Seán O’Rourke: 32,000 interviews later... ‘I’ve had my fill’

Sean O’Rourke: ‘I cracked it in the end and now I’m walking away.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

When he opens his front door in Killiney, Co Dublin, Sean O’Rourke bows to me instead of shaking my hand. “That’s what Charlie Haughey used to like his ministers to do as they left the room,” he says later.

O’Rourke is turning 65 and is retiring from RTÉ. He’s upbeat. That morning he was broadcasting from Croke Park as a test of RTÉ’s emergency measures (if the Radio Centre is rendered unusable by a Covid -19 outbreak, Croke Park will be an alternative base). “It was absolutely glorious to be there because the light was beautiful,” he says.

We walk to a little park around the corner for photographs and I ask how he feels about doing his final show. “I just hope I can hold it together. One of my brothers suggested to me I dig something out of Sunday Miscellany. My uncle, my mother’s brother, [was a] writer and storyteller and got onto Sunday Miscellany maybe half a dozen times. He had some really lovely stories. But I think I’d burst out crying if that happened.”

We arrive at the park. He and the photographer discuss the work of some Irish Times photographers. “He wasn’t really Irish Times, he was really Irish Press,” he says of one of them. O’Rourke spent formative years at the Press. “The Irish Press taught us all we knew and then we bestow our brilliance on somebody else.”

My father couldn’t say the name de Valera without spitting... It was the teachers versus de Valera

We walk back to the house. There’s a motorhome in the driveway that was to be a big part of his retirement plans prior to lockdown. In the bright front room stands a grand piano he can’t play. It’s owned by friends of the family. “It’s only resting there, as Ray Burke said about that money.”

I take a seat in a corner more than two metres away from him and we talk a little about the strangeness of doing our jobs in lockdown. “In our place, it’s like a ghost town,” he says.

Does it feel strange to be retiring in the middle of a pandemic and on the cusp of an unprecedented Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael government? “I wouldn’t have minded sticking around but actually we had a discussion about whether I should and it wasn’t considered necessary. And I’m happy enough with that... I’ve had my fill. There’s never going to be a time when there’s nothing happening.”

Also, he says, when he first took over the Today show from Pat Kenny he thought, “Jesus, if I get to 65, I’ll be doing well.”

On early life: ‘I wasn’t the best student ’

O’Rourke comes from a family of teachers. His father uprooted them from “an idyllic existence” in Laois to go to Galway because “he decided in the early 1960s that university education was the coming thing. Teacher’s salary, eight kids – he couldn’t afford to do it unless he lived in a university town.”

Were his family political? “My mother was kind of Fianna Fáil-ish, I’d say, without making a big deal of it. My father couldn’t say the name de Valera without spitting... It was the teachers versus de Valera. There was a big long strike in the mid-1940s, and Dev won. [But] when I got a job working for the [de Valera founded] Sunday Press, two months before he died, he was kind of chuffed about that. He had mellowed.”

Why did O’Rourke end up in journalism? “I was going through some papers there [and] I cut out this headline from the Observer over 30 years ago: ‘It was decided that journalism was my only hope.’ I wasn’t the best student at secondary school and the options kept narrowing.”

He made his start at the Connacht Tribune in 1973 (“I’ve joked about how I want to be buried clutching a rolled-up copy of the Connacht Tribune”). Then, after studying English, History and Legal Science at UCG, he made his way to the Sunday Press as a sports reporter.

His first scoop was about Dublin footballer Kevin Moran being signed to Manchester United. “I literally sat outside their shop on the Long Mile Road for four hours, and eventually his mother made him take pity on me.”

On Maria Bailey: ‘She paid a high price ’

He recalls his first interview with Charles J Haughey in a room filled with pictures of the man himself. “Haughey put out a limp hand, and it was all scraped and scrawbed because he’d been down in Killarney the night before, meeting the horny-handed sons of toil, and they had literally scraped his hands.”

He does an impression of Haughey interrogating him which culminates in a terrifying snarl: “What is this? Some sort of party political broadcast for Fine Gael?”

He was naive at first, he says. At his first European summit as a political correspondent, he got a call at 2am telling him things had gone so badly with Garret FitzGerald’s milk levy negotiations that the EEC was in danger of collapsing. “Fifteen hours later they’re all back in the room – after I’d announced the disintegration of the EU.”

