Blathnaid: Rebel with a cause
After a difficult year on many fronts, Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh has bounced back onto our screens to judge the All Ireland Talent Show and cover the St Patrick's Parade for RTE. She talks to Barry Egan about her life as a mum and the secret of a happy marriage
She breezes into Seagreen in Monks-town with her coat wrapped around her to protect her from the cold. There is a touch of the Julianne Moores about Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh. The RTE star, who grew up in the Meath gaeltacht of Rath Cairn, has that aura of unbridled passion.
"Gaeltacht people are very passionate," she insists. "Shane Lynch said to me last night on the show," she says, referring to her co-judge on The All Ireland Talent Show on RTE, "'when you're speaking Irish to someone, it sounds like you're killing each other.'" This sense of always being in conflict was possibly the case for beautiful Blathnaid when she was a young teenager. She hated her carrot hair and her pale complexion. She used to pray to wake up and be black.
"Black was different and exotic and not these," she says pointing at her freckles. "Now I love it and I cherish it. I really do love the way I look now," Blathnaid says, adding that she has "good boobs and great legs".
And those great legs would carry Blathnaid away when she was bored doing her homework. She would jump out the window and run down the fields and help her neighbours, who were farmers, milking their cows. Her father, Sean O Cofaigh, who was a senior civil servant in the Department of Environment, despaired of what would become of her.
He encouraged her to read a lot of Irish plays, chief among them, Sean O'Casey's The Plough And The Stars. She can remember her father asking her if she admired the character Nora. Brazen Blathnaid shook her head and replied that Nora "was stupid in the end. I like Bessie Burgess." Sean roared laughing: "That's what I love about you Blathnaid." What Ireland loves about Blathnaid is her raw honesty, her unvarnished impishness. "Bessie Burgess was the Protestant in the tenement building going 'Youse are all Shanghai-ed now!'" says Blathnaid theatrically.
"But she ended up being the hero. In actual fact, my ideal heroines were a bigger deal to me. I would read a lot about Countess Markievicz and Maude Gonne and these strong women," Blathnaid adds. "They were very sexy because they motivated the rebels. They kept the rebels happy. Behind every great rebel was a wonderful woman. They were more interesting than the men."
In her head, Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh thought she could be like Countess Markievicz one day. "It was all escapism. It has never really left me. I can still have a daydream in the car or walking down the pier that I am somebody else. I would love to try an acting role before I die."
When she was 15, Blathnaid wanted to die. She was sent away to school in Dublin to stay with relatives in Churchtown. She was, she admits, "very confused and very lost". She got in with "popular gangs" in Dublin and had a lot of fun at the expense of "becoming disconnected" from her family. Blathnaid feels she "would be more relaxed as a person" if she hadn't had that disconnect at such an important and impressionable time.
"At 39, I am now accepting and embracing the normality of things that can give you great comfort in life: like collecting the kids from school and going home to do homework and then I get the dinner on. Don't get me wrong: every morning last week felt like Groundhog Day. I thought I was going to lose it by Thursday."
Blathnaid lost it on many levels when her beloved dad died on August 3, 2008. He was 70 when he had a stroke. "So he was six years dying, to be honest. I hope he was dreaming of something pleasant because he was scared of dying," she says.
"I'm petrified of dying. I'm scared of not knowing." (Blathnaid prays. She says she doesn't know whether she prays because she believes in God or because it gives her encouragement to live.)
Blathnaid says that when her father died part of her died with him. "You create and you lose. That's what you do. I have created four children and with the creation comes the shedding. It is a horrible thing," she says.
"People say it is so natural to be upset about losing a loved one. I think it is the most unnatural thing ever to have this grief. Labour pain is natural because I am going to get a baby out of it. Something wonderful will come out of the pain. But this is not natural, because it's cruel."
Blathnaid is keenly aware of cruelty. The day I met her, the loving daughter and mother had officially become an ambassador for a campaign called "Because I am A Girl". "It is basically bringing attention to situations around the world where girls are being abused," she says passionately (naturally).
"Female genital mutilation, for instance, is horrific. I have to stop getting angry about it," she says. "I have to let the adult in me start dealing with these things in a way that is not reactive. There is no legislation in Ireland to stop it being carried out here in Ireland but yet we have legislation to respect culture. I have no proof but my instinct tells me it has been carried out here. I know for a fact that midwives in Holles Street have come across it where the women are in labour. It is a Third World form of torture. I want to bring awareness."
