Claire Byrne: ‘My parents had to stand by the bed while I got the last rites’

Claire Byrne: when she was 14 an inspiring teacher got her some work experience on a local newspaper. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
THE RTÉ PRESENTER GREW UP IN A FAMILY THAT HAD ‘BIG CONVERSATIONS ABOUT WHO TO VOTE FOR’. CHILDHOOD MENINGITIS PERMITTING, IT WAS THE BEGINNING OF HER PASSION FOR POLITICS, DEBATE AND LIVE BROADCASTING

Claire Byrne is in the studio hosting the News at One, on RTÉ Radio 1. Her eyes move from the monitor in front of her to the television screens high on the walls and back to her notes as she speaks into the microphone. Occasionally, during breaks, she spots a breaking news story on a screen and suggests that someone on the team on the other side of the glass investigate (“Ryanair in Spain have announced 10 days of strike. Have you seen that?”).

Today the show includes an interview with the Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe about the suspension of energy-efficiency grants, an interview with a Hong Kong-based security correspondent on that city’s heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, and an interview with the Tory politician Dominic Grieve, who wants to stop a no-deal Brexit and is, consequently, the subject of a social-media campaign to have him tried for treason.

The team are having problems getting hold of Grieve. Other items get jigged around as they fail to find him. “What’s the problem?” asks Byrne at one point. “Has he been tried for treason?”

Claire Byrne is funny, by the way. It’s a kind of deadpan humour that can slip under the radar, but it can emerge in her broadcasting and when talking to her in person

Claire Byrne is funny, by the way. It’s a kind of deadpan humour that can slip under the radar, but it emerges from time to time in her broadcasting and, more frequently, when talking to her in person.

Her colleague Christopher McKevitt finally manages to get Grieve on his mobile, and comes running in from the corridor, pointing at his phone. Because Grieve comes on so late there’s a slight delay handing over to Liveline, which Byrne acknowledges with a sigh as she comes out of the studio. “We were over, and I’m never over.” But she also seems energised. She loves live broadcasting. “I’d love to wear a monitor to see what it’s doing physiologically. I love the adrenaline of it.”

We walk from the studio and then out of the back of the building to a new RTÉ cafe called Bite, where we sit outside with coffees. She asks me a question before I can ask her a thing. She asks me about a review I wrote recently about a television programme in which a celebrity’s child investigated social inequality. She thought the show had some good points to make about the decline of social infrastructure, despite its cheesy set-up.

“I suppose the fear is that you won’t get the audience you would get if you didn’t do the populist thing,” she says. “When you try to serve an audience, you do things that are compromising, particularly with those formats... There’s a war on. To get people to watch television is almost impossible. So you have to use all those tricks to get them.”

Byrne is a good interviewer. We end up discussing this article and this programme for several minutes. “Were you always interested in the news?” I ask eventually.

“When I was nine or 10 it was a treat to be allowed stay up to watch Today Tonight,” she says. “I remember being snuggled up to my dad and thinking, The weather’s on. Yes! Today Tonight’s on. Yes!”

Is that not odd behaviour for a nine-year-old? “I think in my head it was more that it was half past nine and I was still not in bed,” she says and laughs. “But news and current affairs were always on... We got the Irish Independent every day, and because it was a sort of a luxury item you read every bloody bit of it.”

It was always, Who did what in the last four years? Who’s going to do what in the next four years, and what has the party been doing on the national stage? And one parent would try to convince the other that the whole house should vote for this person

She grew up on a “kind of a farm” in Mountrath, in Co Laois, with five siblings. “We weren’t wealthy people or people from privilege, but we always had food, which was good.” And her parents were very interested in current affairs.

“Around election time they would have big conversations about who to vote for. There was never one party in the house... It was always, Who did what in the last four years? Who’s going to do what in the next four years, and what has the party been doing on the national stage? And one parent would try to convince the other that the whole house should vote for this person.”

Did she moderate the debate? “No, but I listened very carefully. I actually do think that those conversations formed my view that everybody is entitled to their view.”

She wanted to be a journalist from a very young age. “I think I was a bit nosy. I just loved to know what was going on. And I loved to be the first to tell people, ‘Did you hear

..?’ My life’s a bit ruined by the internet, because everyone knows everything at the same time.”

She pictured herself as a foreign correspondent, she says, “flak jacket and helmet and all of that”, and when she was 14 an inspiring teacher got her some work experience at a local newspaper.

“I remember interviewing the local priest, and they published it... That was one of the first times I saw that I could write something, work with an editor and have it polished and have it published. Once that happens you get addicted to it.”

