Wednesday 20 March 2019

The Inside story: Claire Byrne on ambition and her near-death experience

RTÉ star and self-confessed news addict Claire Byrne can't remember ever being anything other than driven. Could a near-death experience as a teen have sparked her hunger to succeed? Interview by Maggie Armstrong.

Claire wears: Coat, €920, Isabel Marant; Knit top, €325, Lainey Keogh; Trousers, €320, Theory, all Brown Thomas; Boots, €67, River Island; Bracelet, €199, charms from €29, Pandora. Photo: Daniel Holfeld
Claire wears: Coat, €920, Isabel Marant; Knit top, €325, Lainey Keogh; Trousers, €320, Theory, all Brown Thomas; Boots, €67, River Island; Bracelet, €199, charms from €29, Pandora. Photo: Daniel Holfeld
Claire wears: Blouse, €195, Rixo London, Brown Thomas; Necklace, €249, Brown Thomas. Photo: Daniel Holfeld

Maggie Armstrong

Claire Byrne was 14 when she was given the Last Rites. She had been sent home from school with a headache that morning. Her mother put her to bed but called an ambulance when she realised something was seriously wrong.

By evening, young Claire was lying semi-conscious in Portlaoise Hospital as a priest anointed her with oils. She had contracted bacterial meningitis and, though she made a full recovery, she missed four months of her Junior Cert year and felt tired for years afterwards.  

The broadcaster has seen a lot in more than 20 years in the scrum of the newsroom, a career at its peak with her TV programme Claire Byrne Live. Steadiness is her signature. In the cut and thrust, her calm exterior never shows a crack.

Dying, however, must have been a little bit frightening for her?

“Terrifying,” she nods. “I remember my parents crying beside my bed. They were saying goodbye to me.”

Later, asked if this gave her the drive to charge at life and get the most of each day, she sighs, saying: “I don’t know. I’ve tried to analyse that. I’m not an introspective type of person. I don’t do much self-analysis.”

She claims to be “terrible at interviews. I don’t like being on that side of the table.”

The hard-bitten journalist whose job it is to pick apart the motivations of the powerful has little interest in examining her own motivations. Of all the topics she is briefed on daily, ‘Claire Byrne’ is the one she doesn’t relish sinking those white teeth into. 

She doesn’t like seeing photographs of herself, and never watches her own programme. “Watching it back, I’d be hyper-critical of myself. Which is a failing,” adds this impossibly high achiever, managing to stack self-criticism onto self-criticism. “Professionally, it would be a good thing to watch it back. I just can’t.”

The broadcaster is on a three-week summer break when we meet in Druids Glen Hotel and Golf Resort in Co Wicklow, near her Greystones home, which she shares with husband Gerry Scollan and their three small children: ‘Irish twins’ Patrick (four) and Jane (three), and Emma (one). It is a sparkling hot day and the hotel feels quiet and languid. A bride in lace is wandering the corridors, her purple-clad bridesmaids standing around slightly aimlessly.

Claire, fresh from the RTÉ autumn season launch in Dublin, is warm and direct, and shows a softer side than her media persona allows. She sips an Americano with the cup poised between two delicate fingers, a plate of biscuits sitting untouched beside her. She attracts the odd glinting stare from nearby.

What she does like is being on the interviewing side of the table and, at 43, she is already a veteran in grilling people. 

She was 21 when she read her first news bulletin in 1996 for the local radio station on Jersey island. How has she changed since?

“I’m less bullish,” she says after some thought. “I was always in a hurry. If I could go back to that person I was in 1996, I would say: ‘Slow down.’”

She adds, tellingly: “When I started first, it was novel and exciting, and I suppose I didn’t know how to deal with it. I would spill my guts and tell an interviewer everything about my life.

“Whereas now, I realise that in order to keep your sanity and your family precious and private, you don’t need to be out there all the time. Really, do people need to know intimate details about my life? The answer is no.”

Claire Byrne is one of those people who always knew what she wanted to do.

