Brendan O’Connor: ‘I was sitting there and I was looking at her and I was terrified’

Parenting in my shoes: RTÉ Radio 1 presenter on the challenges, worries and joys of fatherhood

It's been a year of change for broadcaster and journalist Brendan O'Connor. Not only has he had a "new lease of career life" at the age of 50, taking over the Saturday and Sunday morning RTÉ Radio 1 slot following the death of Marian Finucane earlier this year, but his eldest daughter Anna has started secondary school.

Brendan says he’s “loving” his new role. The show’s listenership has continued to grow significantly over the course of the year, something which Brendan credits to his great team. The numbers are “a good vote of confidence”, he says. But he’s perhaps feeling a little less confident about the new phase of parenthood he’s about to enter.

“It’s been weird with Anna going into secondary in this current situation in the world. Before we knew who all her friends were. We knew their parents, or a lot of it was very much a product of a shared life and community together. But now she’s gone off into this other community.

“With Anna going into secondary you realise, ‘okay, she’s now creating her own life outside of the family’ and actually that’s going to start happening. But then it’s all phases. It’s kind of good that we’re moving into another phase as well,” he says, reassuring himself. “And sure look, I suppose it happens gradually for a reason doesn’t it, that you get more and more time to get used to it.


I would be probably more in touch with my feminine side than my lad's side

“It’s funny, one thing I have realised is, that I kind of took it for granted up to now, we were all very close and everything. I was very close to Anna and I’m realising now I’m going to have to start making more of an effort now to make sure that we stay close. It doesn’t happen as naturally or as easy once they get to this stage. And everyone did always say, ‘wait ‘til you get to the teenage years’.”

Before becoming a father, having children wasn’t high up on Brendan’s list of priorities. “I wasn’t pushed at all about having kids to be honest. Sarah was like ‘we’re having kids’. I suppose I kinda managed to put her off for a while. I had no huge interest. I wasn’t against it either, but there was no lacking in my life. I probably never thought I was the type. I was very immature. I was happy with the way things were up to a great age.”


Fatherhood came knocking when Brendan was 38. “Anna was born by caesarean,” he says. “I was left with her for about an hour maybe, while Sarah was in recovery. I was sitting there and I was looking at her and I was terrified.”

During that time, alone with his newborn daughter and his thoughts, Brendan realised that he “didn’t know what to do. But then you just take it as it comes. And you know, I loved it then when it came.”

Being a father of girls suits Brendan, he feels. “I would be probably more in touch with my feminine side than my lad’s side, so if I’d boys and they were into soccer and they wanted to talk about Man United, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that. I’m much more comfortable with girls. I’m more comfortable with girls anyway in general and women and stuff.

“I wouldn’t have been sporty or any of that kind of stuff. I suppose, socially, I would have been kind of able to be one of the lads in lots of ways, but there was always that lacking. It does mark you a little bit if you’re not sporty. You’re left out in certain ways. I don’t think I would have been fit to raise manly men.

“I remember one thing,” Brendan says referring to his second daughter’s birth. “We were in the theatre, because it was a caesarean again. This woman said it’s a girl, I said, ‘oh great, I’m glad it’s a girl. I wanted a girl’. And your one corrected me, and kind of in a slightly disapproving tone, and she was right, ‘well, I’m sure you just wanted a healthy baby’, and I was like, ‘yes of course, of course’, and one minute later, suddenly they’re looking at her and all that kind of thing. I got what I wanted.”

Brendan’s youngest daughter, Mary, has Down Syndrome. “I think it’s usually more difficult for the woman so I think that kicks the man into a more stoic role about it all which is probably helpful too,” he says about learning of her diagnosis. “It’s a shock and there aren’t any good narratives around it. I don’t think they’ve really thought it through – how to deal with these things, how you tell people.

“Everybody has their story about how they heard and they’re rarely good stories and sometimes they’re really bad. I do think that there’s a lot of women in particular who carry trauma around that, a kind of a slight post-traumatic thing.”

Meeting other parents whose children have special needs has been helpful for Brendan and his wife Sarah. “There’s no doubt that Sarah has a great group of friends that she made through that aspect of life and she can talk to them in a way that she can’t talk to other parents.

