Sarah McInerney: ‘I had no ambition ... until very recently’

 Sarah McInerney, RTÉ radio and television presenter pictured in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Following a reluctant start in journalism, the broadcaster became hooked on the ‘scoop’ and asking the questions everyone wants to ask. Now she’s moving to Prime Time

Sarah McInerney is sitting beside a coffee van in Dublin’s Clontarf. It’s one of those sun-soaked spring days which, even a year into a global pandemic, makes everything seem more hopeful. She is wearing big sunglasses and a cosy looking, stylish puffa jacket, the sea breeze catching her brown curly hair. We’re here because she’s got a new job as one of the presenters on RTÉ’s flagship current affairs programme, Prime Time, but for now we’re talking about what she was like as a girl growing up in Barna, Co Galway.

Most interviews with McInerney refer to a perfectionist streak. She has spoken in the past about a need to be “the best at everything”. I’ve just asked her whether that need was always evident, if she was like that growing up, a middle child with two siblings and school teacher parents. She was “introverted” back then, she says and offers “determined” as a predominant childhood trait.

A “crazy story” comes to her mind. She remembers as a child reading a book about a group of children who never wore shoes and as a result developed callouses on their feet which meant they could easily run barefoot on any surface. At the time she got it into her head that it would be useful to have that skill.

“I decided I should have skin on my feet like that,” she says. “I spent every day for a week, maybe longer, walking barefoot up and down our driveway which had shale on it at the time, trying to get hard skin on the bottom of my feet. It wasn’t painful but it certainly wasn’t comfortable. And I kept at it, just walking up and down and I was in my own world doing that. It was the challenge of keeping at it,” she says.

'It’s scary and it’s surreal. . . it’s also super obvious for me. . . it feels right. It’s felt right for me for years'

There’s another childhood story, about how despite the lack of “a musical bone in my body” she persisted until she achieved grade eight in piano. That’s impressive, I say, a word that often comes up when people talk about McInerney. “Yes, but it sometimes can be to your detriment as well in that you just keep at something even though you know it’s a fruitless task. That was my work ethic I suppose.”

This determination, a sort of steely ability to keep her eye on a prize, has clearly never left her. She tells me that while she is excited about starting as a presenter on one of the country’s most high-profile television programmes – and she will be doing that in addition to her daily radio programme – there is a certain inevitability about it for her too.

Sarah McInerney, presenting Drivetime from her Sutton home. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Sarah McInerney, presenting Drivetime from her Sutton home. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

“It’s scary and it’s surreal. . . it’s also super obvious for me. . . it feels right. It’s felt right for me for years.” She remembers about seven years ago, when she was a newspaper reporter who had started appearing as a guest on TV panel shows, being at home in her kitchen watching a big discussion on Prime Time. She stood looking up at the television thinking, “I could do that. And I’d love it. I just had to get there. I knew I could do that, you know?”

Taken at face value this could come across as nakedly ambitious, which would be refreshing in a world where women in the public eye are so often encouraged towards and applauded for humility. But naked ambition would be too simplistic a take on McInerney’s career trajectory which as it turns out owes more to an intriguing mix of determination, intuition and accident.

The former Newstalk presenter has had an excellent pandemic, professionally speaking, from filling in to widespread acclaim for Seán O’Rourke on the Today Show on RTÉ Radio 1 last summer to then landing a co-presenting job on Drivetime on that station. After this interview, she was heading back home where she currently records her radio show.

It works well, she says, when I express surprise that she often hosts Drivetime from the spare room in the home in nearby Sutton she shares with her actuary husband Thomas and their two small boys. Her sons Ben and Caelan know not to scream in the downstairs hall between 4.30pm and 7pm when she is live on air with her co-host Cormac Ó hEadhra. Both presenters alternate doing two weeks at home and two in the studio under the current Covid-19 restrictions.

'In hindsight, he was very kind to me, he could have destroyed me but he let me off...'

Back when she was a newspaper reporter, she knew from her very first experience on Vincent Browne’s must watch, late night, current affairs show on TV3 that she wanted to do more live broadcasting. She’s slightly embarrassed looking back at that first encounter with Browne which involved a discussion about conspiracy theories and Princess Diana. He is now a mentor and friend. “We think very similarly about a lot of things,” she says.

“In hindsight, he was very kind to me, he could have destroyed me but he let me off, maybe he was thinking ‘give her enough rope’. The experience, she says, was “eye-opening, I thought gosh, I want to do more of it so how do I go about doing that? And the way I did it was I just took every opportunity that came my way to do it.”

She remembers many nights heading out to TV3 for 11pm, finishing at midnight, getting to sleep at 2am and then back to her day job that morning. “I was thinking, it’s all experience. It’s all exposure . . . it might lead to something and even though I didn’t have any idea of what that might be. I suppose that’s the moment I started to get a tangible idea of what I wanted to start doing in terms of broadcasting”.