“I always had that single-minded focus. I wanted to be a journalist. I struggle to understand people who don’t know what they want to do. I feel great sympathy for them.”

She grew up on a small farm near Mountrath in Co Laois, the fourth of six children. “When I was five, I got a box, put it out the front and did a news bulletin about a fire that had happened in a neighbour’s house.”

When other kids were watching Sesame Street, she was reading the foreign news on the back page of the newspaper, and in her teens she was on the school debating team, and writing articles for her local paper.

Her addiction to news — that class of information that “somebody, somewhere wants to suppress”, as Lord Northcliffe put it — comes from “nosiness”, or “an innate curiosity with the world”.

Having dropped out of UCD to study journalism at the College of Commerce in Rathmines, she got her first job as a reporter with the commercial station Channel 103 on Jersey, in the Channel Islands. This felt like “living the dream” and still does. She adds with a little smile: “I can’t believe somebody let me on the radio.” 

When she came home in 1999, she had no contacts in the Irish media, so she sent around a cassette tape. By then she had worked for the BBC and climbed to news editor on the local Jersey station. A screen test with TV3 would lead to a job as anchor on Ireland AM, which would later take her into Newstalk.

In 2010, she started with RTÉ and has since been

ubiquitous, beginning with light entertainment on The

Daily Show and then at various helms, including The Late Debate, Morning Ireland, Saturday with Claire Byrne and Prime Time.

She now presents Claire Byrne Live on television on Monday nights and the News at One five days a week with co-anchor Áine Lawlor.

News is her “bread and water”, she explains, and her job is to be the “hamster on the wheel of the news”. Claire is someone whose “comfort zone” is in the centre of the newsroom, dealing with breaking news, international and national politics, and current affairs.

“It’s following the news agenda, making sure we know what happened yesterday and can try and predict what happens tomorrow.”

In February, when she started on the News at One, it was like “coming home”, she says in a wistful way that makes news sound like a thatched cottage. “It’s a real touchstone for me.”

She is constantly wired to the news, with radios on in every room in her house, though lately she is trying to withdraw from smartphone abuse.

“I notice my children asking me, ‘Can you not look at your phone Mammy?’ I am addicted to it, and it’s a big distraction in family life.”

Are there stories that haunt her long after the controversy is over and the people are forgotten? “Personal stories,” she says. “Mothers whose children have died in really difficult circumstances. Cases that haven’t been solved. Missing

people… But part of this job is to have the ability to move on. You can’t become too invested. That sounds callous, doesn’t it?”

Her particular passion is politics. “I love Irish politics. I love the intrigue of it.” She agrees that she is pretty much in her element as ringmaster of a political debate.

“A really important part of my job is to listen to the answers. To make sure everybody gets a fair hearing. Don’t lean to either side. Don’t let anybody waffle on. Don’t be blinded by the tricks that politicians use to talk about something that’s almost the answer, but not quite the answer: make sure you bring them back.

“What I always keep in my mind is that I am representative of someone sitting on their couch at home. So don’t leave them screaming at the television going, ‘Why don’t you ask this?!’”

How much does she kick herself after her Monday night inquisitions, wishing she’d said something differently? Not that much. “We go up and have a soft drink after the programme. We have a chat about the show, I’ll do some self-criticism — ‘Should have said this, should have said that. Should I have handled this like this?’ Can’t change anything,” she says.

Does it ever grate on her that she might have spent the evening discussing the findings of a tribunal, and all Twitter can talk about is her fabulous hair?

“No.” She laughs. “I feel I have a responsibility to try and look good.” She claims not to be a “glamorous person” but picks her outfits herself. “I keep it classic, tailored, simple, and I think I can’t get in too much trouble. I don’t want what I’m wearing to become the focus.”

Covering six news items in 52 minutes would surely

fray the nerves of a marble statue — let alone a mother of three critters. How does she unwind after a day of Trump and Brexit on the airwaves, followed by discussions of prison suicide or workplace harassment or abortion laws on live television?

