Monday 17 June 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'It's a great time to be a woman in Ireland'


Miriam O'Callaghan: 'You should be grateful to be here. That's how I life my life'. Photo: Kip Carroll
Miriam O'Callaghan: 'You should be grateful to be here. That's how I life my life'. Photo: Kip Carroll
Miriam O'Callaghan: 'I'm so unfit. But that's why it's a blessing being tall'
Miriam O’Callaghan and Tom McGurk emerge from the wedding service held in Kenmare
Mother of the bride Miriam O’Callaghan with the bridesmaids at Alannah's wedding. Photo: Tony Gavin
Miriam O'Callaghan arriving on the red carpet for the IFTA Awards 2017 at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photo: Michael Chester
Steve Carson, Miriam O'Callaghan at the IFTA Awards 2015 at The Mansion House
RTE presenter Miriam O'Callaghan.

Sarah Caden

"Life flies by," says Miriam O'Callaghan, as we try to work out if it was 10 or 11 years ago that I first interviewed her for her summer TV chat show.

On the basis of these years of encounters, almost always in a coffee shop near RTE, I had almost gone ahead and ordered her a skinny latte. That's what she always has. But no. "I've changed!" she exclaims with a laugh. "It's a flat white now."

The flat white is the coffee order du jour that places Miriam firmly in the now. She has the air and flair of a millennial, with her oversized, rose-gold hoop earrings, her frilled, almost off-the-shoulder top, her fun iPhone cover. It's hard to believe that, last month, she took on the role of mother of the bride, as her eldest daughter, Alannah McGurk, got married.

Clearly, mothers of the bride aren't what they used to be. Or, maybe, Miriam O'Callaghan is the serious exception. The passing of time doesn't diminish her - in fact, she seems to thrive on it - but, what even Miriam will concede, is that it goes by very fast.

Mother of the bride Miriam O’Callaghan with the bridesmaids at Alannah's wedding. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mother of the bride Miriam O’Callaghan with the bridesmaids at Alannah's wedding. Photo: Tony Gavin

"I always said that I won't talk about Alannah's wedding, because it's hers," Miriam says, "but I will say that I sat there and thought, 'When did my baby grow up and get married?'

"I sat there and remembered so clearly when I was pregnant with her and I was working for Thames Television on This Is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews, and I was running around everywhere and suddenly I went in for a check-up. I was due in about five weeks and my brilliant professor wouldn't let me leave because my blood pressure was so high. I had pre-eclampsia," Miriam explains. "It happens in a lot of first pregnancies and it's very dangerous."

Miriam explained to the obstetrician that she couldn't stay, she had too much work to do, but he insisted and told her that if she wanted this baby to be OK, she had to stop and stay put.

"I can remember sitting there in a bed on the ward," Miriam recalls, "with Alannah in my tummy, and saying, 'I hope you're going to be OK, love, because someday I want to go to your wedding'. Not that you have to get married - it's just symbolic. I suppose it was about wanting her to be happy. And she is. She's the sweetest girl in the world and she met the nicest guy, and they are so happy."

The wedding was a joy, Miriam says. She danced all night, her eight children marvelling at how she never stopped, but not at all embarrassed by the mom-dancing and, further, her mother, also Miriam, was up there with her.

Time heals The passing of time doesn't bother Miriam O'Callaghan. It never has. She is, resolutely, grateful for time. Time passing is a gift, she determinedly believes and consistently conveys.

Miriam O'Callaghan: 'I'm so unfit. But that's why it's a blessing being tall'
Miriam O'Callaghan: 'I'm so unfit. But that's why it's a blessing being tall'

Her sister Anne died in her early 30s of cancer and, a year later, Miriam's father died suddenly, as he went out to organise the printing of Anne's memorial card. Life can be stolen; time can be snatched from you; Miriam is acutely aware of this. So she doesn't feel old at finding herself suddenly the mother of the bride. She doesn't anticipate grandmother-hood with terror. She embraces and celebrates and glows with gladness to be here.

The passing of time, perhaps, also had the effect of bestowing harmony on the blended-family aspect of the recent wedding. Naturally, Alannah's father and Miriam's first husband, journalist Tom McGurk, was there with his wife, Caroline Kennedy, and the ease with which everyone got along was a further joy. Everyone was just so happy and, Miriam adds, happy to see each other happy. Time flies; time heals, time teaches us to enjoy and appreciate life.