Sean O’Rourke on the set of The Week in Politics on RTÉ One in January 2013. Photograph: Eric Luke
The Week in Politics: Sean O’Rourke on set in January 2013. Photograph: Eric Luke

O’Rourke left the Irish Press in 1989 for RTÉ News and Current Affairs, where he worked for two decades on shows such as Morning Ireland, This Week, Today Tonight, Prime Time and The Week in Politics.

He encountered wily interviewees like Brian Cowen, Pat Rabbitte and David Trimble (he was always careful to have a copy of the Good Friday agreement in front of him lest Trimble caught him out, he says).

Sometimes, he says, an interview is adversarial. Sometimes it’s “like a conspiracy” in that both parties know the line that’s going to come out of it. But the best kind of interview, he says, is one where he finds himself saying, “‘And what happened then?’ because that means they’re telling you something really interesting... It’s about drawing people out and trusting the audience, and it’s also about knowing when to keep your mouth shut.”

I’m aware that her father was dying at the time and to some extent maybe her mind was elsewhere

One recent example of O’Rourke doing the latter was when Fine Gael politician Maria Bailey was explaining to him why she was taking a lawsuit against the Dean Hotel in Dublin following an alleged fall from a swing. “I don’t see the Maria Bailey interview as from my point of view a particular achievement,” he says.

“Somebody half-rightly said, ‘O’Rourke didn’t reel her in, the fish jumped into the boat.’ Now, against that, you could say, ‘Well, how did he know where to put the boat?’” He laughs.

He has mixed feelings about that interview. “I feel, I won’t say bad about it, but I’m aware that her father was dying at the time and to some extent maybe her mind was elsewhere... But it’s not for me to say to somebody, ‘Do an interview or don’t do an interview.’

“I think she’s paid a higher price than an awful lot of politicians have paid for maybe greater mistakes. I can’t remember who said it back in the days of Vietnam, but he was reporting when some guy came out to self-immolate. He was asked, ‘Did you intervene?’ And he said, ‘Well, as a human being, I wanted to save him, but as a journalist I couldn’t.’ I’d like to think I would have intervened.”

On his own show: ‘I cracked it in the end’

Did he expect to get Pat Kenny’s job when Kenny left for Newstalk? He did not. The odds against him were 40-1.

“It was [broadcaster and racing pundit] Colm Murray’s last laugh on me. A very brilliant guy. He died, and it was Galway Races week in 2013. And I was leaving to go to his wake and someone texted me the Paddy Power odds. Someone was 3-1, someone was 5-1, and I was bringing up the rear at 40-1 and I said, ‘To hell with that’. I was a bit miffed. So miffed I forgot to put on a bet. I reckon Colm fixed those odds.”

There were people with really good human stories to tell, and a lot of them not in good shape

There was huge pressure in the run-up to taking the job, he says. “I think I lost a half stone. Noel Curran was the [director general] at the time and he gave me some brilliant advice. He just said, ‘Look, there’ll be a bit of fuss and hoopla around the start of this thing and then it will die down and you’ll just do the job.’ But I think everybody was expecting to lose at least some of the audience. And there was a little blip at the start. And then I came back.”

For years, he says, he was largely focused on news interviews and that changed when he took over Today. “I think your colleague Mick Heaney fairly accurately portrayed how I had to grow and develop in dealing with people,” he says. “Generally, on the News at One it’s the hard news. It’s the body politic. Whereas with this there were people with really good human stories to tell, and a lot of them not in good shape.

“So, you have to develop a capacity to empathise with them. And that took time. That took effort.” He laughs. “I cracked it in the end and now I’m walking away.”

The interviews that really stick with him, he says, aren’t always with politicians. He talks about interviewing carers and victims of abuse. “I’ve been in awe of certain people, who really crap things happened to and somehow they’re still standing. There was a woman called Niamh Cosgrave, she was a survivor of rape, and she was able to talk about that and just get her life together.”

On social change: ‘I did not see it coming’

What does he think of the changes in Ireland over the past decade? “I would never have predicted that the abortion referendum would go the way it did and be carried so comprehensively. In hindsight, you can say politicians were pretty much trailing where public opinion was, but I suppose they were still so seared by the experience of 1983... And then the way the vote went, two-thirds? I certainly would not have seen that coming.”

