Monday 11 December 2017

Claire Byrne... Conquering Calamity

Claire Byrne recently turned 40, but for the current affairs presenter middle-age is the prime of life. She talked Twitter trolls, sleepless nights and being accident-prone with our journalist

Claire Byrne is as cool, calm and collected as a Hitchcock blonde. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Claire Byrne is as cool, calm and collected as a Hitchcock blonde. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Claire Byrne on set at RTE.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the greatest female stars had the trick of transforming themselves into a blank canvas onto which the masses could project their private hopes, dreams and desires. There is something of the great auteur's blueprint for stardom about Claire Byrne. Thanks to her duties as a professional moderator, we don't really know what she thinks about anything ("nobody gives a tuppence h'apenny what I believe" she tells me at one point, neatly dodging a question on abortion). We don't really know who she is: Her on-the-face-of-it-very-interesting backstory is mostly shrouded in very soft-focus pieces lionising her as an alpha mother. Her onscreen persona can be perfectly blank, rigorously professional. Not for her the trend of social media oversharing.

Perhaps all of this might explain why Claire, more than any of her contemporaries in media, is such a star - was there ever a national TV personality welcomed back after a break with such fervour as she was earlier this year? (By comparison, fellow comeback kid Pat Kenny, her great rival in current affairs, had to endure the ignominy of his show, which went head-to-head with Claire Byrne Live, being cancelled). And why, like Hitchcock's blondes, she seemingly makes such an irresistible victim for some more deranged characters. Byrne was recently driven from Twitter by trolls who made vicious comments, "often to do with my relationships".

It's difficult to imagine her losing her cool over a tweet. She is so polished and apparently unflappable - all perfect hair and dulcet tones - that in person there is an involuntary tendency to scrutinise her for signs of messy humanity, in the manner of a jeweller examining a gem for minuscule imperfections. Under her nose, on a face than is phenomenally unlined for 40, is a tiny scar. "I got that when I was in school" she tells me. "I was running and I fell and my nose hooked onto the shoe of the kid running in front of me and my face was pulled forward. I'm incredibly clumsy, always knocking things over. My best friend wrote me a card and she said 'you're still Calamity Claire.'" So she bleeds, but does she weep? "Yes, the last time was probably this week. Just from exhaustion I think."

We meet in Sandymount village, where, despite her profile, she doesn't seem to attract a second look. She lives a few minutes walk away in a house that formed part of the impetus for her to come back to work relatively quickly after her second child was born (two weeks off before each of them, 10 weeks after). She bought it in 2008 when the market was just beginning to cool and there was ivy sprouting out of the wall. Within 12 months, the price of the house had halved. "Nobody's going to give you your money back after that. But you have to keep going, and keep working and things will work out."

Despite (o r perhaps because of) the fact that the public and media seemed on the verge of organising a ticker tape parade, she did feel the burden of expectation. "Coming back the second time was a bit scarier than the first time. I had two babies now, they were very small. I now had a show with my name on it. All of those things together are pretty daunting individually, but put them all together, give it a good stir, and you have what might have been a tough situation."

That we were secretly pining for the second coming of Claire might have been down to the Jennifer Aniston-style happy ending she had engineered for herself. In finding true love in her late thirties and in waiting until later in life for motherhood, she seemed emblematic of the modern Irish woman.

You don't become who you are without the struggle though. Nothing in her background presaged her future career, although growing up in Laois she devoured the paper cover-to-cover every evening. She did her Leaving at 16 and was just 20 when she graduated from her journalism course in Rathmines. "There was a big ecstasy thing going back then", she recalls, when I ask her about youthful experimentation. "But to be honest, I was more about jumpers and beer. I wore my brother's jeans in college. I didn't have a clue. I aspired to Doc Marten boots. Then after college I started dressing up a bit more, thinking 'I hope I don't get found out'."

She was 23 when she landed a job as an editor on Channel 103, a Jersey island radio station. She turned down a job at the BBC to climb the ladder at the station. "I'd only recently passed my driving test and they (the radio station) were offering me a car. I was, I suppose, at that point susceptible to taking instant gratification over what would have been a longer path at the BBC. They were putting me on a fast track to management and I don't think I would have been a good manager. I was young and impetuous."

During those years she also married radio executive Richard Johnson and she became stepmother to his two children; their own mother was still very much present, They divorced in 2005, when she was 30. She stayed in touch with Johnson "to a certain extent" over the years. One of his children, 19-year-old Hannah, died in 2011 after a struggle with cancer. That was also the year that Claire met Microsoft executive, Gerry Scollan. "I'd resigned myself to the fact that I might not get married again and might not have children and I was fine with that", she tells me. "What was the point sitting at home and crying myself into my pillow? I went to Nashville. I had a brilliant two years wandering around and having fun and I like to think that, as a consequence of not caring, it all happened for me."

During those years her career had gained momentum: she did stints at TV3 and Newstalk before landing at RTE. And slowly the personal caught up with the professional. She met Gerry in O'Donoghue's pub after a Neil Delamere stand-up show. He introduced himself to her and she knew fairly quickly that he was The One, even if he didn't recognise her at first. "I didn't know straight away but after the first date I did know", she says. "I had been around quite a while at that stage. I think at one stage I would have hated people who say 'when you know you know' but that was how it worked out. There were so many similarities in our background; size of family, rural upbringing, the values we were raised with."

The couple have had a long engagement - it became official in March 2013 - and have two children together: Patrick born in October of that year, and Jane, born last October. Claire says that she's the "soft touch" when it comes to parenting. "I'm a bit more highly strung and prone to drama whereas Gerry is very zen and calm. If we're trying to get them to sleep and one of them is crying, I'm like the physical manifestation of nerves, I can't sit still."

Given her packed schedule - she now presents Claire Byrne Live and Saturday With Claire Byrne - I wonder if she's considered separate bedrooms? "I'm tempted, yes, but it wouldn't work in reality because I'd be up as soon as I heard a cry. When I was working crazy hours in previous jobs, like at TV3 I felt more crazy than I do now being sleep-deprived as a parent. Getting up for small people doesn't drive you as mental."

Staying off Twitter, has, she says, been good for her sanity too, but she doesn't rule out returning. "I won't say I haven't thought about it because I have. But I suppose when you take a stance you can't really go back on it, can you? I found there were idiots saying personal stuff to me that I just didn't need to hear. Without wishing to give them oxygen they were very personal about my relationships."

At the moment she's taking inspiration from one of the stars of the ongoing Rugby World Cup: "I heard Jamie Heaslip saying that pressure is something you feel when you don't know what to do, and that's how I feel about it", she says. "If I walk into the studio and I know I've done my research and I'm up to speed I feel unassailable. And that's the best feeling you can have."

Watch Claire Byrne Live, Monday nights at 10.35pm on RTE1 and listen to Saturday with Claire Byrne at 1pm on RTE Radio One.

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