Friday 24 January 2020

At home with Mary Kennedy: 'I'm not sitting with rosary beads praying for a happy death'

Over tea at home in Knocklyon, Mary Kennedy talks retirement, death, regret, bullying, equal opportunities, dancing and - reluctantly - the new love of her life

Mary Kennedy pictured with her dog Daisy, at her home in Knocklyon after rehearsals for DWTS. Photo: Frank McGrath
Mary Kennedy pictured with her dog Daisy, at her home in Knocklyon after rehearsals for DWTS. Photo: Frank McGrath
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Retirement is supposed to be lie-ins and doing as little work as possible apart from lifting your arm to order yet another gin and tonic at some exotic beach bar.

It's 8.30am on a wet and cold Monday. Mary Kennedy answers the door to her home in Knocklyon in a tracksuit and runners. She has already been out for a run.

She has also baked fairy cakes. She takes them hot from the oven, puts them on a plate and leads me into the living room, where a pot of tea is waiting. I am coughing like a broken drain with a lung infection and Mary has barely sat down before she is up again, into the kitchen, returning with some Panadol ActiFast tablets.

The face of Nationwide for the last 15 years - one of Ireland's true national treasures - finally sits down on her sofa. But then the sound of a baby crying can be heard and Mary is up again and dashing upstairs like Penelope Pitstop. She returns with her darling, and frankly adorable, grandson Paddy in her arms.

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"We actually let him stay up last night to watch his Mamo on Dancing with the Stars," Mary says of the opening show, her first TV show since officially retiring last month after 40 years working at RTE. ('Didn't Mary Kennedy look fantastic on@DWTSIRL - she could be starting her internship instead of retiring," tweeted Des Cahill.)

Watching her dance on the TV show, it is difficult to reconcile this confident, choreographed vision with the shy young girl who back in 1978 applied for a job for a part-time continuity announcer job in RTE in "secret", because being from Clondalkin, she didn't want people to think she was getting "notions".

If she wins Dancing with the Stars, Mary won't get any notions about a new career as a dancer. "Don't be mad! I'm absolutely not going to win!" she laughs, as her daughter Eva comes down to take young Paddy into the kitchen for his breakfast.

She says the last time she cried was last April when Eva and husband Benny phoned from the maternity hospital in Limerick at 1am to tell her that Paddy had been born. "That was a very emotional moment."

After Mary finishes this tete a tete with me - "No hard questions now! You know the rules!" the former schoolteacher says with schoolteacher-y mock-imperiousness before we begin - she is off to rehearsals for the show. So much for slowing down.

Mary turned 65 at the end of September and as such had to retire. RTE "very kindly" asked her to stay on until the end of the year while they found someone to replace her on Nationwide. "And they have Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh now."

Did Mary have any input in choosing her successor ?

"Not at all. No, no. I wouldn't expect to. Producers and editors choose their presenters. But the three-month period was a nice kind of easing in, and then it was so nice to have Dancing with the Stars straight after it. So I haven't stopped. We did two weeks' training before Christmas."

Did it ruin her Christmas? Most people pig out at Christmas! You couldn't, I say...

"No! It didn't wreck my Christmas! I didn't turn down anything. Christmas cake! Pudding! Mince pies! Then we all went off to my sister's on Inis Mór for New Year. That was nice because I went running every day. I actually went for a swim in the sea on New Year's Day. It was excruciating. I came back to Dublin on New Year's Day and started training. And the first show was last night," Mary tells me excitedly.

Asked how she felt after her first performance on the dance floor in front of the nation, Mary says: "I love Dancing with the Stars. It was very scary. It was also thrilling. The next women who are closest in age to me are Glenda [Gilson] and Lottie [Ryan]. They are both in their thirties! Both half my age!"

How will Mary feel when Dancing With the Stars is over and she is alone in a quiet house and there is no Nationwide and she suddenly realises she is retired?

"Well, there is an awful lot of sorting of this house! I'm looking forward to a bit of a clear-out."

Is Mary really looking forward to proper retirement or is she secretly dreading it?

"No, I'm not dreading it. I don't want to get to the end of my life, whenever that is, and say, 'I worked my whole life'. I have a little grandson. He is nine months old. He will be living in Limerick. So, it will be nice to visit them.

"I wouldn't have chosen to end with Nationwide, but that's what happened. I wouldn't like an exception to be made for the rule about the retirement age being 65, when it is not made for other people.

"I'm retired from Nationwide, but I am not sitting in the corner with my rosary beads praying for a happy death!" she laughs. She adds "I'm not retiring. I'm open to all work, I love working in television".

Switching tack, I ask Mary Queen of Montrose has she ever had any work done?

"No. Never,"

Even a tiny bit of Botox?

