Claire Byrne: 'I don't buy into rivalry with Pat Kenny on UTV'
Back on screen as the host of her own show after just 12 weeks of maternity leave, Claire Byrne talks babies, marriage and on-air rivalry with Claire O'Mahony
They say you should never meet your heroes but what about your teenage nemesis? When I was 16 Claire Byrne - the RTÉ presenter who was then attending a rival school in Laois - beat me in a Concern debating competition. There's still the photographic evidence from the Leinster Express to prove it somewhere. Of course, I'm over it now… almost. "Remember how nervous we used to be standing up?" the gracious victor recalls of her debating experiences. "They were really scary. I loved them though."
Schoolgirl debating was certainly a good starting point for Claire's subsequent career involving grilling politicians and discussing agendas. And now the 39-year-old from Mountrath is on the cusp of a whole new adventure with her show, Claire Byrne Live, which starts on Monday. Occupying the slot that Prime Time previously inhabited, it's a news and current affairs programme with audience participation. Expectations for the show are high and so, presumably, is the pressure - and that's not even taking into consideration the fact that Claire's just back from a maternity leave of just 12 weeks.
Daughter Jane was born in early October, while older brother Patrick is only 14 months old. How is Claire coping with two babies and a new show? "It's a bit tougher with two than it was with one. I'm not going to deny that," she says. "It's tricky but it's doable. When you have one baby, it's such a life change. And then when you have two you realise it's actually a luxury just having one to mind. "Throughout the pregnancy with Jane I wondered how on earth was I going to do this. But then you just do. You just get through every day and you think to yourself: 'If this is a bad day, there's always tomorrow.' It is tough, there's no doubt about it, but I talk to my mother and she had three under three, so I don't have that."
Sitting opposite Claire, it's difficult to believe that this is a woman who gave birth less than three months ago. I'm compelled to ask how she looks so good. "I had basically been pregnant for two years and I was walking around thinking: 'When is this going to end?' I just felt like I wanted to get back to myself, so I did put in a bit of effort pretty quickly after Jane was born to get back into the clothes that fit me two years ago," she says, adding that any pressure she felt to get into shape came from her alone.
"I didn't have much time for exercise but I was quite careful in what I ate and I do try to get out everyday with the two babies and the dog for a good walk. That in itself can be a challenge. It can take me about an hour to get everybody ready first of all. Have you had your lunch? And your bottle? And have you had your nappy changed…"
Claire has said in the past that she had accepted the idea that she wasn't going to have children until she met Microsoft consultant Gerry Scollan at the age of 36. Patrick was born in October 2013 and Jane was a happy surprise, but there are no immediate plans to expand their brood further.
"At the moment, because I had them in such a short period of time, I would say no but you just never know what's going to happen. I wouldn't rule anything in or out but certainly not in the very short term anyway." What might be more imminent is a wedding. Claire and Gerry got engaged in 2013 and, if things had gone according to plan, they should have been married by now. "We had everything booked - and we didn't tell anybody - for November 7 last year," she says. "Then we got the news about Jane being on her way so we just pulled the plug on it. About once a week one of us will say 'when will we get married?' but then we don't talk about it any more… well, not that we don't talk about it, it's just not a priority at the moment. Trying to organise a wedding now with two very small babies seems like a mountain too high. We could do it this year or we might leave it for another while. We're not putting any pressure on ourselves."
Wedding aside, having a high media profile results in garnering a fair amount of column inches and her previous relationships, as well as her divorce from radio executive Richard Johnson, have been well documented. But she's never felt that the attention was overly intrusive.
"I think when you sign up for this, it's part of it so you've got to just accept that and I accept that's part of the job," Claire says. But how does her fiancé feel about becoming part of this by default? "Gerry is so relaxed," she laughs. "Nothing like that would bother him. He's just a really chilled out person, so whatever goes really. It wouldn't bother Gerry if he was in the paper or he wasn't in the paper. It's great. He's the perfect candidate actually for being in a relationship with somebody who does have a career which involves media exposure."
There will be renewed media attention, of course, with the launch of Claire Byrne Live. Claire admits she does feel under a little pressure about the launch of her eponymous show - there's a fizz of excitement but also some nerves. "It's got to work because it's got my name on it," she laughs. "But I think it's a good thing - a nervous excitement is always good to go in with. If I wasn't nervous and I wasn't excited there'd be something wrong. I'm really looking forward to it. I feel like I'm standing at the starting gate waiting for it to kick off and I just want to get going with it."
Claire Byrne Live aims to give people a forum to discuss issues that are affecting them, whether that's childcare, politics or same-sex marriage. "I won't have a desk, which is very important to me because I want to have a good link with the audience," Claire says of the new format. "The audience is sitting in two curved banks, so they are really very much part of the programme.
"Having said that, it's not going to be that element of you come in as a guest on this programme and then you're going to be hit on the head and everybody is going to shout at you. I don't want it to be like that. I want it to be a calmer sort of environment. Entertaining and informative - they're the buzzwords if you like - and fun." Comparisons with her former Prime Time host, Pat Kenny, who will front a new current affairs show with UTV Ireland, are inevitable, but she says she's not concerned with this. "Well I'm not sure what Pat is going to be doing but I think it's going to be at the weekends and it's very different… I just don't buy into this rivalry anyway. Everybody does what they do and does their best, and that's what we'll be doing. I wish UTV Ireland well," she says.
