Olivia O’Leary: ‘As you get older, you become invisible’
The broadcaster shares her thoughts on grief and regret, politics and poetry with Rosita Boland
Olivia O’Leary: “I go in, I do my column, and I bugger off. I’m at that age where the internal politics of RTÉ don’t interest me anymore.” Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Olivia O’Leary is in the kitchen of her Monkstown house, making coffee, and I am snooping around the livingroom, seeing what I can glean in her absence. It’s a very bright, calm space. There are white sofas and armchairs, and the walls and closed double-doors that connect to the next room are painted in the palest of ice-blues.
Apart from the white-covered furniture, the room is a minimalist space, with no clutter, and few obvious clues as to the personality of one of the country’s most thoughtful and respected broadcasters. Her weekly Drivetime radio diaries are one of the best things on air; always wearing their erudition lightly, unerringly honing in on the zeitgeist of the day, be it political or societal. So what’s this? There is a stack of unlikely DVDs beside the television. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Clueless. Mean Girls.
O’Leary returns with coffee for me and tea for herself. She’s dressed casually; black jeans, trainers, a black polo neck and an olive-coloured jacket.
“Olivia, do you sit at home of an evening watching Mean Girls?” I ask by way of a joke as she sits down. This is, after all, the woman who wrote and delivered a pitch-perfect speech to Queen Elizabeth, in front of of 2,000 people, during the queen’s historic state visit to Ireland in 2011.
“Those DVD’s are almost all Emily’s,” she says, laughing. Emily, her only child, lives with her. Her own taste in television and Netflix ranges from Wallander; “a nice gloomy thing to have been watching last Christmas”; Borgen, “I would never miss it,”; and The Handmaid’s Tale, “terrific”.
There is just one object on the mantlepiece above the open fire; a framed photograph of O’Leary with her late husband, economist Paul Tansey, and Emily, dressed in vivid scarlet for her debs.
“It was a great night,” she says, looking across at the photograph fondly, her wedding ring glinting in the pale October afternoon light.
In September 2008, Tansey was playing tennis at the Wicklow home of his old friend, Shane Ross, when he had a heart attack and died. It was a brutally swift death. How did she cope?
As she does with most of the questions I ask, O’Leary pauses to think before answering. As a journalist and broadcaster of decades, she knows that silence is part of a conversation and is comfortable with it. I wait.
“It was hard,” she says eventually. “And I did what I have always done throughout my life when things are hard; I throw myself into work. Whether it is necessarily the best thing to do or not, I don’t know, but everyone tries to cope in their own way.”
She has clearly thought deeply about the process of mourning. “I remember, after a few years when it was possible to think about it, and be in control of oneself, I was very conscious of old traditions that we used to have,” she says. “Like wearing black for a year, or maybe not going out for six months.
“I do think the notion of an official period of mourning; a period where maybe you are not in public, and don’t go out much, is a very good thing when you are still like an unpeeled onion.”
Her description of a state of sudden grief being like an unpeeled onion is so startlingly good that it is no surprise to learn that the first thing she mentions when I ask how she chooses to relax is by reading poetry. She is also a dedicated member of a choir, the Culwick Choral Society, and plays the piano.
O’Leary has lately become the new presenter of RTÉ Radio 1’s The Poetry Programme, but had a life-long interest before being approached for the role. She rattles off the names of several poets whom she admires: Vona Groarke, Paddy Bushe, Tom McCarthy, Mark Roper, Dennis O’Driscoll, Liz Lochhead, Colette Bryce, Jim Carruth, Doireann Ní Ghríofa.
From time to time, O’Leary returns to the topic of grief. “I think suddenly not worrying about the future is one thing that death teaches you,” she says. “You stop worrying about what is coming down the tracks, because you know it could be anything. It could be the worst thing in the world, but almost the worst thing in the world has already happened, so in a funny way, you stop worrying about the terrible things that can happen, because one terrible thing has already happened.
“The more one can accept that this life may be all there is, I think the better chance one has of leading a fulfilling life. Life is all about other people, and only about other people, and people matter more than anything. It’s a truism, but it is funny how long it takes us to understand that there is nothing richer on this Earth than another person.”
O’Leary will be 68 this year. She describes herself to me self-deprecatingly as “a freelance journalist” and “an old dog on the road”. We talk for a while about the State retirement age of 65.
“There is a big argument for not letting people fall off the cliff at 65,” she says. “All that richness of expertise gone; that seems to me an awful waste. I think that the world generally has become a bit more ageist. As you get older, you suddenly realise that you become invisible to people. You’re not used to that.”
Politics is the area that O’Leary has covered consistently in her career. “One of the things I regret is how short people’s memories are, so that one loses context, particularly in politics,” she says.
“There is the feeling that anything that happened more than 15 years ago is ancient history – which it isn’t. As a result, people are commenting on situations, while forgetting that there is a pattern here; this happened before, and things that happened before has an effect on what happens now.”
What does she think Leo Varadkar’s vision is, from what she’s seen so far? “I don’t see any vision, do you? I don’t know what he sees or where he is going. His vision is as amorphous to me as anyone else.
