit, and the boys love it, they really see it as a new adventure."
Also, Miriam adds, it's not like the house is lonely and quiet without him. Miriam's children range from 28 down to eight years of age, and, while not all are living at home, most of them are, and they are, she says, "real home-birds".
"I live in a world of noise," says Miriam, adding that it's Steve who has had to make the massive adjustment to his quiet place in Belfast. "Our house is so busy, the kids sometimes think he's just upstairs in the bedroom. But they're all so busy, now, even the eight-year-old."
The next day, Miriam texts me to make sure that I didn't misunderstand her positive attitude to Steve's semi-relocation. "On the days he is away," she says, "we text each other all the time. Even when we are apart, I always feel that Steve is with me . . . So I am never lonely. He is in my soul, part of my heart and in my emotional DNA . . . I love him more every day and thank God all the time for sending him my way."
At the start of this year, Miriam was reported to have asked her bosses in RTE if the summer chat show could be pre-recorded. The request was, she said at the time, in response to the change in her home life, given Steve's move.
"I suppose, initially, when Steve was away in Belfast, I was worried that I'd have to be here in Dublin all summer at the weekends and that I'd never see him," she says. "But it wasn't the big thing that was reported. It wasn't like I stormed in there going, 'Let me pre-record!' I was thinking maybe I'd spend more time in Belfast. Maybe.
"But I'm getting a new set!" she exclaims. "That's very difficult in RTE. I'm hiding from all the other presenters!"
A week or so later, Miriam texts me to confirm that her Saturday-night show will be pre-recorded on the Friday night. "V happy with that," she texts. "During summer it's v difficult to get guests mid weekend and, to be honest, all the big UK and US shows pre-recorded so it's all good."
On Saturday, Miriam begins her 10th series of her summer TV chat show. It sounds like a long time, and, yet, it has passed in a blink. Her First Holy Communicant, Jamie, wasn't even born when she did her first series - making her a mother, then, of a mere seven - and she was a one-job woman, front of camera on Prime Time. Since then, however, Miriam has become Ireland's most famous multi-tasking mother.
She moved into weekend radio in 2009, the same year that she was mooted as the new Late Late Show host; she is probably one of the biggest Irish-charity supporters in the country; and she is, without doubt, the most successful woman broadcaster in the country. In fact, she's one of the most successful broadcasters in the country, but being a woman and a working mother are key to who Miriam is.
Being a woman and a working mother are key to the national fascination with her, too. We enjoy her work, obviously, but we also enjoy puzzling over just how Miriam manages to do all these things, to be all these things, and to seem to glide elegantly through a career and domestic life that would test the good nature of most of us.
As well as telling you that she's scandalously boring, Miriam O'Callaghan is always keen to emphasise her general contentment and her commitment to that contentment. Yes, she's lucky, in that she has a husband that she loves, and eight healthy kids, but it's a philosophy, too.
When I first met Miriam, eight years ago, she was six years married to Steve Carson. She was, at that stage, counting her lucky stars that she met a man whom she loved so much, but, also, a man who, in his mid 20s when she met him, was happy to take on her four daughters. When we first met, she and Steve had added four sons to the brood and Miriam was still slightly shaken by almost losing Jamie during pregnancy. She felt lucky then and she feels lucky now.
"I don't think I have changed very much over those years," she texts me after our conversation, when I text to ask her if life has changed much for her since we first met. "Thankfully, not very much has changed in my personal life. Everyone I love is healthy and well, and I never, ever take that for granted and remain eternally grateful for that."
Miriam is now 54. Her daughters -Alannah, Clara, and twins, Georgia and Jessica - are now all in their 20s, while the boys - Jack, Daniel, Conor and James - range from 16 down to eight. She is no longer the mother of small children and that, for many women, marks a big change. "I've never wanted them to be my babies, though," Miriam says. "I've always believed that you've got to help them to fly, and the one thing about all my children is that they're incredibly independent. They're home-birds, and they're all always home, but I give them their freedom, too. If one of them wants to go Wes, I always say fine.
"My son went out to get his ticket the other day for the party at Wes at the end of the Junior Cert and, no problem, but I always say, 'If you break my confidence, I will come down on you like a ton of bricks.' And, so far, it's always worked. The boys are great," she adds. "The older two are over 6ft now. There's something strange and lovely about being the mother of boys. I adore my girls, but being the mother of these boys, who are suddenly bigger than me, it's sort of amazing, in a weird way. You look at them and think, 'Did you really come out of my tummy? Were you ever really tiny?' The girls are tall, too, obviously, but there's something different about these big boys.
