Tuesday 24 April 2018

'I remember wishing I had been a bit kinder to my mother around that time' - Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh on losing her father

TV presenter Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh with her sister Siobhan. The siblings have been through a triptych of troubles but have managed to be there for each other as life carries on. Photo: Steve Humphreys
TV presenter Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh with her sister Siobhan. The siblings have been through a triptych of troubles but have managed to be there for each other as life carries on. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

They say bad news comes in threes, and so it was for Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh and her sister Siobhan.

This time 10 years ago, the popular TV presenter and her family were dealing with a triptych of personal troubles.

First, Siobhan was diagnosed with breast cancer, something which seemed unthinkable for someone who had lived such a healthy life.

Next, Blathnaid herself had to deal with the horror of a twisted gut, which, while not as serious, also made her very ill for some time.

Then, 10 years ago this September, Blathnaid and Siobhan's father, Sean, died in hospital after his own battle with illness.

"He was always the one you'd tell any bad news to," Blathnaid recalls.

"And I remember calling him in Vincent's before he died and I asked to be put on to him and I just said 'Siobhan has cancer' but there was silence on the other end.

"He couldn't even speak by that point."

In truth, both women had expected their father to rally again.

"It had to be spelled out to me - 'He will not walk out of this hospital again'," Blathnaid recalls.

"I think that summer of 2008, when it all really happened, had to be the worst summer ever. I remember phoning from A&E in hysterics and telling my brother in Irish, 'I know you all think I'm being dramatic'.

"And the young doctor standing beside me happened to be from the Donegal Gaeltacht and he took the phone from me and said, 'She's not being dramatic'.

"I wasn't allowed in to see him because of the cancer," Siobhan recalls.

"I would wait down in the coffee shop - which when I think of it now was probably even more full of germs than his room - and wait for news."

"I remember wishing I had been a bit kinder to my mother around that time", Blathnaid adds. "We had lost a father, but she had lost her best friend."

The day of the funeral, their mother tried to persuade Siobhan to wear the wig she had bought when her hair began to fall out after chemotherapy.

"I really hated that wig, I'd sort of prefer to be bald," Siobhan says.

"But when my hair was starting to grow back Blathnaid told me that I was starting to look like a nun. I don't even know where [the wig] is now."

Siobhan would eventually beat cancer, and her secret weapon, she says, was not the NutriBullet (which she still uses) or even the chemo, but a pair of headphones.

"Because when you're in a cancer unit everyone wants to talk about their own illness and you can only listen to so much."

Blathnaid nods at this. The two women rib each other with the easy playfulness of lifelong friends.

When she was a teenager, Blathnaid would tease her older sister that she was gay, an accusation that turned out to be true.

"I was just disappointed there weren't more gays in my life.

"I remember one of my sons using the word gay in a derogatory way when he was very young. He was five.

"I said 'what's wrong with being gay? And I named a few people we knew who were gay and he didn't flinch and then I said, 'And auntie Siobhan is gay and you love her.'

"And he looked up at me, he couldn't believe it."

Blathnaid would slowly recover from her own illness and resume her broadcasting career.

Just over a year ago, she graduated from the master's course in gender studies in UCD and unsurprisingly she has plenty to say on institutional sexism - "every organisation has it" - and says she was struck by the gender imbalance among attendees at the Web Summit, at which she was an after-dinner speaker in the period while it was still held in Dublin.

"I remember being in this huge room, it was full of Silicon Valley men - their wives and partners were at home.

"One of them was being bolshie about European tax laws and companies pulling out.

"I didn't like it and it struck me that there were - I counted them - eight women in the entire room.

There will be more gender balance at Blathnaid's next event - Battle of the Stars - which will be held on Saturday, April 14, at the Clayton Ballsbridge.

The event is in support of Breast Cancer research and Blathnaid will share the stage with Diana Bunici, Holly Carpenter and TV3 Ireland AM's Ciara Doherty, among others.

Each of the participants has been spending the past few weeks in a rigorous regime of rehearsals with a team of professional choreographers and stylists and will be judged by a celebrity panel including Elaine Crowley.

"It should be a bit of fun", Blathnaid says. "I'm ready for the challenge."

For more information, go to www.breastcancerireland.com. All funds raised support Breast Cancer Ireland's pioneering research and awareness programmes around Ireland.

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