Thursday 20 June 2019

'My husband Steve always says there's three of us in this marriage' - Miriam O'Callaghan

Top; shoes, both River Island. Skirt, Bastyan, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Top; shoes, both River Island. Skirt, Bastyan, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Sarah Caden

The fundamental kindness and altruism of the Irish people saw the marriage-equality referendum pass, Miriam O'Callaghan reckons. She's a big believer in kindness - she explains its importance to all her kids. She doesn't like to lecture them, but she sets a good example of happiness in her marriage and career, though she isn't exactly their fitness role model.

'A couple of weeks ago," Miriam O'Callaghan says with a laugh, "I came down the stairs in all the gear and told one of my girls, 'I'm going running.' I'd say she thought I'd finally flipped. I think I ran once and haven't gone since.

"I don't worry about my health," she explains, "but I'm trying to get back to doing a bit of exercise. Because I'm a giant at 5ft 10in, I can get away with a lot. I have long, slim arms and long, slim legs. But our family weakness is our tummy. So, just this morning, I started doing weights at home. The boys have weights I can't lift with two hands, but I did my thigh, my arm and my tummy exercises today."

Miriam's husband, Steve Carson, has become very fit and slim of late, she explains. He has been working for the BBC in Belfast since 2013, and living part-time in his native city. As he's living alone, Miriam says, the options after work are either to go for a few pints or go to the gym, so he has opted for the latter. "So I'm going to have to get super-fit, too," Miriam says with a laugh, while conceding that she's not much of a one for exercise.

Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Dress; shoes, both River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Miriam O'Callaghan wears: Dress; shoes, both River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.

"Everything in moderation, my Kerry father always said," says Miriam. "I like a drink. I certainly like a glass of red wine when I come off air. I go home after being on air and my 13 year old waits up for me to give him toast and milk, and then he'll go to sleep, and I have a glass of wine and I go to sleep, too."

Like most other things, Miriam is approaching exercise with a breeziness that most working mothers would envy. She's doing it, but she's not worrying about doing it. Worrying, she always says, is a waste of time that could be spent on enjoying your life.

"If I was hit by a bus tomorrow," says Miriam cheerily, as if she wasn't talking about her own death, "all I'd wish for my children is that they end up loved and happy. I don't think that's an anti-feminist wish. I have loved having a big career, but the most important thing is that I have love in my life.

"Sheryl Sandberg said it [when her husband died last month] and I have said it from the year dot; who you choose to have by your side is incredibly important for a woman. Especially if you want a career. And if you choose the right person, who loves you and supports you, that's 99pc of the battle. Then you go in to work happy."

Miriam always goes in to work happy. In fact, Miriam conducts her whole life with an air of happiness. As she always says, she is a woman who feels very lucky in life. And she believes in appreciating that luck instead of questioning it, instead of second-guessing it, instead of worrying that at some stage it will end.

Miriam is aware that her contentment with her career and her personal life could sound smug, but that's not what it is. She's known true sadness through the death of her sister Anne from cancer, and, a year later, the sudden death of their father. And Miriam has known the grief of divorce and separation, too, through the end of her first marriage, to fellow journalist and broadcaster, Tom McGurk. So, when she talks about having happiness and valuing it, Miriam knows what she's talking about.

Dress, Cassandra Stone, Cari's Closet. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Dress, Cassandra Stone, Cari's Closet. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.

"Bad times keep you on the straight and narrow," she says. "They make you appreciative, and it's through having the bad times that you know the good times. They also help you to not sweat the small stuff."

This summer, Miriam's as busy as I've ever met her, and I've met her ahead of her summer chat show every year for almost a decade. The first time we met to talk for LIFE magazine, her 'baby', Jamie, was an actual baby. He's nine now, while her other three sons with Steve Carson are teens and almost-teens. And now, her four daughters with Tom McGurk are grown women in their 20s. She's at a very different stage of life than she was when I first met her, and yet, some things are constant with Miriam.

Love and luck are what life's all about as far as she's always been concerned. And being busy. Busy is not so much what Miriam is, as it is who she is. A working woman with eight children, even when some are grown up and gone from the nest, can't be anything but busy.

"My strong belief is that it's incredibly important to remain very, very, very busy," she says. "In my life, I don't have the time to look over my shoulder, or worry about what might happen in the future, because I'm too busy steaming ahead."

While the chat show is a month away when Miriam and I meet, we are only one week off the marriage-equality referendum and she is focused on how to manage the final Prime Time referendum debate.

"The later debates have a huge impact on voters," she says, and then tells me that her feeling is that the outcome of the vote will be a No. "I always believe in the supreme kindness of Irish people," she explains, "and the wisdom of the electorate, but a doubt was planted in people's minds about adoption and surrogacy and when there is a doubt, people tend to leave it out."

Dress; shoes, both River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Dress; shoes, both River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.

When I speak to Miriam later, the Monday after the Saturday referendum result, which she presented for RTE from Dublin Castle, she's delighted with the Yes vote. And, she tells me, her prediction had changed after we first met, to the point that, at 7am on the morning of the referendum, she correctly guessed a 62:38 outcome in the RTE office sweep.

"When I spoke to you first," Miriam says on the Monday, "there was so much concern out there about family and children, that I believed it would be very close, or lost. And then I did that final debate on the Tuesday, which I put incredible work into, and the next day, around the street, I felt people were still a bit worried, but thought they'd go Yes out of kindness and decency."

"Usually, when people go out to vote, they do it selfishly, for something they want themselves. But this was voting altruistically for something that won't make any difference to most people, who aren't gay. They were being generous, and that's what won the day."

Miriam's own daughters, who are all eligible to vote, were highly engaged by the referendum campaign. They emailed and tweeted her constantly with things she should read or address in her work. "They constantly tried to bend my ear, but I didn't listen to them," she exclaims with a laugh, adhering to the professional impartiality that has been instilled in her through decades of work in current affairs, first in the BBC and then RTE.

"The nice thing is that they're politically aware," Miriam says of her four girls. "When they're 16 and 17, you wonder if they are ever going to be interested in anything in the outside world, but then, suddenly, they are."

And do they bamboozle their mother with the tweets and retweets and technological savvy? "No!" laughs Miriam. "I'm almost beyond them. I'm a technological wizard. I'm always online. Steve says there are three people in this marriage: him, me and my iPhone."

Dress, Bastyan, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Dress, Bastyan, Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Miriam's iPhone is a significant third wheel in her marriage since, in 2013, Steve took the job of head of productions with the BBC in his native Belfast. Up to then, he had worked as head of programmes in RTE television, though Miriam says that they barely saw each other at work, so she doesn't really miss him around the place.

Nor, she says, does she really miss him at home. Steve comes home at weekends, or she and some of the children travel up to Belfast to him, and he also comes home every Wednesday. Furthermore, she's so busy with Prime Time and her radio show, Sunday With Miriam, that she doesn't have time to dwell on his absence.

"We are a genuine all-island couple," Miriam says with a laugh. "Steve's from a northern Presbyterian background. I'm from a southern Catholic background. We have kids; they have a bit of both. He works there, I work here. We're what the peace process is all about."

"We don't know how long this will go on," she says of Steve working in Belfast, "but it's going really well now, and he's really happy. He loves being back in Belfast and he has loved being there for his dad, who's in his 80s. He can bring him to the hospital and things, which he couldn't have done when he was here. And the children all have a greater sense of Belfast now, which is terrific. The boys are up there all the time and one of the girls is going up there this weekend with her boyfriend. I think it has broadened their experience to have him in Belfast."

Her closeness to all eight of her children is something Miriam cherishes and does not take for granted. This summer, in one of her few weeks off, she and Steve will take the family to Dingle, where they go every summer. Last year, they went to Portugal, too, but this year she's sticking with Ireland. Nine-year-old Jamie loves the kids' club in the Dingle Skellig Hotel, so that's where they go and, often, all eight kids will come along.

All of them? I ask with some amazement, not just at the logistics, but at the fact that they all want to holiday with their folks. "Yeah," Miriam laughs, "I make them triple up in rooms and bunk in together, but they're used to living in a crowd." It means a lot to Miriam that they all want to spend time together, but she acknowledges that everyone in the family has made an effort to make that happen.

"With my girls, credit is due for the fact that they are such well-rounded people to their great father and great stepmother [Tom McGurk and his PR supremo wife, Caroline Kennedy]. One of my girls graduated recently," Miriam says, "and we all went out to dinner together as an extended family and everyone had a lovely time, and it was great and it made everyone happy. And I sat there and thought, 'This is how it should be. Life's way too short for it not to be'."

This reconnectedness obviously matters to Miriam, and, I mention, it will come to matter more when grandchildren come along, though she's in no rush towards that stage of life.

"I don't feel that anyone in my family is in any hurry to have children," she says, "and that's just fine with me."

"I try not to advise," she says, when I ask if she counsels her girls on when is the best time to have babies, having had them herself in her 20s all the way up to her 40s. "I probably advise more than I should, but I don't like people giving advice. I think it's a bad idea.

"What you want for your daughters is that they will have confidence in themselves," Miriam adds. "I think boys naturally have more confidence. They doubt themselves less. I'm conscious that the suicide rates are worse for boys, but I watch mine, and they fret less than the girls, and don't over-analyse. You want to raise your girls to be kind, but to be confident and able for themselves too.

"But I tell all my children, boys and girls, the same thing," Miriam says. "My 13 year old was going to this Cuala GAA disco - although they don't even call it a disco now, it's a social - and I told him, 'The important thing is that you show respect to whoever you dance with'. And I told him, 'You know, the most important thing is that you end up with someone who loves you and you love them'. And he listened to me, and you can't say that too early to a child."

Top; shoes, both River Island. Skirt, Bastyan, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Top; shoes, both River Island. Skirt, Bastyan, Brown Thomas. Photo: Kip Carroll.

"I can almost tell, when I meet someone, if they're happy in their relationship," Miriam adds. "Because if you speak to someone, over an hour or so, it unravels how happy they are in their own life. And if you're fundamentally happy in your primary relationship, then everything else is OK. If you have real love in your life, then everything else is OK."

And everything is OK with Miriam. She has love, she has luck and she is busy. And she's not sweating the small stuff.

'Saturday with Miriam' returns after the 'Nine O'Clock News' on RTE One from June 20

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