Dermot O’Leary: ‘Most people in England love the Irish but they don’t understand them'

Dermot O’Leary. Photograph: Hodder
The Irish-British TV presenter Dermot O’Leary on fatherhood at 47, celebrity and the role of Catholicism in his life

When Dermot O’Leary’s instantly recognisable face appears on the Zoom from his home in London’s Primrose Hill I expect many things to feature in our conversation. We’ll probably touch on X Factor, the monolith of a TV talent show he presented for eight years. He’ll surely have lots to say on navigating life as a celebrity having been famous for more than two decades.

We’ll definitely talk about him becoming a father for the first time to a son, Kasper, in the middle of a pandemic at the age of 47 and about his children’s books and his Irish parents, Seán and Marie, who three years ago relocated from their adopted home in London back to their native Wexford.

O’Leary has a well-thought-out take on the evolution of the Catholic Church. He is, it turns out, something of a poster boy for an inclusive version of Catholicism

What is slightly more unexpected is his clearly well-thought-out take on the evolution of the Catholic Church. British-Irish O’Leary, it turns out, is something of a poster boy for an inclusive version of Catholicism. If they had any sense, with declining vocations and worshippers in this part of the world, the top Catholic brass would sign him up as a spokesmodel. Stranger things have happened.

The springboard for our unexpected theological exchange is a man called Fr Arthur Barrow, who O’Leary cited as an inspiration in an interview he did at the beginning of his career.

When I ask about him, he tells me the priest was one of four “rock and roll” religious that were on the scene when he was growing up in Essex. Fr Barrow, now retired, was “a tall firebrand, an uncle figure”. He remembers the priest first arriving to the “tiny rural church” where O’Leary was an altar boy. “The matriarch of the parish told him: ‘I don’t really like what you wear’ and Fr Barrow said ‘Oh my dear, I don’t really like what you wear either but I am sure we’ll get along fine’ and that set the tone.”

He still remembers the names of the other “rock and roll” priests. Fr Armitage who rode a motorbike and was from the East End and Fr Vincent who was Maltese and had a girlfriend and Fr Harrington and Fr O’Shea who “were solidarity badge-wearing priests ... just supercool people you’d like to go for a drink with. Unbelievable.”

I believe Jesus was a revolutionary and a rock star and also he’s the kind of guy who absolutely would have his arm around someone at a Pride rally

Barrow had pictures on the walls in his sacristy of The Life of Brian and a Dali picture of Jesus that was considered blasphemous. “He always said, you find your own rules and find your own path. And that stayed with me. You know we sell ourselves short sometimes with Catholicism but there’s a lot of reason to be found in Catholic history. Look at Thomas Acquinas. For me it’s not like I look at Hindus in India and think those guys are going to hell ... It’s just beliefs and for me my culture follows this and other cultures follow something else.”

Being a Catholic reared in Britain is still a hugely resonant part of his identity. “You have to remember that being Catholic over here was different to being Catholic in Ireland, it is almost a rebellious thing. Being Church of England is being part of the establishment, but being a Catholic you are a Fenian, you are ‘the other’ and being ‘the other’ is always very attractive.”

And now he’s on a roll about religion and why it’s still an important part of his life. “I believe Jesus was a revolutionary and a rock star and also he’s the kind of guy who absolutely would have his arm around someone at a Pride rally. He’d be absolutely out there fighting for those guys so that’s how I’ve kept hold of my faith.”

Dermot O’Leary. Photograph: Dee Koppang O’Leary
Dermot O’Leary. Photograph: Dee Koppang O’Leary

He has a lot to say about the interpretation of Bible scripture, and his issues with the “conservative strain” of Catholicism. “The church has to evolve. If it didn’t evolve we’d still be talking about flat Earth theory and creationism – the Catholic Church now accepts evolution. It takes a while but we get there eventually.

“I actually feel I have far more in common with friends of mine who would be liberally Jewish, or Anglican or Sikh or Muslim. The central message of all these faiths, especially the Abrahamic faiths, is love, forgiveness and tolerance right? So if you hold on to that, and don’t worry too much about dogma and realise those are tenets you want to live your life by then, actually you can coexist quite happily with organised religion. I’d rather be in the fight to change it than turn my back on it...”

I tell him that in this argument he has something in common with former Irish president Mary McAleese who is sometimes criticised for staying within the Catholic Church despite her disagreement with the more repressive aspects of the institution.

