Saturday 24 March 2018

Stars, sparkle and Aoibhinn

Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain likes to go back to Mayo to see the stars, even though she is dating one of the biggest in Ryan Tubridy. The RTE broadcaster, who is currently presenting two shows, tells Barry Egan that while it would be nice to be married in the future, it is not something she's planning right now -- and she says it is sexist for women to be defined by a relationship

Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin: ‘I don’t want to be defined by my relationship’
Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin: ‘I don’t want to be defined by my relationship’
Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain
Aoibhinn with partner Ryan Tubridy
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

First things first. I ask Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain does it bother her being asked about a certain Mr Tubridy. "It does," she says of her famous fella. "I know you have to ask it because I have interviewed people as well. It does because it just happens that you're both in this industry and that's why there's interest in it, I figure, because otherwise it is a very boring story; and I am not going to be talking about it, because if it is not something that I'd be saying to my first cousin, it's not something that I'd like them to be reading and that's why I think it's good to be able to keep a line and close the door when you're home."

Aoibhinn went home last weekend to Mayo. "You need to get out of the city sometimes just to remember how big the sky is and see the stars," she says.

She can remember, as a six-year-old, being out in the back garden at night with her father, Art, and him pointing up at the stars and the constellations, telling her that's the Big Dipper and that's the Little Dipper.

"The stars have been around since the world began. When you are looking up at the stars you are looking back in time. That's where it started," she says, referring in a sense to how she ended up with a degree in Theoretical Physics from UCD. (She credits her "brilliant" physics teacher Mr McMonigle in fifth and sixth year in St Josephs in Castlebar Convent School as being a major inspiration.)

She can remember seeing a leaflet across from her career guidance teacher's office in Mayo that said "something about black hole quantum theory special relativity". Aoibhinn picked up the leaflet and went into her office and said something about wanting to be a journalist. "She was looking at me, going no," Aoibhinn recalls.

"You are really good at maths and you are really good at physics. You should think about that," her career guidance teacher said.

"Oh, I just saw this," Aoibhinn said, waving the leaflet. "Do you think that would be good for me?"

So off Aoibhinn went to the open day in UCD in Dublin with three of her friends -- and they came home to Mayo, she says, "transformed. We'd all made a bet on the train home of how many points we were going to get in the Leaving Cert. That was a fun day," she said.

So was the lunch I had with Aoibhinn at La Stampa hotel on Dawson Street last week. She ate chips in the award-winning restaurant, The Dawson Brasserie. When the manager came over to politely enquire whether she would like something else, Aoibhinn said she would just happily "nibble away on these".

She is nothing like what I'd expected. Implacably normal, even, and un-diva like, as I found out when I was 25 minutes late owing to a confusion: she was in Sam Sara bar next door and I was in the restaurant.

Later, the azure-eyed radio and TV star will describe her personality thus: "Fairly laid back. Fairly easy going. I don't think I'm a drama queen. I like to keep mole hills as mole hills and not mountains. Pragmatic."

This pragmatism possibly manifests itself in her love of theoretical physics and mathematics -- both of which, she says, "can and do explain everything in the world around us. You can explain why is this table able to stand up -- what are the friction forces to do with that? Or you can hypothesise about what actually happens at the edge of the universe".

Does it follow that you don't believe in God and instead you believe in the Big Bang?

"In this case, you're right, but it is not correct about all physicists. Is that what I believe?" Ms Ni Shuilleabhain says, referring to the theory that the universe was created not by God, but by a gargantuan explosion 15 billion years ago. "Yeah, but not to get into a hugely theological conversation ... I am not religious at all. I respect people who have that faith, but I don't.

"Actually," Aoibhinn adds, "I would like it if I believed in something but I don't at the moment. Maybe that will change. I presume it will change. Maybe, as you get older and other life experiences happen to you that you need something else."

Whatever Aoibhinn is, she certainly isn't a RTE media tart eager to get emotionally naked for press coverage. You get the impression that she would happily while the afternoon away on Dawson Street discussing the inside of black holes in intergalactic space rather than talking about anything to do with her actual inner world.

That said, there's a sparkle permanently in her eyes as she talks. She seems like one of those beautifully bright young women whose intellectual curiosity is almost their raison d'etre.

