Tales from the Dark Side
Sile Seoige has taken positives out of having cancer at 32 and out of what seemed like career knockbacks. But these trials have made her stronger, Emily Hourican finds, and able to embrace 'the monster' inside her. She has faced up to herself as a hoarder and a worrier and come to regard having a cancer that threatened her voice as a message that she needs to speak up for herself more. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
Before meeting Sile Seoige, I read a lot about her being bubbly, chatty, a messer, even "spoilt rotten" (her words), but, in fact, I find her to be serious, almost solemn, and very thoughtful.
Now, granted, it was a foul day, one of many we've had recently, but her thoughtfulness struck me as integral rather than temporary.
But it may be new. Sile finished treatment for thyroid cancer about a year and a half ago, and, although she is well -- "I'm fitter and healthier than I have ever been, I feel really good in my body" -- a brush with serious illness would be a sobering experience for anyone. And, despite the fact that she can see, and feel, the wonder of luck that allowed her to be treated and recover, there is also the darkness of confronting mortality at a relatively young age.
Not that she spends much time dwelling on the negative. When I ask if she enjoyed how this photo shoot allowed her to be a model for a day, she says, "I feel a little bit self-conscious, but I also feel lucky to be able to do it. There's a time when I wouldn't have been able to."
So, does that feeling of luck last, I wonder, beyond the initial wave of relief at recovery? "There's an initial reawakening afterwards," Sile says. "You think, 'Wow, I'm so lucky.' It's very powerful, almost intoxicating. A level of that filters on, but it won't be as strong.
"It's about being aware, being mindful, and reminding yourself to shut up if you start getting into the negative hamster wheel of 'Oh, this is annoying me, that's not what I want,''' she says. "Being sick is not something I think of, but it's not something I forget, either. That feeling of 'however long I'm going to be here, I'm going to enjoy it' has never left me. But not in a morbid, depressing way."
Sile chooses her words very definitely, pausing from time to time to search for exactly what she wants to say. Partly that is the trained broadcaster in her, partly I think she knows the importance of precision.
"I would be a very open person, and I would have to be mindful of that," she tells me at one point. "If you wear your heart on your sleeve too much, you can get burned."
We're both thinking of Kylie-gate and Late Late-gate. Almost three years ago, Sile's tweet, "I think I just came at the Kylie gig . . . seriously . . . that good," caused a stir. As did another tweet a year later, about a Late Late that saw Ryan Tubridy interview Lorraine Keane and Andrea Roche. "Just wondering," wrote Sile, "are the days of the likes of Peter Ustinov, Spike Milligan and Germaine Greer gone for ever?"
Now, she says of the three-day wonders those tweets provoked, "everybody is entitled to an opinion, but just because they have one, you don't need to absorb that. Luckily, I've become strong enough over the years that it bounces off me a little bit more now. I believe in not having regrets, and that includes making mistakes.
"I'm not referencing Twitter or anything, I actually don't think they were mistakes, but are you going to watch everything you say and every thought that goes through your mind? Although," she adds with a deep laugh, "if you work in the public eye and use formats that are open, it can be zoned in on."
Sile is the youngest of the four Seoige siblings, brought up in Spiddal, County Galway, from which remote spot she and older sister, Grainne, set out to conquer Irish TV and radio. And very successfully, too. Barely finished her Leaving Cert, Sile was interviewing Joel Schumacher and Bruce Willis for Hollywood Anocht on TG4. "I didn't have a clue," she says now of that time, with a disarming lack of pretence. "I was a rabbit caught in the headlights, petrified, not a notion what I was doing.
"I was flying over to London once a month, first class, interviewing movie stars at The Dorchester, or somewhere. That was a brilliant year, but I spent most of the time in front of the camera pretty terrified."
She would not, she says, be happy to watch those episodes back now. "It would be something I would find very traumatic to revisit. I would just see terror in my eyes," then adds, "but it was the best training, because no job I've ever done has ever been as terrifying."
She still remembers the day she left Galway for Dublin, to begin her new role. "I was going from home -- the baby of my family, literally just out of my school uniform, and I was a very young 18 -- to getting on a plane to London, pretending I knew what I was at.
"The day I left Galway, my mom took her fleece off, put it on me and wrapped me up because I was cold, and put me on the bus. They were crying, I was roaring crying all the way to Dublin. Mom said, 'We're here for you, whatever.' I think, in the back of her mind, she was thinking, 'I'm not sure Sile is going to be able for this, but we'll have to let her do it.'" It is a touching story, a window into the warm family background that produced Sile and Grainne.
The name, the look, and the fact that Grainne was already blazing a trail, ensured that Sile had a brand, an identity, straight off the bat, that helped boost her up the career ladder. From Hollywood Anocht, she moved to a host of presenting and reporting roles for TG4 and RTE, including Class Act, Nationwide, The All Ireland Talent Show, Winning Streak, Paisean Faisean, Feirm Factor, Feis & Blood and The Afternoon Show, with a stint on Radio 1's Today With Pat Kenny in the mix too. The pinnacle (for now) probably came in 2008, when she and Grainne together presented their own flagship afternoon show, Seoige, on RTE One. It was a pretty meteoric rise, but nothing can ascend for ever.
