Ryan Tubridy: 'I needed a kick in the pants but people were too polite to do it'
It's one of the loveliest days of the year so far, and Ryan Tubridy and I are enjoying lunch al fresco at Chez Max, one of his favourite restaurants. He doesn't even have to look at the menu, because he already knows that he's having his usual dish - steak frites. "The skinniest man in Ireland is having chips," he laughs.
Ryan, 41, is a most charming lunch date, being funny, self-deprecating and very relaxed - and he's also pretty honest about his perceived failings on both the personal and the career front.
He is incredibly close to his family and meets his brothers Niall and Garrett for a pint during the week. There is nothing like your siblings to bring you back down to earth in any family, and even the golden boy of Montrose is not spared what he calls "the fraternal school of wing clipping".
"You need manners put on you at times, and for someone you trust to say: 'Why would you say that? You sound mad!'" he says. "All of the most important people in my life are women - my adored mum, Aoibhinn and my daughters - so going for a pint with my brothers is great for boys' talk."
Losing his dad, in January, 2013, devastated the Blackrock man, and he found it hard to accept that one of his parents was gone. His "brilliant" radio and TV teams surrounded him with kindness as he tried to keep going through the grief, which was very tricky as he couldn't exactly disappear for a few weeks. The realisation that life is very fragile gave him a wake-up call.
"You can become morose, downbeat and in a constant state of upset," he says, as he tackles his steak. "Or you can try to acknowledge it as the very sad departure of someone you loved, and then go and live your own life to the full and have a bit of fun, which is what I decided to do."
A few months after his dad died, he found himself sitting alone in the studio one Friday evening before the Late Late Show began. Looking at the show's sign, and the empty seats that would soon be filled with excited guests, he had what he describes as "an epiphany".
"It was strange but I suddenly thought: 'Your name is over that door, and you need to be a little more grateful and respect it a bit more,'" he says. "'You're only the ringmaster, but you've got to master the ring, so pick it up, enjoy it, and serve your team better.' My dad had died three months earlier, and I wasn't myself, but I needed a kick in the pants and sometimes other people are too polite to do it. But I was able to find the physicality to reach around and kick myself in the arse. It was a personal wake-up call, delivered to me by myself!"
While he deals with every type of social issue on his radio and TV shows, the subjects that upset Ryan most are the mistreatment of children or the elderly. The whole area of childhood is special to him, as the dad of two loved being a child himself and adores children.
"I often prefer the kids' menu in a restaurant and look longingly at the jelly and ice cream," he confesses. "It drives me mad that I have to eat adult stuff like tiramisu, so I'll be gesturing to my girls and sayin: 'They'll have the banana split.' They won't, actually, but I will!"
Going to an all-boys school, Ryan was "useless" with women, and only got better when he went to UCD to study history and Greek and Roman civilisation. "I had a ball at UCD, and I know it's not politically correct, but I always describe college as the three Bs - books, booze and birds."
So what secret skill did he employ in pulling some of those 'birds' then? "Humour," he grins. "I realised early on that it wasn't going to be brawn, and the brains were just so-so, but a lot of women wanted to laugh. I think that people often value humour over prettiness or handsomeness, and it was the only bullet left in the gun so I had to use it. It didn't open all the doors that one would have hoped, but it worked on occasion!"
I hesitate momentarily when it comes to the subject of his beautiful partner, Aoibhinn Ni Shuillebhain, as Tubbers hasn't always been too forthcoming when it comes to discussing matters of the heart. It's a peculiar position to be in, he explains, finding himself becoming the story when he is more comfortable being the interviewer or investigator.
"For the last few years, I've been very cagey with the press when it comes to these things," he admits. "I was followed around quite a bit by photographers a few years ago, and it took me quite a while to understand the modern nature of media. And then, when I got it, it took me ages to realise that I could fight it and be a cantankerous grump to these people who are just doing a job, or I could choose to roll with it a little more."
Ryan met former Rose of Tralee, Aoibhinn, when she was a guest on Tubridy Tonight, and asked her out later that evening. He had a few drinks in the Green Room for Dutch courage first though. "I needed them, as she was very pretty and beyond smart and extraordinarily intelligent, and happily, she said yes."
