Katie Hannon: ‘It wasn’t just rage with Golfgate. People were so broken’

The former social diarist on becoming one of RTÉ's most in-demand broadcasters

Katie Hannon, presenter of Saturday with Katie Hannon and The Late Debate and sometime filler-in for Joe Duffy on Liveline, loves talking to people. Which is a good thing really, given her job.

“It’s a family thing,” she says. “My parents would have been really sociable people… You’d never know who you’d find at our kitchen table. We lived six miles out from Listowel, up a bóthairín. We were kind of a destination place. There was no through traffic where we were, but anyone who came into the yard was to be brought into the house for dinner, tea, breakfast, whatever. That’s just the way we would have been reared. So I always loved this...”

She gestures from me to her over the table in Gleeson’s Hotel in Booterstown. “I always loved doing interviews.” She adds: “Though it’s faintly ridiculous to me that you’re asking the questions.”

Was she ever shy? She shakes her head. “I seem to remember my parents warning people not to get me going or I’d never shut up. You get shushed a lot when you’re the seventh of eight children in the house.”


Hannon was “a ferocious reader” but growing up on a farm in Kerry, becoming a writer never seemed like a real possibility. Until she thought of being a journalist. Where did she get that idea? “I used to watch a lot of Lou Grant reruns. Billie on the metro desk? I loved her. And I had an idea, as every teenager has, of fighting for justice on the frontline.”

Not everyone thought this was realistic. When she told her well-meaning career guidance teacher that she wanted to study journalism in Rathmines, she responded: “Do you know? You’d make a beautiful primary schoolteacher.” Hannon laughs. “She was saying that some of the most brilliant students had failed to get into that course, with clear implications that I was not anywhere near that category.”

She got into Rathmines, after which she got a job editing news stories for RTÉ’s Aertel service. Then she became the social diarist for the Evening Herald. “You know Don Wycherley, the actor? He is tangentially responsible… He was a friend of a friend and he was a teacher… and he was doing the door on Leeson Street with a gang of his other teacher friends to basically keep the wolf from the door by, well, being the wolf on the door… I pitched [the Herald] this idea of a guide to Leeson Street for people who would never be there normally. This was when it was the only place you could go after the pubs closed in Dublin. I wrote this piece and Don and his friends gave me the inside track. Shortly after, the Herald needed somebody as to supplement their social column. And they said, ‘Oh, that young one she seems to know her way around town.’” She laughs. “All I knew was what Don had told me, but within a few weeks I was the social diarist for the paper.”

Did she enjoy it? “If you’re in your early 20s, it’s great fun. Backstage passes to everything, a bit of travel, celebrities up the wazoo... I filled two pages in the Herald, five days a week… I’d often be in at two in the morning typing up my copy… I remember sitting beside Terry Keane on the plane to go into the Czar’s box [at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow] and having Russian champagne drawn for us as we watched a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.”

It really was a different time in journalism. “I’d often be handwriting then dictating it to a copy taker. The stress of that. ‘New par. Cap… lower case…’ I remember queuing at a phone box to file copy.”

After two years of social diarising, she became a general colour writer. In that role she covered tribunals and budget days and the Albert Reynolds libel trial in London. One day her editor said: “‘I think you’ve got a feel for this. The pol-corr job is going to open up shortly. You should apply for it.’ In a million years I would never have applied for that job. It would never have occurred to me that I would be considered.”

She became a political correspondent, based in the Dáil alongside heavy hitters such as Donal Kelly and Geraldine Kennedy. “I was treated at the start as a bit of a girleen, because I might have been one of the youngest if not the youngest pol-corr in the business. But I loved it.”

Politics just made sense to her. “There would have been a lot of politics talked in my house… And I remember having that sense when I started covering politics that I understand what’s going on here. I understand what’s at play. I just got it… You have to understand the political personality and appreciate it, to some degree. You have to understand power and how it shifts and why people behave in a certain way... I had obviously absorbed it by osmosis at the kitchen table.”

