'A transgender Rose - the chat onstage would be brilliant' - Daithi O Se
On the eve of this year's Rose Of Tralee, presenter Daithi O Se gets thorny with Barry Egan while discussing his conversations with God, fatherhood, the death of his own father, and the times his wife Rita has to give him a kick up the backside
September, 2013. Having carried the coffin at the funeral of his father Maidhc Dainin O Se, at Carraig Church in west Kerry the week before, Daithi is pacing around his front room in Salthill, Galway, like a caged lion.
Like a grieving caged lion who has just lost the head of the pride, the lion king.
Daithi points to a map on the wall of the area where he grew up on the Dingle Peninsula.
"That's where the old fella is buried," he says.
He picks up a picture of the family home in Kerry: "That's the room he died in.
"I'll never see him again," Daithi says, choked up with emotion. He shows me another picture of his father holding him as a small child.
"I'm the little fat fella," he says.
Barrelling into the Boar's Head pub on Capel Street in Dublin last Monday, in a new suit from Brown Thomas, Daithi has long since lost his inner little fat fella. "I'm off the booze," he says, "and running a lot. I'm not the little fat fella any more," says Daithi fat-shaming himself (Kerrymen do things differently).
The appearance of the slimline Daithi is not unrelated to the fact that he is hosting the Rose of Tralee on RTE 1 for the ninth year (and hence the new suit from BTs).
I ask him is judging young unmarried women in sashes on their loveliness an archaic concept in a post-Repeal and modern feminist European country like ours.
"The judging part of the Rose," Daithi says of the pageant that starts tomorrow night in the Festival Dome, "is only one part of the whole thing, but I get your question.
"Why shouldn't we celebrate the goodness and the good things people do in their lives? There's nothing wrong with that. Modern feminists celebrate modern women and the Rose of Tralee is a celebration of modern women. We've seen Roses in support of Repeal and other issues of the day. The Roses can support whatever issues they want," he adds, "and if they feel strongly about certain things they should voice their opinion.
"The Rose of Tralee is a good reflection of where Irish women are in society. Again this is my opinion and not everybody's. We have had a Rose of Tralee who is gay," he says referring to Maria Walsh in 2014. "We have a Rose this year who has a child and this is not uncommon."
In 2016, Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins tweeted: "Calling all feminists/ mixed race/ queer/ trans-ladies to apply for the Rose [of Tralee] wherever you live."
How would he feel about a less conservative Rose of Tralee contest? Would he like to see transgender women enter?
"Less conservative," he answers. "I think the Rose of Tralee moves with the times. Now I can't tell the future but you could have a transgender Rose and I'll be the first person to welcome her with open arms! Actually, I think the chat onstage would be brilliant. I hope she has a good party piece."
Brianna Parkins also described the event as "like a great big Kate Middleton impersonation contest".
"That's Brianna's view. I see the Rose of Tralee as one big party first of all, where people come to enjoy themselves. And also to celebrate who they and we are. It is a celebration of Irishness and of Irish women. That's my view. I'm sure different people see different things."
The second youngest of five children, Daithi Thomas O Se was born on June 2, 1976, in Tralee to Maidhc O Se, from Dingle, and Kathleen Fitzgerald, from Castleisland, who were married for 50 years.
The other-half of RTE's afternoon flagship The Today Show with Maura Derrane, Daithi characterises his childhood in Kerry as "pretty straight forward".
The first movie he can recall going to was The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, in the Phoenix cinema on Dykegate Street in Dingle, "sometime in the early 1980s. I remember sitting very close to the front and the place being packed. I remember a big hairy guy and a big bear and that's it. But the first one I really remembered and loved was Bloodsport with Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988. I was only 12, if that, and it was an 18s movie. We all left doing all these high kicks and thought we were as good as him. I must have seen that movie 100 times".
"Dad worked and Mom stayed at home with us and if the weather was dry we were out of the house," waxes Daithi lyrically of his bucolic childhood in the Kingdom.
"There were other lads my age next door and we would literally play football all day until it got dark! Came in for food in whatever house we were closest to and out again. We had great freedom and our parents never worried where we were.
"Saturday morning my mother would have a huge fire down for us and when she came from the shop we all got a bag of Tayto and a Loop The Loop ice cream. This time of year we went to Tralee for pants, jumper and pair of shoes for school and these had to do until Santa came at Christmas. I think we wore the same clothes to school every day!"
Daithi can also vividly recall boxes of clothes coming from aunties and uncles in America. "The smell when you opened the box was so nice and so... American."
That Proustian memory of his youth might have had something to do at some deep level with why Daithi was so drawn to a certain American lady, and her smell, in August, 2008 when the brunette beauty was representing New Jersey at the Rose of Tralee.
The charismatic RTE star first noticed Rita Talty when she did her party piece on stage at the Dome - a version of Pat Shortt's tribute to early morning high-cholesterol high-jinks, Jumbo Breakfast Roll.
"That song clinched it for me," says Daithi.
"What I first noticed about him was his personality," Rita told me in 2014.
"He was a complete messer, which I liked. Then the more I got to know him, I saw he was caring and selfless."
On July 12, 2012, Rita and Daithi married in St Mary's Church in Dingle.
"First of all: I'm so in love with her and very attracted to her," says Daithi. "I think that's a good start and a great foundation. She's easy going and very hard working. She sees the best in everyone. She is a fantastic mother to Micheal Og. She knows when to put her hand on my shoulder and say everything will be fine.