Claire Byrne Live: the RTÉ show returns next week. Photograph: Andres Poveda
Claire Byrne Live: the RTÉ show returns next week. Photograph: Andres Poveda

Around this time she also contracted meningitis. It was very serious. She nearly died. How did that affect her? “For me it was just I was sick and I got better. But now, when I look back and think that my parents had to stand by the bed while I got the last rites, I think, God, if I was going through that with my kids, I don’t think I’d be able to think about it.”

Does she remember being given the last rites? “I remember snatches of that. There were oils and strange prayers I didn’t understand. My mother still doesn’t like to talk about the meningitis incident.”

Does she feel that experience changed her? She’s curious about what I mean. I tell her that a friend of mine thinks that her experience of a near-fatal illness changed her attitude to life. “Does she believe that she tried to get as much as she can out of her life because of the sickness?” asks Byrne.

I nod. She laughs. “You see, I don’t think I’m that deep. I don’t think I take things on board to that extent. Maybe subconsciously I think that, but I don’t have an awareness of it.”

I should have lost my hearing or lost a limb or lost my sight. I was extremely lucky; being a bit tired is actually not a bad outcome from meningitis

It clearly had a huge impact at the time. She spent almost a month in hospital, was off school for ages afterwards, and she says she was frustrated for some time that she wasn’t immediately able to live life as she had before. “I was tired for about two years. Tired and exhausted, coming home from school and falling asleep.”

“That’s terrible,” I say.

“Yeah, but I should have lost my hearing or lost a limb or lost my sight. I was extremely lucky; being a bit tired is actually not a bad outcome.”

So she just moved on? “I think so. Carry on now, everybody.”

After school she signed up for a social-science degree at University College Dublin, before recognising it wasn’t for her and dropping out. It was only sitting in front of a microphone at the journalism course at the College of Commerce in Rathmines the following year that she thought, oh, this is where she was meant to be.

And then, rather improbably, after this course she ended up spending nearly four years working in Jersey. A friend suggested they leave miserable recessionary Ireland to go to the Channel Islands to earn tax-free money before heading on to Australia. She agreed. When the friend changed her mind, Byrne had already convinced her parents to let her go.

“I couldn’t back out then. I had a one-way ticket and £100. I completely lied to my parents. I said I had a return ticket and loads of money saved and that everything would be fine. It was fine.”

She worked in a hotel, then the china and glass department of a department store, then in the office of a department store (“which I was really bad at”), and then at a local Jersey radio station, then at the BBC, and then back to the first local station, as news editor. She learned a lot, she says; “there were lots of financial scandals” in Jersey.

She came back to Ireland in 1999 to work as a presenter on the newly launched TV3. She loved it. “Until then I was a bit snobby about television.”

Why? “I read somewhere that TV journalists were ‘sourceless and senseless’, and I thought, That’s a great quote, and I believed it was true. I was completely wrong.”

Claire Byrne: ‘When I’m off, I’m pushing a buggy or trying to pull a child into a supermarket. I’m not thinking, does anybody recognise me today.’
Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Claire Byrne: ‘When I’m off, I’m pushing a buggy or trying to pull a child into a supermarket. I’m not thinking, does anybody recognise me today.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Then she worked for Channel 5 for a while before returning to TV3. And then, only after TV3 lifted a legal injunction that stopped her from moving elsewhere before her notice was served, she cohosted Newstalk’s breakfast radio show.

“It was very tough,” she says. “John [Byrne], who was editing the News at One today, worked on that programme, and when we look back we say, God, we had no idea what we were doing. We were pitching ourselves against Morning Ireland, which had half a million viewers every morning, and here we were, these people who were pretty naive and raw and new, pulling together this show and thinking we could change the world. But I don’t regret any of it, because I learned so much about broadcasting.”

In fact, when she got a job offer from RTÉ she found it really difficult to make a decision to leave. It was an offer to cohost The Afternoon Show, she says, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to do that sort of programme. “I’d presented Ireland AM for two years, and I had left because I wasn’t comfortable with it.”

How did she decide? “I rang Gay Byrne for advice; I’d met him a few times. I’d told him a story about being in Jersey and someone asking me was I related to Gay Byrne, and I thought for a second that I might lie and say, ‘He’s my uncle.’” She laughs.

Gay Byrne said, ‘Look, why don’t you just get on the train and see where it takes you?’ So I thought, I’ll do that

When she called him “he spent a long time asking was I happy doing what I was doing. [He said,] ‘There’s a lot to be said for doing a breakfast news-and-current-affairs programme. Don’t give it up unless you’re sure.’ And then at the end he said, ‘Look, why don’t you just get on the train and see where it takes you?’ So I thought, I’ll do that.”

This worked out. She slowly segued from lifestyle programming with The Afternoon Show to current affairs with The Late Debate, Prime Time, Saturday with Claire Byrne and, for four years now, Claire Byrne Live. She has become one of RTÉ’s top broadcasters.

