Claire Byrne: ‘I’m not a calm person at all. I can be quite highly strung’
Coming back from maternity leave is stressful enough without having to establish a new live TV show that bears your name, but Byrne, despite her nerves, loves challenges
Claire Byrne: ‘I expect to be respected as a professional person doing a job, not just as a woman doing a job.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
‘A unique, entertaining – no, engaging – current affairs programme” is how the seemingly unflappable Claire Byrne describes her new Monday night TV slot, Claire Byrne Live.
It will be “a very different animal” from RTÉ Radio 1’s Saturday with Claire Byrne, which she will continue to anchor, a job that involves managing potentially perilous panels of politicians and pundits and where she has a calm, authoritative, unfrazzled air.
Underneath the composure, Byrne (39) can be a bag of nerves.
“I’m not really a calm person at all. I can be quite highly strung, and when it comes to dealing with the children, Gerry [Scollan, her fiance] is much better than me. I have to go outside and breathe in gulps of air. The image I present is much calmer than the reality.”
And no wonder, as Byrne has very young “Irish twins”, born 11 months apart. Son Patrick is 14 months old and daughter Jane is 15 weeks. “It was a bit of a shock and a surprise, and I worried through the pregnancy that I would not be able to cope with two small babies with 11 months between them. I was pregnant for two years and got kind of fed up with being pregnant.”
“God bless your sex life,” I comment.
“Right. If you knew about it.” She laughs.
It still fascinates Byrne that, after a three-year marriage from the age of 27 to British radio executive Richard Johnson, she had to return to the well in her childhood home of Mountrath, Co Laois, to find her true love, who grew up in Leitrim, coincidentally just up the road from the two Leitrim brothers whom two of Byrne’s sisters married.
The shared history and similarities feel right for her. “And the Leitrim men worked out well for my sisters, so that must mean that Gerry will work out well for me, I think.”
After hitting it off three years ago, Scollan and Byrne were deciding on a date for marriage before the second pregnancy, but now only manage to mention it “over the nappies”. Scollan, who works with Microsoft, does “half the work” at home and is incredibly supportive, says Byrne, who is a feminist. “I expect to be respected as a professional person doing a job, not just as a woman doing a job.”
Byrne got back to work on December 15th, ten weeks after Jane’s birth, to develop her new TV programme with a team of five, lead by Aoife Stokes, who is in her early 30s and whom Byrne describes admiringly as hungry, able and willing and possessing youth, vigour and energy.
The show will have a studio audience on an intimate curved set, and Byrne will move among them.
There will be no desk for Byrne, but chairs for the panel, which will be made up of people who are not known commentators on the issues at hand. Byrne plans to address the issues of low-paid creche workers, same-sex marriage and problems in the health service, but with “real people” rather than politicians and spokespeople.
“There will be a lot of thinking on my feet but I love a reactive show that’s moving and changing. You feel the air changing and there’s a charge of electricity. I am hoping for news-making moments that aren’t contrived and that come from having the right people in the studio, giving people time to speak, and listening – that’s the most important skill that you learn.”
She is as excited about the new show as she is nervous. “Coming back from maternity leave is a stressful enough time without having to go into a new show, but I love coming back with a bang. I love challenges, and, because it has my name on it, I have to make it work. It will be a very approachable programme, with none of the fear associated with being on the panel or in the audience. It’s not a shouting gallery, it’s a forum for discussions.”
She says she feels nervous when going to role model Marian Finucane’s studio to promote her own radio programme, which follows Finucane’s.
So how does she handle stress so successfully that the listener would have no idea?
“I am very good at distancing myself from stressful situations. I think you gain perspective as well as you get older; you realise that stuff that happens in your personal life are the only important things you should get stressed about. And the stress always ends with time. Things change constantly, so what’s difficult today will be gone in a few hours, weeks or months.”
