Mary Kennedy: 'My burn-out last year was a wake up call'
Over fairy cakes in her Dublin home, national treasure Mary Kennedy tells Barry Egan about burn-out, her fear of confrontation, the difference between being lonely and being alone, and how at one stage, she turned into several of the seven dwarves of the menopause
Her two dogs are barking in the garden to be let in. Otherwise engaged, Mary Kennedy is too busy taking fairy cakes she has baked specially out of the oven to concern herself with Larry and Daisy. Mary also has "an old lady cat" called Maggie, who is nowhere to be seen. She had another cat, Oscar, who died, and Daisy joined the household in January 2016. There is fresh coffee brewing in the kitchen, a fire roaring in the front room, and a man in the other room who has come to tune her piano. The owner of this fine house in Knocklyon (she bought it from friends in 2002) says she rarely plays the piano herself these days. "I used to play it more often" - Johann Strauss's Blue Danube was a particular favourite to tinkle out before bed - "but there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day now. My daughter Lucy plays it and it is always a part of house parties and sing-songs."
Mary could have a bigger house with an even bigger back garden for Larry, Daisy and Maggie to run around in if she wanted to, primarily because Mary Kennedy is a national treasure so beloved in Irish life that she could probably run for the Aras the next time around and become President without too much of an effort. Which is why I nearly splutter my coffee over her living room table when the RTE star says that I probably think she is some sort of "po-faced" prude. Nothing could be further from the truth in my mind.
In fact, Mary Kennedy is wickedly witty at times, certainly, at any rate, in possession of a healthy and entertaining sense of humour. In her 2015 book, What Matters: Reflections on Important Things in Life, Mary wrote a paragraph on the menopause as funny as anything Joan Rivers could have produced in her heyday: "It's a bonus to go through it because it means you are still alive. I've lost friends before the middle stage of life... so let's hear it once more ...for the seven dwarves of menopause: Itchy, Bitchy, Wrinkly, Sweaty, Sleepy, Bloated, Forgetful."
I asked Mary what was it like being the Bitchy Dwarf?
"Short-tempered," she answers, with a chuckle. "You see, I am way past the menopause now. I have come to this Zen period, which is lovely."
Pre-Zen, what was it like being the Sweaty Dwarf? "Sweaty was the biggest one," she roars with laughter. "And I mean, anyone who is going through the menopause will relate to that. It was the most awful, awful experience. I could be sitting talking to you and the next thing there is a river running down my face or my arms. You feel as if you are going to explode out your head."
The Sleepy Dwarf? "The Sleepy Dwarf eluded me, I wouldn't mind falling prey to that symptom but I have never been a good sleeper."
The Bloated Dwarf?
"The Bloated Dwarf has never left me! That's my excuse, anyway. To be honest, life is too short and food is too much fun to be worrying about a flat stomach."
And not forgetting the Forgetful Dwarf? "I am forgetful to the point that my children," she says referring to her four grown-up children - Eva, Tom, Eoin and Lucy - "have chosen my epitaph. My headstone will be adorned with the query: 'Has anyone seen my car keys?'"
Misplaced keys aside, Mary has been adding her particular magic to presenting Nationwide on RTE for 14 years now. She loves "the ethos of the programme and the fact that it celebrates Irish people and our innate sense of community and connection with each other".
Mary's profound connection with herself is just as relevant in 2018. Mary can remember her first attempt in going for the presenting job for the Eurovision Song Contest in the early 1990s - she eventually landed the gig in 1995 - and asking a producer in RTE for advice. "He told me to be myself. He said being herself would work eventually 'because insincere people always get found out'."
"Not necessarily called out but people know," Mary explains. "People know when it is a game, you know?"
In 1978, when she saw an advertisement by RTE looking for part-time continuity announcers, Mary applied in "secret", because being from Clondalkin, she didn't want people to think she was getting "notions". "That was embedded into us when we were growing up," she remembers. But Mary wouldn't want to have embedded that way of thinking in her own children?
"No. Not at all. And I didn't, hopefully. But that was just the way it was for me growing up. It wasn't just my parents. It was the way we were brought up. You wouldn't want to get above yourself. The nuns would be the same. They would want you to be grounded, sound, and not having notions."
And now, when she sees herself on the covers of magazines?
"It depends on the picture! But as I have gotten older, I have become more comfortable with myself."
In her new book, Home Thoughts From The Heart, Mary reveals that she was briefly so uncomfortable within herself that she suffered a burn-out in the summer of 2017. "It was awful," she says now. "The burn-out was just me doing too much. I actually went into work one day and put myself in for two weeks' holidays. And I wasn't going away."
