Ryan Tubridy: ‘Therapy wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get out of the chatshow guest mode’

Ryan Tubridy. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Late Late Show host talks to Róisín Ingle about becoming a different kind of presenter and loving his job more now than he did before

“Oderint, dum metuant.”

In yet another twist to the pandemic that never stops surprising, I am sheltering from the rain with Ryan Tubridy on the bandstand of south Dublin’s Dún Laoghaire pier while the Late Late Show presenter quotes a Latin phrase he learned while attending private school at Blackrock College.

“Oderint, dum metuant,” he repeats, adding that his teacher Miss Fitzgerald always said this would be a good phrase to put on a banner at a schools’ rugby match. It means “let them hate, provided they fear”, Tubridy explains.

We’re doing a strange kind of socially-distanced dance, moving around the bandstand trying to avoid the sideways rain. He’s shivering in his tweedy looking jacket and regulation Tubridy cords while I ensure the voice recorder on my phone doesn’t get waterlogged.

I have yet to meet somebody who works in the area of chatshowery who doesn’t have that streak of neediness and narcissism

It’s my fault. I’m the one who suggested a walk and also requested he recite a bit of Latin. “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” he says, which apparently is from Virgil’s Aeneid and roughly translated means one day we’ll look back on all of this and laugh.

“Will we?” I ask him, thinking about the pandemic. “We’ll look back at the bonkers bits and laugh, and we’ll raise a glass to the sad parts,” he says.

There is probably no other Irish broadcaster who can quote Latin and divide opinion quite like Ryan Tubridy. For every person who raves about his Late Late Toy Show performances or celebrity interviews or commitment to causes such as domestic violence, there are others who have uncomplimentary, Alan Partridge-adjacent things to say about how he earns his nearly half a million euro a year salary.

But the punters on the pier – from secondary school boys on an orienteering trip to a wheelchair user who gives him the thumbs up – have an awful lot of love for the Late Late Show host. We’re interrupted several times by Tubridy fans dying to say hello. “I’ve paid them all a fiver each to do that,” he jokes, as yet another middle-aged woman gives him a wave. “And I gave €50 to another fella to keep the abusers away.”

These days Tubridy says he has “thicker skin” and is far less bothered by the haters. He long ago deleted the Twitter app from his phone preferring the friendlier banter on Instagram.

Show business is very like politics. We want as many viewers as we can get and as many listeners… the way a politician needs to get elected to stay employed

He often comes to Dún Laoghaire for head-clearing walks. Honest about his “narcissistic” tendencies – “I have yet to meet somebody who works in the area of chatshowery, who doesn’t have that streak of neediness and narcissism” – he thrives on all the shy waves and polite requests for selfies from walkers delighted to spot the tall, rangy figure with the famous face.

Watching him work the crowd is not unlike watching a veteran politician on the campaign trail. “It’s in the DNA,” he says. The Tubridy family is steeped in Fianna Fáil politics. His grandfather was political activist Todd Andrews, his uncles were former Fianna Fáil TDs David and Niall Andrews. Show business, he says, is “very like politics. We want as many viewers as we can get and as many listeners … the way a politician needs to get elected to stay employed. It’s how I survive, I just happen to really like it as well.”

We are meeting for a stroll and a chat a few days before Tubridy presented the final Late Late Show of the strangest season in the show’s nearly 60-year history. The late broadcaster Gay Byrne –Tubridy’s friend and mentor – broke a lot of ground in Irish broadcasting but never had to present that televisual juggernaut in the middle of a pandemic.

Friday’s night’s final show, featuring Katie Taylor and Irish Olympians, also coincided with Tubridy’s 48th birthday. Reflecting on his work since Covid began in March 2020 I suggest that, for many viewers and listeners, his morning radio programme and the Late Late Show were like ports in a pandemic storm.

“It was not planned,” he says. “But we started getting a lot of thank you letters from people… the Late Late Show became this kind of signpost in the fog. A sign that said ‘it’s Friday night, we’re all lost’. I was lost, like everyone else. I think that’s what helped. I completely understood. It was so traumatic for everyone. So confusing. And there was so much uncertainty. No job as a chatshow host is going to make you understand that any better. So you could only try to comprehend with everyone else. We were all walking along this path.”

Ryan Tubridy preparing his questions on the Late Late Show set. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Ryan Tubridy preparing his questions on the Late Late Show set. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

He credits the radio show team under producer Siobhán Hough and his Late Late producers Katherine Drohan and Jane Murphy with providing crucial guidance. “They were very thoughtful. And they were leaders. I followed their advice and suddenly the Late Late Show became a bigger ship than it’s been for a long time.”

