Friday 23 February 2018

Charlie Bird: The nightmares and nuptials of the Birdman of Montrose

RTE's former chief news man spoke to Donal Lynch about his anxiety, ego and his upcoming marriage

Journalist and author Charlie Bird. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Journalist and author Charlie Bird. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Every few nights Charlie Bird wakes up with a start. Like a flashback-addled Vietnam vet the same nightmare - or "stress dream" as he calls it - replays itself endlessly in his head. "It's always the same place," he tells me. "It's out in Finglas on a Friday night. There are fire brigades, which are green for some reason, and they're going towards a fire. And the car I'm following them in is an old Ford. And when I finally get to the fire I ring the RTE newsroom to file and the person says, 'But Charlie, you don't work for RTE any more and we can't take your report'."

Charlie's 38 years worth of often-unwilling interview subjects might take some consolation in the fact that their former pursuer is now the one breaking out in cold sweats. But he tells me that along with the subconscious sense of loss there has also been some relief at no longer being the Birdman of Montrose. "It was a twin track emotion really. In a way I was kind of happy to be out of there. Something had been lifted off me. But, if I'm honest now, it feels so strange that when I go to pick up my partner I have to give my name at the barrier. I know every blade of grass in the place."

A Freudian analyst might also see in the dream a certain anxiety at a sudden loss of relevance. But the celebrity profile, with which he had a tortured relationship during the last decade of his career ("I did invite it, in some ways, but I was also uncomfortable with it"), has ensured that his name still has a huge cache.

On the day we meet city centre bookshops are readying big displays of his new book A Day In May. It's a collection of moving, personal testimonials of gay, lesbian and transgender people whose lives were deeply affected by the referendum result last year. In some ways it was a logical move for Charlie - he chaired the launch of the Yes Equality group - yet the Freudians might again stroke their beards as he pre-emptively jumps in to dispel a thought that hadn't even occurred. "I feel like I'm going to be saying this so often over the next couple of weeks: I'm probably the most heterosexual man in Ireland. You know what I mean? I know you're not asking that but I'm just saying. It's not something that was there."

Charlie has had a deep involvement with the gay marriage issue and has huge experience with libel law (he was involved in the epically long case that Beverley Cooper-Flynn took against RTE, which had resulted from one of his reports) and a storied history with the State broadcaster. I had imagined he would surely have some colourful opinions on the 2014 Saturday Night Show libel payouts, which in the minds of many people marked the beginning of the public debate around the referendum. But he makes clear that his remit here is the soft-focus human angle, not the legal and political catalysts of change.

"To be honest I just focussed in on what I was doing myself. I've been involved in journalism for 30 years. In one sense getting involved in this was outside my comfort zone, but I felt that this transcended that. I was watching something unfold that I really hadn't seen. It was the personal stories that concerned me."

A lot of debate around that time and during the campaign itself had centred around the meaning, both legally and colloquially, of the word homophobia.

Now that the dust has settled and the law has changed, I wonder if he feels that someone who did vote No could be presumed to be homophobic to some extent? "No," he responds. "Not if they voted No, but if they use it in their daily lives then maybe. People were entitled to vote No, of course they were. Perhaps if we were talking about racism then, maybe, yes. If you say something in your daily life, or you abuse somebody then that's homophobic."

He clearly doesn't believe politics are ever personal (could you vote against inter-race marriage and not be racist, I want to ask) and when he mentions several times how much we have all changed, I feel emboldened to bring up a report he did in 2005 about gay men using a dating website to allegedly groom minors. It raised hackles because it was seen, by some, to rehash the age-old, spurious conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia. Would he have done it differently now?

"Yes, absolutely, I would approach a piece like that differently now. At the time I was involved in doing investigations and these things were being thrown up at you. But at the same time you have to be aware of people trying to use others. It's like walking on eggshells, steering a middle course."

He says that one of his reasons for writing the book was his experiences living among gay people on 16th Street in Washington during his stint as RTE's correspondent there. Charlie never settled there, his ego unable to handle being treated as a no-name "junior reporter" (his words) by politicos in the American capital. I wonder if he feels that Caitriona Perry's subsequent success in a job he couldn't hack makes him look bad? "No, I f***ing love it! That's the one thing I'd say on that. I want to see every day journalists doing well. I wish you luck and her luck. I want the business to have high standards. I think Caitriona Perry is a wonderful journalist and 100 times sharper than me. When I joined RTE first, I had to walk around with a dictionary in my pocket."

He wasn't a self-confident young person, he tells me. Growing up in Sandymount he didn't see much of his father and wasn't close to either of his parents. "I didn't know my father all that well. He was an engineer with Irish Shipping and he was gone for a lot of my childhood. I'll discuss everything with my kids now but in the 1970s you hardly discussed anything with your parents.

"There are some things that hurt me a little bit. When I was young we used to go to the Stella House in Mount Merrion. Van Morrison was playing and my mother had told me to be home at 12. I got there at 12.10 and was locked out of the house and had to sleep in the garage. Who would do that to a kid? I wasn't close to her. I wish I had been closer."

He wasn't academically bright. More than once he tells me he never went to university but as a journalist he was highly driven. "I would have walked over absolutely anyone to get a story. I had to use my fingernails to make up for lack of talent."

For a long time he was the sole point of contact between RTE and the Provisional IRA (he had been a member of Official Sinn Fein - now the Worker's Party - going back to the early 1970s). He scored a number of historic scoops, including the NIB tax evasion scandal in 1998. His 2010 doorstepping of David Drumm at his US home was particularly memorable.

He tells me he has no regrets about not going harder after Drumm, who was hunkered down behind a couch, because the disgraced financier's children were in the house.

He came up in an era when straight newsmen were slowly being encroached upon by personality journalism and Charlie was no exception. He took a lot of flak for his coverage of the vicious attack he endured during the Dublin riots in 2006 and the suspicion that he had become inclined to make himself the story was not allayed by RTE's grandiose description of him as 'chief news correspondent.' This kind of profile undoubtedly helped his career - if Charlie was covering a story you knew it was big - but also made him a fairly incessant subject of tabloid headlines about his love life, particularly in the aftermath of his relationship with Carole Coleman, another former RTE Washington correspondent.

In his autobiography, co-written with Kevin Rafter (which seemed a bit of a strange arrangement for a journalist), he expresses at some length bemusement and distress at the interest in him, but I wonder if now, with hindsight, he feels that he invited some of it? "Yes, probably. Put it this way, we all make mistakes. Everyone has an ego in broadcasting. Anyone who says they don't is lying."

He's now a grandfather several times over and came home from America partly to be close to his daughter, Orla, before she gave birth. But it was also his long-term relationship with fellow RTE employee Claire Mould that precipitated his homecoming and fittingly perhaps, given the subject of his new book, he tells me that they will be married next Sunday in Dublin.

"I've been with her for 10 years and we just decided. Where I am in life it seemed an important thing to do. It's something personal between myself and her. You can say marriage is an old fashioned institution but it's important to me and, like that great moment last May, ours will be a great day out."

A Day In May by Charlie Bird (with foreword by Colm Toibin) is out now, published by Merrion Press.

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