Five afternoons a week, she dominates the airwaves with Drivetime. Yet we know very little about broadcaster Mary Wilson.visits her at her home in Dun Laoghaire, for a taste of her life away from RTÉ.
The kettle is on when I arrive in Mary Wilson’s house, an elegant mid-terrace walk-up in Dun Laoghaire. You and I know her as the calm-voiced presenter of RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime one of the most popular shows on radio five days a week, with over 220,000 listeners, according to the latest figures.
But on this sunny Saturday morning in Dublin, she’s a country woman welcoming a stranger into her house. There is a (gorgeous) slice of porter cake waiting on the table; she apologises for bringing me all the way up from Cork, until I explain it gets me away from my kids for a few hours; she asks if I’d like to eat some eggs.
This is why people like Mary Wilson. For all her rigour and clarity as a legal affairs correspondent on RTÉ, or awkward squad questions for government Ministers on Drivetime, she has retained the kind of warmth that comes naturally to people who grew up in the country. So I feel a bit bad asking about her salary.
“I’ve finally crept in on the bottom of that,” she says a bit sheepishly, when I mention her pay is now public, published as part of the Top Ten Presenter Earnings List in RTÉ. She earns €185,0000 a year, at a time when RTÉ seems to be in the headlines every other week for the state of its finances. - How does she feel about that?
“First of all, it’s great that we have four women in that group (the top earners), that’s important, for women,” she replies, showing she’s learned something from the politicians who like to lead out with the good news. “I’m not a contractor, the salary will be what it will be. If we’re told next month that salaries have to be cut, then salaries are cut. Will I still get to do what I do? It would be far worse if they came to me and said they are going to axe current affairs at half four in the evening and there will be no more Drivetime.”
I wonder if she’s a material person. “No, but it’s easy to say that when you’ve enough money to have a home, pay a mortgage, go on a holiday, have a car. I’m not living in a (direct provision) hub — which is the outrage of our time, that people are homeless in this country at this time.”
She doesn’t strike me as flashy. The house is lovely, tasteful and timeless, but not ostentatious given she presents one of the most popular radio shows in the country and shares it with her partner Hugh, a GP. (They’re getting married next March.) The car in the drive is a Mercedes, but it’s a 2011 Mercedes, which is pretty modest given some of the other cars on show in the neighbourhood. She strikes me as someone who is grounded and in touch with the reality of life in Ireland, which must have something to do with her roots.
“I’m from Drangan in Tipperary,” she tells me in an accent she’s never lost, as we settle around the table on her patio to soak up some September sun. “It’s a small community of a few hundred at the foothills of Slievenamon, a lovely small place. I appreciate now everything about it that I wanted to escape at 16 or 17.”
She left to follow her dream. “I’m very single-minded. From 10 years of age, I wanted to be a journalist. I grew up in a house that was very questioning, particularly my father’s family, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother Agnes Wilson, she was very questioning and argumentative, she’d challenge you, you had to have an opinion. She introduced me to books and encyclopedias. Herself and her husband had a big influence.”
She went to a local national and then secondary school, where she was a boarder. And then Dublin called in 1979, when she went to study journalism in Rathmines. “Can you imagine coming from Drangan, population 300, to Dublin?” she says wide-eyed just remembering it. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I loved it. I absolutely loved it and I still do. I loved the buses, walking around Grafton Street, I loved the noise, I still love going into Dublin city and walking around the place, going into book-shops and drinking coffee.”
She lights up when I mention an article I read about the four close friends she made in Rathmines. “We were country girls really, and we’re friends to this day.” Were there wild times in Dublin? “No!” she shoots back, almost with a note of regret. “When you look back at it, God we were simple. We didn’t work, we studied, we were lucky that our parents supported us.
“You could still live in grotty flats in Dublin, the rent was affordable, but you didn’t care. Then we all lived in this house in Kimmage, that was a good window of time. Our house became the centre for our course, we became a very connected bunch.”
And then it was time to get a job.
I’d embraced feminism. Based on Olivia O’Leary, Nell McCafferty, Mary Maher, Mary Robinson, Mary Kenny, they were huge role models, they were breaking the mould.
"I’d doubt there was much call for feminist journalism in her early roles in the Clonmel Nationalist, or trade magazines such as The Progressive Farmer and The Commercial Transport.
“The holy grail was to work for the Irish Press, but I never got a job there.”
Because you were a woman? “No, it was difficult to get work. You were always trying to get a shift,” she adds, and then giggles at the double entendre. “It has a different meaning in some circumstances! There were no mobile phones, so you’re sitting in the hallway of the flat, waiting for the phone to ring to get a job.”
She then left journalism for a while, heading for the ‘real world’ as she calls it, taking up a role with The Shannon Free Airport Development Company, selling industry and tourism for the mid-west region to American and European journalists.
