Ciara Kelly: ‘I remember the first time I told somebody that they were dying. You never forget’
The former GP does not hold back on her Newstalk show, even if it gets her into trouble
Ciara Kelly: 'It’s really important in media to have different voices and different people represented.' Photograph: Tom Honan
Ciara Kelly recently auditioned for a part in the Dún Laoghaire Musical and Dramatic Society’s production of Jekyll and Hyde. She had never done anything like that before. “It was hilarious and terrifying in equal measure,” she says. “I was really, genuinely, madly anxious in a way I would not be going on air.”
What was the part? “It was the part of this prostitute who gets killed.”
She can’t stop laughing and cringing as she recalls all of this. She tells me one of the songs was called “Bring on the Men. I was almost crying with embarrassment trying to sing it . . . I’m brave in some ways. I’m brave enough to give an opinion but standing up and singing Bring on the Men is very challenging for me.”
According to Kelly, all of the other women auditioning were 25 years younger, highly confident, highly skilled and, in some cases, fully costumed. In contrast, she messed up the tune, she mangled the words, she did a Cockney accent, she shimmied and she accidentally printed out only every second page of the script so she didn’t quite understand what was going on. “My kids said, ‘Did they think you were simple?’”
Why did she do it? She always wanted to be in a musical, she says, “And I decided I wanted a hobby because I work a lot but I’m not going to join a golf club.”
She’s going to stick with it, she says. “I don’t think I’ll get that part [but] there’s an old bat woman who is the governor of an asylum or something, so I think I might have a chance of getting that.”
As she was leaving the audition, she says, she called out, “I would take any of the lesser prostitute roles as well.”
Ciara Kelly clearly has a strong desire to get out of her comfort zone. The audition came almost one year after she left her GP practice to become a full-time broadcaster with Newstalk’s Lunchtime Live. “I do think there’s something late bloomery about me, in that an awful lot of things I would probably have liked to have done when I was young, I’m doing now,” she says as we sit upstairs in a Dublin restaurant.
Apart from a short spell living in the city centre in young adulthood, she has spent her life in Greystones, where she now lives with her husband and four children and, until last year, worked 100 yards from her house.
‘Little cheeky thing’
What was she like at school? “I was terrible. I was a little cheeky thing, always gobby. I used to like debating and civics class. It often got me in trouble and I was talkative and that used to get me detention.”
She depicts herself as a young Lloyd Cole lookalike with pudding-bowl hair, a polo neck and a suede jacket. She had strong views, she says, many the same liberal ones she holds now. “I always felt it was important to have opinions and for them to mean something and to have a moral compass . . . The idealism of being a teenager!”
She wanted to study drama but she failed to get in. She makes her interview at the TCD drama department sounds a little like her more recent am-dram audition, with her being a little overwhelmed by more assured and flamboyant contemporaries.
Her next steps couldn’t be more different – three years studying commerce in UCD, which she hated – followed by a much more pleasurable period studying medicine. “I liked that instead of writing a semi-waffly essay on logistics or business strategy, in medicine you’re either right or wrong. ‘Does the kidney do this?’ ‘Yes it does.’ And I liked the people. It’s a bit like being in the trenches. Being a junior doctor is like military training. I’ve had jobs where my week was 120 hours long.”
Did she feel like there was a changing of the medical guard with her generation? “Most doctors were drawn from middle class or upper-middle class backgrounds,” she says. “So there was a conservative, and in Ireland that often meant Catholic, bias that flowed through the profession. There were definitely consultants [who were] paternalistic and patronising, who could never even start to get their heads around what it meant to be a young woman or a working-class person . . . There was a lack of awareness that maybe you would be a better doctor if you were able to empathise differently with your patients or gave them more of a role or a say in their own care.”
A lot of the older school of doctors let people down, she says. “I remember, in UCD in the late 1980s, the conversations in the bar among girls,” she says. “You didn’t know which GP would prescribe the Pill or the morning-after pill and I remember talking to a friend of mine who went to a GP who more or less threw her out of the surgery and said he wasn’t giving an abortion to a slut – even though I should point out that the morning-after pill isn’t an abortifacient. I remember pooling our money in the bar to get enough to have her go to the Well Woman Centre. And I remember young women working out that if you took enough of the regular pill, it did the same job as the morning-after pill . . . It was pretty bleak stuff.”