Her eldest is now a married woman, but all of Miriam's eight children are getting very grown-up. All of her girls are working, her eldest son of four with second husband, Steve Carson, is in college, and this month she had one boy doing the Leaving and another the Junior Cert. Even her 'baby', Jamie, is going into his final year in primary school after the summer.

Miriam laughs heartily when she says that, eight children later, she has no pangs over babies, toddlers or small kids.

"The other day," she says, "Steve and I were just sitting down, the sunshine streaming in, reading the papers. And it was quiet. I thought, 'Thank god we're no longer running after toddlers'. I loved it at the time, but I don't miss it."

From her first marriage, Miriam has her four daughters, and then, with Steve, her four sons. After Jamie, though, she was finished, and she never looked back.

RTE presenter Miriam O'Callaghan.
RTE presenter Miriam O'Callaghan.

"I did my bit," Miriam says with a laugh. "By the end, my consultant said they could write an obstetrics book about me because I'd had it all - pre-eclampsia, placenta previa, twins, forceps, suction. You name it, I've had it."

I suggest that if she ever gets bored of broadcasting, Miriam could run a cover-all-bases childbirth class. She says she steers clear of offering childbirth advice to anyone.

"People often ask me, though," she admits, "because I've done it so many times. And they wait for my answer as if I will have great wisdom to impart. But I only have one thing to say: 'Have an epidural'. Whoever invented the epidural should get a medal. I never wanted a natural childbirth, never. I had one [an epidural] every single time. Even at the age of 26 [with Alannah]. As I always say, it's like a man planning to have his leg amputated without anaesthetic. He wouldn't do it."

Judgment of other women "I know there are women who are amazing at giving birth without anything," she adds, "and I know there is a whole school of thought that it's the right thing, but I'm hopeless at giving birth."

Miriam advises women, who ask her, to have an epidural, but she fundamentally believes in each to their own. This is because she is a generous and non-judgmental type of person, though she notes that, in general, women's judgment of each other can be pretty harsh.

As someone who spent nearly 20 years having babies, does Miriam think women are harder on each other now when it comes to how to give birth and being a mother?

Miriam O'Callaghan arriving on the red carpet for the IFTA Awards 2017 at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photo: Michael Chester
Miriam O'Callaghan arriving on the red carpet for the IFTA Awards 2017 at the Mansion House, Dublin. Photo: Michael Chester

"I think even when I had Alannah, there was a lot of judgment," Miriam says. "There was a lot of a pressure to have the baby naturally, but I knew from a young age that I don't like pain.

"But it's a very important issue; the judgment," she continues. "There's a lot of pressure on women these days - you must have a natural birth, you must breastfeed, you must lose the weight. It's enormous, and women must try to block it out."

In practice, though, I say to Miriam, we tend to be bad at blocking it out. This could be in part, to do with how vulnerable women are when pregnant and new mothers. We tend to be negatively selective in what we choose to believe and focus on, I suggest.

"That's a good point," Miriam says, "but you know every time you read an article about being a mother, you know you are going to read another one, a week later, saying the absolute opposite." She cites, in particular, the abundance of contradictory reports on the positive and/or negative effects that working mothers have on their children. And, she adds, according to how you are choosing to live your life, you have to make a decision about what to choose to believe.

Miriam has always worked, through the young lives of all eight of her children, and she has no regrets on that score. Her own mother worked as a school teacher when she was a child and she and her siblings suffered no ill effects.

"I did something that lots of people think is wrong when my children were small," Miriam confides. "I very much believed in 'out of sight, out of mind'. So I would never go up and say to my toddler, 'Mum's off now, see you later'. Because they would weep uncontrollably if you did that. Even when they were at the Montessori stage, I would get them distracted and then just go. The times that you felt guilty were the times they caught you leaving for work and started crying. But overall, it was fine, and they all turned out fine."

Guilt and regret Miriam puts in the same "useless" box as lamenting the passing of time. She loves her family, but she also loves her work, and she's as busy with one as she is with the other. At the beginning of next month, her Saturday-night TV chat show kicks off again, and Prime Time and her weekend radio show start to phase out for the summer. She's slightly less busy, but busy nonetheless. Miriam wouldn't have it any other way.

For the last four years, her husband Steve Carson has been Head of Productions at BBC NI in his native Belfast, and he recently took radio under his wing, too. The job means that Steve is in Belfast three nights a week, and it's an arrangement that continues to work well for the family, and he's happy there.

