A single rose: Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin looking forward to a brighter 2015
Scientist, teacher, TV presenter, musician… It's hard to put Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin into any one box for long, as VICKI NOTARO discovers. Photographs by Mark Nixon
Let's get it out of the way to begin with. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin knows that there is a lot of interest in the end of her five-year relationship with Late Late Show host Ryan Tubridy. In news that came as a shock to the wider public, the pair announced their split with a joint statement issued in December.
"Aoibhinn and Ryan are no longer together," the statement read. "They will remain friends and ask for privacy at this time. There will be no further comment on this personal matter."
And today will be no exception - I've been forewarned by Aoibhinn's publicist that she won't be talking about her former partner in our interview.
Nevertheless, I ask if she's excited at 31 to be entering a new phase of her life as a single woman, coming out of two long-term relationships - the one with Tubridy and also with her PhD in mathematics, which she completed late last year.
"I'm not going to comment, and I really can't say anything without commenting, so..." comes her reply.
Fair enough. After all, their relationship was largely a private one, with neither party talking about the other in a professional capacity, so why should their break-up at the end of last year be public property? And, besides, the former Rose of Tralee has lots more to discuss.
For 31-year-old Aoibhinn, 2014 wasn't easy. She was knee-deep in the end of her PhD studies, her aunt died in September, and, of course, the split with Tubridy was confirmed at just before Christmas.
"It was a turbulent year, so I was glad to be able to get home to Mayo for two weeks over Christmas and just spend time with my family," She says. "Losing my aunt was difficult for us all. Family is so important to me - it's everything. We're all hopeful for a brighter year in 2015."
Thrust into the spotlight ten years ago after becoming the Rose of Tralee at age 21, Aoibhinn is something of an anomaly in showbiz, in that she straddles two realms simultaneously - she's both a media professional, and a professional academic.
We're meeting today in Clontarf to discuss Fleadh Cheoil, the six-part RTÉ show she's hosts with John Creedon, airing Friday nights. The Science Squad will also be back this year for a fourth series.
Added to that there's a new day job - a secondary school teacher for several years previously, having completed her PhD Aoibhinn now lectures in mathematics at UCD. That's not the load of your typical celebrity. "I'm really not that unusual, lots of people do different jobs," Aoibhinn insists. "One of mine just happens to be high profile!"
I tell her she's lucky, in that she gets to work in the media, yet doesn't appear to court attention. "Thank you, I try not to. I was out over Christmas though with my friends and, separately, I had three different young girls come up to me and tell me they were doing science and wanted to do the sort of thing I'm doing, so that was really lovely to hear."
Still, it must be difficult dealing with public interest in her private life? "I never thought I was that deserving of the attention I got, and I don't know if it will continue... But I get to present The Science Squad, which I love, so I'm not going to miss out on doing the show because every now and then there's something in the paper about my private life.
"I'm better at dealing with [any interest] than I was ten years ago. The Rose was a massive learning curve for me and my whole family in that respect, as journalists would ring the house and my mam would just chat away to them! I'd feel like if they rang me I'd have to talk to them. I soon learned that wasn't the case."
Even without juggling a media career on the side, finishing a PhD is no mean feat. Aoibhinn didn't even take a break after officially becoming Dr Ní Shúilleabháin, taking up her lecturing post at UCD almost right away. However, she was understandably glad to get her doctorate over the finish line.
"It was a major relief to finally get to that stage. I'm pretty proud of myself that I did it in the three years I set out to complete it in. The viva voce (a stringent examination in which PhD candidates give an oral defence of their written thesis) was pretty tough. They had thoroughly read my thesis which is great, because nobody else probably ever will," she laughs.
Our conversation turns back to the Fleadh, something Aoibhinn herself used to take part in as a child. A gaeilgeoir and trad musician, she's a perfect fit to front the RTÉ show. "For me, Irish culture is so important. I dance, I play, I speak the language, and I think maybe a lot of Irish people don't tap into it as much. It's so great to go to the Fleadh, because it makes you realise how important it all is. People come from all over the world to attend it."