"And," he laughs, "she has the ability to kick me up the arse if I need it."
I asked Daithi when has lovely Rita needed to give him a kick up the arse. "Never!" he laughs.
"Sometimes if I was unsure of something or getting lazy about going places. She'd say come on let's go and do it... it's just the push I need to get off my backside."
Their son Micheal Og was born on St Patrick's Day in 2014. His first day of school is in a few weeks time. On his first day in preschool, says Daithi, "we had to do a vanishing act. It was tough. He was crying and the teachers told us to go. Thirty seconds later he was flying around the place, had forgotten all about us and we were thinking, 'this is the worst feeling ever', like we had abandoned our only son".
As for his own first day in the education system, Daithi can remember his mother Kathleen bringing him to play-school, "which was a mile over the road from us at home. When we arrived my mother told me that she was going across the road to the shop to get me Juicy Fruits. This of course was to distract me. When I realised that my mother wasn't coming back I started crying - and haven't stopped since!" he jokes.
"She had to come back and get me!" he says, not joking.
Is he a sensitive person? Are his feelings easily hurt?
"I'm sensitive when it comes to family and friends and it's only then I'd hurt easily. I think most people are like that. People who I don't have feelings for can't hurt me or can't offend me. So if someone who doesn't know me says something about me, I don't care! I wasn't always like this," Daithi explains, "this comes with age and life and it also comes with knowing you're not the most important person in the room.
"And," he continues, "when you realise that you're sorted."
What age was Daithi when he had his heart broken for the first time?
"I was six," he answers, without blinking.
"Kerry were going for five in a row. Never done by any team or county before - might happen next year with the Dubs. Anyway, I remember sitting on the carpet in front of the TV. Kerry were winning the game and then with a few minutes left Seamus Darby caught the ball and scored a cracker of a goal ending Kerry's dream and breaking my heart! I remember lying on the ground in tears."
Asked when was the last time he cried, Daithi says a month ago: he was chatting to Micheal Og on WhatsApp via video link to America at the time. "He told me that he couldn't eat his breakfast because he missed me so much and he was crying. I don't think I've ever felt so bad. I wasn't bawling but there were tears..."
When is he at his happiest? "You know, life is simple," he begins, "We complicate it...
"I love just hanging out around the house and knowing that we don't have to be busy all the time, and family time is the best time.
"Hearing Micheal running into us in the morning raises my heart... Seeing Rita smile... having a few pints with the lads makes me happy. No one thing makes me happy - it's the combination."
How does the dynamic between he and Rita work?
"It's very simple," he says, "we work well as a team. It's a team effort to raise a family. She works at home; I work outside and together we make it work for us," he says.
Would Daithi like to do anything else with his life other than TV?
"TV is only the job, it's the way to make money and pay the mortgage and that's it; it doesn't define me."
"It's in other parts of my life I'd like to do things," Daithi adds.
"Michael is getting older and you can bring him anywhere which is great. I want to go around America in a campervan for a few months.
"I want to start living, and not work until retirement and then do stuff.
"I want to do it when I'm young. The older generation worked too hard and for too long and didn't enjoy life like they should have."
Later, when I wondered what Daithi, in hindsight, had learned from his father's life, he had something very intriguing to say: "Dad worked too hard for too long. I'm not going to do that. Life's for living."
When he first became famous and was young, free and single, did Daithi - who is blessed with matinee idol looks - ever contemplate becoming a full-time bachelor with a different girlfriend in every other county in Ireland?
"I never had a big plan. I just enjoyed life." I ask him did meeting Rita change him. "Neither of us have changed each other," Daithi answers, "yet both of us have evolved.
"Life has changed around me and that's a good thing... I wouldn't want the life I had 20 years ago because what I have now is what I want now; as simple as that sounds, it's true. Rita has given me the greatest gift of all in Micheal and happiness."
Fatherhood has not only changed him, it has become "my favourite part of life. I don't think it gets any better. I just love being a dad and I think I'm good at it," he says, "you realise how insignificant the small things that bothered you before are. It's amazing; you can look into your son's eyes and you can say to the world: 'Ye can all wait'."
Every six months or so Daithi and I usually end up in a pub for a catch-up pint or five. Around the fateful fifth pint, God usually rears His head.
It might surprise a few people to know Daithi O Se is quite a religious man. He has lit candles in church for people who have sent him abusive letters. He says his prayers every night in bed. He believes in God more than the Catholic Church.
"There are rules and parts of the Church I don't agree with. I go to Mass a few times a year and take away what I want out of it and leave other stuff that I don't agree with behind me.
"I chat to the man above about right and wrong and I use that as my moral compass.
Does he have conversations with God at night when he prays?
"I do," he replies, "usually hoping everybody will be fine. The usual stuff. When I see some of the crazy news stories, I'd seriously be asking God: 'WTF! Why did this happen?'"
Does Daithi think God has ever answered his prayers?
"I'm not sure it works like that," he laughs, "if it did, the world would be a different place. I don't really pray for individual things. I pray for everything and everybody."
Has he ever asked God to help Kerry lift Sam?
"I think God has Dublin set for the last few years."
What kind of man was his late father?
"Hard-working and loyal."
What kind of man are you?
"Same as my father."
I ask Daithi O Se what are the biggest misconceptions people have about him?
"I am who I am. You can take me or leave me!"
And does he care?
"I don't care auld stock!"
The Rose of Tralee is on RTE 1 from 8pm tomorrow night
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