Kelly thinks that maybe her generation brought more empathy to the job. Was it ever emotionally difficult for her? She thinks for a moment, and then she says, “I remember the first time I told somebody that they were dying. You never forget. I remember her name and I remember the room. I remember all of it. And the reason we were telling her was through a complicated system of mishaps, the consultant that should have been telling her wasn’t there. This was somebody who had been admitted through A&E and was 33 years old. And the only people who were there to explain on that day were myself and the registrar. I remember the two of us standing outside the door waiting to go in . . . and they’d been given a private room [in which] to be given this awful news. I can still see it.”
Tears come to her eyes
Tears come to her eyes and her voice cracks. “That’s really weird. I can still see it. She was 33 and her husband was foreign and didn’t speak much English and they had little kids and the reason it was upsetting was we had told this 33-year-old she had cancer and was going to die really quickly . . . and she didn’t miss a beat. She didn’t say anything about herself, she turned around and said, ‘You need to help me’. And we said ‘we’ll do this, this and this’ and she said ‘No, you’ve to get them a house. We don’t have anywhere to live.’”
She points to her tears. “It’s good we did the photos before. I’m sorry, Patrick. I didn’t know you were going to ask such probing questions. You probably didn’t know it was a probing question. It was just, Christ, I remember it so well. It was awful. I don’t think you forget the first time, to be honest, and of course you’re upset and moved by someone’s plight but in a funny kind of way, that wouldn’t be something I’d shy away from either because someone has to do it. I’ve held hands with people that were dying – I’ve also cried with patients. That’s part of the job.”
She has no qualms about feeling empathy, she says. She tells me that she has, in the past, cried on air when struck by something sad that an interviewee has said. She also says that there are a more similarities between being a radio presenter and a GP than people might think.
“In the surgery, you want to put people at their ease,” she says, “you want to get from them certain important bits of information and you want to do it in a 10-minute time scale. You want rapport but you want it so they’re okay with being able to share in this space. Then you have to wrap it up and move onto the next person. Those two jobs are not as dissimilar as you might imagine.”
When she eventually settled on setting up her practice in Greystones, after a dizzying array of jobs in hospitals and GP practices around the city, she expected she would be working there until she retired. Her media career happened in parallel and by accident. It started with a piece she wrote for the Sunday Independent at the request from a parent at her children’s school who worked at the paper.
She wrote about the importance of centralising cancer services and was instantly told to “get back in [her] box” by sniffy consultants. The reaction to this article led to a regular Sunday Independent column and that led to a stint on the couch on Ireland AM. “The first time I was on TV I was 8½ months pregnant. How did they put me on TV? I could barely fit behind the desk. I was about to give birth on the couch.”
Her highest-profile media job up until now has been as a health expert on RTÉ’s weight-loss show Operation Transformation, a job she has just left after five years. She really enjoyed it, she says, though she is very aware of the debates that circle around that show. “Fat shaming versus public health initiative?” she says. “I totally get that. [But] the leaders themselves felt it was a very positive intervention in their lives. And I liked the community aspect of it too – all over the country in January, people in high-vis jackets out walking for Operation Transformation.”
She has become accustomed to being a public figure. Her first experience of a media storm came after she strongly criticised a contestant for drinking too much and, it seemed, the nation was affronted. The edit made it look worse than it was at the moment, she says. “The next day I was dropping my kids to school and I dropped in to the local Centra, maybe to get a coffee on the way to work, and the newspapers are always lined up on a low shelf and my face was on the front of every tabloid. I bought my coffee and went in to the surgery and the phone lines were ringing off the hook.”
Journalists were ringing asking if she would apologise. “I told [the secretaries] to say ‘I’m not going to talk to anyone and I’m not going to apologise either’ . . . so I went in and my first patient said, ‘Thank you very much. My husband was a terrible alcoholic and kicked the crap out of me for years. Nobody every calls out alcohol in this country’ and I said, ‘I definitely am not apologising now’.”
She withstood a barrage of criticism, and even some suggestions she commit suicide, only getting upset when an acquaintance got in touch to ask was she okay. The only thing that really bothered her, she says, was when her oldest son, then 14, started to defend her on social media. “It would break your heart,” she says and laughs. “His defence of me was really crap. Someone said, ‘That doctor is only a stupid skinny bitch anyway’ and he came on and said ‘My mum is not a stupid skinny bitch and she used to be much fatter’.”