There have to be dips and plateaus, too, even if these are temporary. Seoige lasted just a year, and was -- as is the way of these things -- terminated fairly summarily, with no advance warning to the presenters. Traumatic, undoubtedly, and yet the legacy of the show has been a wonderful one.
"Before the show, Grainne and I knew each other as sisters, we didn't know each other as people," Sile says. "Now, we know each other first and foremost as friends. I don't have to hold back on anything I say or think. I'm mad about her, I love her to bits. That is a huge gift from the show. When it ended wasn't particularly nice, especially the way it played out in the papers, but we both agree that it's the best thing that ever happened for us, as sisters and friends."
The same year the Seoige show ended, so did Sile's marriage, to Glen Mulcahy. She also had her appendix out. Just two years later, in February 2012, she received the cancer diagnosis, She was only 32. At a time of her diagnosis, she was presenting the weekend radio show Shenanigans with Sile on Newstalk, but it was axed last June. It seems like a lot of upheaval and drama for one relatively short life, I say.
"It's all relative, I suppose," says Sile carefully. "What I love about working on certain telly projects and radio is that you meet people who have been through so much more than I ever went through. Maybe it's a case that I'm getting it all out now, and the rest of life will be plain sailing. And maybe it won't be, that's the thing. We don't know our life plan. But I believe there is more good stuff ahead. I don't think that's a coping mechanism, it's actually how I feel."
A brush with serious illness will make spiritualists of most of us -- there are no atheists in foxholes, after all -- but rather than revert to the Catholicism of her childhood, Sile did her own reflecting around the meaning of life, coming to her own, idiosyncratic conclusions.
"I was getting Buddha beads, mass cards, bits of holy cloth," she says with a laugh. "I accepted it all with an open mind. Anyone who puts a good thought behind something, whatever your own belief system, that has to be a good thing."
However, beyond the admirable tolerance, her own system is carefully thought-out. "We're always on our journey to learn more about ourselves, better ourselves, not become perfect, but try to be the best version of ourselves we can be," she says. "And, sometimes, it's really hard. Looking at the good is easy. Looking at the dark side is what's hard.
"That's something that I really struggle with -- the idea of casting out the dark side, that it should be banished, via baptism or a similar ceremony. I think that is hugely dysfunctional and damaging for people, because I think you only truly know yourself if you know your dark side as well. And embrace that, because we all have it. We all have stuff to deal with. I think there is a monster inside everybody -- there are degrees of it, obviously -- but it's about knowing that, and embracing that, and observing it, so that it doesn't become something that takes over."
What would be her own dark side? "There are many things I've had to work on," she admits. "I have realised, over the years, that I have a tendency towards hoarding. That's a dark side because it causes an issue.
"I tend to hold onto things, and I'm untidy, and then my brain gets confused because I'm in this mess. I'm massively changed from where I was, but only because I accepted it. I said, 'This isn't good, I need to work on this. I have to manage it.'
"In the past," Sile continues, "I would have said, 'Ah, sure, big deal, everybody has their thing, this is my thing.' I was trying to justify it, not just to other people, but to myself. I was doing a good job of convincing myself. I would have held on to stuff. I would have made a sentimental attachment -- even to this teaspoon. I would have thought, 'Ah, sure, I had that teaspoon sitting down, having that chat with Emily, and, oh, the fire and the memories . . .'''
We laugh, because it's funny, but it is serious, too. Hoarding can be learned behaviour, and often denotes high levels of perfectionism, as well as a tendency to anxiety or depression, and a difficulty processing information.
Tackling it has clearly done wonders for Sile. "With the darkness, the worst thing you can do is deny it and brush it under the carpet," she says, "because then it becomes a monster. If you tackle it, that's you taking control, and that's a good thing." That process of tackling the dark side is part and parcel of Sile's belief in the power of vulnerability. "I'm a complete believer in that," Sile says. "Anyone who can stand up and say, 'This is me, warts and all. This is what I'm good at, and not shy away from that, and this is what I'm not good at.' I find that hugely admirable in a person.
"There is great power in somebody admitting their flaws. It takes great guts to say, 'I'm not doing well, I'm struggling.'
"Years ago, I was that proud person, I didn't want anyone to see the cracks. I've realised that is complete nonsense, and very self-destructive. Allowing yourself to say 'I'm not doing great about this, or I'm struggling with that relationship, or this job situation is getting me down or, financially, things are not OK.' Whatever it is, verbalising it, getting it out, you soon realise that someone else is going to say, 'Me too!'''
Right now, Sile is getting ready for GIG (An Gaeilgeoir is Greannmhaire) on TG4.
