The dawning of the age of Maxi
American band REM released the hit single Daysleeper in 1998, and it was sung from the perspective of an anguished night shift worker. The lyrics railed against the despair that can come from the disorientation of time and circadian rhythms, an occupational hazard of living such an upside-down lifestyle.
RTE's Maxi can tell you all about the importance of honouring the circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates a variety of biological processes over a 24-hour period, and responds primarily to light and darkness. When the broadcaster became floored with exhaustion in 2010, her doctor explained that eleven years of presenting Late Date on Radio One, which ran from midnight to 2 am, and a further eleven years of rising at 3 am to present Risin' Time, had taken a massive toll on her body.
The always organised Maxi would set five alarm clocks to ensure she didn't sleep in, and was at her desk by 4am to prepare and do her research. "I hit 60 and total exhaustion kicked in," she says. "My body shut down, and the doctors told me that I had pushed it for too long and I needed four full seasons of rest to recover. It was like running out of petrol and trying to keep driving your car."
Maxi was born Irene McCoubrey on February 23, 1950. For many years, the bubbly and popular DJ enjoyed a full, active social life, as she has lots of creative pals like Gary Kavanagh, and loved meeting them for breakfast, brunch or early birds. Sure, she couldn't stay out late, but she often caught the first half of a play or concert, just to get a flavour of it.
One would imagine that finding herself confined to bed for a year must have been a lonely, isolating experience. Maxi says she didn't get depressed about it, which she attributes to her ability to adapt to situations, and the fact that when something happens, she researches it, digests the new information and works with it. "I don't do regret, blame or panic, and I stayed really positive because I knew I would be up walking again one day and back working in radio again, and I was right," she says. "As the year went on, I felt stronger, and could do a little more, bit by bit. One day I would try to make it to the door, and the next I would try to make it to the car, so it was a slow process."
As she didn't have the energy for visitors most of the time, Maxi talked on the phone a lot, and she wrote back to the concerned listeners who got in touch, missing her warm, dulcet tones in the morning. Her creative side blossomed during this time, possibly to compensate for her physical limitations. She asked singer-songwriter Charlie McGettigan to write music with her, and they worked on 26 songs during that time, she from her bed in Dublin, and he from Leitrim. Charlie subsequently recorded two of them, and singer Clara Rose Monahan recorded another
"It gave me a purpose," says Maxi. "I couldn't physically do anything, but writing gave me a peace and calmness mentally. I was such a social person, so to be told that I couldn't go out for a year was really hard. The idea was insane to me and it was a painful time, but those songs saved me. Creativity truly comes in silence and I hadn't expected that to happen, but the music just poured out of me."
Physical healing came through gently giving her depleted body back all the things that had been denied to it over the years. Maxi saw a nutritionist, and realised the importance of vitamins, fish oils and feeding the body properly. These days she walks by the sea, eats on time, doesn't drink at all, and rests as much as she can. She looks wonderful, with glowing skin and a positivity that seems to radiate from within.
The Maxi that emerged at the end of that period of confinement was a different person. With ample time to reflect, she worked out what she wanted out of life and the value of loyal friends. She learned the hard way, as everyone does, that not everyone sticks around when the going gets tough. She may be a darling, but Ms McCoubrey is no pushover, and as she points out, if you let her down, you won't get a chance to do it again.
"Marion Fossett is my best girlfriend, and she knows when I file people under "grudge," she laughs. "I'm cherry-picking what I do now and am no longer a 'yes' person or a people pleaser. I lost some people from my life when I was ill, and then they tried to come back when I was better but it was too late. It can take you a long time to realise that some people are only there for the persona, and I only want people around now who are there for me."
On the subject of her personal life, Maxi is single, and says she is very content. "I was married once between 1973 and 1979, so I've been there, done that and the T-shirt is in the wash," she says. "I've had two major relationships since then, but I never regretted not getting married again or having a long-term partner, because the single life is great."
And would she be open to romance and dating someone? "I don't know if I would still date," she says, hesitantly, "but I want to be open to everything this year. There are lots of great guys around, and I think I will probably meet someone in the creative world, because I'm attracted to minds and I'm very attracted to humour and artistic people."
Maxi is the youngest of teacher Madge and insurance agent Sam's three children. She was very close to both of her parents, and it was a huge blow when she eventually lost them in adulthood, although she still feels their presence. Would she have liked to have children herself? "No, because I have never had a maternal instinct in my life, to be honest," she smiles. Her dad played violin and her mum played the piano, and Maxi played violin and sang, appearing in Gaiety pantos and summer shows with Maureen Potter, Noel Purcell and Milo O'Shea. She fell in love with radio at ten, and as she got older, applied for audience tickets for any RTE show that was going. "I would sit there soaking it all up, and would freak out when I saw Gay Byrne and Mike Murphy working," she says. "They'd lift a page and let it fall soundlessly to the floor as they recorded, and I thought it was the sexiest thing I'd ever seen in my life."
Blessed with a fabulous singing voice, Maxi was in the school choir at St. Louis, Rathmines, and was a member of the Little Dublin Singers and Young Dublin Singers. Her life changed when Eamonn Andrews wanted to create a girl group to provide backing vocals for his recording studio, and chose Maxi, 14, Adele King, 13, and Barbara Dixon, 12, as he liked the blend of their voices. And as his right-ha nd man Fred O'Donovan observed, they "didn't look too bad either." The girls chose the name Maxi, Dick and Twink, as Maxi's nickname arose from her initials McC, Dick was short for Dixon, and Adele had been christened Twinkle Toes on stage when she was a six-year-old ballerina.
