Anne Doyle: ‘Depression? I know what it is, and it’s a b*tch’

Anne Doyle on retirement: ‘If I could have afforded it, I would have gone out earlier.’ Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
THE FORMER RTÉ NEWSREADER OF 30 YEARS ON HER POPULARITY ON SOCIAL MEDIA, HER BRIEF RETURN TO TV WITH WATERFORD WHISPERS, THE PERKS OF RETIREMENT, AND LOCKDOWN LIFE

The Anne Doyle that read the RTÉ news for close to 30 years and the Anne Doyle that her social circle know are two very different people. The former was a reassuring bastion of professionalism; all honeyed enunciation, crisp vowels and ice-blonde bobbed hair. The latter has divilment running through her like letters through Brighton rock.

She talks like the clappers and laughs often and easily, opening our conversation with a great story about, as a 20-something, accessing bank loans for clothes under the auspices that she was using the money to buy a motorbike. The only glitch in her plan, of course, was that she has since talked about not being able to drive, much less ride a motorbike, in public. “I’m sure they probably wondered why I was buying a motorbike in that case!” she cackles.

Several decades on and Doyle still doesn’t drive, preferring to get about her beloved South Georgian quarter on foot. She is also a big fan of her free travel pass.

Anne Doyle in 1979. Photograph: RTÉ
Anne Doyle in 1979. Photograph: RTÉ

“You get it when you’re 66,” explains the 68-year-old. “It works for the Wexford Bus too, and funnily enough, because their rates are so reasonable, I kind of feel guilty using it. But the old free travel is a great man.

“I’m very relieved that I lived long enough to get that. I remember when it was introduced – Charlie Haughey brought it in – and even then I remember thinking to myself, ‘wow, if I manage to live that long’, and soon, it was getting closer. I don’t use it half as much as I should, but it’s a very nice perk.”

Somewhat handily for Ferns-born Doyle, the Wexford Bus leaves right across the road from her home on Leeson Street. The thought immediately crosses my mind: how do fellow passengers react when Doyle, a broadcaster routinely described as a national treasure (or, as Pat Kenny’s famously put it, the ‘thinking man’s pin-up’) alights? She scoffs at the idea of being recognised. “Sure they don’t pay a bit of attention to me, nor I to them.”

There’s probably a slight untruth in there. Since Doyle read her final newscast on Christmas Day 2011, she has been the benefactor of a reputation that borders on the feverishly cultish. People who were barely old enough to watch the news at the time ask her for selfies, or froth over her on Instagram.

Doyle has no truck whatsoever with social media (on which, more later), and is at a bit of a loss to explain her appeal to a new wave of young fans.

“A very curious thing happened,” she ventures. “I’m a great believer in serendipity, and I formed – in terms of our age difference, a somewhat unusual friendship – with young James Kavanagh, the influencer. I think many of his followers decided to take me on board. I only really slid into younger people’s consciousness on the heels of James to be honest. I suppose they’re amused by whatever mischief you might get up to.

The nature of news is that you’re dealing with grey matters, so it isn’t really a time for wise-cracking and whip-cracking

“Longevity is a wonderful thing, so it might have been simply down to the fact that I existed,” she adds. “People get used to you, like the poor cat who comes and sits by your fire, and you might even think you don’t like it all that much, but by God you’ll miss it when it’s gone.”

Yet there are more ways to explain away Doyle’s evergreen appeal aside from mere influencer endorsement. Given her cool and calm delivery on RTÉ News, TV audiences were positively thrilled when they first witnessed Doyle beyond the confines of the news bulletin format, as a natural conversationalist with a taste for mischief and a gin-dry humour. An on-air kiss with Brendan O’Connor on Don’t Feed The Gondolas in the early Noughties saw her cross the Rubicon from newsreader to celebrity.

“It made some of the senior management in RTÉ think about me differently as well for a short period,” Doyle has said.

“[I got in] a little [trouble]. It was a moment of impulsiveness.”