“It’s a such a waste of time,” he says. “There is so much injustice out there. And the church can be such a force for good in terms of social action around the world, that to tie yourself in knots about something that can be misinterpreted in scripture, what are you talking about? Just wake up. Wake up and see what’s out there. Go and do some good. Stop criticising people for the way they live.”

Growing up with his sister Nicola in Essex with Irish parents meant a hybrid existence. There were céilís in the front room and Mass every Sunday along with membership of that very British/Protestant institution the Boy’s Brigade. He commends his mother and father for their “classic roots and wings” style of parenting.

I was never talked down to, I was always reasoned with. My opinion was valued without being pandered to. That went from the politics we spoke about around the dinner table to religion

“I was never talked down to, I was always reasoned with. My opinion was valued without being pandered to ... That went from the politics we spoke about around the dinner table to religion. They came over here from Ireland in the late 1960s without anything,” he says. “My dad was kind of self-educated.”

Seán O’Leary started out as a labourer but studied for a business degree at night and then a masters. Because his parents were from the post-war generation they “never really had a choice. They did what they could to provide for their family. We owe that to them and I’ll never forget that because my dad isn’t a business accountant kind of guy but he just found he could do that so that’s what he did ... I feel very lucky that he enabled me to grow up in a world where I am able to make these choices and work hard and have opportunities.”

Through childhood and in pre-pandemic times as an adult he was a regular visitor to Ireland and is fascinated by the connections between the two identities that shaped him, “so much cultural interbreeding” as he puts it. He also acknowledges “the resentments and jealousies” and how “in many ways the countries can’t stand each other”. And yet, “the Irish and English are far more similar than they like to admit but there are definite differences ...”

What does he see as the main differences? “It’s hard to answer that question without reverting to terrible stereotypes,” he laughs. His wife Dee Koppang, a TV and film director, is Norwegian, and he sees similarities between that country and the English. “There’s definitely a more reserved thing there ...” He mentions time-keeping as a big difference and has a funny story about a visit to Ireland by his Norwegian father-in-law and, when arriving late for breakfast, O’Leary introduced him to the concept of “Irish time”.

As a second-generation Irish person, it’s really important that kids over here aren’t brought up to feel guilty for existing but also that they grow up to feel really proud of Britain

He’s a “news junkie” and a history buff and has this to say about Irish-British relations in recent times: “Brexit notwithstanding, I think Ireland and Britain are becoming closer ... Most people in England love the Irish anyway, they don’t understand them but they love them.”

His take on how the country of his birth is evolving is a hopeful one. “Britain,” he says “is kind of waking up to confronting its past. That post-war immigration wave of Jamaican, Irish and Indian communities are being far more talked about and appreciated and that can only be a good thing. And it’s important because as a second-generation Irish person, I’ve talked to a lot of my friends who are second generation – whether they are Jamaican or Sri Lankan or Indian. It’s really important that kids over here aren’t brought up to feel guilty for existing but also that they grow up to feel really proud of what Britain did in the second World War and be proud of Darwin and Shakespeare and Tim Berners Lee and Alexander Fleming but also acknowledging that a country can’t be this old without having done both terrible and brilliant things. They should have full chapter and verse about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and also know about how Britain played a key role in ending the slave trade. History is so grey and nuanced and it’s important that people talk about it.”

Dermot O’Leary, like many of us, has mixed feelings about life during the pandemic. On the one hand, the relentless bad news was “grim” but the arrival of his first child, a son, Kasper, last June was “a blessing” as was being able to spend so much time with him for the first months of his life.

He and his wife Dee had been trying “for a while” to start a family. “Without getting too deep into it, if you try for a while you do start to think about the alternatives and I think we would have always adopted or something. I’m not being flippant about that, it’s a huge decision but I don’t think we’d ever have been childless.

I’m not going so far as calling it a microaggression, but there is a sense that having children gives you a purpose. But having children is only one way you can contribute as a valuable member of society. It’s not the only way

“At the same time, it does not negate the fact that people who don’t have children are really valuable members of society ... There’s an importance placed on having children. I’m not going so far as calling it a microaggression, but there is a sense that having children gives you a purpose. But having children is only one way you can contribute as a valuable member of society. It’s not the only way.”

He has only been a parent for 11 months but he says “It does alter your mindset and your goals and values. We are still very ambitious people but with a small ‘a’... I think it’s important that your kids see you doing stuff. You want to show your kids that they’re not the most important thing in the world, they are to you, but not to everyone else. There’s a whole world out there and they should embrace that and work out what part of that world they want to be in and how they can affect it in a positive way.”

