Thursday 18 July 2019

'I won't have a pension' - Des Cahill on the nest egg that became a 'millstone'

RTE's Des Cahill talks to Niamh Horan about his family's secret, the fickleness of television and wearing his heart on his sleeve

LUCKY STREAK: RTE Sports presenter Des Cahill and his wife Caroline Curran with their dogs Lauren and Harvey. Photo: Tony Gavin
LUCKY STREAK: RTE Sports presenter Des Cahill and his wife Caroline Curran with their dogs Lauren and Harvey. Photo: Tony Gavin
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

We constantly hear about the virtue of gratitude - they say realising how lucky you are can lead to a happier life.

Des Cahill isn't so sure. Too many times he has been left wondering why he had such a good run of it when some in his family didn't.

In his new book, Play It Again Des, he describes how his own fate - the dream job, beautiful wife and full life - contrasted with that of some of his loved ones, and left him feeling empty.

As his sister Eileen lay on her deathbed in January, he writes: "I ended up feeling that I had got all of her luck. Every drop of it."

While visiting his brother Brendan in a 24-hour care home, he thought: "Jesus, he looks so like me". He says: "The guilt thing again… you can't but reflect on your own good fortune in life and wonder about fate… why these things happen."

But perhaps his most traumatic realisation was discovering that half his family had dealt with a tsunami of grief before he was even born.

"I arrived into a family that was battered," he says.

Aged 12, he stumbled on two children's school bags in the attic that uncovered the secret.

His father Patrick had been married before. His first wife, Norah, and three of their six children, had gone swimming in a lake. His daughter got into difficulty, his son went in to save her, quickly followed by his first wife, and all three drowned.

His surviving children, Eileen, Brian and Una, went to live with him when he met his second wife, also Nora. They had four more children: Brendan, Des, Declan and Pat.

Brendan was born with severe intellectual disabilities and Declan had difficulties with both feet and had to wear callipers, metal supports, on both legs through his childhood. Des was the lucky guy in the midst of it all. He says: "I would have happily taken their pain. I just didn't get it."

What it did give him was empathy. Within minutes of meeting in a quiet corner of Balfes cafe, Dublin, he is in tears at the memory of Brendan tenderly looking into his mother's eyes during her visits to the care home.

"I cry an awful lot," he laughs, half embarrassed. "It's a joke in the house that any sad story, or Coronation Street on the telly, and I cry."

It's a healthy attitude for a man who watched his father internalise his own trauma, never speaking about the tragedy in all his remaining years.

"He kept it all in and just got on with life," he says.

Now one of Ireland's best-known sports presenters, Des has also had plenty of happy tears to shed, having witnessed some of Ireland's greatest sporting moments - from All-Ireland finals to World Cups, Olympic Games to Ryder Cups and Tours de France.

At 65, then, you might think he is planning to wind down, but that is unlikely - when the crash hit, it took his sizeable pension with it.

"I won't have a pension," he says. "I invested in property that got into massive negative equity. It was a millstone."

He describes feeling sick at the height of his financial struggles when his home was under threat from the bank. Attempts to negotiate were hindered by his RTE profile: "I was aware they were doing deals with others… but they said to me 'No. You have the ability to go out and earn the money again. So there's no deal'. And it was at a stage when I was ready to stop doing gigs."

Is he out of debt now?

"I am getting there. We did fine. We kept the house. But there was one year when I thought we would lose it - as you can imagine, that doesn't need explaining. Especially when you're the breadwinner."

It's surprising, given his huge profile and contribution, that he never made the list of RTE's top earners. "Maybe I should have had an agent," he smiles. "Noel Kelly approached me, I think, before he approached anyone - and maybe I should have [done it]. The world has changed. I'm a bit old to be getting someone now."

He explains, for all its opportunities television is cut-throat. "How can I complain? But it's the fickleness of knowing I am more committed, I will work harder, I am more loyal. And then some fella or girl becomes flavour of the month. That must happen a lot. And the boss takes a shine to someone and then someone else loses out.

"Did you see the Mary Kennedy story?" he asks.