“Certainly from my point of view it’s given me an understanding of a lot of other people. We are very lucky, I don’t say that just to acknowledge privilege or anything, but we are very lucky in that Mary is largely very healthy. She is very healthy and she’s a good kid and she’s well able and all that so far. I wouldn’t say she’s keeping up, but she’s doing okay.

“In terms of the extra work and management we have to do, there’s a certain amount of it but nothing on the scale of what other people have to deal with. But at the same time it did give me a slight understanding of other people. It just makes you care more about carers and understand more about them.

“If there’s one issue or one bunch of people that I would feel an outrage on behalf of would be carers. But not because I would view us as carers, we would not view ourselves that way, but that we have a slight understanding of what those people are doing.”

Brendan is very proud of the relationship his daughters have, while admitting that they “kill each other” too.

“Without sentimentalising it, I think all siblings of kids with special needs, a lot of them anyway, are quite special kids themselves. You would not want to say in any way that it’s kind of a gift that they get, because I hate that kind of talk , but at the same time I think it does teach them special kind of things and I also think that it’s given Anna the kind of skills that might be useful in the future. Those are the kind of skills that people are going to need in life and employment and everything else, people skills.”

Mary attends mainstream school. “She’ll be there as long as it suits her,” Brendan says. “But maybe a time comes when mainstream doesn’t suit her and then I think that there can be a temptation for us to keep her in mainstream for our own reasons and I think you have to keep checking that all the time, that it’s what’s right for her.

The highs are holidays, and just the four of us going off together. I love that time

"There was a piece that had a big effect on both me and Sarah. Nigella Lawson's sister in law, Rosa Monckton, has a daughter called Domenica. And Domenica finished secondary school. Her mother wrote a piece saying, 'what the f**k was I doing putting that girl through secondary school where she's trying to learn chemistry and all this kind of stuff, struggling and all that, and she comes out the end of it and she has no friends, no friends, not one friend'.

“And we’re not blaming the friends, but as secondary school goes on, as puberty kicks in, those kids are going to take off in a different way, that you know, my Mary isn’t going to be on that same track with them. I would think that’s the most important thing, that she would have friends and whatever way that works, mainstream, special school, whatever.

“It’s important that she would learn life skills and read and write and all the things she can learn, in that she will have a job someday, but the most important thing is that she would have friends.”

‘Good mental hygiene’

Practicing “good mental hygiene” is important to Brendan – “getting into the cold sea, go for a run, meditate all those things and then like I think I’m reasonably fine if I do all that.

“I don’t look forward. I don’t look back,” he says “I take it as it comes, which is not to suggest I’m laid back but I do just take things as they come. I had no expectations (of parenthood) as in it was not something I was actively interested in doing. I didn’t see how it was going to improve life one way or another, so the reality of it has been a revelation. It has been wonderful. It’s been great. It really has. I can’t emphasise enough, it’s been the saving of me. Absolutely copped me on. Completely redeemed me.

“The highs are holidays, and just the four of us going off together. I love the four of us just heading off. I love that time. Maybe because it’s just the four of us. Sitting around play Uno in the evening with the kids.

“To be honest you just get through it at the time when they’re small, but I wouldn’t go back there,” Brendan replies when I ask about the lows. “The months after Mary was born were tough going and I feel bad saying that because Mary’s there and she’s great and I never want her to think that we’re not grateful to have her, because we are. It’s nothing to do with Mary personally, it’s to do with the shock. Mary is a joy and a great kid.

“I’m so proud of both of them. Considering their challenges, they are two such determined people. I honestly think they get that strength from their mother who is a f**king lioness, as all special needs mothers have to be. Whenever you have one who is probably never going to get a phd, it changes your priorities and you realise for both of them, the best thing I can do for them is give them the skills to be happy.”

Parenting in My Shoes
Part 1: Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6: Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper
Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe
Part 12: Alison Curtis
Part 13: Dáithí Ó Sé
Part 14: Brendan O'Connor
Part 15: Anne Dalton
Part 16: Gary O'Hanlon
Part 17: Paula MacSweeney
Part 18: Stephen McPhail
Part 19: Michelle O'Neill