I think we don’t talk enough about the class system that exists in this country
“But to be honest, I haven’t seen enough to know what he has in mind. I don’t think we’re going to see his vision until he has already in his head set a date for an election. And then he’ll begin, I would have thought, to sketch out what he wants.”
The internal politics of RTÉ, however, don’t appear to interest her at all. “I go in, I do my column, and I bugger off. I’m at that age where the internal politics of RTÉ don’t interest me anymore. The politics of RTÉ or indeed, the BBC never interested me much.”
Was she following the story of the RTÉ’s “secret producer” Twitter account, which had the station agog recently as to the identity of the source? She’s already told me she reads the papers every day and listens to all the key radio shows, so I don’t think anyone who pays such assiduous attention to the news can have failed to be aware of @rtesecretpro. She sidesteps the question.
“I’m afraid I’m of the generation that pays no attention to Twitter. I pay very little attention to anonymous posts,” she says.
One of O’Leary’s most discussed Drivetime diaries was one in which she wrote about experiencing depression while in her 20s. At that time in Ireland, mental health was not commonly discussed. What does she think are, if any, topics that remain taboo subjects in Irish society in 2017?
“I think we don’t talk enough about the class system that exists in this country,” she says decisively. “We try to pretend it isn’t there, and it is there. We think because we have provided, for instance, free fees for university, that that has massively increased the number of people from deprived areas going to university, and percentage wise, I don’t think it has.
“I remember my late husband, God bless him, used to talk about this often in economic terms. I remember him first talking about women, and women not being able to access all the jobs they should in the workforce. He said economics is all about the efficient use of scarce resources. He said if you’re not accessing the brains and talent of half the population, well then that is inefficient.
“And he would say the same about a system that doesn’t allow the same chances and access to everybody else. It pretends it does. So the class system is not something we talk enough about.”
In recent years, again via her Drivetime broadcast, O’Leary announced that she was renouncing the Catholic faith, due to its attitude to women. The current pope will visit Ireland next year. O’Leary recalls covering the first papal visit to Ireland, back in 1979, for The Irish Times.
“It was a very Catholic country then,” she says. “I remember Douglas Gageby [the then Irish Times editor] calling us all into the office, and he said, ‘The pope is coming next week. This is a great event for the people of this country and I don’t want any of you liberal lefty feminists sneering at this. This is an important event for the people of this country. This newspaper will report for the people of this country, on the pope’s visit. Are you all listening to me?’
As a self-described “liberal, lefty feminist”, O’Leary is keenly aware of the need to “guard every little freedom that we have won. And we have to keep on guarding it, because any opportunity, and it will slide back again. We women are the ones who have to keep constantly screaming about equality, even though men should do too.”
I regret to this day that I didn’t just stand there and say, ‘I insist that you find my bag
She pauses to search for a quotation. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” (Later, I search for this quote, whose origin is unclear. Versions of it have been attributed variously, to Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curran; American activist Wendell Phillips; and Thomas Jefferson, the third US president.) “Sometimes perhaps,” O’Leary says, “we have forgotten how important it is to be vigilant.”
She then tells a story of how her own vigilance unexpectedly dropped; a story that still clearly maddens her. “It was the time when I was flying home, and I arrived in Dublin Airport and they had lost my bag. I went to the Aer Lingus lost property section and filled in a form, as you must, and where I was asked for a title, I put in “Ms”. And I handed it over and the man said, ‘Sorry, I don’t recognise this. I can’t look for your bag.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Not until I have your name and your title right.’
There were just two option on the form for a woman to fill out her title in; Mrs and Miss. O’Leary had crossed them both out and written “Ms”.
“I said, my name and my title are there. He pointed to ‘Ms’ and said, ‘I don’t recognise this. You are either Miss or Mrs. I don’t recognise Ms. There is no such thing.’ I said, ‘you are joking me.’ And he just said, ‘until I have your proper name and title, I cannot look for your bag.’”
This was, O’Leary thinks, at the end of the 1980s.
“I regret to this day that I didn’t just stand there and say, ‘I insist that you find my bag, and I insist that you accept my title as it is written down there.’ I am so sorry that I didn’t just stand there all night if necessary and bring the bloody thing to the High Court if that is where it had to go.
“But I was doing a job, I had notes in that bag, and I needed them for an article I had to have written for the next day.”
In the end, she gave in, and described herself as Mrs on the form. “Thinking back on it now, I should have written an article the next day on exactly what had happened. I was furious,” she says, still looking and sounding furious, all these years later.
The image of the bereaved person being akin to a peeled onion has somehow stayed with me throughout the interview. I ask if O’Leary has ever tried to write poetry herself.
This is the only question of a 90-minute interview where she doesn’t pause to think. “Everybody has tried to write poetry,” she says immediately. “What matters is if you’ve published it or not. So no.”
We both know perfectly well that not “everybody” has tried to write poetry. I strongly suspect that Olivia O’Leary has indeed been writing poetry. We can only hope one day that we might see some of her work in print.
The Poetry Programme is on RTÉ Radio 1 on Saturdays at 7.30pm