But after a few years she felt it wasn’t for her and she quit the corporate world for a job in The Limerick Post, taking what she called a significant cut in earnings.
From there, she headed to RTÉ in Cork, working as a reporter on Cork’s 89 FM and then transferred back to Dublin, working as a general reporter for a while before starting as Legal Affairs Correspondent in 1996. (She obviously has a nose for social mores — I mention Cork snobbery and she notes that everyone in Cork was always dying to know what you do for a living.) And then Drivetime came along. “In 2006, Five Seven Live was coming to an end, I had the light bulb moment of saying, I should look for this job. “
Did she have any doubts? “Not at first. But when I got it! Oh Jesus, what am I going to do now.”
Whatever it is, she’s doing it right, building a reputation for being tough but fair.
I mention a Drivetime interview with Mairéad Ni Nuadháin, RTÉ’s head of external relations at the time, where Mary asked if Ryan Tubridy and Joe Duffy’s salary represented value for RTÉ and its audience. Did she get any funny looks in the RTÉ canteen for that?
“I’m sure if Joe Duffy or Ryan Tubridy or Sean O’Rourke was doing that interview, they’d do exactly the same thing. That’s the job.”
Drivetime, which recently introduced a new intro at the top of the show, is one of the plum gigs in Irish media — is she conscious there must be people in and outside RTÉ who would love it for themselves. “Of course. And they should — it’s a great job!”
Does this make her wary? “Ah no, If you lived your life like that, Jesus, you’d never do anything, you’d never make a friend. I’ve a thicker neck now than I used to have.”
We don’t hear much about Mary Wilson outside of the job. I could be wrong, but she doesn’t strike me as the type for Dancing with the Stars. She is slow to talk about her marriage to RTÉ Sports Presenter, Tony O’Donoghue, which broke up around 2005. When I ask if they still get to sit in the same studio on Drivetime, she says not that much any more, in a way that suggests she’d be happier talking about something else.
Particularly if it’s about the daughter, Aoife, she had with Tony O’Donoghue in 1997. “Aoife is very connected and has two parents who were journalists,” she replies, when I ask how she stays in touch with the latest developments in social media. “She would often say to me, did you see this or that, she’d send me a screenshot.”
Aoife still lives with herself and Hugh, along with one of his adult children. “I met Hugh at a funeral in Bandon, and we have a lovely life together, second chances really. We do a lot of hill-walking, we like the theatre, we go to the theatre or cinema once a week or maybe a fortnight.”
What about the telly? “The last few weeks I’ve been glued to the House of Commons. We both get home at about half seven. Channel 4 news is on replay at eight o’clock, then you have the 9 o’clock news, then you might have Prime Time, then the BBC at ten, then you have Newsnight. And now Andrew Neil has a new show.”
Any favourite dramas? “I’m watching the Loudest Voice, about Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox. Russell Crowe is playing Roger Ailes, it gets better all the time. What’s horrifying about it is it’s very close to the truth. He’s an odious character, the manipulation of news.”
Is everything about current affairs and media? “No! Outside of the heavy stuff I love Room to Improve, Grand Designs, Bake Off.”
Is she worried about fake news and the fracturing of consensus on social media? “Citizen journalism is great, but check your facts. Don’t present nonsense as fact. Don’t present opinion dressed up as fact.”
I suspect she mixes work with pleasure on her fly-drive holidays in the States, often in the Trump heartlands. “We travelled through Wyoming, Colorado and Utah in 2016, just before the election. You can’t dismiss people, you have to understand the disconnect they have with politics.”
Did she get into debates with the locals?
“Not debates, chats,” she replies with a twinkle, before telling me I absolutely have to get to Vegas once in my life. (She managed to win at roulette.)
It isn’t just America. She beams when talking about the annual trip herself and Hugh take to the Perugia Jazz Festival, about 100 km from Rome. “We go with a group of friends and spend a week listening to jazz, from musicians that are not that well known. There’s music all around all day, wonderful gigs.”
The original idea for the interview was that I’d walk the pier in Dun Laoghaire with Mary, see her in action enjoying a hobby before we sat down to record a bit of chat.
She didn’t say it in so many words, but I got the sense the old school journalist inside told her this was a bit gimmicky and would just waste my time, when what I really wanted to do was to record an interview, and get back home.
So instead we sat out the the back of hers for an hour and chatted over tea and cake.
The time flew by. Mary Wilson is just lovely, she’s warm and a bit mischievous, I’m not surprised people want to listen to her five days a week.
She even sent me a text the following day, thanking me for driving up from Cork and including a photo she just took at the top of Derry Bawn ridge in Wicklow.
It could have read, Mary Wilson is in a really good place.
Because she is.