Generally, he keeps his own views close to his chest. He paraphrases section 30 of the old Broadcasting Act: “RTÉ has an obligation to be objective, impartial and fair to all interests on matters of public controversy. You might not ever achieve [complete objectivity]. But if you say, ‘It’s not possible,’ you effectively excuse yourself from the obligation to try.”

Sean O’Rourke at the Radio Centre in RTÉ on his first day presenting Today with Sean O’Rourke on September 2nd, 2013. Photograph: Frank Miller
First of many: O’Rourke on his first day presenting Today with Sean O’Rourke on September 2nd, 2013. Photograph: Frank Miller

He talks about how, despite the particular care RTÉ took to be impartial during the referendums, people would sometimes still accuse it of bias. In his case is that because of his religious faith?

“As Paul Durcan would say, I’m a practising Catholic. I practise, I practise, I practise and then I get to play. Just because you have a belief in a particular faith doesn’t excuse you from upholding the law of the land where ‘objective, impartial and fair to all interests’ is concerned.”

His daughter Dr Maeve O’Rourke spearheaded legal action to get justice for women who had been sent to Magdalene laundries. How does he feel about Ireland’s changing relationship to the church?

I think I’m every bit as horrified as the next person about what’s emerged about child sex abuse

“Firstly, about Maeve, I am incredibly proud. Because I know how much she went through, how hard she worked and how committed she is. I mean, she went to Geneva at her own expense at the age of 23, taking the Irish government to the UN Committee against Torture.

“In terms of the changes, I think I’m every bit as horrified as the next person about what’s emerged about child sex abuse. I remember interviewing Archbishop Eamon Martin when he became the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland. I asked him, ‘How long do you think the Catholic Church will be haunted by the child sex abuse scandal?’ He said, ‘Hopefully forever.’ Which I thought was a pretty decent answer.”

On RTÉ salaries: ‘It was party time’

He talks about a “hardness” that he perceives in public discourse as a consequence of both the pain of recession and the rise of social media. Has he experienced that hardness himself?

“The obvious one that would hit you would be when I finally made it into the RTÉ top 10 where salaries were concerned,” he says. “When you hear the word context, you want to reach for your revolver, but that whole thing started about 30 years ago, when Oliver Barry tried to lure Gay Byrne away from RTÉ. And then, when that didn’t work, he tried to take Marian.

“And RTÉ took a strategic decision: ‘We are not going to have to lose any of our big names.’ And then of course, it was party time.

Before I got into the list, I was all in favour of publication. Once I made it into the list, I began to revise my view

“Some people managed to squeeze out pretty close to a million a year out of RTÉ. Well, look, those days are long over and right now, you’d have to say there’s only one way in which salaries are going in broadcasting.”

In 2016 he earned €308,964 and was the fourth-highest paid in RTÉ. How does he feel about the scrutiny? He laughs.

“Needless to say, before I got into the list, I was all in favour of publication. Once I made it into the list, I began to revise my view.

“The reason I wanted it to be published was because I felt there were people who would be in there doing less for the place than I was. So, it would have suited as a negotiating tactic.

“I remember when it came home to bite me. I had a holiday home in Donegal. I got up there after an election and I was pretty knackered and I went into my favourite bar. He put the pint up and I said, ‘How much is that, Eddie?’ and he said, ‘That’ll be €177,000.’” He laughs.

“But look, it goes with the territory. I mean, nobody wants to know the details about how much of your salary has to be put away for your pension. In actual fact, if I was retiring from the civil service, I’d be far better off now pension-wise. But I have no complaints. I’ve had an absolute ball of a time.”

On interviews: ‘Still waiting to do the perfect one’

He’s not leaving broadcasting entirely. He will be returning to RTÉ in a different capacity that he can’t yet discuss. In the meantime, he’ll catch up on his sleep (he has problems sleeping, he says), potter in his greenhouse and eventually get that motorhome out on the road.

He sounds slightly embarrassed by all the tributes. “Look, I’m not even the best broadcaster in this house,” he says (his wife, Caroline Murphy, was a broadcaster before becoming an organisational psychologist). And he keeps stressing how much he relies on his team. “They have my back and they’re like a family to me.”

He seems happy enough to retire for now, though at times when discussing the upcoming US presidential election or the future of Irish politics, he sounds wistful.

He has done more than 32,000 interviews over the course of his career, he says. “I’m still waiting to do the perfect one. You always look back and say, ‘If I’d just pressed a little more...’”