They have moved into their house in Monkstown together, so does he see a future with the former teacher who is on the verge of completing a doctorate in maths and has also done some TV and radio presenting?
"Well, we are together," he laughs. "I don't know where it is going to end up, but I'll have to talk it over with Aoibhinn first, and then I'll let you know! I think I'm a man who knows his mind and is a creature of habit, and with that in mind, you'd need the patience of Job and his extended family to live with me."
Given Ryan was formerly married to editor of music and entertainment at RTE Radio One, Ann-Marie Power, did he have a better understanding of women the second time around?
"No, I'm still a gobshite," he admits, "although I think I'm better with women on the radio or TV and am more comfortable talking to them. I like it when there's women in my company. I'm a show-off, which is part of my problem. The barking seal looking for a fish - that's me. I think most people on TV have a vast ego and ferocious vanity, and you'd have to have a certain amount of it to stand out in the spotlight on a Friday night in front of 200 people and thousands more watching at home."
Now heading into his sixth season on the Late Late Show, Ryan says that while he is well-served by his team, he believes he needs to execute what he has been given a little better. He has a very dark sense of humour, totally unlike his television persona, and feels the time has come to break out. The show's legacy intimidated him in the past, and the worry of living up to the people who went before him made him feel "a bit strait-jacketed".
"I'd love to be more myself because I'm much more easygoing in real life," he says. "I want to loosen up a little bit, lighten up and become more conversational. That doesn't mean I'm going to take it less seriously. I'm actually going to do it more seriously, but I'll do it with a smile on my face rather than with worry on my brow. Presenting the show is an honour, and I think we give the viewers good shows, but I could do better. That's not self-flagellation - it's a fact."
Ryan is the proud father of Ella, 15, and Julia, nine, and he clearly adores his daughters. Ella has just done the Junior Cert, but her dad wasn't a fan of the intensity of her exam preparation. He finally understands why people advocate sparing a thought for the parents as well as the students.
"I felt like a Junior Cert widower," he laments. "Ella would come in and it would be straight to her room to study, whereas before it would be a movie, hot chocolate, the fire on, and hanging out having fun."
Ryan is currently in London filling in for Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 2, and he loves the adventure of doing something different. Is he doing it to test the waters for a potential move overseas?
"People might think that, but I've been doing it for four years so the waters have been well tested, and I'm still coming home," he says. "I'm a restless soul, always looking around for what's different, and the BBC job lets me scratch that itch. I love what l'm doing at home, although I'd like more listeners on the radio."
Is that a constant pressure, I ask him over a delicious creme brulee - his recommendation, and a very good one it is too. He would have felt the worry two years ago, he concedes, but he loves the 2fm show and the listeners respond well to it every day. He has now come to accept that the JNLR figures don't reflect that fact.
"You have to be very stoical, because otherwise you'd do your nut in," he smiles. "This isn't some sort of self-delusional, crazy talk, it's about being practical. I'd love more listeners, but I can't magic them out of the air, so all I can do is keep going. People say to me: 'Oh, but they moved you there because Gerry Ryan died.' But it wasn't like that at all. They asked me if I would like to go and I said yes, so I don't blame anyone else for what's happening. And if the day comes where they say it's time to go, I'll understand that and I'm ready. I'm ready to stay and I'm ready to go - but really, all I want to do is make good radio."
Tubridy, weekdays, 9-11 am, RTE 2fm
Life in brief
BORN: May 28, 1973.
FAMILY: Father of Ella, 15, and Julia, nine. Partner of Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain. Son of Catherine and the late Dr Pat Tubridy. Brother of Judith, Niall, Rachel and Garrett, and Pat's daughters Eloise and Molly from his second marriage.
SCHOOLDAYS: I loved school at Blackrock College. A few of us, who were kind of misfits, got together in fifth year over a love of Elvis Presley. We're still friends to this day, and three of us went to Graceland last year.
ON AGEING: My 30s were bumpy, and while there'll be bumps ahead, I'll embrace them and get over them.