Her 25-minute drive home is “really important”, and after that she finds escape in “reading, running and cooking”.

“It gives me great peace of mind if the children have had one hot meal a day.”

Somewhere in the bar, a baby cries, and we both look up. “Baby,” she says quietly. 

She describes her household as “rough and tumble”. Having meningitis as a teenager hasn’t left her with an especially overcautious maternal attitude. “I kinda treat them like I was reared. You know, their leg has to be hanging off before I take it seriously. We try not to bother the doctor too much.” She laughs nervously, and adds, “I’m terrible.”

She took famously short maternity leaves — 10 weeks for each baby — employing a childminder at home. Her juggling of work and newborns has attracted much fascination. Can she see why?

“It’s the way I wanted to do it,” she says rather quickly. “It was my choice to go back. I really admire people who stay at home because it’s really difficult to be a full-time, stay-at-home mother.

“It’s really difficult. I don’t see myself as a hero for going back to work. It’s actually more difficult to stay at home.

“I take great pleasure in telling my daughter that I love going to work. That yes, you can be a princess and marry a handsome prince, but you can also have a really good job that you enjoy and follow your passion.

“There are times, of course, when you miss them,” she continues. “There was a moment today when I saw a family with children and I just had this raw feeling in my stomach that I missed my children and I wanted to go home. But it’s a passing thing. It’s natural, I think.

“What I worry about now is: am I doing a good enough job in my professional life, and am I doing a good enough job at home with my children? Have I covered the bases? Because it’s really important for me to be a good mother to my children and to be there enough for them. It’s really important to do a really good job and to show respect to my colleagues in the work that I do. That’s the pressure I have, to strive to do both really well.”

Pressure, there surely is — last year, she was seventh on the list of the top 10 earners in RTÉ, one of three women. Her children, though, “just see me as Mammy. They hear me on the News at One, and they think that’s perfectly normal.”

She doesn’t do mentors — “I always tried to furrow my own path really. I think it’s important not to rely on the example of others too much. I think it’s restrictive” — though she does single out Gay Byrne as someone she has often sought advice from. “I’ve just loved his ease in front of a TV audience. That’s something every broadcaster will aspire to.” And Marian Finucane for “the way she has conducted her life. She is a hugely successful broadcaster, with huge figures for her show — but no one knows much about Marian Finucane.”

Is she saying this because people know too much

about Claire Byrne? (She and her first husband divorced in 2006. And there was so much joyous reporting on how she found love again at 38, you could mistake her for a fairytale princess and not a high-level journalist.) She is circumspect on the benefits of social media. She quit Twitter a few years ago, as it had become “a nasty place”. 

“I remember I would do my Saturday radio programme and I’d leave the radio studio and check Twitter, and there might be seven positive comments and three negative comments. The three negative comments were the ones I got into my car with. They were the ones that I thought about, driving home. Maybe that’s weakness on my part?” She puzzles again over her possible failings.  

“My husband said to me, ‘Why are you bringing these people home to our sitting room? Because you’re sitting looking at your phone with all of these negative things.’ I just thought, ‘He’s right, why am I doing it?’”

The evening is getting on, and Claire Byrne has to go back to the ranch. Later, she will go on a rare night out for dinner with two friends. Then she will most likely read herself to sleep. She reads novels — “I use reading to get me to a place where I can fall asleep”. She is deep in Julian Barnes’ The Only Story, a novel about a young man who falls for a much older woman and watches her decline into alcoholism and mental illness. “I can’t put it down. It’s so good. I was still reading it at 12.30am last night.”

Tomorrow, she hopes to get back to her other passion. It makes a lot of sense that Claire Byrne, who never stops, has taken up running this summer.

“It’s really hard and it’s really challenging, and I love it. It’s just that space for me, 40 minutes, out on my own, challenging myself, competing with myself.”

This is how the girl who once nearly died spends her downtime. Racing along in the open air — and winning.

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