Talking with an easy eloquence, Aoibhinn is fascinating and can answer, entertainingly and eruditely, just about anything thrown out at her. Asked if she was sitting on the couch with Freud what would she want to ask the founding father of psychoanalysis to perhaps understand herself a little better, she shakes with laughter.

"I don't actually agree with him so I wouldn't really ask him anything. Jung seems to have a more rounded view of delving into someone's personality rather than just looking at their childhood and whether they were potty-trained or not!" she says with a laugh, adding that she kept a dream diary as teenager. "Freud didn't seem like a very nice man or father.I don't think you can turn everything back to sex and whether you were hugged or not as a child."

And presumably you were hugged as a child?

"Yes! We come from a huggy house!"

Aoibhinn grew up in Carnacon, County Mayo, with five younger brothers: Eoin, 26, Cian, 24, Darach, 22, Fiachra, 21, and Art, 19. "I was on my own for four years. So I was kind of an only child."

"And then," she chuckles, "they all came along."

Does that make you very motherly?

"Yeah. I think, too, that I annoy them to a certain extent, but they love me as well. We are all good mates.

"But I am like a second mum to them, which is nice, because sometimes if they don't want to tell mum, because she'll freak out, they can ring me first instead and we'll come up with a game-plan. We have great crack together."

Could you see yourself having six kids?

"I don't think I have enough time for that," she says .

You could get going now?

"I suppose I could but I don't think I would like six children," she adds.

Aoibhinn says, however, that she is "in complete awe" of her mother, Mary, for having six children. "She kept working. I think women in general are amazing."

Aoibhinn's childhood in the West was an idyll of music and sibling spats in the hallway over toys. "I had posters of Crystal Gayle and Mary Black on my bedroom wall. I thought Mary Black was amazing. I listened to her so much when I was growing up on my tape deck in my room." As well as a tapedeck, Aoibhinn also had a piano next to her desk and her bed in her "tiny" room .

So was the sound in late afternoons in your house that of you tinkling the ivories?

"Oh, no!" she roars with laughter. "That was drowned out by the sound of five boys beating the crap out of each other in the hallway over some Lego or something like that. And I joined in as well. We completely took over the house. This is why I think my mother is so amazing. We had boxes, big boxes, of Lego that we used to pour out in the sitting room and leave it there for about three days and mum would be fine."

Aoibhinn's parents are both in education: her mother is vice-principal of the Castlebar gaelscoil while her father is director of the Mayo Education Centre. "Mum is from Carnacon and Dad is from Corr Na Mona -- he is a blow-in from Galway. He came to be the principal in Carnacon. That's how they met. Mum was on teaching practice and dad was the principal."

Her mother taught Aoibhinn in Scoil Raisteiri for baby infants and high infants while her father taught her in fourth, fifth and sixth class.

Asked what that experience was like for her, she says: "Really weird when you look back on it but at the time it was not odd at all."

She explains that Carnacon had a total of 70 students and three teachers. "It is not even a town. It is a town land. It's not even a village. We have a church and we have a pub and we had a shop -- and a phone box. That's it. Our house was down the road. It is a great house."

"I have a lot of cousins there," she adds. "It is where mum is from and she has seven brothers and three sisters. You grow up in that. So you are mucking around all the time. We played on the farm. We played when we were bringing in the hay, bringing in the turf.

"My parents were teachers so we didn't have a farm but all my neighbours and my cousins did."

Young Aoibhinn started teaching in St Mark's Community School in Tallaght in 2007. She says adamantly that she didn't go into teaching because of her parents both being teachers: "No, I swore blind I'd never do it."

Aoibhinn did her degree in UCD and then went off to do a PhD in London, fully funded, for four years. "I just hated it, because I was lonely and I didn't like working by myself in a lab. I think I expected the same camaraderie that I'd had in my degree in UCD. I felt very lonely and I felt very isolated in London. I really didn't enjoy it. So I called it quits after six months and I came home in 2006."

Lest we forget, Aoibhinn won the Rose Of Tralee in the summer of 2005. There was an enlightening interview at the time. A reporter from Green 'n' Red wondered thus: "Most beauty pageants ask questions like if you had one wish and you're supposed to say you'd like world peace and all that, but if you had one wish ... ?"

