Claire Byrne: 'It's living the dream. I'm happy for it not to change'
Her last TV show of the season aired this week but Claire Byrne tells our reporter why she won’t be switching off during her maternity leave
Claire Byrne is no stranger to the art of improvisation. Her television and radio shows place her front and centre in curating the national conversation on the hoof; putting it up to politicians and navigating debates on emotive subjects, live on air. But last Monday, as viewers settled down to watch the last Claire Byrne Live show of the season on RTÉ One, they could have had no idea of the masterful improv going on right under their noses.
A week previously, finding herself without suitable maternity clothes in which to swathe her growing baby bump, Byrne had grabbed a regular top, ripped it right up the back, slipped it on, flung a jacket over it and headed out in front of the cameras.
“I’m very good at doing the swan,” Byrne says of her ever-calm exterior as she skims the nation’s airwaves, and smiling at the thought of her feet, paddling furiously underneath.
Aged 42 and trailing an impressive career arc in her wake, ‘driven’ is a word that sits well with the nation’s perception of high-flying Byrne. In the broadcasting area where you’re only as good as your last gig, the ability to be on top of your game is everything. Byrne has displayed that quality in spades. But this year, the mum-of-two says that on a personal level, she is glad of the natural break the summer season affords her. Her television season finishes in May and returns in September; her RTÉ One radio show finishes on July 8 and resumes around the same time.
Anyone else might use the downtime to pursue a pet project, or simply languish in a hammock in a Sicilian lemon grove, her hand trailing the worn spine of a neglected Agatha Christie novel. Byrne, however, will be using the break to “produce another human” — an act that she says will not cause her to lose a beat in her media career.
“I’ll be keeping up with the news because I love it. I can’t switch off. It’s not like a job,” she says.
Because of the quick turnaround (all going well) between baby arriving and back to work, Byrne says she can't afford to spend the next few months in a baby bubble.
“I hate that feeling that I’ve missed something. It’s not about appearing silly. I’m on a treadmill of news all the time and if you step off the treadmill you miss a piece of the jigsaw.”
In fact, Byrne demurs from even calling her summer break a maternity leave at all. If it all sounds a bit too Sheryl Sandberg, be assured that Byrne is not a devotee of the Lean In author. “I’m not big into gurus,” she says. “Sheryl and all that ‘leaning in’ thing is great, but I would say to most women ‘go and live your own life; do it your own way that works for you’.”
This is particularly true, she says, when trying to emulate the life of someone who “has all the support Sheryl Sandberg has”.
“No two situations are the same,” she says, citing the fact that she and husband Gerry Scollan split the care of their two small children between them, “and that works for me”.
How you deal with merging parenting and career, she says, “depends on how much support you personally need”. One parenting hack she has learned is to teach your children their independence early. “We have two little people who select their own clothes every morning. They are so proud to dress themselves — even if you do have a little boy who selects football socks that take so long to put on, like pressurized bandages,” she laughs. If the last few years in Byrne’s life seem like a whirlwind, then be assured, she is also looking back with awe on the speed of change.
“One night recently myself and Gerry were there saying, ‘We don’t know each other five years and yet here we are, married, two children and a third on the way, and a new house!’
“We met each other five years come Christmas time, and we’re quite proud of the pace at which we’ve managed to create this family. When we’re in our sixties we’ll be able to enjoy one another again,” she says, laughing. “I do wonder what I did before I had kids.”
In that five years, she has also fronted her successful television show. “The end of this season was marked by a really good run of (viewership) figures,” Byrne says. “We’re hitting the mark.” She says the real strength in the show became apparent this year, when it formed part of an RTÉ investigations package, such as that which looked into foster care, or the ‘Living on the List’ programme that featured scoliosis sufferers.
“Investigations can be so impactful that you need to give the subjects space to breathe in a debate afterwards in order to assimilate what you have just learned, and to seek accountability. When we follow up a documentary or investigation with a debate, those are the ones that really hit home for us,” she says of the show.
How does Byrne decide on the topics she selects for the show? “If someone tells me we’re not allowed to discuss something, that is when we’re going to discuss it. They will say it’s already been decided, or it’s awful or whatever. We still have questions we would like answered.”
Is this ‘someone’ her bosses at Montrose, or big businessmen or lobby groups — or all three? The question is knocked to touch. “As soon as someone tells you not to discuss something and shuts down a conversation, that’s the time to start talking. It’s about free speech and allowing a conversation to happen. Essentially that’s public service broadcasting,” Byrne says.
Her personal love is politics, and Byrne has been watching carefully the contest for the next Taoiseach. “Should we feel disenfranchised as a nation that one party decided who the Taoiseach is, as opposed to the general electoral? Not everyone is Fine Gael. Only a small cohort of people believe in that policy. If both candidates are cut from the same cloth, is it okay for them to select the next Taoiseach in this way? If that means we need another election, so be it. That’s democracy. (As a nation) we’ve spent money on sillier things.”
In September she will return with renewed aplomb — albeit possibly also with the dark under-eye circles a new baby brings. “Careerwise I feel really lucky to be in Radio One. I’m happy having my own current affairs show on RTÉ, it’s living the dream — I’m happy for it not to change.”
Has it been stressful, keeping a career afloat while starting a family? “I’ve no experience of having my children young and building my career (after that).
“I suppose the way I did it, I reached a point where I was confident and secure enough (in my job) to have pregnancies. The sacrifice for me was short maternity leaves. Do I feel guilty about that? That I could have been off for a year? I do sometimes. But my hours are flexible and I am present a lot of the time. I’m there for bedtime six nights a week. I love my job and I want my children to see I am a happy mammy.”
Her current pregnancy will also be her last — “I’m too old; I’m 42,” she says.
Apart from the fact that she’s had to re-buy all the babyware she gave away after baby number two was born, her pregnancy is “the last thing on my mind, most of the time”.
Only now she’s remembering. All that time up feeding a new baby through the night — even if it can also present an opportunity to keep up with breaking news via your smartphone.
“Oh, you’re reminding me now… the tiredness is extraordinary!”