Sunday 16 June 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan on Varadkar interview, the 'biggest' of her career

When he wanted to tell the country that he is a gay man, Leo Varadkar came looking for Miriam O'Callaghan, and she thanks an order of nuns in Drogheda for that and the other big interviews that followed. Miriam tells Sarah Caden that she feels grateful for everything, even for the job that takes her husband away from home, having spent years worrying that he gave up everything for her when they first fell in love.

Miriam O’Callaghan speaks for the first time about how she landed the interview with Health Minister Leo Varadkar which has dominated the news agenda for the past week. Photo: Damien Eagers
Miriam O’Callaghan speaks for the first time about how she landed the interview with Health Minister Leo Varadkar which has dominated the news agenda for the past week. Photo: Damien Eagers

Sarah Caden

In January, after Leo Varadkar told Miriam O'Callaghan that he is a gay man, she said that this was the biggest interview of her life. People were surprised by this, Miriam tells me over coffee in a shopping-centre cafe close to RTE. Bigger than the Good Friday Agreement, they asked, bigger than anything she ever did with John Hume? Yes, said Miriam, much bigger.

Her big blue eyes well with emotion as she explains. This was about more than just one man saying he was gay, Miriam says. Bigger even than this man being the first Cabinet Minister to do so. This spoke of a changed Ireland, a more open, live-and-let-live Ireland. It was a significant moment in Irish life, she says, and, one could say, it was a significant Miriam moment. And Miriam's having quite a moment.

For an interviewer, it's big to be wanted. It's the stamp of approval, the sign that you've arrived. And Leo wanted Miriam, as did Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett, a week later, as then did Christine Lagarde when she visited Dublin, and then the Taoiseach, last month. She's the one that they want.

"I thank the Siena order of enclosed Dominican nuns in Drogheda for my good luck recently," says Miriam with a hearty laugh. "I've had such a good run of interviews since I was up with them."

Miriam visited the nuns in December, to record a Christmas Day special of her radio show, Sunday With Miriam. "As we left, they asked if they could pray for me in perpetuity," Miriam explains. "And I said, 'Yes, please; happy days.'" She was driving when her passenger, her radio producer Alan Torney, took a phone call from Leo Varadkar's right-hand man Nick Miller.

"We'd been looking for Leo for a while, but Nick was wondering if we'd like to do a profile interview, a more personal one," says Miriam. "So that was good. But then, as we got close to Dublin, I turned to Alan and said, 'I know this sounds mad, but there's a rumour, a small rumour, that Leo might be gay. He said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah.' And then we both agreed that there was no way he was coming on to say he was a gay man; that would be too ridiculous, that the first cabinet minister would want to come on with me to say that."

Miriam explains that there then followed weeks of Nick and Alan chatting about the interview, which was postponed several times due to crises in the health service. And, Miriam says, neither man brought up the subject of sexuality directly.

"Leo came on Prime Time on the Thursday, and when he was leaving, I said: 'Sorry if this is very inappropriate, but are you coming on on Sunday to say that you are gay?'" says Miriam, who explains that she has never met Varadkar outside of a TV or radio studio and really does not know him well enough to be so personal.

"He said he was, and I said: 'OK, see you Sunday.' And that was that. But as I walked back to my desk, in my head, I asked the nuns to keep praying. And then I didn't see him until the Sunday morning."

All the best interviews, no matter how spontaneous they seem, Miriam adds, are very carefully planned. She and Alan planned a period of talking about Leo's childhood and the fact that he is the son of an Indian father, and then planned, word for word, how she would segue into the revelation, which is what she spelled out to a nervous Varadkar just before they went on air.

"I told him that I would say, 'It's your birthday today; you're very eligible, but you haven't settled down.' That was his cue. And he said that was fine," says Miriam.

"But when I asked him that, he didn't answer and, out of the corner of my eye, because the divide is all glass, I could see the team and everyone out there thought he wasn't going to do it. But it was OK. If he had changed his mind, it was OK, but there was no way I was going to say the word. That was his right. And I would never have prompted him or led the witness as a way of making him say it."

But, on the spur of the moment, Miriam said: "What kind of relationship would you be looking for?"

"And that was it," she says, "He said it. And the minute he said it, he was very relieved. Everyone was very relieved. And it was very emotional. It was one of those moments in broadcasting where you think, 'It happened, and it's all going to be OK.'"

And people were kind, as she had hoped, Miriam says. The show was flooded with emails of support and congratulations. A lot of parents of gay children wrote to say that this had made their lives easier; a 60-year-old man said it prompted him to visit his parents and tell them that he was gay. It meant the world, says Miriam, and not just to Varadkar, not just to her, to so many more people than that.

And it was, she reasserts, the biggest interview of her life. Does it lead, then, to moments like, the following week, the then embattled Sean Barrett phoning her show from the airport? Or securing a rare interview with Enda Kenny? Does one big moment, I ask, snowball into the next?

"You're only as good as the reputation you've built up over years," she says. "I think that if you spend your life with a reputation for giving people a hearing, then they will talk to you.

"After years of trying to get the Taoiseach to do an interview live in studio, it was just great to get him," she says of her Enda Kenny sit-down. "These are always very stressful, high-stakes moments, but key moments, too.

"Mostly, the only reason people decline an interview with me is that they're 'not ready for a Miriam interview'. As if their entrails would be hanging out. But I'm interested in people. I'm interested in what makes them tick."

"I tell all of my children: 'Be kind and be fair and work hard and you will create your own luck'. That's my mantra."