How does she approach interviewing people? “Gosh. It’s an instinctive thing. I ask, what’s the top line. So, say when I’m meeting you today, I wanted to know what the feedback on [that article] was, and so that’s the first thing we talked about. It’s an instinct.”

She thinks a lot about how to pace a programme, she says. “I worked with a great producer, Kay Sheehy, who worked with Pat Kenny for years, and she taught me that that it’s like an opera. You build up to the crescendo, and then you have to slow things down... and then there’s another build... There’s a pattern. That’s why it’s instructive to watch and listen to people like Gay Byrne.”

Does she ever watch herself on television? She answers very quickly. “I can’t. Never.”

How does she see her role on Claire Byrne Live? “What we’ve become really good at doing is identifying injustices that people are experiencing in their lives that nobody is listening to, and we say, ‘This is a public broadcaster: you come in and tell people what the problem is, and let’s see if we can try and get it fixed.’”

Michael Gallagher’s son was killed in Omagh. We played the video of Omagh while he was sitting in the studio, and I just felt really guilty about it, watching a father watching bodies being carried out and thinking, That could be your son

What was she most proud of in the show last year? “Michael Gallagher probably stands out. His son was killed in Omagh. I even get upset now thinking about it. We played the video of Omagh while he was sitting in the studio, and I just felt really guilty about it, watching a father watching bodies being carried out and thinking, That could be your son.”

Would she do that interview differently if she were to do it again? She pauses. “No, because I turned to him and told him I was sorry for putting him through that.” She stops for a moment. She has tears in her eyes now. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why it affects me so much. And he said, ‘No, it has to be done. People have to know, and people have to see.’”

Is there anything else she would do differently? “I know we had a lot of criticism after we did the Eighth Amendment programme. But I felt proud of that programme, because what I wanted to do was invite everyone into a studio and split it down the middle, half in favour and half against, and let the debate happen. I didn’t want to say, it’s a really mature conversation we’re having in Ireland because we’re all so grown up about this now, because I don’t believe that, not for a second.

“I felt there were a lot of people who had stayed quiet and needed to release how they were feeling, and what’s the harm in allowing people to express their views?”

Why did people criticise it? “I think people felt that it was a loud debate and that it was unchecked and that it got a bit shouty. But I still think that’s okay – and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland agreed.”

Presidential debate: Claire Byrne with Peter Casey, Liadh Ní Riada, Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy, who were candidates in last year’s election. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Presidential debate: Claire Byrne with Peter Casey, Liadh Ní Riada, Joan Freeman and Gavin Duffy, who were candidates in last year’s election. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Is she on social media? Byrne stopped being active on Twitter, she says, when she realised that receiving personalised criticism from strangers wasn’t particularly useful or healthy. But she is there anonymously.

“I just snoop around. I think you need to know what people are saying. But I’m constantly questioning if things are true. As for Instagram, I just don’t get it. It’s all people selling stuff. I think, What is this? Why am I subjecting my brain to this sewage?”

The online world is very strange, she adds. “I was killed on Facebook there recently. The day of the European election results I was down in the RDS, and my sister sent me a screen grab from Facebook announcing my death – ‘Claire Byrne’, a black and white picture and ‘1975 to 2019. Family Are Shattered.’ It was some company selling diet pills or something. I asked Facebook to take it down, and eventually they did, but they just spring up again and again. It’s just really unfair and unjust, but we’re all supposed to shrug our shoulders and go, That’s the way it is now.”

I just said, you know what? It’s time to pull back a bit. I have three small children, and they’ll probably never work in media, and I don’t want to divulge any details of their lives

She doesn’t do many interviews. Why is that? “I suppose it was because when I first came into the shiny happy world of breakfast TV I thought, God, this is great, everyone is interested in my life, so I told them everything. I went through a marriage break-up [with first husband, Richard Johnson], and all of these things happen in your life, and you realise that you have to explain what happened because you told people things [in the first place]. So I just said, you know what? It’s time now to pull back a little bit. I have three small children, and they’ll probably never work in media, and I don’t want to divulge any details of their lives. People see and hear enough of me.”

How does fame affect her? “The way I deal with it is I just ignore it,” she says. “I think the way I am now, with very little make-up on, is sort of like a disguise that means people don’t know who I am. Whether that’s true or not, that’s the way I operate. And when I’m off, I’m pushing a buggy or trying to pull a child into a supermarket. I’m not thinking, Does anybody recognise me today?”

Her extended family, her husband, Gerry Scollan, and her kids ground her, she says. “The first time [the children] saw me on television was the day of the European election results. My husband sent me a picture of them watching the screen.”

Were they impressed? She laughs. “They just looked really confused.”

Claire Byrne Live returns to RTÉ One on Monday at 9pm