She published a book about it, The Naked Politician. “I used to look at these politicians day in and day out and in many cases think, ‘Why do you do this to yourself? Why do you put yourself in the way of all of this stuff? What about your family life? What good are you getting out of it?’ I wrote the book to get underneath that.”

Why did she decide to move to broadcasting? “I had done the evening paper. I’d done the morning paper [the Irish Examiner], I’d done the Sunday paper [Ireland on Sunday]… Journalism was changing at that time and I was working for the Mail group for Associated Newspapers. They’d bought Ireland on Sunday and I felt maybe this was not the best fit for me… I thought, ‘What’s the place doing the best public service journalism?’ And it was Prime Time… They were doing these Prime Time Investigates strands… a real high point, I think, for that programme. So I cold called Prime Time.” Then she interviewed to get on the RTÉ panel for journalists. “And I was there for 15 years.”

With Prime Time she developed an impressive track record as an investigative journalist working over the years on stories about mother and baby homes, the Rescue 116 crash, and the attempt to discredit Garda whistle-blower Maurice McCabe. More recently she temporarily returned to that role when RTÉ broadcast her radio documentary, Women of Honour, about the misogyny, bullying and sexual assault experienced by women in the Irish Defence Forces and the failure of the authorities to do anything about it.

How did Women of Honour happen? “This person contacted me and she had this horrible story of horrific sexual assault, but more horrific was her story of what happened afterwards… She said, ‘Look, I’m not even sure if I want to do anything about this. This happened to me, I want some advice.’ And I said, ‘I’m not working on Prime Time now. But I’ll put you on to somebody.’ She wanted to know, ‘If I want to do this, what would happen?’ So I spent about an hour on the phone with her, talking through legal and personal consequences. After that Christmas she got back to me and said, ‘It’s not just me now, I’ve been talking to a lot of other people, and we’ve got this group and we really want to do something.’”

This roughly coincided with a period when The Late Debate was being taken off air due to Covid, so Hannon had time to make the documentary. The end result is moving, upsetting but important radio. “Their stories were just so powerful,” she says. “When you’re doing those interviews, you’re almost afraid to breathe… You’re willing it on… You have to be really with them. And you have to be invested in it. You’d want to be a psychopath to do this stuff unless you were genuinely invested in it.”

It’s not to be taken lightly, she says. “You’re carrying somebody else’s story. You make promises to people. You say, ‘If you’re going to be a source for this, I’ll protect you, I won’t let you down.’ You’re carrying that for the rest of your life really, carrying people’s secrets… You really have to work hard not to let people down.”

Did she find it stressful? “I find doing hard-edged investigations very stressful. It doesn’t come easy. We would have been reared to be nice, not to bother people, to be agreeable... But doing all kinds of journalism involves you having to bother people and having to be disagreeable and having to confront people. I find that very personally tough. But it’s also absolutely the most satisfying job you can do. If you tell a story of that kind well, you can really affect some kind of change.”

Women of Honour was also her first radio documentary. She figured out how to do it, she says, at the kitchen table. She seems to have a knack of doing things for the first time when the stakes are high. Her first radio presenting job was filling in for Marian Finucane on the Saturday of Brexit. “It was the most bonkers thing. The programme we were going to do was thrown out the window and we had to get guests to talk about this extraordinary thing unfolding before us.”

How did that feel? “Half fun and half terrifying.” She laughs.” I think every single thing I’ve ever done in my life is half fun, half terrifying.”

When she was first asked to stand in for Joe Duffy on Liveline she declined. “In RTÉ it’s seen as a very challenging show to do. It’s so unpredictable. I said, ‘I don’t think so.’” They had to twist her arm. In August 2020, she was sitting in Joe Duffy’s seat when it was revealed that a number of political figures had attended a restriction-breaking event for the Oireachtas Golf Society. “I have a knack for filling in when these things happen.”

