Thursday 19 September 2019

Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh: 'I don't think there is a future for people like me in RTE - I care too much'

In her most revealing interview ever, RTE star Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh talks to our reporter about the death of her father, her marriage, her sex life, her career, her hurt - and how she has learned to stop trying to be everything: the good wife, the good mother, the good worker, the good daughter

Blathnaid ni Chofaigh. Photo: Kip Carroll
Blathnaid ni Chofaigh. Photo: Kip Carroll
Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Blathnaid on her graduation day with husband Ciaran and their children Síle, Darach, Peader and Comhghal
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh at the CARI charity Christmas lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh in 2010.
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh at the IFTAs 2013
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

From an early age it was perfectly obvious that Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh was not going to be an ordinary girl, like the other girls.

(Possibly her bosses at RTE have hoped from time to time that she would be a little like the other girls on the payroll.) The Julianne Moore doppelganger had her own strong views, even as a child. Her father Sean O Cofaigh, an assistant secretary in the department of Arts, Culture, Gaeltacht and Communications, motivated his daughter to read Irish plays, like Sean O'Casey's The Plough And The Stars.

Blathnaid can remember as a relatively young child, her father asking her if she admired the character Nora Clitheroe. Her reply said as much about Blathnaid as it did about Nora Clitheroe. "Nora was stupid in the end. I like Bessie Burgess," she said.

"Bessie Burgess was the Protestant in the tenement building going 'Youse are all shanghaied now!'" Blathnaid told me in 2010, the last time I interviewed her. "But she ended up being the hero. I would read a lot about Countess Markievicz and Maud Gonne and these strong women."

Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh. Photo: Gerry Mooney

It doesn't take a masters degree in Freud to see why Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh might relate to women like these as heroes. She is a bit of a rebel heart herself. Someone, clearly, who finds it difficult to keep a diplomatic silence when she would rather speak her mind instead. You have to admire this trait. Like Countess Markievicz, Countess Ni Chofaigh shoots from the hip.

Imagine anyone else at RTE being outspoken enough to publicly declare, as Blathnaid did, that she was "very disappointed in RTE" for its decision to outsource its young people's programmes to independent production companies. Or even that she could never envision a female host of any top entertainment show.

She may appear volatile, even nettle-some, but Blathnaid could never be accused of being vanilla. Further evidence of her lack of bland is that the fiery Gaeilgeoir who grew up in Rathcairn, the Gaeltacht region of Co Meath, once said that she has sex in Irish.

Does she still have sex in Irish?

"That was the funniest thing! You know what was funny about that? Everything that is important to me is Irish."

Does she orgasm in Irish?

Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh and her husband Ciaran Byrne
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh and her husband Ciaran Byrne

"No! No! No, I don't. Why do men love that visual? I'm not actually a loud lover."

One of the things, the nation loves about Blathnaid is not her quiet love-making but her unvarnished honesty. Her honesty is her great strength as well as perhaps her fatal flaw.

"I appeal to you because I'm honest," she says to me, over coffee in Balfes in the Westbury last week. "I don't think there is a future for people like me in RTE. I care too much."

In an attempt to delve deeper into her psyche, I ask her to identify her behavioural patterns. She is happy to open up about this side of herself.

"In my early 30s I was trying to do everything. I thought everything was expected of me. I was trying to be the good wife, the good mother, the good worker, the good daughter - my father was very sick as well," she adds (he died, aged 70, on August 3, 2008, of a stroke.) "And I was trying to be the nurse as well.

"And then when I came out of that, I was going [to herself]: 'How dare you ask that of me? And I'm only one person'. And then I realised that women can never say, 'I can't do that'. I have learned to say 'I won't be doing that. I don't have time. I have too much on. I'm sorry'.

Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh

"I tried to do everything. Firstly, because I didn't have a college degree. Sorry - I know it sounds pathetic; I'm an 1980s child. I thought I had to prove myself more than the people who had college degrees. So I would come in earlier; I would leave later.

"I was co-producing items that I shouldn't have co-produced. And I do know now that as a presenter not a broadcaster I could have just flopped in and out, but that's not me. I used to be working until 10pm and then I'd be analysing when I came home."

She believes that maybe she "suffered from giving too much of me". Her health suffered? "Yeah." Her marriage? "My marriage didn't suffer but the threat was there. Oh yeah. And I didn't realise it until I came out of that mayhem. And I came out of it and I realised that I really didn't know what was going on."