"They told us we needed to spend time together and get along," says Maxi. "That was in the mid-60s and we are still getting along today. I was massively, painfully shy back then, and the best thing that ever happened to me was meeting Twink. She would say, 'Ah for God's sake McCoubrey, don't leave it all to me. If you want to go into showbusiness, you have to talk to people.' She saw that there was a personality there, and she pushed me to talk because she couldn't understand shyness, and she was dead right. The three of us blended so beautifully singing together, and would go off after school and do backing vocals for people like Joe Dolan and Brendan Bowyer. It was like a dream and so exciting, and it was a very happy time in my life."
With their mini skirts and white plastic boots, Maxi, Dick and Twink became hugely popular as a girl group in their own right as they got older, appearing on TV, performing abroad and being chauffeured to gigs around the country in a pink Cadillac. Presumably the other girls at school weren't impressed though? "Oh, some were raging," laughs Maxi, "or else they just didn't believe it and thought we were making it up." On one occasion, they were invited by Bord Failte to go Mainz in Germany to help promote Irish tourism. They were so young they needed a chaperone, and Maeve Binchy (a teacher at the time) was chosen. On stage they were introduced as Maxi, Dick unt Tvink.
When they left school, they really took off internationally, and they toured everywhere and became very successful in Canada. However, after a year of living and touring over there, various differences surfaced and they decided to call it a day after seven years together.
"We grew up and wanted different things, so Barbara stayed in Canada, Adele went to Las Vegas and I went home," says Maxi, who represented Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1973, singing Do I Dream? "We're still friends, and chat and e-mail all the time. I worked with Danny Doyle then, but I got lonely working with all men. I applied for the three-girl group that was to be formed called Sheeba, but they told me I was too old."
Marion Fossett had already been chosen for the group, then Frances Campbell was selected, and eventually the management relented and let Maxi be the third girl. And she an oul' wan of 28 and all. "Ah yes, but I could still wear the hot pants," she laughs.
Sheeba became very successful, as they were probably Ireland's first sexy girl group. They represented us in Eurovision in 1981 with the song Horoscopes, and came in fifth place. They went to Holland and London to record their album, and with five tracks recorded, they travelled to Castlebar to meet some Dutch songwriters. It was raining and a woman on the school run turned her car so that her child wouldn't have to cross the road, and it collided with the car carrying the girls.
"It was the saddest thing, because the lady and her son died," says Maxi. "I was brought, unconscious, to Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar. I had a head injury that needed over 100 stitches, Marion had a facial injury, and Frances had a collapsed lung. Everyone's life is touched with ups and downs, but that was a very sobering time for us."
Maxi's injuries kept her in hospital for a month, but while she had memory loss, thankfully there was no brain damage. The girls were grateful to be alive, but the record company dropped them because they were so ill and their recovery would take too long. Although they tried to make a go of it after they recovered, everything had changed and it didn't work out. Marion went back to her family business, Fossett's Circus, Frances went to live in the north, and Maxi ultimately moved into radio broadcasting.
The idea came to her as she was lying in the hospital in Castlebar, not knowing what would happen next. DJ Pete Murray had once told her that she had a beautiful radio voice following an interview, and decided that she was going to apply for a job in that area. This was partly because she loved radio and partly because her hair had been shaved off, and she thought radio would be fine as nobody would see her. She contacted her old school pal, radio producer Kevin Hough, who gave her great advice, so by the time she was well enough to come back to Dublin, she had her demo tape planned out in her head.
"I sent out dozens of tapes and only got one call back from an RTE producer," she recalls. "He explained to me that there were no female DJs, and I asked, 'Why not?' So he told me to come in and audition, which I did, and said that while they would train me, they couldn't guarantee me a job. I soon realised that I was very inexperienced and naive about what was involved. I hadn't realised all that goes into driving the desk and researching and writing scripts. I wanted to do it all properly, and knew that if I was going to be RTE's first female DJ, I had to be the best. I started subbing for people and very gradually, as I learned more, I got to go on air on my own. The nerves were the same as going on stage, as the adrenaline flows and it's a bit like a performance."
After working on 2fm, Maxi got into Radio One. She started off doing Late Date, moved to Risin' Time, and listeners simply adored her. She also worked regularly on TV. After she returned from her illness in 2011, she made radio documentaries, principally the On The Street Where He/She Lived series, which visited the home places of people like Luke Kelly, Maureen Potter, Louis Walsh, Patrick Kavanagh, Billie Barry, Stephen Gately and Phil Lynott to talk to those who knew them about their lives. All are available as podcasts on the RTE player.
As she retires from RTE today on her 65th birthday, Maxi says that she is happy and excited at entering the next phase of her life. She will miss the gang, of course, but has made lifelong friends, many of whom popped up on the tribute show to her on The John Murray Show on Friday morning.
Looking back on her life, other highlights include entertaining the troops in Lebanon, and becoming a UNICEF ambassador. Meeting her idol, Paul McCartney, backstage at his gig in 2010 was an amazing surprise, and it was engineered by her good pal Louis Walsh. "I was such a fan, so meeting Paul was shocking," she says. "I just stared at him in disbelief, but I put my producer hat on and composed myself, and then freaked out afterwards."
Still fizzing with ideas, Maxi hopes to work on freelance radio projects in the future. She has written two novels over the past four years, and her immediate task is to edit and polish them, and bring them to a publisher. One is a love story set in Mayo, and the other is about girls who go on the road with a van full of men - now where could she possibly have drawn the inspiration for that?
"I have always had changes and reboots in my life, so retirement is just another one," she says, sanguinely. "Working at RTE has been exciting, interesting and challenging, and I loved being at the hub of everything, and meeting the amazing people who made music and the culture of Ireland. It's a lovely achievement to think that I walked in the door 30 years ago with no guarantee of a job and a low chance of getting one because I was a woman, and I never left. And I can safely say I've loved every minute of it."