"I look at these two beautiful young men and go, 'Wow, you're mine!'"
Does the fact of being the mother of young women and men make Miriam feel that her own life is flying by, I wonder. Does she worry, particularly in her job, about getting older?
"No," she answers, "and you've asked me that before. I think, if you were very beautiful when you were younger, you would start panicking in your 30s, because there are other women coming up behind, but I never relied on my looks. I am a journalist, first and foremost, who started out traipsing the roads of south Armagh, or on roads in Manchester doing stories about underprivileged women and kids.
"For me, I've got better looking as I've got older. People say to me, 'What are you on?' Someone even rang in to RTE last night and said, 'I know what that Miriam O'Callaghan is on. Viagra.'
"So my confidence is not built on a house of cards. My confidence is built on years of journalism. The fact that some people think I'm vaguely attractive is completely irrelevant. I share a birthday, 6th January 1960, with Nigella Lawson, and she shares the exact same attitude as me - and she looks better than she did 20 years ago."
The message that Miriam gives to all her children, but to her daughters in particular, is to enjoy their youth, because it's fleeting, and to always know that they are beautiful. I tell her that I once read an interview with Cindy Crawford, in which she said that she did not envy her young, lookalike daughter her youth, but that sometimes she looked at her and thought, "You have my old hair! Give it back!" and, "You have my old legs! Give them back!"
Miriam says she feels nothing like that when she looks at her own girls. She says that she is very aware that the world her daughters live in is far more concerned with looks than the world she grew up in, and that she so regularly reassures them of their beauty that they can finish her sentences almost before she starts them.
"But, you know," she says, "even though I'm doing with my boys what I did with my girls - trying to tell them they're great, not greater than anyone else, but great - I find the boys much more straightforward.
"I do not know how boys end up running the world!" she exclaims with a laugh. "All my girls, so smart, so able. They read earlier, they walked earlier, they're best in school, great in college. Boys, they're also bright, but they're incredibly laid-back. Feed them and give them a football match, and they're sorted. But, then, after college, what happens? Someone told me that when boys get into college, they find their focus, and then we [women] go into the whole thing of women wanting babies and therein lies the problem.
"Obviously," Miriam adds, "wanting babies isn't a problem. But it is when you also want to work. Because it's not possible to have everything." Not even for you? "No!" she replies, amused and emphatic. "The only way you can almost have a little bit is if you accept that you'll do most things not that well. I'm not a perfectionist.
"Kids would like their mothers - and their fathers - there 24/7," Miriam says. "But that doesn't work. For economic reasons, both Steve and I work, but I also work because I love it. And it's funny, now they're in their 20s, my daughters are all suddenly feminists. They got it.
"Sometimes, when they're younger, they don't get why you're at work, but I take them to these events now, and they hear women talking, and one of my daughters is really into Hillary Clinton and development for women in the Third World, and I'm, like, 'Yes! They got it.' But I always say to my girls, 'If you choose to stay at home, be with your children, that's a wonderful job, too, and the hardest job in the world, because there's no me time. And it's worth repeating that. I repeat it every day to people."
While she worries that she has nothing new to say, year on year, this should not be taken as a sign that Miriam O'Callaghan perceives her life as lacking. In fact, it's an indication of her contentment: "Things are going along nicely, what more can I say?"
This year, without doubt, life has changed a little and, while she's not willing to stress over it, Steve's move has meant a shift in Miriam's life. It's not all bad, though.
Most weeks now, when Miriam gets home from presenting Prime Time, the house is quiet and all of her children are asleep. In the past, her habit was then to take a glass of red wine up to bed, where she'd decompress as she chatted to Steve about the day. Recently, if it's not too late, she texts her 12-year-old, Conor, to see if he's awake and, if he is, he'll join her in the kitchen and they'll chat about whoever she interviewed and whatever is going on in the world. It's nice, she says, and, I say, that it's a moment in time that Conor will likely remember fondly.
Time passes, kids get older, life changes, and you make choices: you rage against it, or you go with the flow and find new ways of living and being, and getting the most out of it. Miriam O'Callaghan, always, chooses the latter.
Last year, when we met, the busiest woman in Ireland was presenting Prime Time, preparing for her TV chat show, presenting her weekend radio programme and also sitting in for John Murray during his absence from his daily radio show.
She was just a little bit too busy and, she told me, Steve had warned her to mind herself. Does she miss that level of activity and the daily morning radio show, I ask her now.
"No!" exclaims Miriam. "Not even I'm that mad!"
'Saturday Night With Miriam' starts after the Nine O'Clock News on Saturday, July 5, on RTE One
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