A hard act to follow: Sean O’Rourke will be missed by more than just his listeners
RTÉ will struggle to replace a host whose ease was accompanied by formidable news skills
Formidable: Sean O’Rourke on his first day as presenter of RTÉ Radio 1’s Today show, in 2013. Photograph: Frank Miller
Sean O’Rourke’s announcement that he is to retire on May 8th will be met with regret by fans of his daily show on RTÉ Radio 1 but may be greeted with relief by the public figures he has put through the wringer over the years.
After more than three decades as a news and current-affairs presenter, the 64-year-old has justly earned a reputation not only for his clarity and integrity but also for his often ferocious interviewing style. An interrogation by O’Rourke has been a rite of passage for Irish politicians – with at least one career not surviving the ordeal.
But, as his career attests, O’Rourke has been much more than an on-air Rottweiler. He always had an eye for detail and a nose for a story, honed during his time as a print reporter, a broadcast journalist and, finally, as the long-time anchor of Radio 1’s News at One. But after replacing Pat Kenny as presenter of the station’s midmorning magazine show, in 2013, O’Rourke adopted a more versatile approach.
Sean O’Rourke got his first taste of robust on-air jousts at This Week, when the late Charles Haughey said to him before one interview, ‘I’m really going to stick it into you today’
Although his transition from newsman to talk-radio host wasn’t seamless – by his own admission, the arts haven’t always been his strongest point – listenership for the spot grew during his tenure, testament to both his professionalism and his unshowy appeal.
Born in Co Laois in 1955, he is from a family with a background in education: his father was a teacher, and his brother Fran was professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. But from early on O’Rourke knew he wanted to be a journalist. On leaving school, in 1973, he worked for a year at the Connacht Tribune, before studying at University College Galway and subsequently joining the Irish Press in Dublin. His ability was such that he was made the paper’s political correspondent while still in his 20s, though, in retrospect, his suitably honest assessment was that “I was thrown into it too early.”
O’Rourke’s decision to go to RTÉ, in 1989, proved an astute move. Although he joined as a programme editor, he went on to work behind the microphone on the current affairs show This Week. He got his first taste of robust on-air jousts there: the late Charles Haughey said to him before one interview, “I’m really going to stick it into you today.”
In 1995 he became presenter of News at One, the position he is perhaps still most associated with. By his own estimate, O’Rourke hosted 5,000 editions of the programme, making his name not only as a formidably informed news anchor but also as a fearsome interviewer. Rather than adopt the contemptuous, scorched-earth approach of the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, he was naturally courteous, if occasionally brusque. But he didn’t hide his disdain if he believed guests were dodging his questions, particularly if they were politicians. He certainly could be blunt, as when, in 2010, he called the Fianna Fáil minister Willie O’Dea “one hell of a dirty fighter”.
Despite his impressive reputation, it was something of a surprise when O’Rourke was chosen for the midmorning show after Pat Kenny defected to Newstalk. Swapping one ageing male presenter for another seemed like a missed opportunity to freshen up Radio 1’s line-up. And, initially at least, O’Rourke didn’t sound entirely at home with some aspects of the Today programme’s broader remit, particularly cultural topics. (Interviewing the historian Simon Schama about his history of the Jewish people, O’Rourke sounded as if he were talking to an errant politician, accusingly asking his guest what had taken him so long to get around to writing the book.)
The longer he presented Today the more comfortable he sounded. He was as trustworthy and no-nonsense as ever, but he equally sounded relaxed and drily humorous
But the longer he presented the show the more comfortable he sounded. He was as trustworthy and no-nonsense as ever, but he equally sounded relaxed, drily humorous and even enthusiastic when conversation turned to sport – as it often did. As well as being a keen golfer, O’Rourke’s passion for GAA was always there for his audience to hear.
He also showed his empathetic side more often, both during emotionally challenging interviews with abuse survivors and in regular slots on mental wellness. And if he never quite got the hang of covering the arts in depth, his delight with musical guests was always evident. As a result O’Rourke not only maintained the listenership he inherited from Kenny but even grew it. Although the figures fluctuated, his show would command an audience well in excess of 300,000.
But it was his command of current affairs that remained his greatest strength – his coverage of Brexit was essential – along with his dogged questioning of public figures. These could be world figures: his 2014 interview with Donald Trump, before his election to the US presidency, was so feisty that the future president later reportedly called O’Rourke “that a*****e”. But O’Rourke didn’t always go for the jugular. Perhaps the most famous interview of his tenure on the Today programme came last year, when he presided over the self-immolation of the Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey in her account of her personal-injury lawsuit against a Dublin hotel. Although the host pressed his guest on inconsistencies in her testimony, he largely let Bailey do the damage herself.
It underlined the fact that, for all O’Rourke’s unimpeachable credentials as a journalist, his career has also been built on his natural talents as a broadcaster. He always sounded at ease on the airwaves, no matter that his guests didn’t always feel the same. His decision to retire on his 65th birthday may be logical, but O’Rourke – informed but questioning, authoritative yet personable – will be missed. Not only by audiences lamenting his reassuring presence at an uncertain time but also by Montrose management: O’Rourke will be a hard act to follow.