The two Miriam O'Callaghans are in evidence in that last sentence. The mother of eight and the Miriam of radio and TV. To some extent, she keeps them apart, as evidenced in how she spells out her busy weekday mornings these days, as her husband Steve Carson works in the BBC in Belfast, having left RTE at the end of 2013.

She talks about getting her four boys off to school, and then switching identity.

"I bring the boys to school in jeans and one of Steve's shirts," she says, "then I get home and make the beds and put on a wash and then I make a coffee and have my favourite part of the day - 20 minutes lying on the bed, catching up on the news and my Twitter feed. Then it's into my Miriam O'Callaghan clothes and it's a total change of mood."

It's interesting that Miriam loves those 20 minutes of solitude and silence, given she gets so few minutes like that. And given that busy is how she favours it.

"You can't live with as many people as I do and be precious about your time or your space, though," says Miriam, who explains that not even a cup of tea is sacred in her house. "Nothing stays where you put it and even the TV in my bedroom has my 13-year-old's PlayStation on it."

While Steve's away working, Miriam's bedroom is something of a refuge. On nights that she's not working on Prime Time, she goes up there to watch the Nine O'Clock News, and various children and grown-up children drift in and out.

These days, three of her four daughters - whose father is Miriam's ex-husband, broadcaster Tom McGurk - are living at home. Her eldest daughter, Alannah (29) has moved out and is working as a barrister. Her four boys with Steve Carson, ranging from 17-year-old Jack down to Jamie, who has just turned nine, are still in school. It's a busy house, and while she relishes that the crazy small-child years are past - "I did my time; I did my bit!" she laughs - it's still a very busy house, even with Steve away.

"He's away, but he's also around a lot," Miriam says. "And I'm so busy, too, and the kids are so busy, that they're like, 'Hi, Dad, were you gone?'

"It's not that I don't miss him," says Miriam of the husband that she believes was sent to her by her dead sister, Anne, 20 years ago this year. "But you get into a routine, don't you? The routine is that on Monday he gets the 7.30am train to Belfast. He is there until Wednesday, then he comes back, and he goes to London a lot on Thursday and Friday, when I'm really busy, and then he's back for the weekend."

Miriam, who is always refreshingly open about how much she loves Steve, clearly takes great pleasure in how happy her Belfast-born husband is with his return to the BBC. She hears more gossip in RTE since he's gone, she laughs, because no one told her anything while he was around, but it's more than that.

"When I first met Steve," she says, "it was June 1995, in the Famine Museum in Strokestown." At that time, Miriam had returned to Ireland and started in RTE, after years in the BBC. "Steve had started in the BBC straight out of university," she continues, "all his life was there, all his friends, and if he hadn't bumped into Miriam O'Callaghan that day, he would have stayed in the BBC and he'd be married to a nice, dark-haired girl from Sussex.

"But he bumped into me, and that was that," she says. "At that time, obviously, I couldn't leave Ireland, because I was very settled here, with four small children, but that was never an issue for him. We got married and he commuted and continued working on Panorama, but then, in 1997, he came here full-time."

What Steve gave up was never an issue for him, Miriam says, but it was an issue for her. It bothered her that he had left his "steady, pensionable job" at the BBC, but she also hated that in order to be with her, Steve had made a huge sacrifice.

"I had made a professional choice to leave the BBC," she explains, "but Steve left because he chose me. That was different; it was unfinished business. And now it has come full circle." And so, Miriam was nearly more excited than Steve when an offer of a job in the BBC was made to him in 2013. She told him he had to do it, and that they would manage the long-distance bit, which they have.

For her part, however, Steve's return to the BBC did not make Miriam wonder if she'd like to go back there herself.

"No," she says, "I scratched that itch. Maybe if I had started my broadcasting career in Ireland, I'd always wonder if it would be better in Britain, and if I should go there, but, because I started over there, in my own way, I've made it there already. I don't need to prove that again."

When it comes to Prime Time, on which Miriam has worked for almost 20 years, she might end up like her hero, Barbara Walters, still working away on the show into her 80s.

"I've been there through thick and thin," Miriam says. "We've had great days like the Good Friday Agreement in 1998; Mary Raftery's Cardinal Secrets in 2000; great Prime Time Investigates; and terrible days too, with Mission to Prey. But every time, I go out there, good or bad. I'm very attached to the programme."

"Maybe I'm a tad boring about Prime Time," Miriam says with a laugh. "I'm on it a million years and I'm on the record saying I'm not going to leave it. I'm thrilled that Claire's doing [Claire Byrne Live on]Monday nights now, because they needed a live-audience programme back in there, and she's doing brilliantly and she has a great team. We're all current affairs, so if it does well, it reflects well on all of us. But I never want to leave Prime Time. Even during that whole Late Late Show debacle [when they were looking for a replacement for Pat Kenny], half of it was that I didn't want to leave Prime Time. I'm happy where I am. I'm happy and I'm lucky and I'm busier than I've ever been."

When Miriam met Christine Lagarde last month, she found that this woman, whom she massively admires, shared her philosophy of life. "Well, she believes, like me, that there is a special place in hell for women who don't support other women," Miriam says. "But she also says that you must always move on. Professionally and personally, she says that if things aren't going your way, you must not get bogged down in it; you must keep going."

This chimes with Miriam, who does not do regrets, does not dwell, and does not ever forget that she is lucky. "Steve always says I'm a great one for not looking back. I never look back," says Miriam. "I love life and I'm grateful to have it. I always say to Steve, "We're very lucky, we're happy and the kids are all healthy." Steve will say that you don't know what tomorrow will bring, but I don't think like that."

"I live for the moment," says Miriam O'Callaghan says. And, right now, it's a Miriam O'Callaghan moment.

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