Prior to the burn-out, was Mary frightened at some deeper level of slowing down or stopping?
"No, I am not frightened to stop but I do enjoy being busy. You asked me earlier what I got from my mother. That's definitely one of the things. She was always busy, doing things. I was really quite worn out. I had a little shortness of breath. I had actually phoned my doctor and said I had this thing where it is almost like a little hiccup."
Does Mary think the burn-out was a wake-up call for her health?
"Yes, I do. I feel I am much more controlled about the things I take on and undertake to do. I suppose I gave out this demeanour of being able to do everything, and I don't think anybody is able to do everything."
How does she think people see this superwoman called Mary Kennedy?
"As very capable."
I imagine the public see you as a little more than simply capable, I say. Just being capable doesn't mean you can present the Eurovision Song Contest or film specials in Africa.
"Well, adventurous then. I hate turning down an opportunity or a challenge. There are people who wouldn't be comfortable visiting the slums of Nairobi as we did last week [for Nationwide]. But it was no bother for me. It is very hard to answer how people view me. I don't know how people view me."
I ask her about misconceptions. "You, for instance, consider me to be very po-faced and serious!" she laughs.
That is absolute bullshit, Mary. She is laughing even louder now.
Maybe I see you as being protective of your brand, whatever that is, I say. "I don't see myself as having a brand."
You have a certain persona on television, I say. "I do like when people say, 'You are exactly the same off the television as you are on it'."
Well, you seem to be, I add.
"Well, I am!" she laughs. "I don't have notions on the television either!"
When I came to the door earlier, you seemed a bit preoccupied, I tell her.
"In fact, I was thinking when you arrived that it would have been lovely if this was next week, because the garden will be done by then. The garden is in ribbons at the moment. I don't mind that. That's the way it is. I have been away a lot. The summer bedding is now gone off. But on Saturday, it will be fab..."
I ask Mary again why she thought I believed she is po-faced. "Because I have avoided doing this kind of interview for so long!" she laughs.
I'm going really very gentle on you, I protest.
"You'd want to go really gentle!" She roars with laughter. "And as soon as you stop going really gentle I'll stop…!" She laughs again.
Does Mary think there is a gap between how she is in real life and how people might see her?
"No, no, I don't think so. And I think that, again, as I get older, I am not prepared to feed into an impression of me. Yeah, I am capable and yeah, I am able to do those kind of things but I also have lots of shortcomings, challenges..."
What are her shortcomings? "Shyness, definitely. I am not good at putting myself forward. Now I do and I overcome it. But it's there. It's part of my DNA. I just accept it now. Sometimes I have to take a very deep breath. And I would go around the world to avoid confrontation. I am just not good at it. I can't cope."
Where did that feeling come from? Was it an experience in her childhood?
"Nothing kind of seismic. I just think it is part of my make-up. I am not even good at making difficult phone calls. I put them off right through the day. I was just never able to deal with rows or anything like that. I hate having a row with anybody." Did her parents row?
"No. Maybe they rowed when I was up in bed asleep."
Her dad Tom died in 1977. Mary started work in RTE a year later. She was "really sorry he never got to see me because he would have been so proud". Her mother Pauline got to see Mary make her mark in television but that didn't stop her being nervous for her daughter, not least when she presented the Eurovision Song Contest in 1995. Pauline was "petrified that something might go wrong".
Mary had auditioned for the presenter's gig the two years previously, in 1993 and 1994, and was philosophical when she was unsuccessful. 'You win some, you lose some," Mary says now.
Was Mary just as philosophical when Grainne Seoige was given Mary's RTE gig as the presenter of Up For The Match and The People Of The Year Awards?
"Yes, absolutely," she says. "I think The People Of The Year Awards was actually the following year, or the year before, but anyway they weren't in the one year. I felt I had had a good innings. I had done it for nine years. If somebody else comes along... because I really feel that RTE management and the producer has the right to choose their person; and on so many occasions it has been me and I am really grateful for that. So I had absolutely no problem with Grainne. Grainne is a really lovely woman and so is her sister. But, the only thing was, I really missed Up For The Match because I love the GAA."
Mary was 21 when her father died of a heart attack "playing golf up there in Stackstown". Mary's mother was 58 (she died when she was 83.)
Mary says she was "a very serious child". Was it a role that was forced upon her when her father died because she was the eldest?
