Sunday 15 September 2019

Diabetes: Ian Dempsey on his life sentence

There's something incredibly normal about Today FM broadcaster Ian Dempsey. That and his good humour are part of his charm. He tells Ciara Dwyer he wishes he had more edge and how his diabetes is a life, rather than death, sentence

CUTTING BACK: Ian Dempsey enjoyed the Celtic Tiger years, with perhaps a few too many good nights-out in fancy restaurants, he admits.
He now suffers from diabetes type two and has had to trim down his weight. Photo: Tony Gavin
CUTTING BACK: Ian Dempsey enjoyed the Celtic Tiger years, with perhaps a few too many good nights-out in fancy restaurants, he admits. He now suffers from diabetes type two and has had to trim down his weight. Photo: Tony Gavin

Ciara Dwyer

MOMENTS before Ian Dempsey arrives in the reception of Today FM radio station, I spot Tony our photographer. He is on the phone. His eyes are downcast, his expression serious.

The minute he comes off the phone he tells me that a friend in England had passed away. They used to be in a band together. Just then Ian Dempsey appears. He greets me with a smile. When I explain our serious expressions, he sympathises with Tony. (It turns out that he even remembered their band.) His face is full of concern and empathy.

Ian Dempsey may be a well-known broadcaster, having enjoyed television work, most notably the children's slot Dempsey's Den on RTE with Zig and Zag, and many, many years as a DJ doing breakfast radio on 2fm, but it is clear that there is no giant ego here. Even though I meet him to talk about his work and his life and Family Day, which he launched recently, it seems that he is genuinely interested in other people and just as happy to talk about them before himself.

As he heads off to do the photo, I watch him chatting to Tony, trying to cheer him up. Usually it's the other way round.

When Dublin-born Ian was growing up, his mother Gay gave him good advice. "You should always try to think of how the other person is feeling,"he says quoting her, "and I've always remembered that. It's very simple but it does work." He still acts on his mother's wise words.

So how is he feeling today? On the morning we meet I imagine that he must be shattered, having been up before dawn. We meet at 11, when his working day is almost over. His weekday radio show on Today FM, The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show, runs from seven until nine and for this he happily leaps out of bed at 4.50am.

"I often wake up before the alarm goes off and then I just get up. I don't use the snooze button. I jump out of bed. The older you get, you start appreciating daylight," says the 51-year-old.

"When you're a teenager you could stay in bed all day long. We've a few of them at home, who enjoy their sleep," he says with a laugh. Home is Sutton, where he lives with his wife, Ger (his childhood sweetheart). They met on a night when their schools -- Belvedere and Santa Sabina -- were debating. They started going out in 1980 -- he remembers the date, March 26 -- and they got married in 1986. Instead of a wedding ring, Ian now wears a gold Claddagh ring which Ger gave him for his 21st birthday.

"When I met Ger I knew straight away that she was the person I wanted to settle down with. I knew that this was a feeling that I hadn't had before and I haven't had it since. We're great ... what is the word? I have to watch what I say, or I'll get lacerated ... We're great soulmates."

They have three children -- Shane, 22, Evan, 18, and Aislinn, 15. He tells me that he was never there to bring them to school, as he was always on the radio in the mornings, but he was certainly there to see them at the end of their school day. The eldest is working as a sound engineer but the other two are still in school. Evan is also the lead singer in an indie rock band -- The Kapitals.

"The songs are very good, but I would say that. He's a very quiet guy but when he's on stage, something happens. He has a very raspy voice, it sounds like a lot of cigarettes are going on."

Are there?

"Probably. I can't do much about that now," he says. "He's 18."

Despite his early start, Ian doesn't seem the least bit sleepy. I am impressed. He tells me that when he goes home he often has an involuntary snooze on the armchair, but there is no planned siesta. But before you think he is superhuman, he admits that if he wasn't doing this early slot he'd probably be in bed until midday, because he is lazy by nature. The breakfast show has been good for him and for his discipline.

Waking up the nation is a big deal. That morning I tuned in to his show to hear what was going on and to find out his form for the day. It is a fast-paced show, full of music and chat, with Ian's cheerful voice at the helm. He is upbeat in his banter but not annoyingly chirpy. He reads out a strange statistic which caught his attention. In one of the many surveys released that day he learns that 15 per cent of Irish men keep a roll of toilet paper in their car. Ian is mystified by this. He tells his listeners that he certainly doesn't do it, but he wants to hear people's thoughts on it. Within minutes Twitter is buzzing. Some people find it as bizarre as he does but then, bingo, we hear of a man who used to do just that.

