Beauty and the beasts
She is naughty, nosey and nice, in that order. She gets her stunning looks from her mum, who is apparently a Milf, and she'll make 'boyfriend meat' of you if you're not careful. RTE's country queen Ella McSweeney tells Barry Egan about the good life. Photography by Kip Carroll
Published 16/01/2011 | 05:00
There's something about Mary. Ella McSweeney's mother, Mary, that is. Perhaps it's the hot whiskeys in Residence on this cold, wintry night going straight to Ella's head.
In any event, she has just told me that one or two of her male friends rightly consider her mother, "a Milf. She'd absolutely die if you print that," the fast-rising star of RTE's Ear to the Ground, among other things, hoots, practically falling off her seat with embarrassed laughter.
"All my friends think she is kind of hot. You can't publish this! One of my friends says she is a Milf. She doesn't have a notion. But she is beautiful. A friend of mine came up from Kerry and he texted me and said: 'She's a Milf!' I said: 'Just set the scene for me!'" she laughs.
Just to set the scene: Ella's hot mom met Bill at the University of York in England where she was a student, and he was a lecturer in sociology, who had previously studied to become a priest in Ireland. They came back to Ireland on the ferry. Mary vomited over the side on the rough journey. "It was kind of like a manky version of that romantic scene in Titantic," Ella chortles, "but with vomit."
I ask Ella what characteristics she thinks she inherited from her parents. "From my dad, the idea that if you work very hard you can achieve what you want," the softly ambitious Ms McSweeney answers. "From my mum, an obsession with pillows and duvets filled with feathers."
Who would play Ella in a movie? "I have a girl crush on Cyd Charisse," she smiles. "I think I'd need a lot of the old plastic surgery to pull that one off, though."
The naturally beautiful Ella McSweeney has two "supermagical" older sisters: Anna, who has just finished a PhD in the history of Spanish art, lives in London; while Catherine lives in Azerbaijan, and is getting married next year to her beau, who looks like Superman, apparently. "It's the first McSweeney wedding," says Ella. "It's going to be hilarious."
"We're all quite alike. We're all quite overpowering with a fierce energy when we get together," she says of her sisters and her mum (did I mention that she is hot?). "All the men of the family just leave. We will hang their legs from the kitchen and use them as prosciutto. An old family recipe: boyfriend meat!" she howls with laughter, her brown eyes on fire with intensity. "I'm a bit manic. I'm quite a manic person. I'm relentless. I work all the time. I love it. I have good fun," she says needlessly. "I have a great life."
That great life includes living in a ramshackle, tumbledown, 250-year-old home in Dublin with her young son, Piran, and her boyfriend of seven years, Piran's dad, Mark, who works helping kids with mental-health issues, using technology.
Ella has only had one previous relationship prior to Mark -- with Sean from Northern Ireland. "I don't know why," she says when asked. "In college, I never met anyone. I had flings and stuff, but I didn't have a big relationship. I never really thought about it that much. I never had this image of me in a white dress having a wedding. I never reflected as to why. I remember in college people used to always say to me, what's-wrong-with-me sort of thing. Most of them had big, long, massive, thick relationships. I just didn't meet someone that I really liked. I had flings and they were good fun, and that was sort of enough. At that time -- and it would feel like that if you didn't want it -- it just felt like a bit of a hassle, a bit of a pain," she says.
Ella, who was born in 1979, named her son Piran after the patron saint of tin miners in Cornwall. Lest we forget, Ella's Milf-ish mum is Cornish, and Piran is a Cornish version of Ciaran. "Less a saint than a naughty sinner," Ella says of her son, "A two-and-a-half-year-old bundle of juicy fun, up for anything, always asking, 'Piwan wants to do dat'; always outside. Looked after the pigs, feeds the hens. Never stops talking. Very independent." She could have been talking about herself, of course.
What are you like as a mother? "Oh, I don't know. My friends just say: 'God love him.'" Ella doesn't believe in God, but she loves old Irish saints. Her favourite saint is Gobnait. "She was a really feisty, wonderful woman and she had this ball that she would throw at people she didn't like."
Ella went to Newpark Comprehensive. "It was a very free school -- you can spot a Newparker a mile away," says Ella, who went on to graduate from TCD with a degree in zoology. She first worked for RTE presenting Future Tense, a science series, in 2001, before spending three years working for BBC radio and television. She returned to RTE in 2004. In 2007, her science series, Mind Matters, won Ella a national PPI Radio Award.
Her favourite lines of poetry are Carol Ann Duffy's short poem Mrs Darwin: "Went to the Zoo. I said to Him -- Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds me of you."
The brunette, who specialises in farming, food and science programming for RTE, says she is "much more comfortable talking about raw milk than talking about myself".