I ask what she means by "mayhem". The self-imposed attempt at being the ginger wonder woman with a big home-life and demanding career?

"Yeah, trying to do everything. Thinking you're doing everything and you're not really, because you are doing nothing right. I was lucky that my husband picked up most of the slack at home. But then, when I turned around and said, jokingly, one evening: 'I suppose it is your turn now for your career?'"

Ciaran Byrne, who is a top engineer/producer and sound designer, replied: "Yeah. It really is."

Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh at the CARI charity Christmas lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh at the CARI charity Christmas lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy

That conversation, Blathnaid says, happened six years ago. "He had put his career on the back-burner for me. When I was hectic with work, he was there full-on."

Does she feel guilty that she wasn't there? "Not guilty, but I wouldn't give as much of myself again."

How close did her marriage come to imploding? "I don't like the word 'imploding'. When I mentioned we have had our issues, the line 'I love you but...' is constant, but like all couples when life is hard one questions everything and sometimes the people closest to them.

"My husband is so loyal to me, he could be accused of being blindly loyal but that's what I want," she says. (They met at the launch of a Cooney and Begley album in Moran's Hotel on Gardiner Street in May 1992, and were married in the local hall in Rathcairn on August 26, 1995.)

"Both of us are careerists, we both grew up together and both try to compromise on parenting. It's funny when I see a trait in one of the children similar to their dad, a trait that I might have criticised, it makes me proud. Tragic experiences can make you feel very alone, even when you have a husband and children. Coping with my father's death was one of those experiences," she says, "this week he would have stood proud beside me in UCD when I graduated."

"He was probably the first feminist I knew, in the sense that he never expressed a concern about his daughters achieving their goals apart from a healthy warning not to find ourselves reliant on a man for income."

Blathnaid has just graduated from her masters degree in Women's Studies in UCD. "I always felt that the world was that little bit different through my eyes. I would wonder why other people wouldn't feel the way I feel, or why they wouldn't get annoyed when I'd get annoyed. I thought it was because I was a minority," she says.

"And when I came to RTE at 18 I was genuinely still thinking in Irish and translating into English," she says, adding, "We look at people differently when they are a different gender. I probably have an expectation of my husband - about fixing things, changing punctures. I have to rethink that and I want him to rethink how he sees me."

Blathnaid says that some of her younger colleagues on her UCD course are "now activated to do certain things. Whereas it has actually mellowed me a little, because rather than getting cross with the world, and the telly and the George Hooks of the world, I'm actually going..." she trails off, before adding, "George is the way he is, because that's how he sees the world."

But isn't she allowing George Hook to get in on her? "Yes, but I am not allowing him any more to get in on me. I'm looking at him as someone who I need to sit down with and say: 'You know what, George? The world is not like that.' The pressure of presumptions of gender! The pressures one puts on themselves."

Blathnaid can remember feeling "bad when I was leaving my kids to go to work, or them being sick while I was at work". She recalls hearing a male colleague at RTE say: 'I can't stay for that meeting. I have to collect my daughter from the creche."

Her initial reaction was that the women in the office "would never say that!' And I would have felt I couldn't say that. But did I think that or was I given that to think? Do you understand what I am saying? So that is how I am seeing the world."

That kind of thinking has, of course, informed her views - like how she doesn't think she will ever see a female host on the top entertainment shows.

"I can't imagine it. It is sad."

Why can't she imagine it? "Because the world still has an issue around the main anchor, the host, being that strong male character. We are only programmed to what we are used to seeing. We have to look at ourselves culturally and say: 'Hold on a second. Female presenters can be put into 'lifestyle' or 'daytime', the 'predictable' roles."

Isn't that a form of misogyny and stereotyping?

Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh Photo: Steve Humphreys.

"Yes. It is a form of misogyny and stereotyping but it is up to us, to the general public, to want change. I'm trying to change it. There is more impact trying to change it and language in conversation than there is on air."

Has anyone ever told Blathnaid that she would achieve more if she wasn't so vocal? "Oh, yeah. But I am not sure if I totally accept that."

It is another way of telling you to shut up, I say. "Yeah, but it is like anything - they love you when it is going great; and they mightn't love you if you say something negative. But my negative is never negative. My negative is actually always constructive. I believe that I am the only staff presenter who cares as much as I do. And I really care. People come and go on contracts [in RTE] all the time," she says. "I'm there for life. I'm there since I was 18. I have reared four kids" [Sile, 20; Peadar, 17; Comhghal, 14; Darach, 13] "in the place."

