Tuesday 17 September 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'I don't believe in keeping secrets, but I have to be careful when it comes to my adult children'

Miriam O’Callaghan
Miriam O’Callaghan
Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Dress, H&M. Shoes, Penneys. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Jacket, Isabel Marant, Brown Thomas. Vest; jeans, both Topshop. Shoes, Penneys.
Georgia (far left) and Alannah McGurk with their pose with Miriam O'Callaghan
RTÉ ‘Prime Time’ presenter Miriam O’Callaghan. Photo: Damien Eagers
Miriam O'Callaghan and daughter Jessica McGurk at the LauraLynn Heroes Ball at the Mansion House Dublin. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Steve Carson, Miriam O'Callaghan at the IFTA Awards 2015 at The Mansion House

Sarah Caden

It's a bit odd to be asking Miriam O'Callaghan what she thinks about the idea of being a granny.

For one thing, it's not like any of her eight children are planning to make her one any time soon. Her eldest, barrister Alannah McGurk, recently got engaged to Fiachra Breathnach, but that's merely a statement of an intention to marry, and there's no need to get ahead of ourselves.

Well, particularly when Miriam is so far from the image one has of the Irish granny. She sits in front of me today sipping her beverage of choice, a skinny latte, her hair utterly platinum, shiny and sleek, her wrist cuff glinting and her nails painted a sort of molten-gold colour. And then there's the jacket, a cropped, bleached-denim affair. Grannies do not wear denim jackets, and certainly not this kind of rock-chick variety. So, we won't get ahead of ourselves and consign Miriam to the granny grade yet.

All the same, to her credit, Miriam doesn't wince at mention of the "g" word.

Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Dress, H&M. Shoes, Penneys. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Dress, H&M. Shoes, Penneys. Photo: Kip Carroll.

"Any baby that comes, it's a joy, it's a gift," she says. "Obviously, I loved babies, I had eight of them myself; but it's always lovely." And, she adds, as a woman who had Alannah in her mid-20s and her youngest, Jamie (10) in her mid-40s, there is no right time for a woman to have a baby. Early, late, she doesn't think it makes a huge difference.

Nor does she wince at the idea of being old enough to be someone's granny, but that's not a comment on Alannah specifically, nor, she adds, a hint in Alannah's direction. On that, she's very clear.

"Every journalist in the country has my number," Miriam says, "and as a journalist myself, I try to respond whenever they call; but when it came to Alannah's engagement, I didn't say anything.

"That's hers," Miriam says, emphatically, but in the nicest possible way.

"My nature is that I never stop talking," she goes on to explain, "and I put my life out there because I think secrets are a bad idea, I think they eat you up inside, and most people know most things about me, but you do have to be careful when it comes to your adult children."

Over years of interviewing Miriam, the topic of her children's privacy has often arisen. She's always been very careful not to put words in their mouths, or attribute opinions to them, or boast or bemoan their achievements. This is the first time, though, that she differentiates between the adult children and the younger ones. And it's different, she makes very clear.

Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Jacket, Isabel Marant, Brown Thomas. Vest; jeans, both Topshop. Shoes, Penneys.
Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Jacket, Isabel Marant, Brown Thomas. Vest; jeans, both Topshop. Shoes, Penneys.

In case you need the run-down of the eight again: Alannah and her sisters, Clara, and twins Jessica and Georgia, are Miriam's four daughters with her ex-husband, journalist Tom McGurk. Her four boys Conor, Jack, Daniel and Jamie, with her husband Steve Carson, range from Leaving Cert age down to 10.

Miriam has seen it all with the kids, really, having basically gone from working behind the scenes in the BBC when the girls were small, to moving front of camera as they grew up, before, ultimately, becoming the best-known woman in Ireland. She has seen how having a parent in the public eye affects the offspring, and she clearly reckons it's worse when they're adults.

"The older my children get, the more conscious I am that they live private lives," Miriam says, "and that there's a knock-on effect of having a parent in the public eye. There are pluses, but they are very often outweighed by the minuses. Not for me - I find people lovely, and I'm still waiting for that person to walk up and be mean - but for my children.

"My youngest is still curious about it," she says. "He'll still say, 'Why did that person want to talk to you?' if someone comes up. Like, 'Why do they want to talk to you; you're just buying Coco Pops?' But my older teenagers, I think they're conscious and self-conscious when I collect them from school. They are very aware that their mother is well-known and part of that means that people come up.