She hardly ever cries. But, when she does, "It's usually down to overtiredness. I'm like a four-year-old when I'm in that state; a moaning, crying, whimpering-for-hot-chocolate kind of girl. Nightmare," she explains. "Crying properly is an incredibly purging event: a huge venting of emotion that makes me feel better afterwards. A good cry helps me sleep, too. Sleep is often the solution."
Not that she has much time for sleeping, what with Piran and work. "I have a dream life. For me, the little tiny thing I can do is to bring these stories to people to hear, and I absolutely love doing that. I live and love my job," she says with characteristic verve.
The old, temperamental, stone house made of Wicklow granite in Blackrock, Co Dublin, which the Montrose motormouth calls home, was a forgotten place when her parents bought it back in the Eighties: "No one wanted it when my parents bought it. It was a wreck. It still is a wreck. And it is freezing," she laughs.
"No electricity, very run down, a wild and abandoned garden. Over decades they did what they could to it, but it's always been a bit of a wreck, and that's part of the charm, I suppose," she says, taking a sip of her whiskey, adding that her parents built a wooden house in the front garden seven years ago. "They wanted warmth and no drafts," she says. "And that's where they live, over the little stream that divides our houses."
The way she describes it, her home life sounds more like a New Age-y commune than the residence of a television and radio star. "Living in the house is superb, but it's like patching up a bucket of water with plasters when holes appear," she says. She and her boyfriend are always fighting to keep the heat in, to make the rooms free of drafts and damp. It's a cold house to live in but, she says, her mother always said to warm yourself, not the space around you. "She was born in post-war Britain, and is frugal and efficient to the max."
Most of her friends have, at one stage or another, lived in the house -- "It's been incredible fun. Now it's me and my boyfriend one side, and a lovely couple from Cavan on the other."
Then there's the animals. Ella keeps rare-breed hens and grows fruit and vegetables in her urban garden. She also had two pigs. They were two brothers. "They weren't like George Clooney's pigs. They were proper Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs that you kill," she explains.
She adds that she didn't give them names. "Never name things you are going to kill," she says seriously. Ella had them professionally slaughtered last month. They ended up on a plate in her kitchen. She happily ate them. She invited some friends over recently and had a big feast: "Lots of sausages. I'm still eating them. The pigs were 200 pounds in weight each."
Ella loves meat. In fact, she talks about meat with such passion -- especially liver and kidney and other fleshy bits of animals -- that I feel like turning vegetarian. To annoy me, she revels in talking about the delights of eating animal testicles. She is thinking of getting more pigs next month. Or maybe even some woollier animals.
"A farmer I know in Meath was trying to tempt me with a few sheep," she says. "I may try them for the fun of it."
Ella keeps her hens in a little house she bought from a farmer in the midlands. She has two Cuckoo Marans, one Black Minorcan and one Rhode Island Red. "They give me eggs -- I give them food," she laughs. "The only danger is foxes. I love them. The snow revealed their footprints all over the garden."
Ella McSweeney's garden is a bit like herself. "I like a wild and productive garden: wild meadow, trees and flowers that attract wildlife; or raised beds, spaces for hens and pigs that all produce something.
"I'm not a massive foodie. I'm a very traditional eater, I like good meat, good vegetables. I buy it a lot direct. I love the countryside and the amazing food that comes from the countryside," she says. "We used to spend a lot of time in the countryside when we were younger."
For all her farming/wildlife stuff, Ella has a blog called cowluck.blogspot.com. She is also currently designing a website to link urban people with farmers around Ireland who sell direct: www.yourfieldmyfork.com. She plans to launch it as soon as possible. Throughout this month, the busy-as-an-organic-bee Ella is guest-presenting RTE Radio 1's CountryWide programme on Saturday mornings.
She is not exactly run of the mill, this extremely attractive -- and kooky -- young woman. For starters, I soon notice that Ella sometimes taps out an imaginary tune on the piano on her hand as she talks. There is a history of music in the family, she says by way of explanation of her intriguingly bizarre behaviour. Ella's great-grandfather, Edward Davies, the leading tenor of the Carl Rosa Opera Company, sang at La Scala in Milan. Ella's grandparents, William and Ella, were travelling musicians around Ireland -- "my dad was born in Youghal because of this," she says. Grandma Ella met William, a violinist, at the same opera company. They performed a different opera each night in various cities around Ireland and England.
"She died when Dad was a year old; [his aunt] Gret brought him and his sister Leonie up," Ella, who was named after her grandmother, says now. "Dad never knew her. We have one photo of her. She died of a heart infection in 1935, leaving a three-year-old and a one-year-old. Tragic."
Ella's aunt Leonie is now a nun and doctor with the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Nigeria. Ella's great-aunt Gret, as well as bringing up William Jnr and Leonie, played piano in the Gate Theatre in Dublin.
