Sunday 25 February 2018

'What is right is right. If it feels right, then do it' - Charlie Bird on his age-gap relationship

Charlie Bird opens up about his very modern marriage and how retirement left him feeling cut adrift

Charlie Bird with his wife Claire Mould on the banks of Dublin's Grand Canal
Charlie Bird with his wife Claire Mould on the banks of Dublin's Grand Canal
Soulmate: Charlie Bird and his dog Tiger Photo: Steve Humphreys
Charlie Bird and partner Claire Mould at Strictly Against Breast Cancer in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland at The Convention Centre Dublin
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

The last thing you want to hear someone say as they sit down for an interview is: "I have left my dog waiting in the car."

But that's just what Charlie Bird has done.

The cockapoo, Tiger, is a rescue pup. Charlie says the dog has become his soulmate and cured a phobia he suffered after he was chased by an angry pack of dogs on a trip abroad some years ago.

But while his fears of four-legged creatures are cured, he still frets over two-legged attack dogs in journalism. When we first meet he says: "It feels like I am paying a visit to the dentist." I tell him, "My interviews are more like colonic irrigation", but the attempt at humour fails to loosen him up.

Soulmate: Charlie Bird and his dog Tiger Photo: Steve Humphreys
Soulmate: Charlie Bird and his dog Tiger Photo: Steve Humphreys

Still, why wouldn't he be guarded? Just like his friend in the car, he has had a bruising time.

Despite being Ireland's most high-profile reporter, some of his documentaries have been garrotted by reviewers, his presentation style likened to Mr Bean, and his reports from the frontline of some tragedies admonished by those with the suspicion that he was inclined to make himself the story. If this were America, perhaps it would simply be recognized as gonzo journalism.

It's no wonder then that for his upcoming new series, Charlie Bird - After the Headlines, he has taken a new approach.

Despite his name at the forefront of the programme's title, he says: "They are not about me. They are about the people in the stories."

To be fair, he's right.

Taking a look back at some of Ireland's biggest stories, the reporter enables the families at the centre of the HoneyDew II tragedy, the Stardust fire and the McBrearty case to share their deeply moving accounts and reveal how they are still haunted by their loss and fighting for answers they feel they never received.

But what of Charlie? Retired from RTE, and revisiting the memories of his 38-year career, how does he look upon on his own story?

He is self-effacing on the criticism he has received: "Sometimes you bring a bit of it on your own head," he says. "We all make mistakes… it's by learning from our mistakes you come out of it the better."

Charlie Bird and partner Claire Mould at Strictly Against Breast Cancer in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland at The Convention Centre Dublin
Charlie Bird and partner Claire Mould at Strictly Against Breast Cancer in aid of Breast Cancer Ireland at The Convention Centre Dublin

I offer the Horace Greeley line: "Journalism will kill you but it will keep you alive while it's doing it," and he agrees. "There is no question that journalism is fraying on the nerves."

Looking back, does he feel the job affected his first marriage (to the mother of his children, Mary O'Connor)? The pair were married for 24 years and split in 1998.

"It probably did."

In what way?

"I was always on the run, running around, on the go. I can remember one of my daughters had a burst appendix the weekend of the first IRA ceasefire."

Did you miss out on a lot of their childhood because of work?

"You know, I probably missed out on some of it but they never say… maybe I should have been around a bit more. Maybe I should have been standing at the side of the hockey pitch, shouting, more often."

At 68, he is now married to Claire Mould, a woman 20 years his junior.

For him, the age gap is irrelevant. "I don't know about anyone else - we are absolutely so happy. In the 10 years we have been together, we have never had a raised word."

Does he worry what will happen in 20 years' time?

"What's right is what is right," he replies. "If it feels right, then do it.

"We have just come back from five-and-a-half weeks in New Zealand and Australia and joked that it would be our honeymoon. We were constantly together and not one cross word between us."

His daughters' ages are within a few years of his new wife's. He says they are simply happy that he is happy.

And just like Gwyneth Paltrow revealed last week when she posted a photograph of her ex-husband Chris Martin brunching with her new boyfriend Brad Falchuk, Charlie has a very modern set-up in which he regularly gets together with his ex- wife, his current wife and his two daughters.

"Today," he says, "I am better mates with the mother of my two children. We are parents of a modern age; our children are important to us and so we all meet as a family… we meet on family occasions, birthdays, we meet and we celebrate and on Christmas Day we will all meet for Christmas drinks."

It's no wonder then that despite no longer chasing the big headlines, he is at his most content. "I put it down to the success of my children, being a grandfather [five times over], my relationship and my friends."

But it has been a difficult transition. He says his retirement from Montrose has given him "a jolt". He missed the routine and describes feeling "cut adrift" from friends.

"I missed RTE more than I realised," he says. "I was out of my comfort zone. I was in a cocoon, the 'RTE cocoon'… perhaps in hindsight, I should have prepared myself better."

Was his identity tied up in his job?

"Oh, I was totally identified with it, totally."

The advice he would give others leaving a life-long career: "You have to prepare for it. Don't walk into it in a blase way."

Charlie Bird - After the Headlines starts at 9.35pm, this Tuesday, on RTE2

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