"My ex used to carry a roll of toilet paper in the car, but then he also had a mistress there too." Ian reads it out, pauses for a split second, and then moves on.

You have to think of how the other person is feeling. His mother's mantra is there in the way that he doesn't dwell on the tweet. There is a slight reaction, shock at the hurt and honesty, and then we are on to the next song.

"I think people have become a lot more open now," he says, "and Twitter is often anonymous, so people reveal more about themselves."

Time was, Ian tells me, when you'd say something on the radio and you'd be waiting for a reaction -- for someone to phone in or for a postcard to arrive to the station three days later. That was back when he worked in 2fm, which he joined in 1980 but he has moved with the times. He joined Today FM in 1998.

"I was extremely happy in RTE," he says, "and the show was doing really well, but I was always into getting out of the institution that was RTE. But if you wanted something done, you had to fill out a form and it was put to a committee and a clearing committee."

While in 2fm, was he was friendly with Gerry Ryan and was aware of his drug-taking?

"I knew Gerry very well and he was very good to me in a 'slightly older brother' way. He was a great broadcaster. But I wasn't good pals with him. I wasn't part of that scene. In all the years at showbiz parties I've never even seen cocaine. I find that weird and even a bit insulting that nobody even asked me [if he wanted some]." He laughs. "I've never taken it. I'd be worried that if I did take it, I'd like it. That's why I've never touched it."

There is something incredibly normal about Ian Dempsey and that, in a way, is his appeal. Last year, Ian's doctor told him to lose two stone and so he did. He cut out bread, did a bit of walking and the weight went down. He had developed diabetes type two.

"I have to shoot up once a day," he says. "Saying 'shoot up' makes me sound edgy, for once in my life," says this utterly normal man. "They say it's not a death sentence but a life sentence. Life is better than death. Diabetes type two is brought on by lifestyle -- probably drinking too much. I'd say it was down to eating out in restaurants, all that Celtic Tiger madness and lunches with sauces. It was probably gluttony to be honest."

Dempsey is a happy man and you can hear it in his voice when he's on air. "I'd hate people to think it's a false happiness. When I'm on air I am quite happy. This is what I always wanted to do and I'm lucky to be doing it."

As a young boy, he and his friend were making their own pretend radio shows on a reel-to-reel recorder. Then later, when he was in secondary school, he got a job on a pirate radio station where he worked for nothing. He was delighted that he was getting a free breakfast but in hindsight he laughs at his innocence. "Nobody else wanted to get up for that early show."

He credits his parents with being encouraging and laughs when he tells me how his father, Des, used to say to him, "Who's this Bowie fella you're talking about? He seems to be a bit of a weirdo."

Many years later, Ian met Bowie.

"He was very nice. He had a great handshake, which is always a good sign. Yes, he was weird on stage but that's just a persona. He's probably the most normal person I ever met in my life."

He enjoyed meeting Bruce Springsteen too. "He picked up two Budweisers and brought us out under a sun umbrella. He'd just had a child and he was talking about how you get kids to grow up the right way. He said, they don't do what you say, they do what you do. That's so true."

Although he seems very easy-going, Ian takes his work seriously. (Otherwise he wouldn't have lasted so long.) And he still loves what he does. He gets a buzz out of playing a new song. Music is in the genes. His parents were among the founding members of Glasnevin Musical Society. (Later that evening, he will be the compere for their show in the National Concert Hall.)

"In the last few years I've relaxed a lot more. This is what I do," he says. "I'm much more sure of myself. I'm still very conscientious but I'm not trying to impress anybody. When I'm not good enough to do it anymore, that's fine, but at the moment, I'm still enjoying every second of it." And it shows.

To mark International Day of the Family, One Family, Ireland's leading organisation for one-parent families, and EBS are inviting all families in Ireland to attend a Family Day Picnic and a free day of fun and entertainment in The Iveagh Gardens from 11am--5pm on Sunday May 13.

Those who can't make the picnic can hold their own event or enter the Family Day art competition by logging on to

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