"As my sister said recently," Miriam says, "'Why wouldn't he like it?' He has a lovely place, he doesn't have to get kids up for school, he's a great cyclist and gets to enjoy that up there. But the nicest thing is that his father hasn't been well, and Steve has been there to bring him to hospital appointments and he wouldn't have been able if he was in Dublin. Really, the arrangement works great, and he's the fittest man in Ireland as result."

Miriam, by her own admission, has never been mad for exercising, but has Steve's fitness drive either rubbed off on her or made her feel she needs to keep up? Miriam laughs heartily at this and tells me that it is a long-running family joke that she would drive to the Spar at the end of the road where they live.

"I'm so unfit," Miriam says, cheerfully. "But that's why it's a blessing being tall. I look like I'm quite fit, while I'm super unfit. I have gone back to the gym, though. I joined the local gym a few months before the wedding, just to tone the arms and stuff.

"It's been good," she says, with the air of someone who has been there and done that, thanks.

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

"I ask Steve if he thinks I should start getting fit and he says, 'No, love, you're perfect just the way you are'. Which is nice."

Lamenting the lines As some who has always talked about how it's different for women on TV, does Miriam fret at all about age and its effect on her appearance, I ask. She has always talked about how it's different for women in TV and how women on screen don't just get comments on their performance, but also how they look. Remember the fuss many years ago when she wore a leather jacket on Prime Time? She has said that people mentioned that to her for months afterwards, and often she will get tweets after a show that talk only about what she was wearing and ask where she got it. In that vein, does she feel that her looks are under scrutiny? Does she worry, indeed, about ageing?

"Someone in the office turned 40 recently," Miriam says, "and they were lamenting it, but I said, 'You should be grateful to be here. There are people who pass long before 40, there are kids up in LauraLynn [Children's Hospice] who don't get past their first birthday. They'd give anything for more years'. That's how I live my life. I never look at the negative. I flip it to the positive."

Miriam says she feels the same when she hears anyone lamenting the lines on their face or the way their looks are changing with time. There simply is no point, she says, emphatically.

Affection for her younger self "I suppose I've been lucky," she says, "because looks were irrelevant to my work when I first started in television. I was behind the camera for years and didn't go in front of the camera until I was much older and wiser. In my 20s, I was walking the streets of south Armagh as a reporter for Newsnight and it didn't matter what I looked like. My work as a journalist was what made my career and got me established, and so it's never been a problem with me. Also, I've never regarded myself as a looker.

"I suppose I'm also lucky to have my mother's genes," she adds, "and they've survived pretty well, so all and all, I find age is OK. Being 5ft 10in is a massive bonus, too, because it gives you ridiculously long arms and legs, which cover a multitude. You can look thinnish, because you look a bit like a giraffe."

Over years of meeting Miriam, I think I can safely say that her appearance has sort of become younger in spirit over that time. There is no suggestion whatsoever of her dressing too youthfully, but she has fun with what she wears, there is an admirable self-confidence in the bright-blonde colour of her long hair and she seems to have an increasing rather than decreasing spring in her step. She concedes when I suggest it that she was something of a later bloomer who is still blooming.

"I think that could be true," she says. "I see episodes of Reeling In The Years and see myself, and I think, 'Really, seriously?' I've got these serious clothes and brown-haired bobs and I think, 'Oh my god, Miriam'.

"But I feel affectionate towards her," Miriam says of her younger self. "I look tired, I think, 'God, you had four children under six at that stage or a baby, or two toddlers or even three. But I like her. She was very of her time, as they say, so I don't judge her.

"I think basically I'm a person who doesn't feel overconfident, but I'm confident in myself. Does that make sense?"

We talk about passing confidence onto children and making sure that you warn them about life but don't fill them with fear. For her boys, Miriam's only worry is the manner in which young men can put themselves in the way of danger, and that's what she warns her sons against. With the girls, she gives them the epidural advice, one assumes, but also lets them know that it's not a bad world in which to be a woman.

"In my lifetime," Miriam says, "women used to be written off when they turned 40. You cut all your hair off. You wouldn't have dreamt of wanting to try to look attractive. My granny had a black shawl like Peig, and she was probably only 60 at the time. That's not that long ago, but we've come a long way since.

"There are a lot of things wrong in the world, but by and large, in Ireland, it's a great time to be a woman."

'Saturday Night With Miriam' returns on July 1, after the nine o'clock news, on RTE One

Photography by Kip Carroll

Styling by Liadan Hynes

Sunday Independent

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