Style Celebrity Features

Thursday 17 October 2019

Young at heart: Irish celebrities share their precious childhood photographs

Louis Walsh with a picture of his younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey.
Louis Walsh with a picture of his younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey.
Leo Vradkar holding a picture of his younger. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Miriam O'Callaghan holding a picture of her younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Mark Cagney holding a picture of his younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Alan Shatter with a picture of his younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
A portrait of the artist: Morah Ryan with a picture of her younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Singer Niamh Farrell holding a portrait of of her younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Leo Varadkar holding a photo of his younger self. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Andrea Smith

Childhood is a precious time, but young people can sometimes lack the confidence to follow their dreams in life.

The Irish Youth Foundation ( passionately believes that each young person deserves the opportunity to achieve success, irrespective of their background, and it makes every effort to provide it. Projects and programmes to foster skills and encourage young people require funding, of course, which has inspired an Independent News and Media charity album, Forever Young.

The brainchild of Sunday Independent journalist Barry Egan, producer of's live music Windmill Lane Sessions, and Niall McLoughlin, CEO of IYF, it contains 20 tracks from the popular weekly sessions, featuring artists including Kodaline, Sharon Corr, Aslan, HamsandwicH, The Walls, Damien Dempsey and Declan O'Rourke. All of the profits from sales of the album go to the IYF.

The album's title track is sung by the legendary Paul Brady with Gavin Glass and the Dublin Gospel Choir, and a large group of well-known personalities came together recently to film the song's video, which features them with childhood photos of themselves. We chose six of the personalities who took part and asked them to take us back to their childhood, and explain who or what gave them the drive and confidence to succeed in their own lives.

'The Forever Young / Windmill Lane Sessions' CD is available to buy in all Starbucks and Centra stores for €10 and is also available to download on and iTunes

Niamh Farrell

Singer Niamh Farrell holding a portrait of of her younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Niamh (31), is the lead singer of the band Hamsandwich. She lives in Dublin with her son Oscar (7), and partner Darren Clarke.

"I'm about seven in the picture, which was taken on holidays in Mosney. I was an only child until I was 11, and while I wasn't lonely, I remember enjoying my own company. My parents separated when I was seven, and my mam remarried and my brother Peter was born. My dad remarried as well, and I have a sister Aimee and brother Adam now too. I had a lot of lovely people around me between my family and extended family, and I have to thank my mam and dad for that.

"When I was 12, we moved to Scotland, and I was there until I was 20. It was very difficult at the beginning, as being a new kid from a different country in a new school is scary. Luckily, I already had a lovely friend Angela in the same class, and that made a huge difference in helping me to settle in. I really enjoyed school, but I was reserved and shy. I had glasses and braces and had my head in the books, and I wasn't really a confident person until I was about 18.

"If I was to talk to my younger self, I would say: 'Believe in yourself a bit more and be more confident.' I put myself down an awful lot when I was a kid. I loved to sing, and there was a church choir In Rialto that I joined at eight. I didn't let people know that I could sing, but there were regular parties at my grandmother's house where my uncles played fiddle and banjo. One day I sang a Mary Black song, and that's when my family realised I had a good voice.

"When it came to encouragement, my band's old manager Derek Nally, who passed away in 2010, saw something in us. HamsandwicH definitely wouldn't have had as many wonderful opportunities without him kickstarting it. My advice to young people is that if you really want a career in music, don't give up, even though it's really hard and you'll get a lot of people advising you to go to college or get a proper job.

"It's important to believe in yourself and go for it with all guns blazing, even though you'll come across hurdles that threaten to set you back. Don't try to be somebody else for the sake of impressing people either. Not everyone will like you or your music, but it doesn't matter as long as you're happy and you're making yourself and the people who matter proud."

Mark Cagney

Mark Cagney holding a picture of his younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Mark (58), is a presenter on TV3's Ireland AM. From Cork, he is married to Audrey Byrne, and they live in Dublin with their four children.