He and the team found themselves, on any given week, checking the national mood, asking “where are they?” meaning “where’s Ireland?”

“I gauged it on the radio from week to week… they’re angry, they’re really pissed off, we needed to reflect that. Another week, you’d say they’re impatient, you’d feel it… then another week, it was ‘they’re so fed up’. I remember saying that to Dr Anthony Fauci, ‘talk to me about fed-uppery’. They were so fed up that they needed a release and a relief, music. Something.

“On the Late Late Show we were saying to the audience: ‘here we are, try not to be so despondent because they are working on it but in the meantime we’ll be here for you’. It was that sort of vibe. Here’s Hozier. Here’s Dr Tony Holohan… like a radio dial, it went up and down to reflect and channel the mood of the country.”

There were other more practical concerns. Would the show actually go on? Would guests turn up? Would there be enough material? How would “needy” Tubridy cope without a live studio audience?

“Sure look at me, with an ego like this you’d need an audience,” he laughs. “Initially, I thought, okay, this is a novelty. Then that evolved and now it’s like a radio show. Which is quite nice actually.”

I’ve always believed that I’m a private man. In a public job. I think there’s only so much you can give of yourself

When the fundraising aspect of the pandemic Late Late Shows emerged, with viewers raising millions for Covid-hit charities such as St Vincent de Paul, he says the programme “became more meaningful, more useful than just doing a chatshow”.

He mentions the Late Late Toy Show break-out stars such as young Adam King, who has brittle bone disease, and talented teenage singer Michael Moloney, who became symbols of hope and cheer at a dark time. The Toy Show Appeal was only mentioned, he recalls, three times during that show but €6.5 million was raised. The “glorious” memory of it still brings Tubridy joy. During the pandemic, Late Late Show viewers raised an astonishing €20 million for charity. “It’s staggering and heartening,” he says.

Tubridy contracted Covid-19 early on in the pandemic, as did his colleague Claire Byrne. “How did you get it? Were you all out at some event together?” I joke. “No,” he says. “I don’t know how I got it”. He says while he was “a bit wheezy”, he got “the lucky end of the Covid stick” and those two weeks off were “a beautiful time” spent with his two daughters. “It would have been much more difficult without them.”

Throughout the lockdowns he has gone to RTÉ to work every day, rather than broadcast from home. He lives alone but says he wasn’t lonely because he saw people at work and had constant company. He missed his family, their regular “pub therapy sessions” in Toner’s and O’Donoghue’s. He missed his close mates – the mostly Blackrock College boys who populate his friends WhatsApp group. Rugby types? “No,” he laughs. “Dreamers. Music heads. Although one of them did play rugby and we still mock him for that.”

We know, at a surface level, a lot about Ryan Tubridy. During the first 20 minutes of his daily radio show he riffs on everything from the books he is reading to the films he is watching to the stuff that irritates him – people talking incessantly about their children and showing him videos on their phones are two of his latest bugbears. We know he loves The Beatles and jazz crooners and the daughters he shares with his former partner, RTÉ producer Ann-Marie Power.

He doesn’t mention his daughters names on radio, deliberately, he tells me. “I mean, I’ve always believed that I’m a private man. In a public job. I think there’s only so much you can give of yourself.”

Ryan Tubridy at the Dún Laoghaire pier, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ryan Tubridy at the Dún Laoghaire pier, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

I try to find out a bit more. He had a “very privileged” middle-class upbringing but his parents broke up when he was a child. I ask him how that experience shaped him.

“I don’t really talk about it because, you know, my mum is alive and well,” he says. “And I don’t really like discussing what might have been a very difficult time for her. But I will say that, yeah, it wasn’t the easiest time to be a kid and you worried and you wanted things to be better and fixed. And in due course they were fixed.

“I’ve had many different experiences in my life, all of which are personal and private and aren’t discussed... they allow me to understand people better. Because I’m probably still trying to understand myself.”

His parenting mantra with his own children over the years has been “are you happy? If you’re not happy, how can I fix it?” As we look out on the boats by the pier, he says his eldest daughter is “out of the harbour now” and the younger one is “on her way to the gate”. “I struck gold with my kids,” he says.

Tubridy’s media career began with a letter published in this newspaper on February 20th, 1986 – “signed Ryan Tubridy, aged 12½,  very Adrian Mole” he laughs. In the letter he complained that there were too few movies around for boys his age. The letter from that self-described “little nerd”, who would go on to be the compere of school concerts, got him noticed by RTÉ, which asked him to review films and books on children’s TV programmes such as Anything Goes and Poparama.