As Brendan Courtney noted on the recent RTÉ series Keys To My Life, on which Doyle appeared revisiting her homes of old, she is a woman “that everyone knows but no one really knows”. In her episode, she revealed her lack of domestic skills (she gave up cooking in 1996) and recounted her mother’s sudden death in 1979 while Doyle herself was on holiday in Spain with friends. Twitter, an unforgiving critic at the best of times, roundly hailed her as a TV tonic.

It’s not taken too much effort or design on her part – more than once in our interview, Doyle refers to her own laziness – but Doyle has somehow shape-shifted into a sort of mistress of craic, a glamazon, a media grande dame. It’s a reputation hoped for by many who leave RTÉ, and achieved by few.

“The nature of news is that you’re dealing with grey matters, so it isn’t really a time for wise-cracking and whip-cracking,” Doyle reflects. “I suppose there is an assumption that you’re a very po-faced person, and that’s what you’re like, which goes to show you what a fine little actor I am. But that’s really not what I was like. Besides, I’m too old to be serious now.”

I’ve seen clips of Normal People, sent to me by younger friends, of which I’m lucky enough to have many. They felt it was their duty to try and get me into the 20th century

This was merely compounded by her appearance on RTÉ’s recent Comic Relief telethon in June. In a night of standout moments, Doyle more than held her own while deploying her trademark steeliness to read bulletins from Waterford Whispers News (sample lines: “The Vatican plane douses RTÉ in holy water as the broadcaster airs Normal People episodes” and “Minister for Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty confirmed that all First Holy Communion children may apply for the Covid-19 payment in a bid to recover loss of earnings”).

Doyle’s straight-faced delivery of Waterford Whispers’ headlines prompted a flurry of online commentators calling for her return to Irish screens, and beseeched her to try her hand at more comedy. But no; retirement suits her just fine.

“Well, what’s seldom is wonderful,” Doyle intones, effectively putting the kibosh on a comedy career. “I like their stuff and find them very funny so I said I’d do it. I did it like a straight bulletin – you don’t want do be doing any comedy, after all. Which of us isn’t flattered when someone likes something that you do? It was a funny script, and didn’t really require major skills on my part.”

Through the Comic Relief event, she eventually caught up on the fuss surrounding Normal People, having missed its original broadcast: “I’m not one for television,” she affirms. “I’ve seen clips [of Normal People] that were sent to me by younger friends, of which I’m lucky enough to have many. They felt it was their duty to try and get me kicking and screaming into the 20th century. I mean, they’ve given up on [getting me into] the 21st century.”

Anyone hoping for Anne Doyle: The Podcast will have a wait on their hands too: she is a Luddite, and proud of it.

“I don’t do Twitter – I wouldn’t trust myself,” she admits. “I don’t consider that I’m not reliable enough or that I’d turn into Donald [Trump] or anything, but I’d be terrified I’d say things I might regret. I don’t mean in terms of political correctness or anything, but that you might take a bad notion.”

Dan Grattan with Anne Doyle at the Leopardstown Christmas Racing Festival in December 2011.Photograph:Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Anne Doyle with Dan Grattan at the Leopardstown Christmas racing festival in 2011. Photograph:Alan Betson

Unlike everyone else, she has steadfastly resisted the lure of Zoom. “We have a very active residents’ association here and our meetings are pretty regular,” Doyle explains of her neighbourhood. “We usually go to the Arts Club or McGrattans [the pub owned by her long-time partner, Dan McGrattan] or whoever will let us in, really.

“At one point in lockdown we were going to do meetings by Zoom and I said, ‘forget it. I’m not going to get my head around Zoom’. I can barely hold the phone, and I can’t find the cable of the laptop anyway. One of my neighbours realised he was up against a hopeless Luddite and said, ‘there’s no reason why you can’t come down here. There will only be two of us in this great big room’. So we did that, and then we could have a little drink or three after, so any hope of me doing Zoom was out the window.”

