“It’s the hardest time

IT’S BEEN a tough year for RTÉ and, as one of its most prolific presenters, Miriam O’Callaghan has also been through the mill.

“It’s the hardest time

Yet you’d never think it as she strides into the Shelbourne Hotel for our photo shoot. Instantly she’s ‘on’, warm, yet professional, with her unique mix of charisma and glamour.

A high-profile media figure, she brings no baggage with her, save for a few dresses and a lot of personality.

This is the laid back Miriam we’ll see on our TV screens tonight, a world away from her renowned, tough interviewing style, as she returns with her Saturday night chat show. It’s her eighth season of relaxed, informal interviews — and she admits it’s a welcome respite from current affairs.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult year at RTÉ — in fact I would say it is the hardest time I have gone through since I began working there in 1992,” she says. “Prime Time Investigates is obviously gone and I am incredibly sad for all the people who worked on the show but I totally understand and support the reasons why it had to go. A terrible error was made and Noel Curran made the right decision to clear the slate and start afresh.

“But as far as Prime Time itself is concerned, I think it will be there for the long haul — it’s been going for 20 years and we have a good strong brand which should stand the test of time. When I started out as an investigative reporter, my ideal job would have been to present a current affairs programme like this, so I feel extremely lucky to be part of the programme.

“Having said that though, I am really looking forward to Saturday Night with Miriam — we’ve had a tough time on Prime Time and my role there requires quite a bit of work. Sometimes I feel like I need a PHD in economics because I really need to know as much as, if not more, than the person I am interviewing. So it will be great to work on something light-hearted and fun for a while.”

She qualified as a solicitor in the 1980s and takes her role as a broadcaster very seriously, but Miriam also cuts a glamorous figure. She brings her own clothes to the shoot — a Ted Baker blouse, skinny jeans and ballet flats. Later she changes into a green Coast dress with Gina heels. Being a female in an often male-dominated world, she knows her appearance is constantly under scrutiny. So although she is a natural in front of the cameras and is looking forward to interviewing her summer line-up, she admits she prefers the behind-the-scenes atmosphere of working on radio.

“Most female presenters are aware that within minutes of going on air, our hair, shoes, dress and general appearance will be under scrutiny,” she says. “And much as I love the powerful medium of television and the frantic buzz of being live on air, there is something wonderful about presenting a radio programme.

“I came to radio fairly late in my career (2009) and discovered very quickly that it was a well kept secret. I could go to work in a dressing gown and curlers and no-one would be any the wiser — not that I do that of course,” she hastens to add. “Hosting a programme like Miriam Meets (RTE Radio 1 on Sunday mornings) is all about the content of the show, there is no visual image and I get to talk to people without the worry of being judged on my appearance. So it’s safe to say that I have totally fallen in love with working on radio.”

Along with her many roles in the media, O’Callaghan is also the mother of eight children and is well used to juggling her family life with her career. But she is quick to point out that she most definitely does not have the answers to the eternal working mother dilemma and struggles with her schedule just as much as any one else.

“People often ask me how I combine my home and work life but I really don’t manage it very well at all,” she admits. “I have a wonderful childminder called Lorraine who has been with me for 17 years, a fabulous mother and a loving husband but I still spend most of my life struggling to be in the right place at the right time.

“Last week I was racing to get to my 10-year-old son’s piano recital on time and then had to race back to Prime Time. So I certainly don’t feel like I am managing everything like clockwork. I am just extremely lucky that I have a good job and have plenty of people around to help me do the best I can — but it still doesn’t stop me from wishing I was able to give more of myself to everyone who needs me.

“Of course, this is a typical trait of mothers, particularly Irish ones, as we are always worrying about whether or not we are doing enough for everyone. Feeling guilty is part of our DNA as females but as my granny always said, life flies by so fast that we need to grab it and enjoy every precious moment while we can.”

Feeling guilty about everything may be part of the Irish mammy psyche but the broadcaster says our unique traits have also contributed to the longevity of the world’s longest running chat show.

“As Irish people we love to chat and we are also very emotional in so many ways,” she says. “Take the Late Late Show for example. It has been a phenomenal success for the past 50 years and is such a huge part of Irish life — I believe it has been so successful because of its very unusual format which combines laughter, tears, music and serious news in one programme. In that way, it mirrors the characteristics of the Irish nation.”

As she prepares to brighten up our Saturday nights, Miriam says she hopes the country will take a turn for the better in the not-too-distant future. “It is very difficult to say where our future as a country lies at the moment,” she says. “There are a lot of people who are still unemployed, many who are in deep financial trouble and very stressed out about the future — so in that sense it is very hard to feel positive about what lies ahead. But where there is health there is wealth and I know it sounds trite, but I really believe it to be true, as being healthy is a very positive thing. Also I think the American way of admitting failure and starting again from scratch is a good model for us to follow. And although I won’t comment on the Government or anything political, we do have a wonderful new president (after a phenomenally difficult campaign) and we as a nation are great for picking ourselves up and getting on with things. Given the tough year it has been on Prime Time, I feel very strongly about the need to start again with rebuilding trust and confidence.”

While the chat show promises to be a break from the serious nature of current affairs, Miriam can’t shed any light on the list of guests over the coming weeks. “I don’t know yet who I will be interviewing but I trust my team to come up with some interesting guests,” she says. “We will never have a line-up like Graham Norton gets — the likes of Katy Perry and Cheryl Cole rarely come across the Irish Sea — but I’m not worried about that at all as I know I will have some really good people to talk to. And chatting to people from different walks of life is what I love to do. It would be impossible to say who is my favourite interviewee but I enjoy anyone who has a good story to tell, rather than just a book to promote or a record to plug — a little bit of bite always makes interesting viewing.

“So I’m hoping Saturday Night with Miriam will be a relaxed and easy-going break from the rain, the recession, losing at Euro 2012 and the general air of doom and gloom; because we are all in need of a little bit of distraction.”

Shoot over, Miriam instantly jumps to her feet and starts to clear the room. She was a chambermaid in the past, she explains, and likes to leave a room tidy. And with that she’s gone, no baggage, just her Coast dress under her arm.

* Additional reporting by Annmarie O’Connor; Saturday Night with Miriam begins on RTÉ One tonight at 9.40pm

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