She adds: "I love being part of the 'Because I am a Girl' campaign with Plan Ireland because it's focusing on FGM, education, child brides, the sex industry. It's more complex than you could imagine but I feel I can combine my journalistic background with my own personality to bring awareness."
Next Wednesday, she will bring a new awareness of sorts to the St Patrick's Day Parade for RTE when she hosts the TV coverage. "I am a patriotic woman," she smiles, "and apart from running to be Uachtaran, hosting the Parade for the national broadcaster is the next best thing."
Yet she was born in Canada on November 12, 1970, in Ontario. Her father Sean had gone over in the mid-Sixties for work with his wife. Blathnaid carries his emigration card around with her since he died. She takes it out of her handbag. "There's my daddy," she says pointing misty-eyed at the picture of Sean. "June 14, 1965."
Her husband Ciaran Byrne owns a studio in Dublin where he records and produces music. He does mornings with the kids and she does evenings. They met at the launch of a Cooney and Begley album in Morans Hotel on Gardiner Street in May 1992. She was out on the dancefloor giving it sean-nos socks. She could feel someone staring at her, she looked around "and it was him". She remembers his broadness, his shoulders, his height, his sallow skin. They were married in the local hall in Rathcairn on August 26, 1995.
The secret of their happy marriage is, she says, "adoration". She says she has "gone to bed more often on a row... Listen, I have often gone down to the spare room if he's snoring or if I'm not impressed or he's not impressed."
What would your husband be likely to be not impressed by? "He hates when I do this: 'I'm just going to meet Anna (Nolan). I won't be long.' Five hours later ... " What annoys you about him? "I probably get very impatient with him."
They have four children: Sile 13, Peadar, 10, Comhghal, 7, and Darach, 6. Trying to keep them all happy, she says, is impossible so you just give up. She aims to set them all down for dinner at 4.30 or 5pm. At the appointed time, her eldest Sile will roll her eyes and tell Blathnaid: "I have a life." Blathnaid chuckles that she has heard Sile say it so many times now that she will have put on her tombstone: "I had a life."
Her mother Aine Nic Riogh is minding the kids in the house in Monkstown while we eat gluten-free cake in Seagreen. I ask when she gets home to ask her mother how she would describe her. Later that night Blathnaid sends me an email.
"My mother says I was 'aerach' as a child which means full of life and I was always acting. As a teenager she describes me as being always trying to go out to the disco and crazy about style, sounds pretty normal to me! She says I was hard to keep an eye on, she says I had a huge personality, everyone loved me locally, she struggled with me as a teenager but she would rather that than a quiet teenager who didn't want to go anywhere." And then some.
Press the sassy TV host about what she was like when she was 16, 17 and 18 and Blathnaid uses one word: "wild". She would go off to Brittas Bay with a gang of friends and not tell anyone where she was going: "I was having great craic."
That is hardly Lucrezia Borgia. I protest that perhaps she wasn't that wild because she didn't have an unplanned pregnancy at 16 or 17. She silently mouths the words: "I was lucky."
"I was lucky that I wasn't caught out bigtime, absolutely," Blathnaid continues, adding that she used to say to herself: "'Either God is being good to me or there is someone looking out for me.' Because it didn't matter what kind of situation I found myself in. I was at a party one night in Brixton and I woke up and I had no idea who the other people were. I was 18."
Anything could have happened to you? "I was always streetwise. I was, like 'I'm at a party. What county am I in? Kildare? Oh God, how are we going to get of here?' So I was shrewd." She can recall nights on Leeson Street "and not having tuppence and myself and a pal arriving in and we always got someone to buy us a few drinks. We always had the craic."
Were you wild sexually back then? "Curious. Not wild -- curious. Curious is curious. Sexually active is doing something about your curiosity but not acting out or searching through your curiosity physically. I wasn't like that. But I was very curious. I was intrigued with gay men. I had a boyfriend who I didn't know was gay. He told me years afterwards."