"So we all were brought up on it. And anyone who obsessively practices something knows how repetitive it becomes," she says of her finger-tapping habit. She says she and her two sisters do it when they are out together. "So, we have this thing where, when we are talking, we're simultaneously tapping out a song with our fingers. It can be any old song. It makes us sound a bit loony but I'm sure other people have it," Ella says.
There is also an endearingly obsessive-compulsive habit of playing with her bra strap as she talks, as well as other tics. "It's like the ring thing you noticed, where I fiddle with my ring -- Anna does that all the time. My boyfriend Mark gets freaked out by those kinds of things, which happen quite a lot with us lot. We're always buying similar stuff, doing similar things -- Anna came back the other day and was wearing a necklace from a designer, Ali Nash, in Dublin; I bought the same one a few months ago, too. It's just family familiarity though, isn't it?"
She describes herself as "instinctively extremely optimistic". The adjectives she uses to describe herself are "naughty, nosey and nice. In that order."
How do you think you come across on TV? "I have no idea! I'm just myself. I'm kind of new to the whole thing. On Ear to the Ground, I'm not supposed to show much personality -- it's more like a good referee on the football pitch: you don't notice them, but everything runs smoothly, feels good and you happily watch the interesting people. With Living Lightly, a series I presented on frugality, I was asked to involve myself more. It would be great crack to do a TV series where I was allowed to be completely myself."
What is the difference between the Ella we see on TV and the Ella your family and friends know? "Anyone I know would say I'm exactly as I am on television, without the naughtiness. A toned-down version of me. I love getting involved in things and would love to do a wildlife or farming series that was very hands on."
Ella is full of intriguing mannerisms and philosophies -- the beauty also helps when she's waxing lyrical about nature and wildlife, pigs and hens and ducks. She says she is less into the idea of happiness than "contentment", because when there is happiness there is sadness, "and that's too up and down for me; it's exhausting. I like the notion of contentment."
I ask her what makes her content. Taking a steadying sip of whiskey first, she then rattles off a list that includes, in no particular order: a fire, a pint, a lie-in, a setting sun, a swim, eating fish, the sound of the blackbird in the evening, quietness, nature, space . . .
Her mind shifts gear to contented moments of her career. "Recording my wildlife and rural radio series, Shanks Mare. I was in heaven leaving Dublin to go meet people all around Ireland doing wonderful things. The honesty, passion and interest that they expressed was reassuring, inspiring and extremely positive. I get that now on Ear to the Ground," she says of the RTE series.
"Little things make me feel very positive: spending time in the wild, meeting new people, eating good, traditional food, hearing a story that's well told. I can't remember if it was Warren Beatty who said that when you can't distinguish between work and life, you've arrived: this is how I feel," she continues. "Getting people on radio or television who have never been on the media before -- I'm obsessed with this idea, and I get an extraordinary amount of pleasure doing it. I love listening to people."
Her mind switches gear again, this time to a more personal memory of happiness from her childhood: "Tobogganing down a hill in Glencree when I was little, with our dog, Sham, pulling us back up the hill." One of her least contented childhood memories was, she recalls, "Not being able to sit on the toilet when I was younger after watching Jaws. I was convinced he was going to jump up and bite my bum."
Her earliest childhood memory is sucking her thumb while holding a huge donkey's ear in rural Cork. "I had a strange obsession with holding cold ears and noses when I was younger. My parents obviously saw the potential with the donkey and set me into the field with relief," she remembers. "That and sitting in an attic in a house in London with my naughty bold sisters, lighting matches, when we were very young. The three of us were complete pyromaniacs, we nearly burnt the house down."
She can also recall the fiery passion of her first kiss. "It was with my friend Robert behind a maths book in fifth class, only on the cheek," Ella says. "Kissing with addition on the page -- tres romantic." Asked if she is a romantic person, Ella answers: "If I say no, that's wrong and sounds awful. If I say yes, I'll have to prove it to you. So I'll just say nothing: romance is best kept mysterious to everyone except the two people involved."
What is your definition of romantic love? "Constantly feeling like you want to vomit," she says, before adding a suitably McSweeney-esque flourish, "but in a good way."
Shoes throughout, Ella's own
Nijou, Hibernian Mall, Sth Anne St, D2, tel: (01) 633-4306
For Ali Nash stockists, see www.alinash.com
For Stop Staring stockists, see www.stopstaringclothing.com
Havana, 2 Anglesea House, Donnybrook, D4, tel: (01) 260-2702
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Sarah McCaffrey
Make-up by Vivien Pomeroy at Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967
Hair by Ross King at Hair Design @ 28 Lower Ormond Quay, tel: (01) 874-8520
Shot on location at Airfield, Upper Kilmacud Rd, Dundrum, D14, tel: (01) 298-4301. An oasis of ornate gardens, woodland walks, mature trees, hedgerows and farm animals, a visit to Airfield is a perfect day out for all the family. Airfield offers a range of educational and cultural experiences inspired by the natural resources of the estate, see www.airfield.ie
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