"Now, I believe, firmly, that 99.99pc of the world's population is kind and means well. And if lovely things happen in your family, they want to wish you well. But I have chosen to live my life in the public eye, not my children. Maeve Binchy once said she would never write an autobiography because she lived a 'shared life'. And I live a shared life. I have siblings and a mother and niece and nephews and Steve, but I have children, and they are affected by my living my life in the public eye.

"I didn't start out planning this," Miriam concludes. "I began as a solicitor and I then went into the backroom-boys-and-girls section of TV, so I never set out to have a public life. I slipped into it, and then one day you wake up and realise you are well-known, and that means that anyone associated with you has to live with that. And if your adult children live private lives, I'm very conscious that this is difficult.

Georgia (far left) and Alannah McGurk with their pose with Miriam O'Callaghan
Georgia (far left) and Alannah McGurk with their pose with Miriam O'Callaghan

"So I'm very happy for Alannah and her gorgeous fiancé," says Miriam. "And I'm thrilled about it because they're so happy, and I'm so happy for them."

Being happy is what it's all about for Miriam. She makes it look easy, but she doesn't pretend that it happens easily or by accident. She presents it very much as a choice you make, in the face of any adversity, and even in defiance of any adversity life throws your way. 'Life is short' is her mantra, so be happy to have it and enjoy it.

Miriam is probably one of those people who looks how she feels. She believes herself to be lucky and she is grateful for it. She's been through separation and divorce and though she doesn't speak of that, it has to leave scars. Also, the death of her sister Anne - who was only in her 30s when she died from cancer - followed a year later by the death of Miriam's father, were tough blows, and she references them both all the time.

Not, however, when she's talking about bad luck or the bad things in life, but when she's reminding whoever is listening - and maybe herself - that we only have a short time and that we must appreciate it.

So, Miriam is grateful for her life, for the fact that her mother, also Miriam, is still with her, and she is grateful for her husband Steve and her eight children. Not to mention her work; because Miriam really loves her work. Loves Prime Time, loves the radio and Miriam Meets, loves the two-month annual run of her impending TV chat show.

It is, admittedly, by anyone's standards, a lot to be grateful for. And Miriam believes that you make your own luck. You take a positive view of life and you hope for the best.

Steve Carson, Miriam O'Callaghan at the IFTA Awards 2015 at The Mansion House
Steve Carson, Miriam O'Callaghan at the IFTA Awards 2015 at The Mansion House

For example, several years ago, Steve left his job as head of programmes in RTE, to take a job as head of productions with the BBC in his native Belfast. It was while they both worked for the BBC on Newsnight that Miriam and Steve first met, more than 20 years ago. She has always been adamant that she had no doubts about Steve leaving RTE and, to some extent, leaving Dublin, and Miriam remains thus. As she's said before, she always felt guilty that Steve left the BBC to be with her in Dublin, so this guilt is assuaged by his return to where he started.

"I miss him terribly when he's not around," Miriam says, "but I don't like to say that too much, because I don't want him to feel bad. And I love visiting him in Belfast and, anyway, he's home at weekends and every Wednesday, and Tuesdays and Thursdays I'm on Prime Time and not at home anyway."

While she doesn't resent Steve being away and is happy in the rhythm of the house when he's gone, Miriam has none of that thing of carping that Steve's under her feet or messing with the domestic routine when he returns in fits and starts.

"We love when he's home," she says, "but this works for now and we'll do it for however long. It's good. And I love Belfast; I love going back, and hearing about the BBC; because that's where I started too."

"I never say bad things," Miriam says. "I'm consistent that way. You know the way some people change their position and their philosophy? I don't. I think that saying bad things is a bad idea. I believe in saying the nice thing, and if something or someone annoys me, at work or at home, I wouldn't say it to them."

Does she then stew and store it up?

"Not as much as I used to when I was younger," Miriam answers with a laugh. "Maybe it lasts a minute, but then it's gone. What good would stewing do? It would only hurt me. So what's the point?"

Is that what Miriam teaches her children, too? I ask. If someone is mean to them, for example, does she counsel them to take a positive attitude, and does it work?

"I say this to my children if they tell me someone was mean or someone was picking a fight with them," Miriam says, "and I say it to grown adults as well, 'You don't know what happened to them this morning or what their life is at home, and you might think you don't care, but you have to care. Because usually, if someone is mean, it's because their life is unhappy in some way. And if you get really annoyed, go in to the loo and scream to yourself and come out and you'll feel much better'.

"I'm not sure that any children are mean. Or adults," she adds. "Most people mean well and most people want to live a good life, by which I mean a kind life. I don't think I've met anyone who sets out deliberately to be mean to anyone."

