For years, she has been the face of the Nine O’Clock News every week day night, but when it comes to weekends, Eileen Dunne does everything she can to avoid the news. The grind of reading bad news stories day in, day out leaves its mark.
“I get into the car at the weekends,” she says, “and I don’t turn on the radio. If I do, it’s either a music station or a CD. My husband would get into the car and he’d say, ‘What’s that you’re listening to?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t want to know, I don’t want to know’ [about the news]. I’ll catch up with the papers on Monday morning.”
There is never a shortage of heartbroken news, but one recent story in particular upset her - the killing of Garda Tony Golden in Co Louth last month.
“That was a tough day because I know the widow of [slain garda] Adrian Donohoe and I was thinking, ‘Oh God love them’. They’re heartbroken people.
“Nobody should know how I feel about the news I am reading, but I make a distinction for especially tragic stories. I hope I look empathetic, because I don’t want to come back looking stone-wally either.” At the height of the recession, the nightly news made for sobering viewing for many - something Eileen Dunne was only too aware of.
“When the recession kicked in first I was doing the Lyric programme at the time and the Lyric figures did rise because people were saying, ‘I can’t take any more’, but on the other hand, news bulletin figures were going up as well because people were afraid they’d miss something.”
Now 57, Dunne has been an RTÉ staffer for since 1980 and has seen some seismic changes at Montrose, especially thanks to advancements in technology.
It’s great when it works,” she says, “but there are moments when it doesn’t, and that can be tricky.” Just a few weeks ago, thanks to a major technical glitch, the Nine O’Clock News was delayed by several minutes and she had to go into studio and read from sheets of paper.
“You haven’t time to be nervous,” she says, “ and I wasn’t - that’s where I come into my own. It’s my natural environment. I used to read from pages on TV years ago - we’d never have read from autocue. The only difference is I would have written it, which didn’t happen this time.”
Despite the cock-up, Dunne was widely praised for her calmness and professionalism. “For once, [the reaction] was positive, rather than people complaining about RTÉ making a hames of itself. And it wasn’t just me - there’s a team around me and there were lots of cool heads that night.”
If the barstool commentators on Twitter, were kind that night, but it hasn’t always been that way. Dunne has shipped criticism as much as any broadcaster in the public eye as much. She pays no attention to it.
“It’s always been there - there’s no difference. I’ve been getting [critical] letters all my life, now they take to Twitter.
“I’m on Twitter, but I don’t tweet. I follow various things that interest me and a couple of people who I can’t stand. The danger with it is that people are following those they agree with.” Most of the correspondence she’s received over the years has concerned clothes she’s worn or the way she’s pronounced certain words, but there has been the odd sinister note too.
“Years ago, I got a series of letters where the guy made comments about wanting to take me up to the Dublin Mountains and… It’s wasn’t very pleasant.”
Like many of those who wound up in RTÉ in the 1970s and early 1980s, Dunne had had no interest in becoming a broadcaster while at school or college.
She had wanted to be a teacher and assumed that her life’s course would involve standing in front of classrooms of children.
“Ask my sisters. When we played school at home I was always the teacher. I graduated [from UCD] and went to France for a year and had a change of heart. I could see the frustrations of teachers. My father [the RTÉ sports broadcaster Mick Dunne] wrote to me and said they’re looking for continuity announcers on radio. There was a postal strike in France at the time so he put in the application for me and I’m sure that he got me the interview, because he would have remembered every medal I’d ever won.”
She got a part-time job with RTÉ and was also teaching French in her old school - Manor House in Raheny, Dublin.
“I was teaching first years and a bunch of second years who basically didn’t want to be there. My only regret is I didn’t get a second year as a teacher.”
She may have left teaching behind, but her love of all things French remains.
“I’ve been very involved with the Association of European Journalists and I’d use French whenever I’m in Brussels, say. I go to a little hamlet in Brittany, it’s my little hideaway. It’s me. I’ve brought my family there. My boys (husband Macdara Ó Fátharta, an actor, and son Cormac) are not that into it. It’s very quiet. I go on my own. It’s my retreat.”
She hopes to spend far more time there when she retires, which she hopes will be before she turns 65. “I’ll go to the theatre, to movies, I’ll join a choir - things I can’t do when I’m working five nights a week,” she says.
“I sung when I was younger. I’m an alto, I can hold my own in a choir and I love singing with others, but that just isn’t possible now.”
She’s covered thousands of news stories over the years, but two, in particular, stay with her. “I’ll never forget [Republican paramilitary] Dominic McGlinchey being caught on St Patrick’s Day 1984 - this fella had been driving around the country, impersonating gardaí and so on. The cameras were there because the Railway Cup final was on, in Ennis I think, and they could get cameras to the scene quickly. That’s very easily done now, but not then.
“The other one is Dunblane [the high school shooting in Scotland in 1996] because my son was only six-months old. Now that I had a child of my own, I could see the horror of it.”
While her first years in RTÉ were exclusively on radio, moving to television brought new challenges, including the thorny issue of what to wear. She now keeps note of every outfit she sports on the Nine O’Clock News and makes sure a month has elapsed before wearing it again.
“How do I choose? Well, it’s whatever’s clean. What’s back from the dry cleaners. Then some of my stuff is in RTÉ. I’d alternate between the two. The stuff doesn’t last that long cause every time I wear it, they get shabby looking very fast [because of the thick studio make-up used].
“On HD, every little blemish shows up so it’s a different type of make-up that’s used now, because if it’s too heavy you’ll see that too. The make-up has to come all the way down [the neckline], so that’s how the jackets get grubby.”
Her mother isn’t slow to tell her if a certain outfit doesn’t work.
“She’ll tell me, ‘That jacket does nothing for you.’ And I’ll never wear it again. She’d be right - something might look lovely on a hanger, but it wouldn’t necessarily work on camera.” Members of the public feel compelled to offer their views on her look too.
“I remember coming out [of RTÉ TV Centre] one night and the girl [on reception] said, ‘Those colours came out really well’, and a taxi driver [who was waiting there] said (and here she puts on her best Dublin accent), ‘My missus says your parting was crooked.’ So guess what (that Dublin brogue), my parting has never been crooked since.”
Although she says she has little interest in reading about herself on line, there’s one Eileen Dunne myth that she is keen to put right. Contrary to widespread knowledge, she does not have a prosthetic eye.
“I don’t know where it started. I’ve had letters from people saying, ‘I’m about to get a glass eye’. Years ago, it was said that [newscaster] Michael Murphy was in a wheelchair which wasn’t true either.
“What is true is I have a gammy eye. My left eye is practically blind. I have peripheral vision in it so if I close my right eye I couldn’t say who you are but I’d know there was someone sitting opposite me. It was detected when I was seven. I was rubbing my right eye one day and I started screaming ‘I can’t see, I can’t see’.”
She says it’s had no impact on her work. “I don’t know if it’s harder to read an autocue because I’ve known nothing else. It’s normal for me now.”