The broadcaster speaks to Tanya Sweeney about losing her mother, starting her own podcast and highlighting loneliness post-lockdowns
Every so often, when Maia Dunphy walks somewhere with her seven-year-old Tom, something nice might happen. The traffic light goes green, the rain might stop or the heavy traffic will ease off. “That’s Nana,” Tom might say. “She did that.”
As Maia says, he associates his beloved Granny Helen with goodness and positive things happening: “When he makes that association, it’s just lovely.”
It has been over six months since Helen died of pancreatic cancer, leaving the 46-year-old broadcaster and her family utterly bereft. It has been a six-month period unlike any other, Dunphy notes. There are the peaceful moments, like the green traffic light man, but the turmoil of an unexpected shard of sorrow, like the time her mum’s mobile number was reassigned and WhatsApp notified her with a notification: “Mum left.”
“People told me to watch out for that six-month mark and I was like, ‘no, I’ll be fine’,” Dunphy says. “On Mother’s Day, my phone was ablaze with messages from friends. And I wasn’t even a wreck for that. I don’t think I even recognised the six-month mark. It was my mum’s birthday yesterday. I was braced for that.
“But then this week, I had to go into Ireland AM and I was dropping Tom down to my friend, who was taking him to school,” she adds. “He vomited out of nowhere and was freaking out. And I got really upset because any other time, I would have called my mum and said, ‘I know it’s not yet 7am, but can you come?’. And she’d have been like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, like, ‘leave the mess to me’.”
Down the years, Dalkey native Dunphy has made no secret of her closeness to Spanish-born Helen and her dad Tom, a former president of Dublin Zoo.
“When I came back from London as a single parent [after splitting from husband Johnny Vegas], which really wasn’t ever my life plan, my parents sort of became my main family unit again,” she says.
“Single parenthood can be quite lonely, so I started hanging out with them and spending weekends with them.” During Covid, the family became even closer than ever. “I formed kind of a bubble with my parents because they were within 5km, so I started seeing them a lot, but still at a distance.”
Dunphy didn’t know it at the time, but she would go on to be deeply grateful for so much quality time with her parents. In the summer of 2021, Helen received a devastating diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
“You do the Googling and you see the very low survival rates, but you still think, ‘it doesn’t matter, she will be in that 5pc’,” Dunphy says. “Last August, she was simply saying, ‘I’m going to beat this’. She was so determined, it was unreal. They had a plan to go on holiday to Majorca in June and my mum kept a photo of this terrace in Majorca on her phone and said, ‘I’m going to be on that terrace in June’.”
Helen was admitted to St Vincent’s Private Hospital in January and died five weeks later.
Dunphy says the day Helen died was “extraordinary”. “I had done a piece for [RTÉ show] Sunday Miscellany about the time my granny got lost in Paris. On that morning, I could hear my Sunday Miscellany piece and the song Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien [by Edith Piaf] playing down the corridor. You couldn’t make it up. The next day, I had to keep things normal so I was back down to the school gates with the baseball cap and the mask, just exhausted.
“I now think of the world as divided into two groups — people who understand and people who are lucky enough not to.”
After two well-received series of What Planet Are You On?, Maia was hoping to start a master’s degree in Climate Change Policy last year, but has since put her plans to study on ice, partly because an on-campus degree didn’t suit her. “It’s definitely an area I’m really interested in,” she says. “Doing the show for RTÉ, it puts you in people’s heads in a different way, as opposed to just being a one-trick pony.”
Not that there’s much chance of that. Earlier this year, Dunphy launched a podcast, Read The Room, with actor/comedian Paddy C. Courtney, with whom she shares a spiky sense of humour.
“That just came up from a chat with Paddy, where I said to him, ‘if you want to do something together, let me know’. I’d just started a podcast called How To Build A Human, which was pretty much parenting conversations, and then I realised the one I was trying to make, I’m not sure I’d have listened to it, so why would I expect others to listen to it?”
Dunphy has amassed a sizeable social media following. After becoming a mum to Tom, she penned The M Word, a book that eventually became a popular online community on Facebook for “people who just happen to be parents”. She is no longer involved with the platform and admits she “misses it so much”.
“The Facebook page really took off and it was just a lovely space for people to share stories and ask things like, ‘is this normal?’,” Dunphy says. “When you’re in the eye of the storm, that’s when the support is really helpful.”
Dunphy is also kept busy with a number of ambassadorships and charities, among them Our Lady’s Hospice & Care Services, Dog’s Trust and Dublin Simon Community.
Today, we’re chatting because Dunphy is fronting Zenflore’s Mind Your Mates campaign, which is encouraging pals to keep an eye out for each other, even in post-lockdown times.
“I do feel, post-lockdown, if you’re 20 you’re probably dying to get back into the pubs, but I’m not,” she says. “A lot of the stuff like meeting for coffee or the occasional walk hasn’t really been put back in place. We keep saying we will meet up and we really don’t. I’ll be really honest — when we think of checking in on people, we tend to think more of elderly people, but a lot of other people, like single parents, are really isolated.”
Dating-wise, Dunphy admits she has “dipped a toe back in those murky waters”, but is determined to keep that aspect of her life more private in future. “I certainly learned the hard way to keep things to myself,” she says.
After appearing on Dancing With The Stars in 2018, Dunphy was forced to deny rumours she was romantically linked with dance partner Robert Rowinski.
“Deirdre O’Kane, who was on the show the same year as me, has a great joke about it. The producers said, ‘would you be worried about the Strictly Curse? There are lots of people in the UK and US who went on the show and then left their partners for much younger, hotter dance partners’. She was like, ‘OK, sign me up’. We always got a great laugh out of that.
“It wasn’t an easy time in my life and I was such a bad dancer [when I signed up for DWTS], so I was like, ‘well, we will never win this, we may as well be friends’. And he became a very, very good friend.”
Still, the rumours tickled her. “More than anything, I loved that no one was like, ‘he wouldn’t look twice at her’, or ‘he’s eight years younger and a total ride, so it can’t be true’,” she says. “It was a total ‘yessss’ moment.”
For more information on Mind Your Mates, see precisionbiotics.com/ie/zenflore/mind-your-mates.