"No. From the time I was a kid and I had to go to the public health nurse in Clondalkin for injections, I hated needles. I used to be crying. I can remember her saying, 'It is just like the sting of a nettle, dear!' It wasn't. So I don't like needles.

"Anyway, I am not interested. I am 65. I think it is a pity when people want to be something that they're not - which is an age that they're not. What is wrong with being 60?" Mary asks, going on to quote Lady Diana Cooper: 'First you are young, then you are middle-aged, then you are old, then you are wonderful'."

Mary says there are some misconceptions about her: "Some people might think that I'm a bit serious. I take work seriously but I consider myself a fun-loving individual… I love a good laugh."

Among the things likely to make her laugh are Mrs Brown's Boys and D'Unbelievables.

"I love Irish humour," Mary says, adding that she likes people "who don't take themselves too seriously and can just knock a bit of fun out of life. I love witty people.

"The six years I was with Marty Whelan on Open House - he is a very funny guy. He wasn't cracking jokes. It was just his turn of phrase. And on Dancing with the Stars, Brian Dowling is hilarious; and he doesn't try to be. He just can't help but be funny."

Mary says she has nothing but positive memories of her decades at RTE. She was never bullied, she says. I ask if that says something about her. "I don't know, because that would be to suppose that you are very confident and very able to take bullies. I would be useless. I would go around the houses to avoid confrontation. So maybe that's how I avoided it. I didn't experience any bullying."

What was the culture towards women in the late 1970s and 1980s?

"Well, I joined in 1978 as a part-time continuity announcer. So, I was in irregularly. Did I feel there were things I went for that I didn't get because I was a woman? No. Never. There were things that I didn't go for, because I had responsibilities with young children," she says referring to Eva, Tom, Eoin and Lucy.

"When you are separated... I would never say single mother because myself and my ex-husband were equally involved in rearing the children [her 15-year marriage to Ronan Foster ended in 1997]… but I just wouldn't go for jobs in RTE that would, say, take me away or be too demanding on my time.

"It suited me down to the ground to be working part-time as a newscaster for a long number of years. It suited me then to be working on Open House because that only went from October to Easter; and the children were in school; and my mother was a wonderful support and she would help out with minding them.

"People ask me, am I ambitious? I am not ambitious. I am very thorough when I am doing something. My ambition is tempered by my responsibilities and what I want to be as a mother."

And now?

"Maybe now I don't want to be in a situation where I won't have enough time to pop to Limerick to see my grandson. So maybe that is the same reaction to my life as a mother as it was when my kids were young."

Delve further into the inner workings of one of Ireland's most loved TV stars and someone emerges who is "a worrier and sometimes anxious, but I try to work on that".

Where did the anxiety come from?

"I think I inherited that from my mother. She was a champion worrier and a champion at anxiety."

As a child, did Mary notice her mother Pauline's anxiety?

"Probably not as a child but when you look back, in retrospect, you realise that she would be anxious about making ends meet," Mary says, "because my father died when he was still at work. She wasn't working. She was 57. He was just gone 59. I am already six years older than my father was when he died. There was nothing to spare financially when he died. It was frugal, but not in a Charles Dickens type of way."

Mary was aged 21, teaching English at a university in Rennes in Brittany when her father Tom died in March 1977. She returned and started working as a secondary-school teacher in Dublin. "I came home to get a job. That was probably to help with money at home, because I gave money up. My two youngest siblings were still in school," Mary says of Deirdre and Tony, who were 17 and 15 when their father died.

In France, she had been sharing an apartment with a Scottish girl doing the same job as her. "I would have stayed on in Brittany for at least another year if my father hadn't died. But I was fated to come home.

"It was hard to come back under the cloud of sadness, because I just adored my father."

What I find highly intriguing - in that it says something about Mary at 21 years of age - was the immediate aftermath of her father's death for her. He died of a heart attack playing golf in Stackstown, late on a Friday afternoon. Mary wasn't told her father had died until she arrived in Dublin airport. Her uncle rang her in Rennes on the Saturday morning to say that her dad wasn't well and to come home.

"I said 'Alright.' My dad was dead at this stage but they didn't want me travelling on my own knowing that my dad was dead."

Did she figure it out on the way to Dublin?

"I hadn't a clue. But in retrospect... I left Rennes to catch the 6am train to Paris and then I had to go on standby at the airport because I didn't have a ticket. When I look back at that journey that day it was just incredible. Other people must have known."

Mary was dragging her suitcase "this was before wheels on suitcases!" - up to the train station at 5am on the Sunday and a car stopped. "An English couple who were on holidays asked could they give me a lift to the train station."

In the course of the conversation Mary told the two strangers why she was going home. The couple then parked the car and stayed with Mary until her train to Paris arrived at 6am.