"I was nine in that photo but I have no memory of the boy in the picture, what he was thinking or what his dreams were. I think he was OK though and he was happy enough. I was probably considered bright and chatty and I seemed to get on with people. My mother used to say I was a lovely child until I got to 11 and then something happened. I call it puberty!

"Mary Cagney, my aunt Mimi, was my first mentor, and she got me at a time where I could have gone either way and thankfully pointed me in the right direction. She made me believe in myself and taught me that if I found something I was passionate about, I would never work a day in my life. She and my father had this mantra, which was, 'Don't worry about being popular, worry about being good, because if you're good, you will always work.' They were right.

"When I first got into RTÉ at the age of 20, producer Bill O'Donovan was hugely influential to me. He was a wise man and made a lot of sense. Having a realistic assessment of your knowledge and capability is vital for success, and you should always have a pretty good idea of how little you know. If you're out of your depth, never be afraid to ask for help from someone who is better equipped to help you understand. To this day, if I'm stuck, I have no problem with asking people for help. My grandfather used to say that education is no burden, and you should never stop learning because knowledge is like oxygen for the brain.

"In my children's case, both their mother and I have pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and have a strong work ethic, so they know nothing is handed to you on a plate. Having come from a generation that was quite controlled and had to fit into particular boxes, Audrey and I would be less rigid. A lot of people don't know what they want to do until later in life, and sometimes you have to go out and try what you think you want, and if it doesn't work for you, try something else.

"On a basic level, we started the kids off with the idea of doing the work and playing afterwards, and as they're getting older, we tell them to try to find something they love, put the work into that and the chances are, it will pay off. Life isn't always fair and you might not get the rewards you deserve, of course, but there is certainly more of a chance of it if you work hard."

Miriam O'Callaghan

Miriam O'Callaghan holding a picture of her younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Miriam (55), is an RTÉ radio and TV presenter. She has eight children and is married to BBC TV executive, Steve Carson.

"I was very quiet and shy as a child and really good, but I was phenomenally dull and boring, although I'm not much more interesting now. I was studious and hard-working, and my parents believed that a good education would give you the freedom to be whatever you wanted, so I have them to thank for any success I have now.

"I was 12 in that picture, which is my Confirmation photo, and my teeth were a bit sad because I crashed into a gate on my bike and the handlebar went into my mouth. I was probably very insecure as I came between my eldest sister, Margaret, who was absolutely brilliant and got a Cambridge scholarship, and my late sister Anne, who was exceptionally beautiful.

"The nuns were very good to me at school, but they didn't spend all day saying, 'Remember you're gorgeous,' and I'm not sure that was any harm. There's such an emphasis and competitiveness around looks these days, but we never focused on it back then and certainly as a female, it's a tyranny to worry about it. Great if God gave you good features, but you did nothing to earn them, so mind them but don't focus on them.

"I think to achieve success you should work hard, appreciate your education and all your parents do for you, and take a few chances in life. Be willing to say yes to things, because the worst that can happen is you might fail, and so what? Remember as a young person that you are unique, and everyone else has doubts too. In my case, my confidence in myself developed as I got older.

"The BBC interviewed me as a young lawyer and told me I should think about television, so I went in as a researcher and watched other amazing presenters. I kept refusing to go on air but when I did, I never looked back.

"If you don't feel confident, go in front of the bathroom mirror and act out being confident. I used to do that when I was younger because it works. Don't be arrogant or overconfident, because you're not better than anyone else but you have the same chances, so if you want to do something and you work hard, you'll get there. It's also important to be decent to people along the way too - working hard and being kind is the winning formula.

"All I hope for my own children is that they have good health and happy lives. I'm going to encourage them with the best education I can give them and then, ultimately, it's about their own choices."

Louis Walsh

Louis Walsh with a picture of his younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey.