“I didn’t have any ambition to do anything. I never did until very recently. . . for most of my career, it’s sort of been happening to me as opposed to me making it happen. It’s difficult to describe.”

New RTÉ Prime Time presenting team, as Miriam O’Callaghan is joined by Sarah McInerney and Fran McNulty. Photogaph: Naoise Culhane
New RTÉ Prime Time presenting team, as Miriam O’Callaghan is joined by Sarah McInerney and Fran McNulty. Photogaph: Naoise Culhane

McInerney, as well as being determined, says she was “a dreamer” as a younger person, enjoying English literature at school, so much so that she was filled with jealousy when her brother went to study English at Trinity. “I should have done that, it’s what I would have really loved to do.” Instead she went to Dublin City University to study journalism. “I thought, that’s writing isn’t it?”

RTÉ Radio 1 was always on in the house and in the car going to school but she wasn’t politically engaged and didn’t understand the world of journalism. She remembers her first day at DCU, arriving late and feeling out of her depth. A visiting lecturer, a journalist from an American newspaper told the class they needed to be reading three newspapers a day.

“Like, I didn’t read newspapers at all. The Funday Times (the children’s section of The Sunday Times) was the extent of my engagement with newspapers.” She remembers something else the lecturer said, about the main thing journalists needed was curiosity. “Now as it turns out I am very curious, but I didn’t associate that with myself at the time. So I just basically decided I was doing the wrong course and I believed that for the entire four years I was in DCU.”

This is no exaggeration. During that time she only wrote one article, a piece for the college newspaper and her thesis was about men and their relationship to everything from sport to sexuality. “Men fascinate me,” she explains. “They always have.”

Journalism did not fascinate her, not back then. She ended up doing her work placement in the now defunct Sunday Tribune and believed when it ended she would leave journalism and find out what her real passion was.

But in the second week at the Tribune, she was assigned a story about strip clubs. A friend at college had done a thesis on the subject, so McInerney mined her for contacts. She ended up with a joint byline on the front page. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says of seeing her name on the front page of a newspaper for the first time. “And I’m very competitive, so it was the idea that we’d scooped other newspapers. . . that’s what opened up journalism to me.”

After the placement, she got regular work with the paper, writing features on education, health, crime and social affairs. She also had a social diary column, Sarah in the City. It was all storytelling, she realised, “which is what I’d always wanted to do”.

Her time at the Tribune eventually “ran its course” and she was thinking about going to Australia and giving up journalism when she got a call from The Sunday Times. She joined that newspaper and for the first time was asked to cover politics despite having no experience in that area. That was in August 2008, the banks collapsed the next month and political reporting turned out “to be the best move I ever made”.

`...there are the personal stories of politicians, real people in difficult jobs, there are plans and plots and intrigue, it’s like a movie...'

She quickly became passionate about politics and is something of an evangelist about it now because “it’s at the heart of everything; there’s the big-picture stuff and then there are the personal stories of politicians, real people in difficult jobs, there are plans and plots and intrigue, it’s like a movie. You don’t really see it until you’re in there”.

As a woman in a male-dominated workplace such as Leinster House, she says she became more conscious about how she dressed. “I didn’t want to be written off as a ‘silly little girl’ so I stopped wearing mini skirts; you don’t want to be at any additional disadvantage.”

She became very aware of how male colleagues got stories as part of casual conversation, wandering over to politicians, hands in pockets, to shoot the breeze about golf, soccer or rugby “or whatever the hell else”, before the conversation turned to political matters.

“That was more difficult for me. I tried to follow Arsenal once but I couldn’t do it. So it was a real challenge to foster those casual chats.” She took to hanging around the plinth – the area just inside the gates of Leinster House on Kildare Street – using humour as a way in. “And empathy, that was something they might not have got from the others,” she says.

In her eight years with The Sunday Times she believes her best work was political analysis rather than investigations or breaking stories. And all the while she was honing her broadcasting skills, becoming a stand-in as host for Vincent Browne and making documentaries for TV3.

When the call came from Newstalk to present a daily drivetime show with Chris Donoghue, it meant leaving a secure staff job with The Sunday Times and becoming self-employed. So she sat down with her actuary husband to discuss the pros and cons.

“There were spreadsheets,” she says laughing about the risk-assessment process. “But to be honest I never really thought it would go wrong because nothing in my career at that point had gone wrong”.

Broadcaster Sarah McInerney at home in Sutton. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Broadcaster Sarah McInerney at home in Sutton. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

It went wrong. A year into the job, which she describes as “stressful” and “difficult” due to the lack of resources at Newstalk, but “also enjoyable and the most amazing learning experience” she was told she and Donoghue were being replaced by Ivan Yates. At the time, in August 2017, Fintan O’Toole wrote in this newspaper about her departure and that of other presenters such as Sarah Carey and Colette Fitzpatrick that “these women are at least as good at their jobs as the men who are replacing them. Their only problem is that they are female. Newstalk has made a highly conscious choice: dawn to dusk blokes”.