The newly crowned Rose, still only 22, steadied herself: "Before I answer that,"she began, "can I just say that I don't think that the Rose of Tralee is a beauty pageant. I don't think I'd be there personally if it was a beauty pageant."

Aoibhinn is now well versed to the ways of the media. In November of last year, it emerged that she and Ryan had moved in together into their new four-bedroomed period house in Monkstown. At the launch of Tubridy's book The Irish Are Coming, he declared in his speech that Aoibhinn "keeps me afloat".In the dedications in the book, he went further. "Aoibhinn, the lady whose elegance is unsurpassed and whose support is inestimable. Mo Ghra. Thank you," he wrote.

I ask the subject of those loving bon mots whether she is a domestic goddess.

"No, I'm certainly not. I'm good at cleaning and things like that, but I'm not very good at cooking. Yet, I imagine some day I will be brilliant at it. I make a nice lasagne and I make a shepherd's pie sometimes. I do a really good fry. Scrambled eggs. Easy things like that. You just pick that up in college."

I have no intention of reducing Aoibhinn to a simplified form as the partner of the presenter of The Late Late. But an interview, by its essence, is the telling of the story of someone's life. And Tubridy is as much a part of Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain's life story as Aoibhinn is of Ryan's life story.

Still, we dance anxiously, sometimes very anxiously, around the subject for a minute or two of a 90-minute lunch of chip-nibbling.

You don't want to be defined by your relationship, I say...

"I really don't," she answers. "You have hit the nail on the head there. I think it is important that nobody is defined by their relationship -- and I think it is especially important for women.

"It is completely sexist. And it annoys me no end because I have been working in this industry for eight years.

"But I hope that I have been able to progress in this career because I'm good at what I do and because I'm easy to work with -- and not because I happen to be friends with someone or not because I happen to be going out with someone. I think we should be in a day and age now where women aren't defined by their relationships. I know we have got this WAG culture and everything but it doesn't have to pervade all of what you do."

Be that as it may, the relationship seems to be pervaded by a sense of bookishness. She says Ryan -- "he is 10 years older than me" -- loves books as much as she does. "We have very different tastes. I like novels, I like stories, I like historical novels, I like escaping," she adds.

She is currently reading The Edible Bride. "It's about the 1960s actually and the rise of feminism," Aoibhinn says, "but not in a very explicit way. It's about a woman who has suddenly got engaged."

Could you see yourself being a bride? There's a nice segue, I joke.

"There you go," she laughs. "Could I see myself being a bride? Well, every girl can see themselves as being a bride at some stage, can't they?"

In the next 10 years? I tease.

"That would be nice. I suppose. Hmm hmm. It is nothing I am planning at the minute."

Where would you see yourself in 10 years?

"What will I be, 40. Ugh! I'd like to have..."

Five sons? I jest.

"No, I wouldn't like to have five children -- or five boys actually. Although I wouldn't mind having boys but not five. I'd hopefully have a proper job. I'm still a student at the minute."

Aoibhinn says she works ad hoc for RTE and "very part-time. I'm doing my PhD in Trinity and lecturing one day a week." (Aoibhinn lectures the people "who come back to do a post-graduate diploma in education and the ones who want to be maths teachers.")

Aoibhinn says she could return to the teaching profession one day. She stopped in 2011.

"I might. I might. Because I miss my students."

"Teachers are some of the most important people in our society," she adds. " I think it is a disgrace, actually, that teachers don't get enough acknowledgement," she says passionately, picking up another chip in La Stampa.

Her personal highlight of 2013 was, she says, "that I got to curate a show in the Science Gallery in Trinity about maths and public outreach . I was working with the professor of maths outreach from Cambridge, Professor David Spiegelhalter. "

"The low point of the year was with the travel show," Aoibhinn says, referring to RTE travel show Getaways she presents with Joe Lindsay. "I was away for six weeks -- I missed being at home and I missed my family and friends."

Could you add in that you missed Ryan as well, I beg melodramatically .

"No I could not! It is encompassed in that!" she hoots with laughter.

Goodbye Ms Chips.

Fleadh Cheoil presented by Aoibhinn and John Creedon is on RTE One on Friday at 7.30pm. Getaways presented by Aoibhinn and Joe Lindsay is on RTE One on Thursdays at 7pm and on BBC NI on Mondays at 7.30pm.

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment