'I don't read the Twitter trolls' - UTV Ireland's Alison Comyn on life as a working mum and appearing on the small screen
After an eight-year break from the spotlight, Alison Comyn is back on screens at UTV Ireland. Here, she tells how at 44 she's ready to throw herself into work. Photography by Fran Veale
'It is tough, but it makes that free time all the more precious," Alison Comyn says of her hectic schedule. "For me, the weekends are all about family time.
"Every evening for me was perfect when I worked more regular hours, because I could sit down at the dinner table with everybody and catch up and that was my favourite part of the day," she smiles, without an ounce of self-pity.
"I am not getting that now, so I'm trying to make the most of breakfasts. I think I'm overcompensating a bit though," she lets out a giggle. "I'm up at 7am making pancakes and the kids are coming down saying: 'What? Where is this domestic goddess coming from?'"
Though she has an enviable and varied career in both print and broadcast journalism across the UK and Ireland - including spells in Sky News and the BBC - behind her, Alison may not be familiar to everyone. That's due in part to her decision, eight years ago, to take a step back and move home to her native Drogheda.
After the best part of a decade, spent working for local newspaper the Drogheda Independent, on January 1 this year, Alison was once again catapulted back into the broadcasting spotlight with UTV Ireland. Now, along with Newstalk's Chris Donoghue, she co-anchors news programme Ireland Live, which goes out weekdays at 10pm.
UTV Ireland began transmission amidst a storm of attention from all quarters - the hand-wringers, the well-wishers; with a little competition seemingly creating a lot of fuss, particularly when former RTÉ stalwart Pat Kenny was announced as one of the new channel's stars.
However, 44-year-old Alison has taken the move in her stride. "It feels like we have been doing it for years and it is the ideal way to be," she says. "We have an absolutely great team and such a great identity. We are constantly evolving and moving on because we are learning as well - learning what our audience wants and what the market wants." There was initial criticism of the station - and its lacklustre launch night, in particular - so how has the response been since then? "It's very hard when you are inside, looking out," Alison says plainly. "I am just getting on with it, but I think from comments people have embraced it. Week on week, the audience is building and it's getting stronger and the feedback is good. That's the best I can hope for, and the rest of the time, I am just keeping my head down and getting on with it."
Her RTÉ current affairs competitor Miriam O'Callaghan admits to being 'ratings obsessed', does Alison pay close attention to the ratings as well?
"No, I don't," she says. "I don't read Twitter trolls; I don't read reviews, certainly not this early. There is nobody who can make any kind of a proper evaluation as yet, and a lot of the time, it is just people's opinions and they don't have to listen to my opinion, so I don't have to listen to theirs. I think that would be something that would just distract me at the moment. And I don't want any distractions."
Alison's genuine passion for her job is infectious. It is perhaps a culmination of her wealth of experience and the journalistic spirit which she appears to have inherited from her father, journalist Pat Comyn. She has, as she puts it, 'the best job in Ireland', and feels incredibly lucky. This is clearly not just lip service; everything about Alison screams contentment, from her facial expressions, to her vibrant hand movements.
However, she admits that there are restrictions to her new role as a news anchor.
"I did everything in the Drogheda Independent, from court to politics. I had a weekly column as well called 'Common Sense', which was my favourite part of the week, because I got to vent and talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. I really enjoyed that!
"Now, it is still current affairs, so it's the same thing, but you have to be a lot more impartial and straight forward," she smiles, her blue eyes twinkling mischievously. "My role now is to get both sides of the story, my role is not to have an opinion any more really. That's hard for somebody like me, but I can keep it under control! I like to be involved and to have an opinion. I think what goes on in our own country and in our lives, it's everybody's responsibility, and I hate when I see people sitting back and letting everyone else make the decisions. I hate when people don't use their vote. If you didn't vote, you cannot give out about the government that is in power. That kind of complacency does annoy me…" She stops and laughs. "There I am, look - spouting my opinion!"
One strongly-held opinion is her stance on equality. Alison believes Ireland's female broadcasters have made huge strides, but there is still progress to be made for women working within this industry.
"I think a nice balance is all we can ever ask for and that there isn't a dominance of men or women," she says. "There are some incredible female broadcasters in Ireland amongst the male broadcasters and we are lucky to have that, would I like to see more? I'm sure I would, I would like to see more women on radio in particular, but television I think is very well covered and the same with print. I don't think world domination is what we need, it's just that balance and equality."
At home, Alison and her husband, Malachi Murphy, are the model of balanced parenting for their two children.
"There is a lot of juggling to do," she tells me. "I'm just like anybody. I suppose things were turned on their head, so my husband looks after the children in the evenings when I am working, and I'm there in the mornings, as normal, and I will get them off to school. It's a partnership, that's what partners do. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Holly (12) and Luke (10) are very excited about their mum's new job. "They are delighted for me," she smiles. "I suppose they will be slightly embarrassed and mortified in a couple of years time when that kicks in, but for the moment, everybody is very happy!" There is a certain caution to how Alison speaks, which I assume has come from her years in broadcasting. "I really make the most of my weekends. Although both of my children are really sporty, so every weekend, there is a rugby match or a hockey match - so it's a full schedule, but it's great and I love living in Drogheda, it's a great spot," Alison says. "It's very high pressure and intense for me during the week, so at the weekends it is just nice for me to kick back, wear no make-up, put my hair back in a ponytail, and just be mum."
Alison returned to settle down and raise her family in Drogheda when she was pregnant with Luke, following a number of years working for the BBC in Belfast and travelling the world as a presenter on the BBC's Holiday Show. Six weeks after she had her son, Alison made a hasty return to work with Sky News Ireland - a job she left seven months later.
"Marriage and children drew me in I suppose, so I downsized just a little bit," Alison explains. "I took a step back because this was a new departure for me. I am very committed to things, so when I do them, I want to do them properly, so I planned to take a year out with each of my children. Although I think it's well documented that I started with Sky News Ireland then when my son was six weeks old," she laughs, throwing her eyes to heaven at the memory.
"It was one of those times where I just wanted to grab an opportunity and I did, but it was tough, extremely tough and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone because your baby is just too young."
I wonder if the experience taught her how difficult the media industry can be for mothers? "Yeah, well it is, but it's something that you can't complain about," she replies deadpan. "If you choose to do it, do it, if you don't, don't. You can't expect people to work around you too much because it is a very demanding job, there are long hours and if you get involved in a story, you can't expect to say 'right, that's it, I'm off', which is why I went back to it now, when I knew I was at a point where I could throw myself into it as much as I wanted to."
Alison has relished her return to TV at the age of 44 and says she does not feel under pressure in any way about her appearance. "I have never been more at ease with myself and I think that comes from an amalgamation of all that has happened over the last few years. I have a hell of a lot more to think about without worrying about what people think about my appearance; if they want to, let them. It could matter to you and you could get very obsessed by it, but for me it's not a concern."
The importance of looking after her mental health, while working in such a fast-paced environment, is something which Alison is keenly aware of.
"You can't let the stress or the pressure get to you," she tells me. "That's why pretty much every morning the children will go to school and I will take the dogs and hit the beach, it clears the cobwebs and it is a great start to the day. Some people meditate, some people do yoga, for me that is my space just to clear the head; it's like turning over a new page on the day."
Alison appears slightly uncomfortable in a situation such as this, where the tables are turned; she is used to being the interviewer rather than the interviewee. However, every now and then, she lets down her very polite and warm, yet almost omnipresent guard, and I get the impression that Alison is quite a good laugh, once she lets loose.
It is an observation which the aforementioned Miriam O'Callaghan has also shared, remarking in one interview that Alison seems to be the type of woman that the RTÉ star imagines she could 'sit down and have a glass of wine with'.
Alison is delighted by the compliment. "We haven't had that glass of wine!" she laughs. "Miriam where is the wine? I am ready and willing!
"I think we should definitely line that up. I rate her hugely as a broadcaster and I always have, so to be even mentioned in the same sentence is great and long may that last."