A music manager and former X Factor judge from Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, Louis (63), has created and produced hugely successful acts like Boyzone, Westlife and Hometown.

"I'm the second oldest of nine children and was quite shy and not very confident growing up. I had no interest in football or school, but music was always what I loved and it was my escape in life - it's like a drug to me. We were just ordinary people and didn't have a lot of money, but it never mattered because we had great fun.

"I was brought up pretty strictly by my parents, Maureen and the late Frank, and was sent to boarding school, which I hated as the food was horrendous and you had to go to mass early in the morning, and then learn Greek and Latin. I was a hustler and as much as I didn't like school, it got me ready for the big, bad world and made me independent enough to be able to come to Dublin and learn the music game.

"My parents always told me that if I worked hard, I could have anything I wanted in the whole world. I think my mother wanted me to be a priest, but I wouldn't have liked the hours and no one would have to tell me their sins because I know what they're all up to anyway!

"We had a brilliant teacher, Joe Roughneen, in national school, who was tough but taught us so much about life and made a big impression on me. It's so important for kids to have good teachers, because those years stay with you for life.

"I hate this new thing where everyone just wants to be famous like the Kardashians. You have to have a talent, be willing to learn, focus, work hard, be nice, believe in yourself and start at the bottom. You should also surround yourself with people who believe in and encourage you. Paul McGuinness was the one who made U2 who they are because he believed in them.

"I'm more confident now, but am definitely not as confident as people think I am. For the first two years on X Factor, I had to walk out with Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne, who were big, amazing personalities, and it took me a long time to gain confidence on the show.

"I'm a loose cannon, and I say things I shouldn't say, but it's too late to stop now. I was always cheeky and good fun, and I'm so happy to be healthy, working in this business and still getting away with it."

Morah Ryan

A portrait of the artist: Morah Ryan with a picture of her younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Artist Morah Ryan (56), is mum to Lottie, Rex, Bonnie, Elliott and Babette. She was married to the late RTÉ DJ Gerry Ryan.

"I was never confident, and used to go to bed at night and pray to God to stop making me ugly. My older sister was stunningly beautiful with her cat eyes and tiny little nose, but I had a big round face and all these freckles. I used to go into the bathroom with a scrubbing brush to try to scrub them off. I keep a picture of myself as a child on my desk now, and I just wish I'd been kinder to her back then.

"I got off to a rocky start at school because they didn't understand dyslexia back then, so you would be beaten if you put 10 instead of 01. I changed schools to Manor House and had some really amazing teachers.

"When I was nine, the life-altering realisation that I could draw occurred when I won first place on a project on the sea, and realised that being close to nature and animals made me happy. I was inspired by wonderful art teachers at school and also at NCAD, where I studied graphics and illustration.

"I wouldn't exactly say I'm very confident now but I'm a lot better, although I try to keep my inner shy child alive. I've made sure my children are really happy with who they are and what they're doing, and probably went overboard with that as they've all chosen careers in the arts, so I don't think any of them will be able to support me in my old age, unfortunately! Doing something you love is so important though, and it's great to see them so happy.

"Gerard's personality filled a room, so it allowed me not to really have to push myself. I used to be so shy going to parties, and when we started going out, I would say, 'Please don't leave me,' and he would say, 'Of course I won't'. Then he'd be gone the minute we got there, so I would go into the bathroom and hide for hours, because I was so frightened and nervous. I'm still not great at walking into parties and sometimes I have to force myself to go to things and meet people, but then when I do it, I'm delighted. At home, we had complete role reversals, as Gerard would just sit there and be quiet, whereas I'd be more talkative and outgoing.

"My advice to young people today is to be kind to themselves, as we all beat ourselves up too much. That inner voice and negative thoughts need to be quietened down in our heads so we can see the good things. The older you get, the simpler your life becomes and the happier it gets, so you have to realise that this is what life is all about."