Did she feel like she was, at that moment, a conduit for the nation’s rage? “It wasn’t just rage with Golfgate. People were so broken. People had been through so much and it was like nobody cared. The people had carried this cross and broken was the only word. People were angry and you’re used to people being angry but there was another emotion and energy about a lot of the calls that day… When Liveline is at its best there’s nothing like it. It is such a window.”

Is it very different from something like The Late Debate? “With other shows I put a lot of work into making sure I feel like I’m on top of whatever might come up,” she says. “With Liveline you walk into the studio usually only knowing what the first caller is going to say and then you’re looking at 75 minutes where anything could happen.”

What did she think about the recent episodes of Liveline about trans people that led to Pride ending its partnership with RTÉ? “I don’t think it’s going be helpful to anyone for me to throw in my tuppence worth,” she says. “I know that a lot of people inside were so upset because that show particularly had a great relationship with the LGBT community. Even when I’ve been in there, there’s been so much stuff on homophobic bullying and homophobic attacks and people on trans journeys, I just hope that bridges can be mended there again.”

She thinks a lot about the need for media to be more widely representative of Irish society. She’s conscious that many people in journalism come from a selection of Dublin addresses and that there are few people from non-Irish backgrounds. She has participated in the Women in Media conference organised by Joan O’Connor in Ballybunion since it started, and believes that having more women in positions of authority changes the framing of what’s newsworthy and what gets discussed. “Look at the menopause story on Liveline. The vast majority of the producers on Liveline are female and so there was a certain sensitivity and understanding around that.”

Have things improved? “When I look around the radio centre, the majority of our producers are women. There are issues about who all the bosses are. We have a female DG [director general]. But we’ve never had a female head of news.”

It can still be difficult, she says, to achieve a gender balanced panel. “It’s just astonishing with men. If we said, ‘Do you want you to come in and talk about the new space programme?’ They’ll go, ‘What time do you want me in at?’ You ask some woman who has a PhD and she’ll go, ‘I don’t know, I’m not really across that.’ It’s overconfidence on one side and under confidence on the other side. It’s getting a bit better, I think, even the fact that we’re conscious of it and talking about it.”

Does she think women in media are targeted for more abuse than men? “I haven’t had some of the stuff I’ve seen other female presenters have online,” she says. “It’s awful. And you know how you know it’s really gendered? Because if you make some sort of commentary around anything to do with the gender issue… feminism or the pay gap, they all come out from under the stones... It’s extraordinary.”

What makes for a good political discussion on The Late Debate or Saturday with Katie Hannon? “I need people to be animated with each other and passionate about what they’ve come in to talk about, to the degree that they can’t believe the other person has the audacity to say the thing they’re saying. But people who go, ‘I’m just going to keep talking because that suits my agenda,’ that’s terrible radio. And there are some terrible culprits. I know them.”

Can you name them? She laughs. “I cannot.”

How does she manage to control a panel filled with people like that talking over each other? “I do sometimes hear myself sounding like I’m shouting at my children [on the show]. To be honest, it’s actually much easier to do it when they’re on the panel in studio. One of the issues we had in lockdown was we’d have somebody in the Athlone studio, somebody at the end of the line and somebody in a studio down the corridor, because we weren’t allowed to fill up our studio. Because, actually, you control a lot with dirty looks, stern looks, hand gestures. You’re literally managing things like this.”

She mimes some panel conducting — holding her finger aloft, frowning, pointing. “But when you don’t have people in front of you, they feel entitled to talk over you. So it becomes quite difficult.”

What does she do with her time off? “Time off?” she laughs. “I have 11-year-old twins.”

It was a ridiculous question, in fairness. Right now, Hannon has two full-time presenting gigs and one occasional one. She’s also working on a two-part television documentary which tells untold stories pieced together from the National Archives. “I love that part of a project, that first few days where you just find out everything that’s been done... If I had another alternative career, I think I’d be a historian or archivist.”

This said, she seems very happy with the job she has. “I just love talking to people,” she says. “Honestly, put me at a bus stop and I’ll start talking to the person beside me. I’m curious about people. I like listening to people. And people genuinely are quite interesting.”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times