Miriam O'Callaghan on long-distance marriage, family and how she's tip-toeing back to the church
Recently, Miriam O'Callaghan was asked by a "very nice neighbour" if she was having an affair. This woman had noticed Miriam regularly parking on the road parallel to the one where she lives and leaving the car there for a short time, before returning and driving away. It seemed an odd thing to do, clearly, unless you were up to something.
"She said, 'Miriam, are you having an affair?'" says Miriam. "I said: 'Honestly, no'."
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Miriam is laughing as she recounts this.
"My neighbour said: 'But this is the third time I've seen you on this road and you live on the next road.' I said: 'No, I'm not having an affair, I'm lighting a candle'."
It has become her habit, Miriam explains, to stop at the Catholic church close to her house, often on her way home from her morning radio show, to light a candle. She pulls up, jumps out of the car, runs in, takes a quiet moment and then she's gone again, to drive one road over and re-enter her rowdy real life.
"People write me letters and they tell me things that are happening in their lives," Miriam explains. "And I can't do much. I don't know if lighting them a candle makes any impact, but I feel it's something I can do, and it doesn't cost me any time or effort to spend two minutes lighting a candle for someone. Also, if something was troubling me or I was worried about a friend or one of my children or someone in Steve's family, I'd just light a candle."
It's not something Miriam has done all her life. She has to think about when this habit started, in fact, and why.
"Actually," she says, after a moment of thought, "I was at a funeral, that's what it was. I was at a funeral and I lit a candle, and I thought, 'That's a really nice thing to do'. I probably hadn't done it since I was a teenager, but I thought, 'I'm going to do this'. The likelihood that it makes any difference to anyone's life is neglible, but the intention is good."
Does she say anything while she lights her candle? I ask.
"Yes," says Miriam.
An actual prayer, or her own few words?
"An actual prayer; the Memorare," Miriam says.
Though she is praying every second day to the Virgin Mary to "hear and answer" her request of help and assistance for those who need it, Miriam isn't heading to Mass every week."I have a good excuse," she says with a laugh. "A Sunday-morning radio show."
She's also still not sure that heaven is anything more than a nice hope, but Miriam finds comfort in her new habit. And, she laughs, it hurts no one, despite what the neighbours might imagine.
We meet in a cafe near RTE, shortly after she comes off air on Today With Miriam O'Callaghan. This is the second summer she has taken Sean O'Rourke's seat, and she's enjoying every minute of it. She apologises for being delayed, having bumped into a woman who had, by coincidence, texted the show earlier. The woman was pregnant with twins after years of IVF treatment. They had a doctor on as a guest, who, along with mother-of-eight Miriam, reassured the woman.
And then in person, Miriam reassured her again. She's buzzing off it and delighted with the chance meeting.
"That's the kind of thing that can happen with live radio and a daily show," she says. "I really love that."
She loves this change of pace in summer, too, when Prime Time is off air and and her Sunday Miriam Meets takes a six-week break, and she hosts the daily mid-morning slot.
"I much prefer doing daily radio to a TV chat show," she says. "The thing about a weekend chat show is it hangs over you all week, and you're never going to have Graham Norton's couch."
She speaks positively of the RTE TV chat shows hosted by her colleagues Ryan Tubridy, Ray D'Arcy and new kid Tommy Tiernan, but she's frank about how difficult it is to get engaging chat-show guests and how radio is far more forgiving of the slow-burn or quirky guest.
Miriam also enjoys how having no summer TV show means she has weekends with her husband, Steve Carson - and whatever kids happen to be around - as well as the possibility of having summer holidays. The family took a two-week break this year, she says, something that hasn't happened since she can't remember when.
When we talk about Miriam's children these days, it's key to note that most of them are adults or young adults now. Her eldest, Alannah, is a 32-year-old married barrister, and her youngest, Jamie, is 13, and has just finished his first year in secondary school.