"It's a reality-TV concept," she explains. "A call was made for fluent Irish-speakers who want to be stand-up comedians. We then whittled them down, and went on the road with them. They take different workshops -- in dubbing, improvisation, and so on. Then they have to put their show in front of local people in the Aran Islands, Kerry, Dublin. It's a really interesting show, constantly changing, and experimental. This hasn't been done before."
After GIG, Sile is prepared to admit she doesn't yet know what she will be doing. "Like all industries and businesses at the moment, the budgets just aren't there. There's less money being spent, fewer programmes being made, so less demand for the likes of me. That's just the reality." She shrugs slightly. "But you just have to realise what your strengths are, and work around that. Luckily, I've been able to do radio with telly, and voice-over work, different things that keep you ticking over. And you're constantly coming up with ideas, submitting formats, you keep going. But definitely the last few years have been tricky."
So does she still relish the balance of freelance life -- the trade-off of security for diversity? "I do," she says, "but if a nine-five came along that I thought I was well-suited to, I would certainly give it some thought. But being freelance allows you huge flexibility, you can build your life around work, and do different things. You answer the phone, and you're asked to get involved in such and such a project, and you can say yes because you're not tied down to anything.
"On a financial level, when it's good it's good, and when it's bad, it's dreadful. You need to be aware that, when it's good, it's not necessarily going to stay that way. But," she insists, "you can't worry about it, because that's not going to change anything."
Worry, for all of us, is a destructive process; for Sile maybe more so. "Worry manifests with me that I freeze," she admits. "I lock down, I can't actually function, I can't do a thing. If I get myself worked up, I get so tired and so overwhelmed that I can barely move, and that's no good to anyone. So I get a grip on that. If I start to get anxious I go, 'No, I'm not allowing that in. I know what road that leads down, I know where I go if I allow myself to just go there.'''
How does she stop herself? What are the mechanisms for keeping worry at bay? "I got into running last year, and it's brilliant. Physically, I got fitter, I lost a few pounds, but, in my head, the results were even better. I have learned that I have a tendency towards being down, and I have found myself getting sucked in, and, sometimes, all you can do is go for a bit of a sleep and hope that, when you wake up, you feel better. And, if you don't, then it's time to say 'Stop' to yourself."
Battling her own tendency to fretting isn't just a matter of convenience for Sile, it's more imperative than that. "The worry thing is very destructive. Your digestive system gets out of kilter, the impact on your physical health is huge, it leads to illness. That's what happens in the body."
Does she think that's what happened to her body? "I do," she says. "Look at where the cancer happened. I'm a broadcaster, my voice is important to me. Where I had the lump, there was a risk that I would be hoarse, even lose my voice entirely.
"I had a fantastic surgeon, and I was lucky, but I found it very interesting that it happened in my neck and my vocal cords. I think a lot of that was not speaking my mind, not speaking my truth. I do think it's interrelated. In spiritual terms, the throat chakra is the seat of communication, creativity and self-expression," Sile explains. "I feel there must be something in it."
I always feel that is a heavy burden to assume -- the belief that physical illness is a manifestation of psychological distress, and that we are, therefore, the authors of our own misfortune -- but Sile clearly finds strength in the idea, and the possibility for change that it offers. "I suppose I've become a lot freer with myself since then," she says.
Currently not in a relationship, she is embracing the time to be herself. "I'm very happy, I'm not in a long-term relationship, and I'm OK with it. In fact, very OK with it. I'm enjoying the process of meeting people, and going on some dates. It's a nice process.
"I've never really given myself time to concern myself with myself in the past. I was always the person in a relationship. I moved from one to the next. I was a serial monogamist. How do you be yourself when you're always with somebody else? I'm learning that now. I'm very content. Maybe I'm being a bit selfish, but it's nice not having to worry about anyone except myself at the moment. It's very liberating. Not that I'll never be again, I'm not closing myself off to that. But it's right for now. I have known serious relationships, in which the other person's state of mind become part of your life, and, in a way, it's an extra burden. So this is kind of good."
I can see that it is. She looks strong, centred, sure of herself. Always beautiful, there is a depth to her looks now, probably born of the kind of introspection adversity inspires in those who are able for it.
So what is next for her? "I believe in the here and now," she says slowly. "That's all we have. Be present, be in the moment, keep trucking, do your bit of work as well as you can, and it'll go where it's meant to go."
Does she really believe that? "Well, you have to push and you have to work. People aren't going to come into your sitting room and offer you a fabulous job.
"You need to be out there and knocking on doors, and that's something I'm not necessarily fantastic at, and that's one of the things I need to work at. I think a certain amount is probably in your life plan, but you do have to take control over thing yourself, as well, and make things happen.
"But if, in three or four years, I'm still cancer-free, I have a few quid in my pocket and I'm not out in the horrible rain like today, I'll be very happy. Anything else is a bonus."
It's the paradoxical strength of vulnerability, where honesty delivers more than pretence.
'GIG (An Gaeilgeoir is Greannmhaire)' starts 9.30pm, Thursday, March 27, TG4