"They're two really, really long filming days, but it's such good fun. We go around looking for street music, as well as the sessions in the pub. I love trad music because you can sit down with a bunch of people that you don't know, and have the tunes in common. And if you don't, you share them. It's such a lovely tradition to keep going, and so worth showcasing and encouraging young people to get into that, and enjoy it for themselves." Aoibhinn herself has played the tin whistle since she was four. "I also took up the concertina when I was eight or nine, but I hated competitions. I didn't like performing on my own, but it was actually a real growing experience. It's something that I hold dear now. I take out the concertina every now and then, and play with people in the likes of O'Donoghues pub in Dublin. And on Christmas Eve, my brothers and I go to our uncle's pub at home and sing songs. It's lovely."
Though clearly passionate about music, it's not all trad for Aoibhinn - she's actually a bit of a rocker. "I love head-banging," she laughs. "I absolutely love Thin Lizzy. There's nothing like Dancing in the Moonlight or The Boys Are Back in Town to get you in the mood. We're so lucky to have so many brilliant Irish artists, like Hozier, Fionn Regan and Mick Flannery."
Aoibhinn played guitar and sang at the Rose of Tralee, which first brought her into the public eye. She confesses that she was something of a reluctant Rose. "It wasn't something I really wanted to do, I was pretty angry with my dad at the time for entering me," she admits. "But he said he'd paid the fee, so I might as well! I had just finished my final year exams in theoretical physics at UCD. I really wasn't into it."
A Doc Marten and vintage shop devotee, Aoibhinn didn't exactly look the part, either. "I didn't buy any new clothes. I remember my mother was mortified when she brought me to the interviews because all of the other girls were really nicely dressed. She made me wear her high heels, even though she's a four and I'm a size six. I put them on to placate her, and took out my tongue piercing.
"I really didn't care, which was probably a good thing going into something like that. I was so surprised to get through each stage, so I ditched the Docs and started to enjoy it. I liked talking about what I was studying and my interests, but I really was the last person anybody expected to win. When my classmates at college heard I was even doing the Rose, they literally fell around the place laughing."
Despite her initial nonchalance, Aoibhinn says it's something she'd do all over again. "I definitely would. The Roses are a group of wonderful women, who are superb role models. They're some of the most successful, articulate, maternal, friendly and intelligent women I've ever met, and they're mentors and friends to me."
Just this month Aoibhinn attended a Rose reunion, organised by the women themselves and including this year's Rose, Maria Walsh. "Maria is joining an extraordinary group of women. Alice, the first Rose is one of the most worldly, deeply philosophical people you could meet. And then you contrast that with Maria who is trailblazing this year, and all the women in between who own businesses, work in psychology and law. It's a brilliant group of women to be part of, so even though it wasn't something I saw myself in to begin with, I'm delighted I'm in there now."
The Rose is often accused of being outdated and anti-feminist, a sort of lovely girls competition out of place in the modern age. Does Dr Ní Shúilleabháin consider herself a feminist?
"I used to say I wasn't one, but I think the definition and understanding of the word feminism has changed. I believe in equality, but I'm not sure I believe in things like gender quotas, except in the short term.
"There's such a backlog of women in things like politics and academia, that they're not going to magically appear in senior positions without them. But the whole problem is that you have to get women interested in these roles from a very young age, so they'll be able to move through the ranks. I'm looking at it from an education point of view - passionate teachers engaging children to continue in things like science and mathematics, so they'll study it in college, become a researcher, then maybe a lecturer a professor, a dean.
"So I am a feminist in terms of equality, but I'm also very traditional in a lot of ways. I still very much expect chivalry, and I like to have a door held open for me."
Thankfully, the two aren't mutually exclusive, I offer - just like a career in both television and academia.
"I don't expect my career in media to have any impact on my career in education, but I do expect my media career to help me communicate about science and maths. My aim is to get young people to think: 'Hey, I can do that too!'"