A week later, she wrote an unapologetic critique of Irish drink culture in her column, and then appeared on TV. The narrative suddenly changed. “Then I saw people on social media saying, ‘She should be the minister for health!’ The week before, I was the worst person in the world. I thought, ‘Okay, best not to take any of this too seriously’.”
Her initial forays into media were all exercises in journalistic health advocacy but as her career has developed, she has written and spoken candidly about her own life. She has written about the grief she experienced when her father died and the pain of watching her mother cope with dementia. “It does cost me a little something to do that [but] I still believe that there’s a value in saying something real or honest.”
Her mother died last year at the age of 91. “Truthfully, it was that cliché of ‘the happy release’,” she says. “There was no benefit to mum staying any longer. No good for her could come of that – I remember her saying to me in this very reasonable way. ‘This is like being landed on a film set and not knowing anything about this place.’ I’d come in and go ‘Hi Mum, it’s Ciara’ and she’s say ‘Ciara? I haven’t seen Ciara in ages, months!’ Towards the end, when she was talking at all, she’d say things like, ‘You have kind eyes’ but it could have been anyone. There was no recognition at all it was me.”
Honest and open
She thinks it’s important to be honest and open, as a GP and now as a journalist. Why did she decide to leave her practice? She had been a little overwhelmed, she says, juggling a full-time job, a newspaper column, a stint on Operation Transformation, and, at that stage, a weekend show on Newstalk. She knew something had to give.
And then she was offered George Hook’s lunchtime slot. Hook had lost this after a farrago in which he suggested a woman involved in a rape trial had some culpability for her situation. This led to a whole sequence of events that saw Fintan O’Toole criticising the station’s lack of female presenters in this paper and, subsequently, all Irish Times journalists being banned from Communicorp stations.
Kelly doesn’t wish to comment on this ban, nor does she want to say too much about Hook and his propensity to say offensive things in public. She does sigh heavily and say, “He has been a friend to me and I almost always don’t agree with what he says and I can see why if you didn’t know him as the man or as a friend, why people do give out about him on things like Twitter. I can see it.”
Later, she mentions a recent item she did on her show about students who were assaulted in UCC after which a woman texted in to say that women often brought trouble on themselves by dressing inappropriately. Kelly responded angrily, explaining rape and consent and chastising the woman (“Shame on you”).
The snippet went viral. “I kind of thought, you know what, that’s a good thing. Once again we’re talking about ‘Newstalk’ and ‘rape’ but it’s a totally different thing. It’s really important in media to have different voices and different people represented, because if all you hear is one point of view and one perspective, maybe male, maybe middle class, maybe a certain age demographic, you don’t realise there’s all these other ways of viewing things.”
Kelly does not hold back about the things that matter to her. She regularly decries conspiracy theorists who spread misinformation about vaccination programmes. “I always say they are immune to logic and science but they’re not immune to vaccine-preventable diseases,” she says. “I was a GP in the north-inner city in the year 2000, when that measles outbreak hit. There were thousands of kids in north Dublin affected and there were three deaths. Those are real children who should be alive today, going to college, working, falling in love. No one should die from a vaccine-preventable illness.”
She also has strong views about religious control of hospitals and believes the new National Maternity Hospital should not be subordinated to “a Catholic ethos”. “It seems to me absolutely ridiculous in 2018, post-Repeal,” she says. “That would be my Wood Quay issue. I would happily lie in front of a digger. Irish women deserve better. Obviously, abortion is one facet, but think of the other things – contraception, sterilisation, assisted reproduction – the Church is against all those things.”
Leaving her practice to focus on broadcasting was a big deal for her. “Being a doctor is not just a job,” she says. “It becomes a part of your identity. People, even now, call me ‘Doctor Ciara’, even people I’ve told to stop calling me that.”
She misses her patients. And she misses how grounding working as a GP can be in comparison to the fickle, popularity-courting world of media. “If you were having a really bad day in media terms, you’d talk to someone with cancer and think, ‘Cop the hell on. Someone is being mean to you on Twitter? So bloody what?!’”
But she also relishes the change and the challenge. “Life is really short,” she says, “and I had spent an awful lot of my youth, even though I had a slightly anarchic head and I was rebellious in what I said, I still managed to do very sensible things. I did well in my Leaving Cert. I got a degree and then went and got another degree. When we were all supposedly partying, I was mostly working – I think I’m doing it the wrong way around. I think I’m rebelling now. I’m erupting like this anarchic thing now.”
Lunchtime Live is on Newstalk between noon and 2pm from Monday to Friday