Maura Derrane is swiftly demolishing a fancy-looking chocolate cake in the cafe at MoLI, on St Stephen’s Green. “I love chocolate, I can’t go five minutes without it,” she says. She’s had a busy day, arriving to the cafe an hour earlier, with salon hair clips still in her curls, heaving several bags containing changes of clothes and shoes to wear for two photo shoots – including one for The Irish Times. On top of that is the not-insignificant matter of the one hour of live radio she’s been doing every day for the last two weeks as one of the rotating stand-ins for the Nine O’Clock Show, formerly the Ryan Tubridy slot, on RTÉ Radio 1.
It’s a hectic time for Derrane who, though a regular on Irish television since the noughties, on TG4, TV3, various RTÉ afternoon shows and her current long-running slot on the Today show with Dáithí Ó Sé, is a radio newbie. “I’m still on the rescue remedy,” she laughs. “Last week was scary; I’m not quite as scared this week,” she says when we meet earlier this week.
Derrane is the eldest of four sisters and grew up listening to the radio – “there was nothing else to do” – on Inis Mór in the 1970s and 1980s, where her chocolate habit was formed. “My mother took me to the doctor when I was five or six because I wouldn’t eat. The doctor said ‘give her plenty of chocolate’ so I’d be given a small bar of Dairy Milk every day and as a result I am still addicted.”
We both go off on a bit of a rhapsodic tangent remembering that thin version of the Cadbury bar, covered in foil, and how you’d try to make it last as long as you could before it melted on your tongue.
On the one hand, it’s strange to be sitting in Ryan Tubridy’s seat, but I am so glad to get the opportunity. I’ve always wanted to try radio
It’s the kind of chat listeners would be used to on that opening preamble of the Nine O’Clock show, the part where – in more innocent times, before we knew what a barter account was – Tubs would relay his favourite stories from the newspapers and titbits from his walks down Dún Laoghaire pier.
“I am a Ryan Tubridy fan so I’d have always listened to him on the show,” she says. “On the one hand, it’s strange to be sitting in his seat, but I am so glad to get the opportunity. I’ve always wanted to try radio.” Tubridy’s misfortune – his contract was not renewed by the broadcaster after a summer of high RTÉ drama and Oireachtas committees – meant Derrane, Oliver Callan and Brendan Courtney have had a chance to occupy the presenter’s chair on the show.
“Ryan worked with the same team that still works on the show, it must be difficult for them dealing with different presenters and different personalities. They’ve been great,” she says.
Interestingly, Derrane says the preamble part of the show, where she might find herself chatting about her chocolate addiction, is the bit she finds most challenging. So far she has done an impressive corncrake impression (she also grew up listening to them on the island) and provided listeners with an excellent explanation of the ASMR or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response phenomenon, which is the tingly feeling some people get in response to certain sounds. This included lowering her already soothing voice in a brilliant imitation of the women on Inis Mór reciting the rosary as Gaeilge. She’s provided some diverting radio in her two weeks including a moving and eye-opening interview with a man about male factor infertility and a long, entertaining feature on the Housewife of the Year competition.
She enjoyed having the chance to let items breathe – on the Today show she’d usually have seven minutes for each interview. She also enjoyed not having to be seen. “I was in one of those studios where there is no cameras,” she smiles. On the Today show, nobody notices what Dáithí Ó Sé wears. “He says he could wear the same jeans all week and nobody would care.” She mentions the newsreader on another Today programme in Australia, who to highlight the lack of interest in male presenters’ clothes versus women’s, wore the same blue suit and white shirt for a year, only changing his tie every day. Nobody noticed until he went public with his stand against sexism.
Five years ago Derrane wore a pretty innocuous outfit – a stripy top and skirt – on the Today show, which went viral because of the vitriolic comments of viewers on social media, some of whom didn’t think the outfit was flattering and said so in brutal terms. “It was vicious and bullying,” she says now. She ended up addressing the comments on, ironically, Ryan Tubridy’s radio show and on her own TV show, where she looked down the camera and told the critics to get a life. “Most of the people who bitched about me were women,” she says. “I questioned a lot of things that day.”
It was acceptable, years ago, to be crass… the sexually explicit comments. So I’d raise the bar and give them a comment back. It was important to stand up for yourself, you had to be as tough as them
As a girl growing up on the island, she says there was no sign of a media career in her future. “I was a shy, scaredy cat,” she recalls. As a teenager, Derrane demanded to be sent off the island to boarding school but did not take to it – she found it difficult to settle when everyone else had found their groove. “I had to almost force myself to get into TV, it was really out of my comfort zone.” She started her career as a researcher for RTÉ’s western editor Jim Fahy and moved to TG4 when that station first launched in 1996.