When did you lose your virginity? "I will pass on that question as it was very insignificant, making love is an art form, it becomes more valuable the older I get." In the summer of 1990, there was a tiny ad in the paper looking for a presenter for a new Irish language programme on RTE called Scaoil Amach an Bobailin. At the screen test, Blathnaid pretended to herself that she was Olivia O'Leary "because she was very intelligent". She got a contract on RTE. "I haven't always been working though. I've been on the dole. I was claiming the days I wouldn't be working. I did two years waitressing in Wolfman Jacks in 1993, 1994, while I was doing stuff for Radio Na Gaeltacht and The Den. But in 20 years -- this is my claim to fame -- I have never not been on the schedule. It wouldn't mean I had work all year round."
Some people feel they grew up with her, she adds. There are those in their early 20s who watched Echo Island. And the hundreds of thousands who know her through her six years on The Afternoon Show on RTE. "The mothers. The shift workers. A lot of men watch daytime too. Unfortunately because of unemployment a lot of men in the last two years were more available to be watching daytime TV. There is a lot of prisoners. Junkies, of course, love me," she laughs.
Her husband's studio is in the inner city and occasionally she will be stopped by a passing smackhead in the area. "They could be out of their heads and they will still recognise me," she says proudly. "'Blathnaid, me flower, how's it going?'" she drawls in that long drawn-out dialect unique to heroin devotees.
So you're a sex symbol for junkies? "They thought I was a bit kooky at times."
Blathnaid is certainly not a cutesy autocue girl with a rictus grin. "I'm an ad-libber. My best work has been off the autocue and in an interview situation," adding, "it's when people related to me more. Not when I went over the top but in one line at the end of an item live on air -- 'You know what? I'm not quite sure.' There is probably a happy medium. I'm not a natural producer and I'm not good at producing myself."
Nor feeding herself ... Blathnaid can recall in 1992 being hungry and not having money to buy food when she was waitressing. (It was a time when, she says, "There was a lot of cream crackers and Cup-a-Soups being eaten.") She went to bed in the flat in Rathmines for two days because if she was awake she'd "think about it".
She experienced echoes of that time last year. There was the speculation around The Afternoon Show and she had also just come out of hospital after a painful emergency operation in Vincent's for a twisted bowel. ("I had 17 staples," she says.)
"I'd say for three weeks I didn't get out of my pyjamas. My husband was trying to monitor me, mind them," she says, referring to her kids.
Asked what pulled her out of this funk last summer, she says her husband did, "by saying very little -- just keeping the home fires burning".
I ask her what she learnt about herself. "I learnt that I was tired and I learnt that I have a condition that needs attention and care."
The story was, and remains, complicated. In the end Blathnaid left The Afternoon Show in September last year. "I resigned," she says simply. "It was amazing to sleep that night. The first time I'd slept in four months. I was sleeping again."
How would have Countess Markievicz have reacted? Do you think she would have resigned? "She would have bided her time. I'm not saying I'm doing that but that's how she'd have looked at it. I look better than I did this time last year. I feel better in my head. There was a lot of bumble bees in my head." Mercifully, they've buzzed off.
More mercifully still, Blathnaid hasn't buzzed off our screens and will be judging the final of the All Ireland Talent show tonight. "I have loved being part of the show," she says, adding, "I was so disappointed that David Lofts didn't get through but all my hopes are on Na Fianna now. I always said I want a winner that we will still be talking about in 20 years."
She says she misses sharing her opinion with the nation. The feeling is, I suspect, mutual. Ireland misses the ginger minx's over-opinionated oomph. "I never want to be pre-recorded," Blathnaid declares, as if it's a belief she is willing -- like Countess Markievicz -- to lay down her life for. "If you prerecord me you might as well kill me. I want to always work with live television. I feel there aren't enough females anchoring and being opinionated and being strong on RTE screens."
In terms of the future, she says she has "six or seven things up my sleeve".
Would you ever go back to The Afternoon Show? Blathnaid shakes her head -- gorgeous ginger waves of hair falling on the shoulders of her coat. "No," she smiles, "The Afternoon Show is doing fine without me."
The All Ireland Talent Show tonight at 6.30pm on RTE One. Blathnaid presents the St Patrick's Parade live on Wednesday for RTE. Visit www.stpatricks festival.ie and www.plan.ie