O’Leary was a friend of television presenter Caroline Flack and made a moving contribution to the documentary about the life, career and death by suicide last year of the former X Factor and Love Island presenter.

Regarding Flack, he says, “It was tragic. I think the rise in social media exacerbated it ... There was definitely an addiction to the affirmation she got from social media. And no good can come from that. But she was exceptional at her job. She was doing the right job.”

I ask him about how, when so many including Flack are impacted negatively by fame, he has managed to remain, to this onlooker at least, relatively sound and sane. “It’s easier because I’m a man,” he says. “It’s definitely easier. You are not subject to the same scrutiny.” It also helps, he adds, “having a strong sense of who I am. I am also older and wiser now and less of a dick. You change with experience and I love my job and I feel very blessed that I am still doing it. I love the diversity ... at the same time I have a lovely family and friends. I feel very centred and rooted.”

“You have to live your life normally,” he says. “To a degree you have to surrender to it and not take it too seriously. The first time you walk into your dry cleaners or your grocery store or wherever, they go, ‘You’re that guy off the telly’ and then the second time you are just Dermot, and you just live your life. It’s neighbourhood living. Embrace your neighbourhood. Don’t go to places where you know you’ll be photographed.”

At this point, as though to insert themselves into the conversation, O’Leary’s two cats start loudly caterwauling and scrapping. It gives him an opportunity to discuss his children’s book series, inspired by cats that he and his wife rescued a few years ago, from an olive grove in Italy where the couple have a home.

The opportunity to write for children came after he wrote a well-received musical memoir, The Soundtrack to My Life. The latest instalment of his Toto the Ninja Cat series is out at the moment. O’Leary says he grew up in a house of “books and laughter” and was read Irish fairy tales at bedtime.

His dad’s work helped kickstart his childhood writing career. “Dad had a big computer with lots of paper laying around and I used the paper to write stories on. I’d take them round to the neighbours in the village and knock on doors and try and sell this ‘10-year-old detective fiction’ for 5p. I always made a profit, I didn’t have any overheads after all. I got a couple of bags of sweets out of it.”

It was radio he was drawn to though, as a younger man, working his way up from being a runner on BBC Radio Essex in the late 1990s before making the move to TV and that breakthrough gig on Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Little Brother. Then came those career-catapulting years on X Factor when he was the genial, cheeky host being kind to contestants and interviewing megastars such as Britney Spears and Paul McCartney.

O’Leary’s parents have only seen their grandchild Kasper once since he was born, so O’Leary is looking forward to coming over to Ireland on the ferry to see friends in Dublin and drive down to Wexford to see his parents

He is still in touch with its creator, Simon Cowell. “Although Simon doesn’t have a phone. So I am in touch with his personal assistant a lot by email. She’s doing very well.” These days he is a presenter on This Morning, has a weekend radio show on BBC Radio 2 and, like everyone else on the planet, a podcast – People, Just People. The latter is run through his production company Ora Et Labora, which is his old school motto and means “work and pray”.

“We do the work and then we pray to God that it’s okay,” he smiles. He’s moving house soon and will celebrate his second pandemic birthday on Sunday, turning 48.

His parents have only seen their grandchild Kasper once since he was born, so he is looking forward to coming over to Ireland on the ferry to see friends in Dublin and drive down to Wexford to see his parents. I tell him that author Marian Keyes, who knows him, describes him as “an angel,” adding “nobody has a bad word to say about Dermot O’Leary”.

O’Leary got to know Keyes during his stint on Big Brother’s Little Brother. “She was so wonderfully honest about the characters in the house and she’s a great writer, such a joy.” He is also a “huge fan” of John Connolly, the novelist and former Irish Times journalist. “I can’t read his books quickly enough, he’s so prolific. I don’t know how he does it.”

A parent now, and as he says “ambitious with a small ‘a’”, O’Leary would like to write more – he has a few ideas he’s working on. “I’d love to do documentaries,” he says, the kind that reflect his interest in history. He has volunteered for years for the London Irish Centre and received a medal of commendation from President Michael D Higgins through that work.

“You don’t want to talk about it too much but it was a big deal to me ... My dad came over in the 1960s and would wake up at 5am to study for an hour and then would get us up and he made all those sacrifices and that feels a million miles away from where I am now. It’s something I’m very proud of.”

Toto the Ninja Cat and the Mystery Jewel Thief by Dermot O’Leary is published by Hodder. He will be in conversation with Shane Hegarty as part of International Literature Festival Dublin on Saturday, May 22nd, at noon. Tickets €5