People watching her do make-up and fashion items on the Today show might not be aware that she is also a former crime correspondent with the station formerly known as TV3. As a reporter she covered gangland feuds in Limerick, the murder trial of Catherine Nevin and the aftermath of Veronica Guerin’s murder. Seven years ago she told a newspaper that there were three things she couldn’t have worked without: “my contacts book, my nose for a good story and my red lipstick. Women were rare in crime and men liked to see the bit of femininity. I embraced that part of me and was happy to use it.”
However, when our conversation turns to the sexual assault allegations around Russell Brand, which the comedian denies, Derrane muses on the comments she put up with years ago as a normal part of being a crime reporter in a male-dominated workplace.
“It was acceptable, years ago, to be crass … the sexually explicit comments,” she says. “So I’d raise the bar and give them a comment back. It was important to stand up for yourself, you had to be as tough as them. Otherwise, you could be really embarrassed… it was a kind of public shaming, when you think about it now. It was public humiliation because most men wouldn’t say those things one-to-one, it would be with other men backing them up, the herd mentality took over. So that’s what it was. In order to not be publicly shamed, even though you were turning beetroot on the inside of, probably, your polo neck jumper up to here, you’d have to be tough. And I learned to be tough, to be well able for them”.
She was less able for, or more accurately less interested in, the role of politician’s wife. She is married to former Fine Gael TD John Deasy and they live with their son, Cal, near the sea in Sandymount. “I canvassed for him once – it wasn’t for me. The things people said. I was at the door and this woman said, ‘what’s he going to do for me?’ and I said ‘what do you want?’ and she said ‘I don’t know’.” Deasy now works as a consultant, which is probably just as well. “I’m the most apolitical person you’ve ever met,” she says. “We really have nothing in common at all.” But she is laughing heartily as she says this.
They were together for 10 years before having Cal when Derrane was 44. “I was Jurassic, never mind geriatric,” she laughs at the medical label given to older mothers. “In hindsight it’s probably easier having kids when you are younger but then I’ve always had loads of energy. And yeah, you’d be wrecked, but I know 20-year-olds who are wrecked. And as a mother more so, because I don’t care what anybody says – and I’m not dissing men – but as a woman you do more of the work.”
What kind of conversations does she have about housework with her husband? “You mean the rows? I don’t have conversations. In fairness, I was very ill when I had Cal, it was an emergency C [Caesarean] section and I had to lie in bed like a dead person while he did all the feeds and everything for the first six weeks.” Deasy was away a lot in the Dáil and working in the US for the first six years of Cal’s life, “so I was on my own a lot, but I had a brilliant minder, a lot of help.”
She’s mindful of her health and not just in middle-age. “I’ve been rattling with supplements since I was 21.” She’s also an ambassador for the Irish Heart Foundation’s campaign Her Heart Matters, helping to raise awareness of the increased risks of stroke and heart disease for menopausal women. Inevitably, we have one of those obligatory menopause conversations you hear happening between women in their 50s. She’s just started having “the sweats, oh my God, the tsunami of sweats” but can’t avail of HRT because of a history of cancer in her family. I ask about her parents. Her dad died 18 years ago. “I was the first born, his princess. He used to tell me I’d be a movie star.” Her mother Bridgie, now 87, still lives on Inis Mór. She worries about all the exposure and the pressure of her daughter’s media career. “Back when The Afternoon Show [RTÉ's former flagship daytime TV show] folded and I told her I was getting my own TV show, her response was ‘oh, no, that’s terrible.’ I was like, ‘mam, that’s not what you’re supposed to say’.”
Later on in the day we meet, on Instagram, Derrane posts a picture of herself in the taxi going home, the make-up applied for the photo shoot melting down her face. Her followers lap it up. Derrane is sharp, funny, intelligent, authentic and – what woman hasn’t had a make-up malfunction at some point? – deeply relatable. Two-week-long “audition” over, her fate is now in hands of the broadcasting gods. Either you’ll never hear her soothing island tones on the Nine O’Clock radio slot again or she’ll be anointed as the morning schedule’s brand new secret weapon. Meanwhile, she’s always got that spot on the sofa with Dáithí.
And with that voice, there’s always the possibility of a lucrative sideline in the ever-expanding world of ASMR.