McInerney says while she always considered herself “a person, a journalist”, and “never felt my gender mattered” this changed when she left Newstalk and she was contacted by a lot of listeners, mostly young women.

“They all had a similar message, which was that seeing me talking about politics had meant a lot to them. They felt they could relate to me and therefore to what I was talking about – that politics didn’t have to be the preserve of men. I’d always known that female representation on TV and radio was so important but until then, I’d never really seen myself as part of that picture for some reason. I’d never considered myself a role model for anyone but it seemed I was for some people.”

'It was the right job at the right time for me and for the country...'

This revelation sat uncomfortably with her at first. She felt that the “real trailblazers” of Irish women in media had come long before her and done the hard work. Marian Finucane and Olivia O’Leary for two examples. “But at the same time I didn’t want to ignore it, so now I believe as I always did that women in media are important and I’ve come to see myself as part of that.”

McInerney was given a weekend radio show on Newstalk but she only lasted a couple of months in it: “I wasn’t happy”. She left. The plan was to continue presenting The Sunday Show on TV3 and to write a book on Tánaiste Leo Varadkar – “it might still happen” – but RTÉ, and specifically, Radio 1, came calling. In the past few years she has impressed as a presenter on Late Debate, the station’s evening politics programme; as a stand in for Mary Wilson on Drivetime, and in her most high-profile RTÉ outing, filling in last summer for O’Rourke on the daily morning show.

“It was the right job at the right time for me and for the country,” she says of that gig which she began a couple of months into the pandemic. “I got really lucky.” She beams with the memory of that job, on one of the most listened-to radio shows in the country, talking to the key political players and frontline workers, exploring the evolving story as it was impacting all of our lives.

The “golfgate” scandal, involving a restriction-breaking Oireachtas golf society outing in Galway, happened on her last day on the job. “Oh thank God I was there for it,” she says. “If I’d been at home and not on air I’d have been chewing my fingernails. I’ve never had a day like it before or since. It was spectacular. If you had written to the radio gods for what I’d like to happen on the last day, the tweets of rage coming through the machine, being at the centre of it, able to ask the questions everyone wants to ask . . .”

Sarah McInerney: “And I’m very competitive, so it was the idea that we’d scooped other newspapers. . . that’s what opened up journalism to me.” Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times
Sarah McInerney: “And I’m very competitive, so it was the idea that we’d scooped other newspapers. . . that’s what opened up journalism to me.” Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

She describes that summer in RTÉ, covering the pandemic as “like coming home. Like this is where I need to be right now and something just clicked in me”.

In her downtime she likes to read, and regular exercise is “vital” – she runs and does yoga. When I told colleagues and friends I was going to meet McInerney it elicited different responses. There was praise – “so impressive” – for how well prepared she always is and lots of compliments for her dogged interview style. Others found her unnecessarily “aggressive” and “haranguing”.

“It’s subjective,” she says. “Some people like bloodsports for want of a better phrase. And some people really don’t like that. And I can’t be everything to all those people. I don’t think I engage in bloodsports. I don’t think that benefits anybody. When I’m faced with a guest, particularly one who is working as a public representative, I am asking valid questions. I feel very strongly about accountability, transparency, honesty, truth.”

She says she tries as much as possible to listen back to her performance. “Did I go too far there? Or do I think that was justified? And sometimes I didn’t get the balance right. I wonder if I went too hard or I let something go.”

“I honestly don’t think I’m aggressive. Like, I see some people saying I’m scary. You know, come on, I’m five foot five, like seriously.” She doesn’t seem too bothered either way. Later that evening, while chopping carrots listening to her on Drivetime, I smile as she puts another Minister on the interview chopping block.

Public service broadcasting means stifling her own opinions, but she says “that doesn’t mean I don’t have them. It just means I can’t voice them and that’s okay because I get to ask questions. But it can be difficult. I get very emotionally close to these stories; about violence against women and sentences handed out or lack of them. We have so far to go.”

She says she learned from her Newstalk experience, not to expect certainty in any job. And it gave her a new motto. “Failure is my friend,” she says. “And I genuinely believe that because I’m not sure I failed when it comes to Newstalk. But it was a failure. A career failure. And it has done so much for me in terms of my internal steadiness. It’s been the biggest teacher I ever had. And there have been plenty of other failures along the way, less high profile but plenty of them. And each time I’ve come out stronger and better.”

I think of her walking barefoot up and down the shale driveway as a child. Of her fingers on the piano keys, moving through the grades against the odds. Saying yes to all those late night, exhausting stints on TV3. Seven years ago McInerney thought to herself “I could do that” about the job of Prime Time presenter and on Tuesday night she will step into that role.

Her motivation couldn’t be clearer: “I get a lot of energy from feeling like I’m representing people,” she says thoughtfully. “I felt through last summer I was being given the chance to represent. People were scared. They were anxious. They were angry. Or they were worried, or all of those things. These are powerful emotions to come at you through the screen and it gives me the energy to focus, to represent the audience at home. It’s a very powerful position to be in.”