Later, while at UCD he toyed with pursuing law but says he took a look around King’s Inns and found it “too pompous even for me”. He began working as a runner on Gerry Ryan’s radio show, working up to his own radio offerings The Full Irish and Morning Glory. On TV he presented the Rose of Tralee and Tubridy Tonight. He landed the Late Late Show gig in 2009.

There might be a perception of me that it’s all very silver spoon and Blackrock College. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have emotional experiences that can inform you as a person

“I thought Miriam O’Callaghan or Gerry Ryan would get it, they were in the mix. I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be me. I just thought I was too young and maybe I was.”

Does he really think so? “Looking back? Yeah, I think I had a lot more living to do, a lot more learning.”

I ask if he feels he used to put on more of an act. “Yeah. I thought it was my job to be a presenter. And then I realised you can be both the person and the presenter. And the ratio changes. So it was a time where you’d have to put on the presenter hat, a rather large 10 gallon hat. And now it fits more neatly… and the lines have blurred a bit more between on-air and off-air.

“There might be a perception of me that it’s all very silver spoon and Blackrock College and everything like that. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have emotional experiences throughout your nearly 50 years that can inform you as a person and allow you [as a presenter] to know how to deal with other people’s trauma, or emotional turmoil.”

The death of Tubridy’s father, a psychiatrist, seven years ago caused him a bit of an “existential crisis”. Has he ever had therapy?

“No, I haven’t. I tried a bit of therapy once. I sat down with somebody about three times. And it wasn’t for me. And I’ll tell you why. I couldn’t get out of the chatshow guest mode. So that was unfortunate. I thought I should try it because everyone talks about it… so, yeah, I have to work out my stuff myself.”

Has he worked it out? “I think we’re all complex creatures, and I’m no more, no less complex than anyone else. People’s lives are a collection of joys and difficulties.”

His parents’ separation remains “one of the great, great difficulties of my life… I don’t dwell on all of these things too much. Because I think that you have to get on with things. You have to be quite stoical. Otherwise you could get quite dark.”

One thing we all know about Tubridy is that he’s always been a “young fogey” and he says he is now happily an “old fogey”. He describes himself as “old school” like his late father. He lights a log fire in his house nearly every day; he enjoys fly fishing on lakes and corduroy trousers. He has a “nursery palette” with no taste for fine dining, preferring the plain food of his childhood.

He draws the line at going much deeper than all that.

“You have to live a very different life in some respects,” he reflects, thinking about how he navigates fame. “It’s all part of this bizarre deal. If you want to present the Late Late then you have to give up certain freedoms. And if you don’t want to present it, then go work in a bank, do whatever you want to do. So I’ve given up a few things and I’ve got the best job in show business. And I love it slightly more now than I might have done before. The best way to keep my privacy is to not talk about stuff. Do you see where I am going with this?”

I’m just saying, ‘this is all I have for you. I’m just gonna tell it as it is’

Yes. I do. But I have a go anyway. Is he in a relationship at the moment?

“I respectfully close that down. I say that in a way that is really straight with you. Before I would have tried to evade or prevaricate and now I say that door is not going to open.”

Does he have any regrets in his life?

“I have plenty of regrets but none to share. I’ve become a very different presenter in the last two years. Because I’m just saying, ‘this is all I have for you. I’m just gonna tell it as it is… if you don’t like it. I’ll pack my bags’.” He is grateful that his RTÉ career has allowed him to do everything his boyhood self could have possibly dreamed of, from visiting US presidents in the White House and going to Roald Dahl’s writing shed to writing books himself and meeting musical heroes such as Paul McCartney.

Regarding his often criticised salary, he says: “The market decides how that works. My agent talks to the bosses in RTÉ and they say ‘that’s what he’s getting or he can leave’. So I don’t really get into it because I’m on a hiding to nothing if I do. I’ll leave that one.”

When the Late Late Show returns in September, Tubridy hopes to “draw a line under Covid. We want it to have a completely different vibe.

“I’m rapidly running out of fuel,” he tells yet another passerby who engages him in chat. I remind him that the other day on the radio he used the word “extraordinary” around six times in the space of a couple of minutes. “There were no other words left in the word drawer,” he says.

“I’ve never run a marathon in my life. I will never run a marathon in my life, right? But I see the runners on the TV and you know that bit at the end where their legs are going to jelly as they reach the finish line and somebody is waiting for them with a really big roll of what looks like tinfoil? Well on Friday night I will fall into that big roll of tinfoil and be put in a cab and sent off home.”

Festina lente. That’s another Latin phrase he learned at Blackrock College, one he says he now wishes he’d taken on board earlier in his career.

“Festina Lente means make haste slowly,” he says. “It’s lovely. I really like that.”