From her first marriage to journalist Tom McGurk, Miriam has three other daughters, Clara and twins Jessica and Georgia; and four sons with her husband, Steve. The eldest boy, Conor, is 21, then there is Jack, Daniel and baby Jamie, who isn't a baby any more.
"He's six feet!" Miriam exclaims.
Five of the children came to Portugal with them this year, but her sister and her family were also there.
"I think half of Dublin was there," she says with a laugh.
Does that not mean she can't move a step without people stopping her for a chat or a selfie, I ask.
"Yeah," she says. "People say, 'Why go to Portugal? You could go somewhere more interesting.' And we'd love that, like, a rustic farmhouse in Tuscany, but our kids don't want that. We've always gone primarily where they want to go. I know a lot of parents go on things like cycling in the Pyrenees, but our kids would look at us like we had 25 heads if we suggested something like that. They want to go to Portugal. They want to go to where all their friends are. You are literally going to Dublin in the sun.
"People are very nice," Miriam says. "But it does mean you are probably never off. I am conscious that you can't fall down drunk - not that I would, anyway, but you have to be careful. But then I probably have to be careful anywhere in the world. Once I am outside my home, I'm probably quite cautious. Anywhere I go, anything I do. Even putting out my bins the other night in my dressing gown, I had a moment where I paused. But I did it anyway."
That feeling of being always 'on' is a trade-off, I suggest, for a career and a life she loves.
"It's a tiny trade-off, and people are really nice, and I like meeting people anyway," she says.
Miriam does not do moaning. Gratitude is her thing. Losing her sister Anne to cancer when she was only in her 30s and losing her father suddenly only a year later woke Miriam early to the importance of valuing life.
She says it all the time: she feels very lucky, and wakes up every day full of joy at being alive and well. Time flies by, and, Miriam reckons, after the age of 40, it flies in decades rather than years.
She will be 60 next January, and Miriam's not agonising over it.
"Yeah, me and Nigella Lawson," she says. "We share the same birth date. She's also January 6, 1960. And she lost her sister young to cancer. And she always says that because of that loss of her sister, she will never moan about getting older. You really celebrate it. I totally agree with that.
"You have known me a long time," she says. "I'm not pretending it. And there are great women like Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, who are a few years older than me and they're still on top of their game. I think there's never been a better time to be a woman over the age of 40. I think the world has changed."
Role models such as Ellen and Oprah and Barbara Walters - who is still working as she heads into into her 90s, and who Miriam remains determined to emulate - are very important. It's crucial that women have other women as professional role models, Miriam says, but also women who seem happy and healthy and fit. And then, women need to take joy in being alive.
"For women, once they hit 40, they need to stop worrying," Miriam says. "Like, my 17-year-old boy doesn't think a 40-year-old person is young. No matter what you tell them, they just don't get it. So once you're over 40, you're seen as being a little bit old. But worrying about it is pointless. Just celebrate being here."
She talks about Irish women only a couple of generations back who were ancient once they were over 40. They dressed in a certain uniform that aged them further; they were probably heading into grandparenthood. It was another world.
"I know that women I meet, in their 40s, 50s, say to me that they really like to see me out there," Miriam says. "Not in a bragging way; I'm not praising myself, but for other women, it is important to have role models."
Does heading for 60 feel different to heading for 50? I wonder.
"No. I just feel lucky," Miriam says.
She does not run away from the sadnesses and bad luck of life with some Pollyanna positivity, however. Tragic death came to her door when she was young, followed by the end of her first marriage, but it's how you deal with these things that matters, she says. And it's important to give yourself permission to go on and live and love again.
"Recently a few people I know have died," Miriam says. "Like [the political commentator and barrister]Noel Whelan; like the dad of a one of the friends of my 17-year-old. They both died in their early 50s. It's not a 21-year-old, but it's not old. It's about appreciating every day."
We talk about tragedy and Nora Quoirin and how there are some things you don't ever get over.
"But there are some things you are never meant to get over," Miriam says. "A doctor said that to me years ago when Anne died. Some things you aren't meant to get over.
