The TV journalist and active Tweeter says now is the moment to remember what happened, as he recalls in compelling detail Ireland’s difficult course through the past 18 months, in his new book,
Virgin Media news reporter Richard Chambers — Twitter darling and boyfriend of feted novelist Louise O’Neill — has written the Marmite book of the autumn. Readers will either gobble up A State of Emergency: The Story of Ireland’s Covid Crisis or avoid it like the ongoing plague. Released later this week, the book chronicles the pandemic in forensic detail and contains notably saltier language than we are used to hearing from the main “insiders” interviewed, including politicians, Nphet members and frontline workers.
It tracks the definitely-not-love triangle between Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and HSE chief Paul Reid. It reminds us that our hospitals were just one day away from running out of PPE in the first wave, and resets in sharp relief what has already, for many, become a blur of dates, numbers, levels, cases, lockdowns.
A State of Emergency opens in January 2020 with Holohan unable to enjoy a family meal out because he is too worried about this strange new virus in China. It concludes in August 2021 with the line, “Ireland must begin to remember”.
Must we really, though? What’s wrong with blocking out the whole sorry thing as we go along?
Chambers (31), who arrives punctually at Dublin’s Merrion hotel for our interview, pre-empts this obvious question in his opening salvo.
“There’s a train of thought that, ‘Oh, maybe it’s too soon, maybe people have Covid fatigue’ and stuff like that. Whereas I felt that this is a time-capsule opportunity. You’re doing this contemporaneously, when people have it fresh in their minds,” he argues, adding that his sources “at the top table of Government” and in Nphet are still in the throes of Covid-19 management. “Those decisions that they talk about in the book are still impacting their day-to-day lives. So, it was all very raw, very real. I think that’s something that you would probably be quite shocked by — how raw some of the discussions can be.” And how bitchy. In an interview for the book, one of his government colleagues compares Health Minister Stephen Donnelly to The Office’s hapless middle-manager David Brent. “I think in his defence Stephen Donnelly would probably point to the fact that Ireland has the highest vaccine [take-up] rate in Europe,” counters Chambers, moderating his own content.
Aside from his hundreds of hours spent double-jobbing to get forthright chats with key players, Chambers has another trump card up his suit sleeve when it comes to boosting the book’s appeal. “Just yesterday I got an email from Marian Keyes, who is one of the first people I sent it on to, and she was like, ‘I’d forgotten so much of this stuff’. It was really encouraging just to get that email because she is the most accomplished author, the biggest-selling living author this country currently has, and she was saying, ‘This reads like a thriller’.”
Of course, his girlfriend of three years — whose award-winning novels include Only Ever Yours, Asking for It and After the Silence — got in ahead of their friend Marian. “Louise was the first person to read it and it just made me feel like, ‘Yeah, OK, I can push on now and do this’.”
In the acknowledgements, he thanks her for helping him find his voice. “I think that she was always very encouraging. And the one thing about Louise is that she will never sugarcoat it. She is so honest.”
He disagrees with the idea that it might be safer to get that kind of critical feedback from someone who is not your romantic partner. “I think we’ve always had that relationship and I think that’s good. We have that trust that we can say stuff and it’s not coming from a personal or hurtful way.”
What kind of things would she say? “Like, ‘it’s a bit wordy’ or ‘this is a bit too in-depth’, or ‘can you explain what this means?’” he says of jargon like the R number.
Her feedback was “probably the first sign I thought that I had done a good job. Because she was saying, ‘This actually reads really pacey. It reads like a novel’. She was very interested in a lot of the behind-the-scenes political gossip stuff. That’s the word she would use; it wouldn’t be the word I’d use for it,” he quickly clarifies. “But I think that made me feel that I was going in the right direction because I suppose it can be a lonely experience when you’re doing this. Especially against a tight timeline when you can’t really tell anybody else about it because it is all under embargo.”
Keeping secrets can’t be easy for Chambers, who lives in a house-share in Castleknock with three others, including his Virgin Media colleague Zara King.
Living with a fellow news junkie was “a great support”, while a video of King cutting Chambers’ hair during lockdown went viral for her snazzy scissors work. “I would always maintain that I did a lot of the harder work on that,” grins Chambers, who shaved the back and sides himself. “Basically I FaceTimed the back of my head. Zara was videoing the back of my head so I could see what I was doing. Genius innovation!”
This kind of homely footage is something of a new departure for journalists and Chambers’ accessible style has earned him in excess of 119,000 Twitter followers (Pat Kenny, by comparison, has 70,500). Chambers, King and Virgin Media political correspondent Gavan Reilly were all over Twitter throughout the pandemic, fielding questions off camera.
“We just had people on to us all the time asking what was happening and they wanted it in an approachable way in ordinary, human language. So I think that’s where it came from, that people just felt that we’re ordinary people, giving them the news in their own language, and we’re accessible.”
He is reluctant to complain about its flipside but there was one unpleasant moment when he was driving to interview someone in a healthcare setting on the other side of the country. “I pulled up in a petrol station and people pulled out phones to take videos of me saying, ‘Oh, you’re outside your five kilometres’. Stuff like that is just kind of weird. But it has mostly been a positive thing.”
He also got some pushback when Leo Varadkar asked him to go for a pint while the cameras were rolling. The social-media crowd does not like to see journalists being too cosy with TDs. “I suppose that for him was constituency work,” quips Chambers. Did he meet him for that pint? “I did not, no. As I said in the book, I’m not one for going for casual drinks with politicians.”