Lockdown, Doyle admits, brought a definite change in gear. “I’m not going to pretend I enjoyed it,” she says. “I would imagine my response is similar to a great many people. I found the first week or so very claustrophobic, mainly because I’m used to being out and about. The thing is, it’s a surprisingly vibrant community in this area – there are more of us than you think. But if you took a walk down Grafton Street, and my local shop would be Dunnes in the Stephen’s Green centre, it was very eerie.”

Doyle is nearly a decade into her retirement: 'To tell you the truth, if I could have afforded it, I would have gone out earlier again, because I was doing it a very long time'

Much to her chagrin, Doyle lost her ability to focus on her beloved reading. At the outset of her working life, before she joined Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs as an Executive Officer in the consular service (and after she spent a year as an English and History teacher), Doyle worked as a librarian, and has remained a staunch bibliophile ever since. In her home, brimming with curios, she even has a dedicated reading room.

“Apparently losing your focus is an extremely common response [to the pandemic],” she notes. “But sure look, what do you expect? The world has slipped sideways. I’m a dedicated thriller reader and I lost all that, but on another note, I’m reading much more interesting books, and I’ve gone back to older reading habits.”

She doffs her cap to her former colleagues at RTÉ, widely acknowledged for doing a tireless job in their Covid-19 coverage. The pace in the newsroom of late has been hectic, which prompts the question: does she miss the cut and thrust of her old workplace, or is watching the news a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’?

“I’m probably inclined to say the latter,” she laughs. “I have to say, there were some reporters and presenters that seemed to be working around the clock. It was lovely to see someone pick up a different brief, like Orla O’Donnell who is the legal affairs correspondent, or Sinead Crowley, who stepped over from her normal arts brief, to realise just how very good they were.”

Talking about RTÉ’s current financial situation, and specifically viewing it at something of a remove, Doyle adds: “I understand the financial pressures, but I was on the Board of RTÉ and the Workers’ Representatives in 2000 for a five-year tenure, and during that time, RTÉ went from absolutely stone broke to being in recovery. So it’s not something that hasn’t happened before. In fairness, it did happen in a different world, and the way we do things now, the way we access information, is so fundamentally different that the problems are much deeper.

“I don’t know what fundamental changes it will take, but I dread thinking about it.”

Of whisperings of a toxic work environment down in Montrose, Doyle is having little truck. “I would take that with a grain of salt,” she intones. “I think the manner in which people have delivered over the last few months, going the extra mile to put it mildly, doesn’t show toxicity to me.”

RTÉ newsreader Anne Doyle 2009
Anne Doyle in 2009

After completing her final newscast in the closing days of 2011, Doyle is nearly a decade into her retirement. “To tell you the truth, if I could have afforded it, I would have gone out earlier again, because I was doing it a very long time,” Doyle reflects.

Asking for early retirement from RTÉ, she recalls, was equal parts liberating and terrifying.

“I felt very strongly that this is what I wanted,” she admits. “I was gone just before I was 60 and could have worked until I was 65. I just felt I’d done it long enough, do you know that kind of way? So I was very happy with it, but it still came as more of a change than I would have anticipated.

“The first couple of months were like ‘whoopeee! Every day’s a holiday’. I travelled a lot, or as long as I could afford it, to places that were feasible economically. I suspect it’s not at all unusual for people who stop working, it’s not that you want to be back in work, it’s simply that you had to adjust to a totally different life. The first year was grand, but I found the second year kind of challenging. There was a little bit of, ‘is this all there is?’

“I’ve always had other interests, let me put it that way, but I realised I had to get involved in other things.”

Determined to busy herself during the adjustment stage of retirement, she became a Wexford Ambassador for the Gathering in 2013, and was a long-time supporter of Aware, the charity that offers support for depression.

“I’ve had streaks of depression. I know what it is, and it’s a bitch. It can be crippling, and it’s very hard on the people around you,” Doyle told this newspaper in 2013.