"Some things aren't OK," she continues. "But it doesn't mean you can't be happy again. That's the key. You don't feel guilty. You are happy again. The only time you're OK to feel guilty is if someone dies on you prematurely. Like with a child, or my sister, you feel guilty that they are gone and they've missed a lot of things. It's a tragedy for them, because we go on having fun and having a life."
You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to the living, but you don't forget those who have gone.
"You compartmentalise," Miriam says. "Otherwise you'd never get up in the morning. I think we are programmed in life to survive, no matter what is thrown at you. And it's not a bad philosophy, I think."
Having a huge brood has to help a person to keep that philosophy on the road. Children don't take adult issues into account, their needs remain constant and need to be met.
Having teenage and young-adult boys at home now, Miriam says it isn't so much that life is easier, it's just different. She still comes straight home after her post-radio show meetings to keep an eye on things. She says that while the boys, and even the grown-up girls, don't need her to meet their basic needs any more, they want more of her time and for her to talk to them and be there for them.
Hers remains a busy house, with footballs being kicked in the hall and people coming and going all the time. She loves it that way, but she also loves that she now gets weekend lie-ins, without having to get up with small children.
"Steve and I have a routine on a Saturday morning," she says, "where we just lie in bed and we read the papers; he makes me coffee, we talk. And I often say, 'Isn't it amazing we don't have to run around the bedrooms making sure they're all OK?'"
Doesn't she have any worry that young men might or might not have come in from nights out after she was asleep? I ask. No, says Miriam, she doesn't have to worry about them coming in late at night. They are all home birds so far. "Still, I often send around a text to all eight of them to make sure I know where they are," she says.
It was a generic text, Miriam tells me, until one of the children called her out on the impersonal quality of her concern. "Now I personalise each one," she says with a laugh. "I adjust them accordingly."
The busy house has been a boon in the six years since Steven Carson left his job in RTE to work with the BBC in Belfast. Two years ago, he moved from there to work in BBC Scotland, as head of multi-platform commissioning.
From Belfast, he came home at weekends and midweek, but the midweek visit couldn't work from Scotland. Miriam takes all these changes in her stride.
They have another routine, that sees him come home every Friday until Monday morning, when Miriam drives him to the airport at 5.30am. She's home by 6.30am and if she doesn't go back to bed for a while, she hits the ground running. It's still working for them, and she's never seen Steve happier, professionally.
I ask if Miriam thinks the arrangement might have proved good for their marriage.
"No, I don't," she says. "I do miss him. But I'm really pleased that we made it work, because professionally it has been really good for him. It is, by any standards, a very big job within the BBC, which is probably the best public-service broadcaster in the world, and I wanted him to have that."
Would it be weird to have him slot back in, 24/7, if Steve returned to Dublin?
"We'd love it," Miriam says. "We always have a little secret lunch when he comes back, on our own, and we were saying recently that one day it will be great when we no longer work - which will be never - and all the kids are grown up and we have just each other. But that will never happen, because by then there will be loads of grandkids, and we'll never have an empty house."
Which is just how Miriam likes it. Families of eight and a busy schedule like hers don't happen by accident. They happen because that's what helps you to feel alive, and, in Miriam's case, what helps you to feel grateful for being alive.
She tells me that she read recently that being busy is just a way of causing distraction in your life, but Miriam disagrees with that. She's busy because she loves it. She loves her Sunday radio show and looked forward to the return of Prime Time last week. She buzzes on live broadcasting, because, she speculates, eight children adapted her brain for chaos and constant, clashing demands.
She thrives on activity, which keeps her feeling alive and, for that matter, young.
"I don't feel certain of the rhyme or reason of life any more. I'm not sure there is any rhyme or reason," says Miriam, though she does not seem bothered by the uncertainty.
She keeps feeling the joy, instead. And lighting the candles.
Miriam presents 'Prime Time' with David McCullagh, at 9.35pm, Tuesday and Thursday nights, on RTE One. 'Sunday with Miriam' is on from 10am to 11am, Sundays, on RTE Radio 1
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Chloe Brennan
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