"Why would a couple do that? They were older. So they obviously intuitively knew my father was dead. Then at the airport I went up to the Aer Lingus desk and explained my situation.

"I didn't know whether I would even get on the flight at all. Yet when the flight was called, I was the first person called!"

When Mary arrived into Dublin airport she saw her uncle Sean, who was also her godfather. He told her the bad news.

"I don't remember it but I believe that I just let out a wail. I was my father's pet. I even find it quite emotional now remembering that day at Dublin airport, even though it is 43 years ago. I remember him coming into my bedroom before I went to France to wish me bon voyage."

Mary also remembers the day of the funeral at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Clondalkin and her grandfather Jack - her father's father - sitting in the back of the car. He turned to her and said: "It should have me, not my son."

"I can also remember the grave in Esker in Lucan - the awfulness of seeing the hole in the ground."

That night in the kitchen of the family home in Clondalkin, Mary wanted to take a chair and go back to her father's graveside and sit around it until morning. "I hated the idea of him being on his own in the graveyard. I thought that was horrific."

Mary recalls going to the mortuary in St Vincent's for the removal.

"I was advised not to go in and remember him when he came in to say goodbye to me in January. I am sorry that I didn't go in. I wish that I had seen him. I regret it. When my mother died, all my children went in to see her," Mary says of Pauline, who was 83 when she died. "These are important rituals to death."

There are also some important rituals to building up to the big question with Mary Kennedy. She hates talking about her love life and she knows at some point I am going to find a segue into it: her new man Tom. We have been talking for nearly an hour and the right moment has yet to come up. So I figure there really is no such thing as a right moment and I just ask her anyway.

How has meeting Tom changed her life?

Cue nervous laughter and a look of mild panic on one of Ireland's most famous faces.

"He is lovely. Lovely. But I don't want to go into detail."

I promise I am not looking for forensics, I joke.

"He is lovely. And I am very pleased, very happy. I don't want this as a headline. This is just a small part of a conversation."

She gets up to go into the kitchen to get something. She returns with baby Paddy in her arms. "So what were you asking me?" she jokes.

Undeterred, I ask the elusive RTE star how she and Tom met.

"We were introduced by a mutual friend a year ago... a year ago in November."

What was that like?

"It was lovely. We get on very well. We are about the same age. It is just nice."

Why did she wait so long?

"Well, they haven't exactly been queuing around the corner!" she roars with laughter.

Go away out of that, Mary, I say in my best stage Irishman.

"But they weren't! They weren't! So that wasn't a factor. And it is nice. When you know, you know."

How did she know?

Cue more nervous laughter and a look, this time, of blind panic.

"I just felt very comfortable. It is also the stage of life. I feel very comfortable with him. He's lovely. He makes me laugh. We share the same interests. We are both interested in hiking and cinema. We go regularly to the Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield."

What have they seen?

"Disobedience. Do you know the one about the Orthodox Jews? Maradona. Aretha Franklin. I love those kind of biopics. My favourite movie of last year was Bohemian Rhapsody. I loved Elton John's movie too."

But back to Tom. How would Mary describe him?

"Calm. Loving. Fun. Kind. Very kind - to everybody. Tall. Handsome." And she loves him?

"Yes, I love him."

Cue look of absolute panic. "Now - if you make a headline out of that, I will come back from the grave and haunt you!" she laughs.

Mary spoke earlier about inheriting anxiety from her mother. Was she therefore a little anxious about going into a relationship with Tom after being single for so long?

"I can't remember. I was... shy... nervous. Nervous.'

I ask her why she was nervous.

"Nervous maybe that it wouldn't work out. I really don't know. Shy, I suppose." She laughs, and points to the baby on her lap. "Ask Paddy a question, Barry!"

You kept it a secret for a year, I say to Mary, not Paddy.

"I didn't keep it a secret!" she laughs, correcting me. "Nobody asked! Nobody asked the question! OK, I'm out there in the public eye but Tom is not. He is a private individual who doesn't want the showbiz thingy."

Mary will perform on 'Dancing with the Stars' tonight on RTE One and the RTE Player

 

Mary's favourite memories From 40 years at RTE

* September 1997: Commentating  on Mother Teresa's funeral in India.  "It was like landing on another planet. There was huge poverty.... I have taken every opportunity ever since to go back and maybe do a bit of volunteering or raise awareness."

* May 1995: Presenting the Eurovision "I was petrified doing DWTS and [producer] Larry Bass just said 'Remember, you've done the Eurovision'. I said: 'Yeah, I'd forgotten about that!'"

* Interviewing 'ordinary people' on Nationwide.

"Nationwide was - and is - a wonderful vehicle for showing people what's going on in different parts of the country. You can live in a bubble in a city. And if you are living in rural Ireland you may not be totally aware of what is happening in cities and towns."

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