Hector Ó hEochagáin on his brother’s death: ‘It feels as if I lost a leg’

Hector is back on TG4 but still reeling from the death of his brother Freddie in June

Hector is sitting in his car outside the home he shares with his wife Dympna and their two teenage sons in Co Galway. The car is the only place he can get some peace. Any minute now his sons, Shane and Rian, aged 15 and 17, will come barrelling in through the gate.

“It’s a military operation. If their dinner isn’t ready, they’ll kill us, they’ll burn us at the stake,” he declares in that unmistakable Navan accent, adding that he has taken to hiding their Xbox controls in the garage. “It’s like they are sponsored by Fifa at this stage.”.

His full name is Hector Ó hEochagáin but it’s been a long time since he’s needed a surname. For 20 years we’ve come to know him simply as Hector on TG4 and RTÉ, most famously with his award-winning Irish language travel shows, Hector: Ó Siberia go Saigon, or Hector i gCeanada. Then, on RTÉ, there was Hanging with Hector or Hector: Only Fools Love Horses.

Hector is still reeling from a summer of loss and grief and pain. His older brother Freddie died suddenly in June. We’ll talk about that later. But we’re here on this Zoom call to discuss his excellent new show, Hector: Éire Nua. Like everyone, he was grounded by the pandemic. So last November, with his extremely well-stamped passport gathering dust, he launched an idea for a 32-county tour of Ireland, interviewing people from all over the world who have made this country their home. He put a call out on Facebook, asking the Irish public who he should meet.

When I ask how the friends met, he says he 'fell in love' with Tiernan during first-year at St Patrick's Classical School in Navan

“We got thousands of replies. People saying you have to meet this Polish couple who live beside us, this guy from Sardinia that lives in Ballybunion, you have to meet this guy from Nigeria who plays for Finn Harps.” The resulting television show is a heartwarming, fascinating exploration of the changing face of Ireland. Hector travels the country meeting people from Brazil to the Congo, Canada to Ghana, Russia to Syria. “I want people to open their minds about who is walking the streets of our country. There are some amazing people out there. And everyone has a good story to tell.”

Storytelling has been the constant thread of Hector’s unique broadcasting career. TG4 gave him his break 20 years ago, sending him and a two-man crew to Thailand for three months. He has since gathered stories from Siberia to Ethiopia, and in a few weeks he’s off again on his travels, making a programme about Istanbul.

Lately, he has been telling stories on the hugely successful Tommy, Hector and Laurita podcast, made with Laurita Blewitt and Hector’s best friend, comedian and broadcaster, Tommy Tiernan. For many fans, their banter was a raft to cling to during the pandemic, an escape of sorts. Explaining the appeal of the show, recorded in a shed at the bottom of Tiernan’s garden, he says “it’s become a vehicle for me, and Tommy has opened up about a lot of things on the podcast as well. These are the kinds of conversations you have with your friends in a corner of the pub that you would never have with anybody else.” When I ask how the friends met, he says he “fell in love” with Tiernan during first-year at St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan.

'You make the journey to school in the morning a blessing and you make us full of joy and you keep us full of smiles. Keep up the mighty work.' The card was signed 'Daniel Day Lewis and all the children'

There’s always been a whiff of Marmite off Hector. People seem to either love him or find his hyperactive presenting style off-putting. In conversation, he is thoughtful, empathic, earthy, passionate and very funny. All of these qualities landed him one of his most high-profile radio gigs, presenting Breakfast with Hector on 2fm in 2010. After three years he was dropped from that show and there was a suggestion from at least one critic that his country “shtick” didn’t appeal enough to a Dublin audience. Hector has a lot of things to say about this.

“At the end of the day I knew who our audience was, the text machine would nearly collapse when we had that breakfast show.” He says the idea that he just wasn’t connecting with Dublin audiences “was all a spin put out by spin doctors”. What really happened, he says, was “somebody came into 2fm who wanted to do it his way. It’s like somebody coming in and changing the jerseys of the football team... But it’s all in the past now, it’s well in the past.”

It may be in the past but he’s not quite finished. He talks about how the show honed his communication and listening skills, skills that are showcased beautifully in Hector: Éire Nua. About how he got to know his early morning audience intimately; “soldiers of the dawn”, he called them. “It was the middle of the recession, Róisín, and I was there going, ‘I know you are out there, I know you are on your way to the hospitals and the factories.’ He says that the people who like him are from “everywhere. The city and the country”. He lists all the Dublin places he has lived in, from Cabra to Blackrock. “I know Dublin inside out and I’m a Meath man. Sure half of Dublin lives in Meath.”