Leo Varadkar

Leo Vradkar holding a picture of his younger. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Leo (36), is a Fine Gael TD from Dublin, and has been Minister for Health since July 2014.

"I must have been about 11 in that photo, and am sitting on a gate at my grandfather's farm in Co Waterford. I spent a lot of my summers staying there with my cousins, helping on the farm and going out in the combine harvester, which was pretty cool. I was aware of being half-Indian growing up, and things were very different then. West Dublin is a very diverse place now, but back in the 1980s, there wasn't that kind of diversity. I think the fact that my dad was the local GP meant that my family was well-known there, and I can't say I ever experienced much, if any, racism.

"I liked reading and history and was a very serious child - probably a bit of a swot. I would have been quiet, shy and reserved, and I don't think I was that confident socially. I think that boy knew he was going to be a doctor or politician, and if I could have told him anything, it would have been not to miss out on all the other wonderful things in life, like friendships, relationships, sport and music. I found many of those things later than most.

"I'm still reserved, but I'm not a bit shy any more. Politics and college life might have brought me out of my shell. I loved Trinity, because I got to experience the freedom of student life. My best friends are still the ones I have from college. I'm not sure I would have done medicine if it hadn't been so strong in my family, but I did particularly like the clinical years when we were dealing with patients, as opposed to laboratories and lectures.

"I got into politics because I would never have been happy just complaining about things that were wrong, and am driven instinctively to do something to change things and make them better. I didn't appreciate it as a kid, but my parents really worked very hard and made a lot of sacrifices to ensure that all three of us got a great start in life and had lots of opportunities, particularly when it came to education.

"Young people these days are much more open about sexuality and confident in themselves. They are brought up and schooled that way. The only advice I'd give is to accept who you are, know that any family and friends worth having will accept you and don't leave it for too long."

Alan Shatter

Alan Shatter with a picture of his younger self. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Alan Shatter (64), is a Fine Gael TD, and former Minister for Justice and Equality and Minister for Defence. He's married to Carol and they have a daughter Kelly and son Dylan.

"My mum Elaine died when I was 14, and my late father Reuben had a very questioning mind and used to encourage me to read all sorts of interesting books. We had great debates at home about all sorts of issues of the day, and he taught me to ask why and not take things for granted. He also advised me never to give in to bullies and to stand up for myself, and I took this advice when I was being bullied at the age of 15. It was verbal taunting that went on for about a month, and one day I had enough so I went up to the bully and just clobbered him. That ended the problem, and it's the only occasion in my life that I remember doing something like that, but it's not nice to be put in that position.

"I learned to cook when Mum died because my dad was very short-sighted so he was dangerous around stoves. I was sports-mad growing up and played a lot of soccer and cricket. I loved Gaelic football too but it just wasn't possible to play both in those days. I was quite shy in some areas, was quite confident in others, particularly in sport as I trained all the time because I loved it. I'm an only child and went to an all-boys' school, so I was a little shy and hesitant with girls until I got to know them, but I think there's a time in social relations where everyone's a little shy, and I certainly wasn't in any way brazen in that context.

"I think some of the pressures young people are under today are quite similar to the ones we had, but the whole social media area is bringing some very new pressures and difficulties. Many children don't have the opportunity to read as much as we did because they're consumed with online games. I worry about cyber-bullying, and there's still a lot that needs to be done for people from minority backgrounds to stop discrimination. We don't want people bullied because of difference, and that's something all schools need to address.

"My son emigrated to Australia five years ago and is now married, so a lot of our communication is through Skype. My daughter lives in Dublin so we see each other once or twice a week. I gave my kids similar advice to the advice I got from my dad, and I also tell them to question everything and not to believe everything they read online or in papers."

Watch the 'Forever Young' video - featuring everyone from Panti to Rob Kearney, Leo Varadkar, Jim Sheridan and Damien Dempsey to Mary Black, Morah Ryan, Pádraig Harrington, Miriam O'Callaghan, and many, many more - on

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