Not only has committing to social media raised his profile, it is also the medium through which Chambers wangled that first date with O’Neill (36). “We both followed each other on social media for quite some time. I followed her on Twitter and Instagram and we would occasionally swap messages and stuff like that.”
When he saw she was coming up from her home in Clonakilty, Co Cork in 2018, for an interview in Dublin about her book Almost Love, Chambers made a move. “I said, ‘Here, look, if you’re around for a drink…” That’s kind of where it all started — on social media. It’s a very modern love story.”
Things must have moved very quickly — “Yeah, I guess they did,” he concedes — because when I interviewed O’Neill in Cork about that same book, she confirmed they were a couple. When we spoke then, she did not envisage for herself the conventional next steps of wedding and babies. “I don’t think having children is in my future,” she said, adding that she was “not really that fussed about getting married either”.
How does Chambers feel about that? “To be honest, I’m kind of easy-going. We’ll sort of see what happens. I’m just really happy to be with Louise. We’re just very happy, that’s just what it is. It’s not on our radar at the moment, anyway.”
They do own a collie-corgi cross called Cooper, who is “the light of our lives” and has a “unique, yappy personality”. And they are house-hunting in “Dublin or surrounds”, their long-distance romance having suffered during repeated lockdowns. In an August 2020 interview, O’Neill told Life that pandemic travel restrictions had been difficult for their relationship. “Yeah, it’s just a separation really,” says Chambers, before changing the subject away from the personal and back to the book. “It’s a separation, and it was actually a great opportunity when you’re doing the book when you’re chatting to people who are going through it as well...”
After some initial coyness, he does a fine job of expressing what he loves about his girlfriend. “How would I list all that? I mean, she’s the most extraordinary, loving, caring person. She’s incredible.”
Taking the property plunge together suggests separation only ratcheted up their mutual devotion. “We just need to find the right place; that’s all we are focused on doing. It’s exciting, yeah. It’s something to look forward to, definitely. After being separated by lockdown for however long, finding a place where you can just be together is a good idea.”
Chambers moved around a lot as a child. Born in Belfast, he grew up in Lahinch, Co Clare, before moving to Rush, Co Dublin, in his teens. “We come from a small family raised by a single mother,” he says of Liz, who works in a bank, and his older brother Jeffrey.
“I’m very proud of the childhood we had. We couldn’t have wanted for anything, we really couldn’t. It was absolutely fantastic. My mother always wanted what was best for us. She always pushed us to go get educated, go out and live our lives. She is just incredibly supportive all the way through. She did the job of loving two boys on her own — just incredible. She always instilled in me this sense of right and wrong and the importance of giving everything your best effort.”
Both Liz and Jeffrey “have medical conditions that make them quite vulnerable to Covid. So that was a constant worry”. Jeffrey “has had cancer for a long time and he has been a huge inspiration to me all through my life”. Chambers, on the news beat throughout the pandemic, took extreme care on the rare occasions he visited the family home. “We had Christmas dinner outside. We were eating turkey sandwiches at a distance in the back garden, saying, ‘Well, this is a Christmas we’ll always remember’. But I was happy we had each other.”
Chambers used to find the long commute from Rush to UCD hard when he was a law student. He “never really settled” into the course, preferring to write match reports for the University Observer, where he met Gavan Reilly. “Our careers have kept on intersecting. We worked in Newstalk and Today FM together; we’re working in Virgin Media together, so it’s been great. It’s great to have friends who’ve gone through the lifespan of your career.”
The lifespan of this pandemic is ongoing but Chambers insists we must not simply try to put it behind us and move on. “In Ireland we have this difficulty in reflecting on and speaking about traumas,” he says, complaining that he could find very little written about the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. “Why didn’t we reflect on that? Why didn’t we learn the lessons from that? We had people in crowded settings then who had an awful experience in Dublin and Cork. We had frontline workers then, too.”
He wants A State of Emergency to commemorate the national effort it took to fend off the worst of Covid-19’s potential devastation. “I don’t think the public knows how close we were to this being an unmitigated catastrophe of the type we saw in Italy or New York. People in Nphet would say that we were just really lucky, which I think is a chilling thought.”
He wants the book to “start a conversation” about “how we have all changed as a result” of the pandemic. “I think that we are very lucky in this country to have had so many unsung heroes who went above and beyond so many times. I think now is the time to remember them. It isn’t something we do in five or 10 years’ time.”
The book also explores how “the vast majority” of frontline workers were women, while “for the announcements on this, it’s four podiums out and it’s guys in suits”.
Chambers reckons that “strong, independent women are the backbone of this country and of our healthcare system”.
He rose daily at 5am to write the book, worked a demanding full-time job all day, and did interviews late into the evening. It has been “hectic” but he says he is happy with the result.
Next he plans to “push on and just keep continuing to work, to keep telling people’s stories”.
“Domestic violence has been a huge thing throughout Covid-19 and that’s something which would worry me. It’s something I focus on a lot. I’ve done a lot of work on it in journalism so I would go back and do more of it now, I think, in the near future.”
Why is it something he is particularly interested in?
“I think that we’ve turned a blind eye to it and I think it’s important that we examine the country that we have for women,” he says, before adding another line that might also very well apply to his new book.
“I think it’s always worth reflecting on things and making sure that things are being done and people are being protected in the right way.”
A State of Emergency: The Story of Ireland’s Covid Crisis by Richard Chambers, published by HarperCollins Ireland at £14.99, is out on October 28.
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