As further evidence of that radio show’s wide appeal, he tells a story about some post he received from a listener six weeks before it finished. “It was a lovely card,” he says. “A handwritten, beautiful, RNLI card. I opened it up and it was written in an ink pen, beautifully, beautifully scripted. And it said: ‘Thank you for being at the helm of the ship during this rough time. When you’re steering it, we don’t feel like we’re rudderless and aimlessly floating away. For the first time the teenagers in my car don’t fight over the radio. You make the journey to school in the morning a blessing and you make us full of joy and you keep us full of smiles. Keep up the mighty work.’ The card was signed ‘Daniel Day Lewis and all the children’.”

He still has the card from the Oscar-winning actor stuck up in his office. “For him to write that meant I crossed all divides. And I don’t tell anybody about that. And I don’t blow my own trumpet about winning four or five Iftas for the travel show... I don’t care. I just get on with what I have to do because life is too short.” His philosophy is “be nice to people and if you don’t like what somebody does, don’t shout about it from the rooftops, just get on with your life. We all have enough s**t to deal with”.

Freddie hadn't drank in a long time. He didn't smoke. He was in the gym every day of the week. He fell off his bike at six o'clock in the morning the day after Denmark won a big match. I miss him terribly

This past summer, Hector has had more than his share. “It’s been a s**t, terrible summer,” as he puts it. Before this interview, he said through his TG4 publicist that he did not want to talk about the sudden death of his brother Freddie last June, having reminisced at length about him on the podcast. That podcast tribute to his brother was as moving as it was hilarious, with stories of the brothers’ Saturday night bath-times as children and nightclub escapades as young men.

When I tell Hector I’m sorry for his loss, he explains the reluctance to talk about his brother. “I suppose I already shared an awful lot of my grief and tears on the podcast because Tommy knew Freddie really, really well. It was such a horrific time... the moment I got that phone call it was s**t, terrible...” His voice wavers and his pale blue eyes fill with tears. There’s a pause and then he says: “It feels as if I lost a leg”.

“It’s different from losing your mother or father,” he continues. Both his parents are dead. “It’s a completely different feeling. There’s a sense of loneliness...”

His voice cracks again but he gathers himself, talking about correspondence from listeners, “an outpouring”, he calls it. Some of the letters and emails thanked Hector for telling the story of his brother’s death and for encouraging people to get themselves checked out. Freddie died after a sudden heart attack, while cycling to work in Copenhagen.

“Freddie hadn’t drank in a long time. He didn’t smoke. He was in the gym every day of the week. He fell off his bike at six o’clock in the morning the day after Denmark won a big match. I miss him terribly. He was the brother I did everything with. He was the brother in the bath. The brother leading the way into the nightclub. The brother with the car. That’s it.”

The Hector: Éire Nua series is a love letter to every person who has made a new home in Ireland and to every member of the communities that embraced them

One person who wrote to Hector from Boston, a father of three, said that after hearing the podcast he decided to get his heart checked. “Because I told people, we need to do this as men in our 40s and 50s,” he says. Hector is 52, Freddie was 54. “We need to get checked. There shouldn’t be any stigma or embarrassment about it. So this guy, he went to the clinic in Boston and found his arteries were 95 per cent blocked. He’s now going to get four stents put in his neck. He said you’re after saving my life.

“I can only tell you it was a terrible summer. There is no course or no book that can teach you how to deal with this. But so many people are in the same boat – and there’s strength in numbers. And to do that for that man in Boston, it’s just magnificent.”

Having clearly done a lot of research since his brother died – “I’m like Dr Hector now” – he can talk at length about the size of arteries: “They are tiny, very small, like the veins on the back of your hand”. He knows about the calcium build-up in the arteries that blocks the flow of oxygen and blood to the heart. He can tell you about the pharmaceutical company in Galway where stents are made by the 10,000-load each week. “I don’t want to go on a campaign but all I will say is that all my friends are getting checked.”

Did he get checked out himself? “Oh yeah. My GP was on to me straight away [after hearing about Freddie]. He’s one of my best friends. We cried on the phone and he said, will you pop into me next week? And that’s a good thing. And for men especially. We need to pop in more regularly.” Is Hector’s own heart okay at the moment? “Yeah, 100 per cent.”

He’s always been fit but during lockdown he started running. “I always thought running was for absolute dopes, now I am one of the people in luminous jackets I used to laugh at.” As well as being one of this country’s most passionate Irish language enthusiasts, he’s into saving the bees “and wasps. Don’t crush the wasps”, planting wildflowers all over the place. “I love my garden. I love trees.”

As it turns out, Hector’s heart is not only healthy, it’s also in the right place. The Hector: Éire Nua series is a love letter to every person who has made a new home in Ireland and to every member of the communities that embraced them.

“I hope people sit down and listen to their stories,” he says. “Because if we don’t have stories to tell each other, we’re going nowhere. Stories make us human.”

Hector: Éire Nua starts on TG4 on Thursday, September 30th at 9.30pm

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast