Broadcasting stalwart MIRIAM O’CALLAGHAN explains why love, rather than ambition, is what GETS HER OUT OF BED …
The early bird was too late. She wanted the latest lunch possible, to accommodate work, but not so late it discommoded the children. When I informed Rasam in Glasthule that their timing didn’t suit, they opened an hour earlier. It tells you everything about Miriam O’Callaghan’s place in Irish life.
We think we know everything about her: queen of prime time television, mother of eight, role model for women. Is there anything left to tell? Is her very public life hiding a secret inner self? Where does she go, you’d wonder, when she’s alone in her head? I wanted to get straight down to the mother of eight thing.
My own mother had eight children and my seven siblings and I were much exercised by her crisis mothering style: we regularly told her four children would have been quite enough. “Which four should I not have had?” was her tart silencer. O’Callaghan laughs, “They haven’t said that to me yet.”
She can see my mother in the story, recently bought for her youngest Jamie, of Mrs Elephant, whose mantra is ‘Give me five minutes’ peace’. But her own style is more serene. “Once a year I have a flip-out and then it’s a case of ‘Get out of Mum’s way’.”
She doesn’t see her serenity as entirely benign. “Being angry, you put yourself out there. Not being angry can be a selfish mindset.” In a philosophical turn worthy of Arthur Miller she sees a purity in anger. “But I find my heart skips a beat for the wrong reason if someone raises their voice.”
Because of the early opening, I have already apprised Rasam’s Nisheeth of my wish for his famous vegetarian Thali – a selection of eight starters. And miraculously he already knows O’Callaghan’s order, of chicken Murgh Makhani. “I am a creature of habit,” she says. “I go to the same place all the time, eat in the same restaurants; in winter I wear black tights, black skirts and jackets.”
Habit and routine, one would imagine, are probably the only way to get through the demands of her life, especially now her husband works in Belfast. Live current affairs television terrifies the toughest. “I don’t panic,” she says. “When the red light goes on, I give it my best.”
Her best runs the gamut of emotion from steel to tears. She takes no prisoners with prime ministers, provisional leaders or rogue Imams: “When politicians come in, I don’t care what their party, I think they should all be given a hard time.”
And yet we are all familiar with the azure mist of O’Callaghan’s emotion: her Diana factor. “My empathy can be a problem. I was going on air immediately after the picture of Aylan came up and my producer was anxious about me. But I know it’s also my strength.”
The death 20 years ago of her beloved sister Anne honed her compassion the hard way and taught her to live in the moment, probably the sine qua non for live television. On top of that is her well-known policy of “implacable courtesy” in the face of provocation.
She is also politically agnostic. “If you have strong opinions you cannot be a good presenter. On most things I don’t know what I think.” Not on all, however. “If there are two equal candidates, a man and a woman, I will vote for the woman. Maybe that’s wrong, but that’s what I’d do.”
Despite this, she faces up to the feminist paradox. “I am not surprised so few women go into politics. It’s a terrible life. When would you ever see your children? I come home in the evening – it’s like I do a hospital round. I have a word with everyone; ‘Are you okay? Do you want a slice of toast?’ The 13-year-old always wants toast and cheese. The boys are monosyllabic; the girls have a longer chat. People say you shouldn’t tell them you love them all the time, but I do. I also tell them hard work is the way to get what you want in life.”
So what does O’Callaghan want? “In life you need the fundamentals to be right. I do not have a stressful job. In my job, I do not have to manage other people, I only have to manage myself. I never have to call anyone in and criticise them. I thanked someone the other day and they said ‘Nobody’s ever done that before’.”
Thanking people is part of O’Callaghan’s personal credo: she is mistress of the handwritten letter. Her despatches from the heart are tucked away in many a drawer of people I know. So when the red light is off, where does O’Callaghan go?
“I am lucky with my job, it’s been kind to me, but it’s not one of my fundamentals. Should I say that, if I am supposed to be a role model? I’m known for my career and I really like it, but it’s not fundamental to my happiness. I am happy when I feel very loved, cared for, wanted. I love being in love. It makes everything in your life easier. I wake up in the morning, I text him. If I do an interview and it doesn’t go well, I think ‘Ah well, I have my love.’ I never look at another man. I am totally fulfilled. I am very grateful for it.”
She leaves me quoting those hospice nurses who say that no dying person ever wished they had worked harder. She didn’t say it but she didn’t need to. Love is all there is.
Miriam O’Callaghan is among the UCD alumni being honoured at the UCD Foundation Day Alumni Awards 2015 in November. See www.ucd.ie/alumni.
Illustration by Lauren O’Neill
This article appeared in our October issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our November issue, out Thursday November 5.
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