"No. I was 21 when my dad died. I was away in France [teaching English]. It was really hard, but it must have been really hard for my brother and sister, Deirdre and Tony, because Deirdre was 17 and Tony was 15 when he died on March 26 and they were heading into Leaving Cert and Inter Cert exams. That must have been so heartbreaking. I felt so sorry for them," she says.
In her fourth book, What Matters, Reflections on Important Things in Life, Mary wrote of the day after St Valentine's in 2015: "I'm on my own today and finding it hard to cope with being alone. It's not always like this. My goodness, I lead a very full and busy life, for which I am thankful, but the cloud of sadness is hanging over me today. It's Sunday and I have no plans. There is nobody in the house but me, the dog and the two cats, and nobody will come through the door until tomorrow at least. I should have organised something to do today. I have to take control of this sadness, head it off at the pass and try to make sure that I don't put myself in this vulnerable position again."
She says now: "I don't have a problem in telling it from the heart. I wrote that on that day. I was sitting here, in that chair you are sitting in now. I always feel when I am writing that it will connect with somebody else who has been going through a difficult patch - and the reaction was unbelievable."
And how does Mary feel about loneliness now? Does she still find it hard to cope with being alone? "Loneliness should not be confused with being alone," she explains. "I love being alone but there are times when loneliness 'happens'. I accept it as part of this stage of life, I accept it as a recognition that we are all communicative and communicating and interconnected beings and that as children grow and relationships change, feeling lonely is an emotion that we must embrace. I appreciate from your questions, Barry, that you don't recognise or fully understand that it can be part of the fabric of life and how would you when you're at the stage of working hard and being a father to young children? It's when that is no longer necessary that loneliness enters one's life."
Her life has remarkably been devoid of the cliched pitfalls that come from being on our television day in, day out, for almost two decades. She doesn't have the appetite for soul-obliterating attention that some others at RTE appear to have. She has never surrendered the right of self-definition to the media. It is perhaps at best stupidly sexist, at worst misogynistic, to try to characterise Mary by whether or not she is with someone romantically; she isn't. Instead of getting po-faced, when I put my size-12s in it and ask why a beautiful woman like her isn't all loved up, Ireland's foremost female national treasure laughs and, pointing to the gate, says - "Look! It just doesn't happen! I am not averse to it! There is nobody queuing around the corner. You noticed! You came in! Look!" (The break-up of her 15-year marriage to Ronan Foster was so long ago - in 1997 - that it hardly seems even remotely relevant emotionally or otherwise to Mary Kennedy's journey in 2018.) "I'm definitely outside my comfort zone in this interview! But you know that," Mary says, as if I was applying the thumbscrews to loosen her tongue.
"I am who I am." But what are you? "I am a woman who is going to be 64 tomorrow!" (Mary Kennedy's birthday is September 26) "And who is very happy in her own skin, who has a nice group of friends, and a nice family and likes to sing Edelweiss at parties with friends. There is a part of me that baulks at being semi-defined by whether you are in a romantic relationship."
The fairy cakes have all been scoffed and Larry and Daisy - whatever about the mysterious Maggie the lady cat - are still demanding to be let in. Their owner, the lady TV star Mary, recites a quote by Lady Diana Cooper that is close to her heart: 'First you are young, then you are middle aged, then you are old, then you are wonderful'."
I ask Mary why it resonates with her so. "Because you gather everything up as you are growing and as you are getting older," she replies, "and the experiences that you get, they mould and they form you, and they make you the person that you are. I think that beauty does not last, because, let's face it, looks go, but if you can build up a nice nature and a nice feeling and concern for other people, that is real beauty. And that is what shines through with people. And you know the people that have it and the people that don't. The people who are warm, engaging, concerned, genuine and who care about people.
"It is not hard," she goes on, "because we are connecting beings, as humans. And as human beings we have an inkling and a need to connect to others and to care for them and to love them and to be mindful of them. I just think that is the greatest gift. That for me is what beauty is. That's what I mean by 'then you are old' and now you are beautiful, because you have gathered all of these experiences and sentiments and reactions to people. And it works."
How does she make it work? And why does she make it work? Some people aren't remotely like that in life. "It's very simple. I think people being comfortable and minded and loved in any situation that they are in is so important. But I still can't do confrontation!" she laughs. "Maybe that's part of it. You know, that's how I mind myself by not putting that confrontation on me. That's how I live my life," the one-time Sweaty, Bitchy, Bloated Dwarf says, going off to finally let in poor Daisy and Larry.
Home Thoughts From The Heart by Mary Kennedy is published in hardback by Hachette Ireland, October 4, 2018, €18.99