Miriam admits with a laugh that this softness in her and utter aversion to having a row - she has never allowed her children to fight with one another - can run counterproductive to the demands of her work. She wants to be friends, she wants to be liked, but that's not what her job demands, particularly not on Prime Time.

"I think girls of all ages worry about being liked," she says, referring to her own experience and the experience of raising four girls and then four boys. "I think boys spend less time worrying about what people think of them. I was never one of the cool gang at school, and then I left school at 16 and went to college and I was very young and very boring.

RTÉ ‘Prime Time’ presenter Miriam O’Callaghan. Photo: Damien Eagers
RTÉ ‘Prime Time’ presenter Miriam O’Callaghan. Photo: Damien Eagers

"I think you never stop worrying about those things," Miriam adds, "I think you remain that 16-year-old, even if the external parts of your life appear very confident. We remain the same person, I believe, no matter what. You change and you get, not more arrogant, but kind of believe in who you are as you get older. And it's a good place to be."

The desire to be liked never goes away, though, and as a journalist, Miriam finds that tricky. The on-screen, Prime Time Miriam has to put that desire away, but the diligent, do-it-right Miriam allows her to do that.

"It would be easier to be nice to the people I interview, because a lot of them are nice people," Miriam says, "but that's not my job. It's human nature that you want to sit down with these people and for them to like you, but they won't like you if you ask the tough questions. And they will never trust me, really.

"That's why I have no political friends," Miriam says with a laugh.

The air is often a bit icy, she admits, when the cameras go off at the end of an interview, but Miriam always meets the interviewee's eye, and always shakes their hand. Needless to mention, she doesn't believe in hard feelings, on her side or theirs.

This is a good time of the year for Miriam. Prime Time is winding down for the summer, and, much as she loves it, she enjoys the change of pace and tone of Saturday Night With Miriam. She can ask people about themselves rather than just about their work, and she can get more to heart of people, which she loves. She loves live television, Miriam admits with a big rush of enthusiasm. It isn't just the chance that things might go wrong, or the thinking on your feet, it's the camaraderie of doing something as a team and the spontaneous way people will talk when it's live. It's different, she says, and she loves it on the radio, too.

People fascinate Miriam and she loves to get to the bottom of what makes them tick, what makes them happy, how they have dealt with the difficulties life has presented to them.

Often, she says, she sits in front of people who have been very successful in life, who have excelled in the arts or business or in their own niche. And that brings a level of life satisfaction, she says, but it doesn't ward off personal trauma or tragedy, and it's how people come to terms with those that really interests her.

"I can tell if they're very unhappy within five minutes," Miriam says, "because you can spot in life who's happy and who's not. Because if they're happy, they have a happy attitude and it filters though every bit of their lives. You can see it in their eyes and their body language.

"It particularly upsets me when I see couples who are unhappy with each other," Miriam adds. "I think, 'It's your only life; don't be mean to each other. If you're not good to each other, then you're not good for each other.' I would never say it to them, not in a million years, but you can spot it."

The one question that Miriam asks every interviewee is whether they believe in an afterlife. She is a woman who has her own answers to the big questions about this life, but she's just not certain about the next.

"Every rational bone in my body says it doesn't exist, but I want to hope," says Miriam, "so I keep asking, just in case. I want the answer!"

Miriam laughs at herself, but there's a serious heartfelt desire for her rational side to be wrong on this one.

"I believe it's probably the case that this is it and it's over in a blink so enjoy it, love it, don't be unhappy! I become more and more certain that this is the truth," she says.

"I think! Apart from the one pc of me that thinks I will arrive in heaven and drink fine Champagne with my sister and my father. I'm just not sure; but hey, it will be a lovely surprise if it happens!"

If it happens, it will be a long way off, I suggest. Miriam O'Callaghan has a lot more living and loving to do yet.

"Yeah, they might be waiting a while," she agrees with a laugh. "But they will have eternal youth on their side."

No more than she does herself in this life, you might say.

'Saturday Night with Miriam' returns to RTE One on July 9, after 'RTE News: Nine O'Clock'

Photography by Kip Carroll

Styling by Liadan Hynes

Assisted by Faye Dempsey

Hair by Michael Doyle for Peter Mark, St Stephen's Green, D2, tel: (01) 478-0362, or see petermark.ie

Make-up by Eilish Downey, Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie

Miriam is photographed at Dublin Zoo, which recently opened Orangutan Forest. Inspired by the tropical rainforests of Borneo, it is now home to the zoo's Bornean orangutans. Dublin Zoo opens seven days a week; tickets can be booked in advance, see dublinzoo.ie

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