"RTE has been there as long as I remember; I believe she will continue to be there when I am gone. Her obligation is to serve the public and this is not easy, but she will remain steadfast in her obligations and as a broadcaster and member of the public in which she serves I will continue to represent and challenge her. Note that RTE is a 'she', strong, ever-changing and caring."

Has Blathnaid's 'constructive criticism' held her career back? Why do the bigger jobs always seem to slip by? (Blathnaid didn't get Dancing with the Stars despite publicly saying she would love to do the show.) "I don't really know," she says. Why hasn't she got her own show on RTE?

"Good question. I actually don't know. You think it's because I say too much?"

Oh, that gobby one! I say.

"You mention 'gobby' - a horrible word that is never referred as a compliment, it is always directed at women, I rarely hear it with regards to men. I am passionate, outgoing, and vivacious and I care. If that is 'gobby' I take personal offence. I have been trusted on the most difficult of subjects. Incest, rape, abortion, crime, death, elections, conflicts - all under the pressure of the live broadcast. Delivered with care, credibility and professionalism and all my work has been carried out with the co-operation of the best in the business."

"Why am I gobby? If I was a man, would I be gobby? If I was a man would I not be just strong? 'He's very good. He stands up for himself.' Was I born into the wrong gender? What would I have been if I was the man? Would I be a bigger success?"

George Hook, I tease.

"George Hook! No!" Blathnaid laughs. "Or would I be just honest? When I meet members of the public they say to me: 'I don't like everything you say, but at least you're honest.' I am. I don't change my mind."

Blathnaid has also said that some women don't like her but they admire her honesty. "But they are very honest about not liking me. Actually, I think they do like me."

Does Blathnaid represent something that they are frightened to bring out in themselves? "I am no hero or heroine. But I do think that we put TV presenters on pedestals - and these glamorous, perfect females usually. And yet, I will be the first to say: 'Don't talk to me. I am wrecked. I'm getting older'."

Born in Canada on November 12, 1970 - her father had gone there in the mid-1960s for work with his wife Aine Nic Riogh - Blathnaid has now "decided at 46" that she is going to age "gracefully" and "not get cosmetic 'work' done. That might be a mistake. I might get less work [professionally] as a result. But you know what? It is what it is. And it would be dishonest of me if I was to get work done, I would have to say it. I couldn't go around like some of them and not admit it. And maybe you're right. Maybe I am too . . ." she breaks off.

"I would have loved to have done Dancing - it is a programme I really love - but they went with someone else. That happens. I am well used to it. It doesn't hurt like it used to."

I ask Blathnaid why she thinks she doesn't have her own show on RTE like Claire Byrne. "Claire is current affairs. She is regarded as news/current affairs. I'm not."

What is Blathnaid? Knitting? "I don't think so. I would love a women's hour on radio. I think that would really work. And cover all genders, by the way. Hopefully, I will just try and make it happen but it is not a place where things are happening very easily at the moment. It is a tough place. Many of my colleagues thanked me profusely for saying how upset I was about young people's programming."

The red Queen of Montrose wants to have a clear conscience on her death-bed?

"When I lay down on my death-bed and I wonder - if I am lucky enough to know I am doing to die; I'd like to know - about my regrets when I lie there," Blathnaid says before stopping herself. "You know, you have asked a very, very emotive question earlier, and it festers with me now.

"If I had been more careful with what I said, would my career have gone further? I have asked myself those questions over the years but then I realised that is the person I am. So if I was to try and be someone else no one would believe me!" she laughs.

Has she learned to mother herself? "I have more down time for me than I used to. And I use it now. I do fear the mind getting low... my emotions getting low. I didn't feel that before because I could get so high."

What is she like when her emotions get low? "I just go very quiet. I actually say nothing. It's really weird because at work, they'll say: 'Oh, you're not yourself.' I might pretend sometimes because I don't want attention brought to it. At home, I just go to bed early. I take to the bed."

'Blathnaid Libh', RTE Raidio na Gaeltachta, 11-12 Saturday morning. Blathnaid will also present a special show on December 24 live from Dublin Airport.

Sunday Independent

Also in this section