Additionally, Doyle helped to start the aforementioned residents’ association in the South Georgian core. These days, she contributes to their website’s literary page. “Somewhat fortuitously for me, quite a lot of people have moved into this area,” Doyle explains. “I suppose nature abhors a vacuum, and in the middle of it all, here I was, finding my tribe a bit on my own doorstep.”

Panti Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill, with Anne Doyle at the launch of Panti’s memoir Woman in the Making in 2014. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Panti Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill, with Anne Doyle at the launch of Panti’s memoir Woman in the Making in 2014. Photograph: Dave Meehan

There had previously been talk of studying law during retirement, with a view to entering the legal profession.

“I kind of said that tongue-in-cheek,” Doyle affirms. “To be honest, I said that to everyone for the craic, and didn’t expect people to take it seriously. I do know a lot of people who did, and sailed through the exams, but I’m not sure I’d have the application for it. You’d need a bit of application and discipline, and that wouldn’t be me.

“Do you know the one thing I might do yet?” she adds, “I always said I would pick up Irish again. My sister, God rest her, would have been quite good at Irish, and she spoke and wrote to me in Irish. I would love to be able to draw, too. There are just some things in life for which you have no aptitude.”

That said, there has been the occasional attempt at writing fiction and short stories, often in longhand.

“I won’t say I was pleased with them, as that sounds a bit smug, but there are some I thought were okay,” she admits. “I’d be very self-critical, though.”

Surely publishers are expressing an interest? “Really, it’s doggerel,” Doyle replies. “The one thing I can do is make up a rhyme about anything – I can do it almost spontaneously. It’s like I’ve missed my vocation. We’re not talking fine poetry here – we’re talking about giving someone a laugh after a few glasses of wine.”

Doyle’s partner, publican Dan McGrattan (with whom she started a relationship in 2000) has worked throughout lockdown at his Fitzwilliam Lane premises, sanding floors and readying the pub for reopening. “He has a great work ethic, or at least greater than yours truly here, which isn’t saying much, says you.”

More recently, Doyle has become involved in the 20x20 campaign, No Proving, Just Moving. She is more a fan of watching sport (specifically, her beloved Wexford in GAA) than playing it, but is now encouraging others to get out and get moving.

“When I went to boarding school, I managed assiduously to avoid sport,” she laughs. “I was good at debating, but they definitely gave me a pass on the sport. I thought I was the worst person in the world for this [campaign], but I do love walking every day. My heavens, during this period, it’s really come into its own.”

Now that lockdown has eased, Doyle certainly feels – and looks – more like herself.

“I have very wavy hair, a mop that would be unrecognisable if it wasn’t regularly beaten into subjugation,” she reveals. “As a child I had poker-straight hair but then it went the other way. A friend of mine calls it Minnie The Minx hair, like I’d put my finger in an electric socket.

“Four years ago, a friend of mine who works in RTÉ was doing my hair and make-up for something, and she said, ‘I’m going to show you how to blow-dry your hair, in case you get really stuck’. I’m fortunate I learned, but Jesus, I will never blow-dry my own hair after this.”

As for the instantly recognisable ice-blonde colour: “I discovered I had a frightening black streak down the back!” she laughs. “I started going grey at 19 or 20. I cut the fringe myself after a couple of glasses of wine, which probably wasn’t all that wise. I know it’s first-world problems, but I was delighted when the hairdressers reopened.

“One thing you do learn is that it’s surprising what you can survive,” Doyle surmises. “Sometimes things may seem a little overwhelming, and they are overwhelming, but people have come through tougher times. I hope this doesn’t sound frivolous but even after everything, I hope we can still get a little bit of fun out of life. It’s about giving yourself a bit of a shake and trying to get a bit of enjoyment and craic out of every day.”

For more information on the 20x20 campaign No Proving. Just Moving, see 20x20.ie