In fact, she cites Kenny as one of her role models, describing him as one of the outstanding current affairs broadcasters in this country. "For the brief period that I worked with him on Prime Time I learnt a lot from him and he was a great colleague, somebody who was very generous with his time."
She's also dismissive of any purported competition between her and her other Prime Time co-presenter Miriam O'Callaghan. "There wasn't. We worked on the same programme together. That's all invented," she says firmly. "Everybody in here is just working really hard to get the programmes out on air and do the best that they can. There's no rivalry per se - well, for me, I'm just in here trying to do the best that I can do and juggle it with being mammy to two babies as well."
Becoming a mother has made her a more rounded presenter and broadcaster, Claire believes. "I think in a way, it's given me a deeper understanding of some of the issues that we cover. For example, last year I presented the discussion on the investigation into the creches, so I just had a better understanding of how that worked and how it impacted people," she says. "I think it's a very positive development. The only thing is that you read stories about sick children and you feel those a little bit more. I suppose it's more difficult to be impartial."
One thing she hasn't formed an opinion on, as yet, is Lucinda Creighton's new political party. "I actually don't know what to think about it because I don't know what it is. We'll have to wait and see. It's a very exciting time for politics in this country because something has to happen. There's that frisson of excitement and people are looking for something else, whether it's a left-wing party or any party at all. Maybe there'll be a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There could be an election within the next 12 months."
With Lucinda stepping back into the spotlight comes a renewed discussion about the under-representation of women in politics. It's a debate that's also often extended to women in current affairs. However, Claire is of the belief that the gender balance in this area in Ireland is quite good.
"I think there are other areas like the corporate world and the business world that have more work to do in terms of gender balance than media has," she says. "People often say that a lot of producers and researchers in media are female but not the presenters. I think we're starting to address that but also, if you think about it, those producers and researchers are setting the agenda, which is a good thing. If you look at Olivia O'Leary and Marian Finucane - for a long time we have had great trendsetters and role models who are women in this industry, and very highly respected, and that has made it very easy for someone like me to come along and fit into those kind of roles as well."
A concern expressed by a number of broadcasters, including UK stars Anna Ford and Selena Scott, is that older women in the media become marginalised. At 39, is it something that weighs on Claire's mind? "I tend to ignore any of those issues, whether you're treated differently as a woman or whether age is a problem, or your looks. I just ignore them as if they don't exist. That's how I've always operated.
"I'm a professional person working in this business and I'm not gender-defined. I don't want that to sound odd or strange but I've never really considered being female as being a big issue for me. When it comes to ageing in the media, as long as somebody gives me a job or as long as I'm happy to do it and I'm comfortable in my skin, I'll keep going and as soon as I'm not comfortable, I'll do radio and I'll be happy." But of course commentary on her appearance does happen. When she returned to Prime Time after her first maternity leave last January, there was a mini Twitter explosion about how great her hair looked. She's phlegmatic about that kind of thing, however. "Sure, we do it ourselves. We see a woman on television and we're looking at what she wears. It's just part of what we do," she says.
"It doesn't bother me to be honest, it really doesn't. It's part of the gig that people will look at your clothes or your hair or whatever and sometimes you get it right and that's great, but sometimes you get it wrong. We're all in the same boat."
Claire herself left Twitter in 2013 - the right decision, she thinks, because she was beginning to rely on it too much as verification that she was doing a good job. "I was coming off the air from the radio show and looking on my Twitter feed. If I got one bad comment it would weigh really heavily on my shoulders for the day and I'd ignore the ten good comments, if there were ten good comments. So it was playing into my life a bit more than I wanted it to."
Viewers and listeners may think they have a fair measure of Claire, but is there anything that would surprise people about her? "I suppose people may think I'm quite together and that everything is in its place, ordered and as it should be. I think it might be the persona that I project - I try to be quite calm as a broadcaster," she says. "My life is a little bit more manic than that. Gerry is the calm one in our house. He comes in and takes control and everything runs like it should do. Whereas, when I'm there sometimes everything just falls apart and I lose my cool. That's probably my biggest issue.
"With two children it's hard to keep your cool all the time. Sometimes I just think: 'I can't cope, I can't cope. I can't deal with having to have everything done and keeping everything together.' I think people might be surprised I'm not as together as I might seem."
Career-wise, from a distance it certainly seems as though Claire is very together, but she insists there isn't and never has been a plan - not even in those early days of our schoolgirl debates.
"I've never subscribed to that idea that I want to be in such-and-such a place by such-and-such a time because I don't think life works like that," she says. "I've sort of grabbed whatever has come along with both hands, just weighed it firstly and once I've decided to do it, just given it my best shot. I don't know what's next.
"Claire Byrne Live obviously is a huge project I have to get right. As I said, it bears my name and it's very important to me that it works. Once I get this challenge done, we'll see what happens. But I'm not searching for anything."
Claire Byrne Live begins on Monday at 10.35pm on RTÉ One
Photography: Barry McCall
Make Up: Aoife Grimes; Lancôme Paris Brown Thomas
Hair: Sharon Callan
Styling: Brendan Marc Scully