Often when interviewing accomplished women, I try to stay away from babies and domestic life on the ground that it labels women as mothers first, professionals second, but Byrne loves talking about her babies and all the chaos that has come with them.
Creche or nanny? “A bit of both. Patrick is bouncing off the walls and has just started in creche. This morning when I left, he was running around hanging on to the dog’s tail.” (Rosie, the Golden Labrador, is Byrne’s “first child”.)
“When I was in labour the midwife said, ‘You’ll be lucky if you get your back wet in the shower’, and I didn’t know what she meant, but I do now. It takes an age just to get the two children ready in their double stroller for a walk – coat, hat, gloves, nappies, drinks, ‘Are you hungry?’ and you go back and start again and the dog is looking at you: ‘When are we going? When are we going?’ ” Long walks with the buggy have been Byrne’s fitness activity of choice after baby number two.
Mary Holden, a secondary school teacher at the now-closed Brigidine convent in Co Laois, encouraged Byrne when, at the age of 14, she stated her intention of becoming a journalist. “I was encouraged to do so much. Mrs Holden got me work experience at the age of 14 in the local newspaper, and I was on all the debating teams, debating in Irish. Mrs Holden was fantastic and gave me a great thirst for following my passion. Not having any journalists in my family background, it might have seemed an unattainable dream, but she showed me there were roads into doing it.”
“That’s the message I want to convey, to young women, especially. Everybody should feel that what they want to do is attainable; there aren’t any boundaries or barriers there.”
Claire Byrne Live starts on January 19th on RTÉ1
CAREER PATH: FROM A LETTER IN THE PAPER TO TV AND RADIO
Byrne’s complicated road into a prominent position in Irish journalism is full of swift job changes and turns between TV and radio, as she has striven to prove herself as a journalist and not a TV personality.
“There is a cohort of pe- ople who think if you are a TV anchor, you don’t have smarts. When I joined Newstalk radio in 2006 as the main anchor of a news programme, which is very challenging, I think people were asking, ‘Who is this blond bimbo?’ ”
So how do you show that being beautiful doesn’t mean being thick? “The best way to win that battle is to show them you’re not thick,” says Byrne, whose career path has made her one of the most experienced broadcast journalists around.
At 14, she declared she would be a journalist, got some pieces published in the local newspaper and had a letter published in The Irish Times in 1991, a yellowing copy of which she still keeps. She was also a debater in Irish, honing her communication skills under the tutelage of teacher and mentor Mary Holden.
She took a place at UCD in1993, where she had a “false start” with politics, sociology and psychology before studying journalism at DIT, a course that was then based in Rathmines.
“I’m not much of an academic, I have to say. To be a journalist all you need is for someone to give you a break. You make all your mistakes in your work experience. Years of book learning is not going to give you the skills you learn on the job. So much of it is about communication. You need your firm grounding in law, but apart from that, the best way to learn it is to do it.”
Straight out of DIT, Byrne did work experience at East Coast Radio, doing everything from production to reading the news. She joined Channel 103 Jersey in 1995, moved to BBC Jersey, at the age of 23, was asked to return to Channel 103 as news editor.
After four years away, she returned to Ireland in 1999, soon after TV3 had started. “I sent out CVs to everybody. TV3 asked for a screen test. I had a very poor view of TV journalists because I thought radio was the best thing – still do.”
She became news anchor on Ireland AM, “a great break”, then moved to London, where she worked on ITN’s 24-hour rolling news channel in 2001. “It was the year 9/11 happened and the ‘war on terror’ began, so it was interesting.”
Then TV3 asked her in 2001 to become Ireland AM anchor.
In 2006, she joined Newstalk just as it was starting up. “It was a huge challenge actually because I’d been involved in news anchoring and programme presentation, but to be the main anchor of a radio news programme is very challenging.”
In 2010 she joined RTÉ, first as co-anchor of The Daily Show, and then, from 2013, on Prime Time with Miriam O’Callaghan and Pat Kenny.