I check later and it hasn't made the book, but he explains: "Mary Kennedy was dropped from Up for the Match. Mary and I get on really well. She used to present the programme before Grainne [Seoige]. There are only two programmes but they are two big programmes and they're amazing.

"So the following July [the producers ask me] 'are you all set for Up for the Match? And I say 'Great, yeah, will there be a meeting? Will Mary be there? And they tell me, 'Oh Mary is not doing it this year - did you not know? Grainne is'. I didn't know that. And then I realised, I had sensed Mary was being cool with me and I didn't know why. I think she must have felt I was in on that but I wasn't even aware of it."

I wonder if Des feels age could have played a part in the shake-up.

"Yeah, absolutely, and I wondered that myself. Is it more difficult for women age-wise than men? I think it is. Partly because women are more judgmental of women when it comes to age. I don't think men are as judgmental of women on air as women are. But I may be wrong."

What's noteworthy about the book is that, even after two decades in RTE, Des still offers readers an honest insight into the corridors of Montrose. He writes how Joe Duffy "really hardly spoke" to him for years after Des was considered the natural replacement for Gay Byrne's radio show - the pair have since made up. He also details how he feels former RTE presenter Carrie Crowley was badly managed and over-exposed.

"A producer decides, 'Oh we need to freshen it up - let's have someone new'. Marty [Morrissey] is in that danger now," he says. "Marty is everywhere. Hugely popular. But if I was minding Marty I would say 'Marty you've been over-exposed.' 'Oh, Marty again' - you have to be careful of that."

Given that Des is RTE's other most high-profile sport's personality and has also appeared in Dancing with the Stars, there are similarities between the two men - but Des strongly disagrees.

"I am definitely more reserved, and also I am married, I have a family. Marty is single [he's in a relationship], you know, it's a whole different thing. The 'Marty party' thing."

He adds: "There must be only a few hundred women left in Ireland who don't have a selfie with Marty. Marty loves that. I would be a little bit uncomfortable or awkward with it all."

He sees Marty as more ambitious and as someone who likes being centre stage, and says he thinks his popularity is fantastic.

But he says: "I like being centre stage in a different kind of way. Coming out of Croke Park I think Marty loves all the selfies. I will do all the selfies but I won't hang outside the door," he laughs.

Is there a bit of friendly or professional rivalry there?

"Not from my end."

From Marty's end?

"I don't know."

Des explains how he has been "longer down the road than Marty" and says, "I'd say Marty sees my path as a path."

Also mentioned in the book is an anecdote about how Denis O'Brien acted as the mediator when FAI boss John Delaney took issue with the way in which his €400,000 salary had been discussed on Saturday Sport, while Des was presenting. The FAI sent a letter of complaint to RTE, to say "the matter was now in the hands of solicitors". Then Des got an unexpected call. It was Denis. "He said 'I can't believe this has gone legal. The two of ye sort it out'." The pair duly did.

Des knows the Communicorp boss through his work with the Special Olympics. "I wouldn't like to be his enemy," he says but he adds that "he has a big softie side" that the public don't see.

Poking fun at his own emotional side once more, he describes another anecdote in the book.

O'Brien had asked him to speak at a Special Olympics fundraising event and to 'really sell' the importance of the cause to the wealthy attendees. Cahill's speech ended in blubs of tears and such was his emotion that Christy O'Connor Jnr had to go up on stage to give him a comforting hug. Then Christy started crying too.

Des writes: "So there were now two big fat fellas crying on the stage" and "I looked down at Denis and he had his head in his hands."

Still, the fact that he wore his heart on his sleeve came up trumps. During the next few hours a sports car, which was donated, was bought by half the room - which then gave it back to auction again. A seven-figure sum was raised, which helped make the games a reality. And - not for the first time - Des realised how it pays to show your emotions rather than push them down to your boots.

'Play it Again Des' (€20) goes on sale on Thursday. Book signings (all noon): Saturday, October 13, Eason, Patrick Street, Cork; Saturday, October 20, O'Mahony's Bookshop, O'Connell Street, Limerick; Saturday, November 24, Eason, Shop Street, Galway; Saturday, December 1, Dubray Bookshop, Grafton Street, Dublin; Saturday, December 15, Book Centre, Waterford.

Sunday Independent

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