“C’mere, listen, this is it now, right,” laughs Dáithí Ó Sé, over the phone.
“Somebody’s going to tap me on the shoulder, maybe next year, maybe in 10 years’ time or 20, they’ll say ‘Dáithí, we’re after copping on to you’, and I’m going to turn around and say ‘Do you know what? I milked it for what it was’ and I’ll walk away happy out.”
When we talk in mid-July, the Kerry native is on the road, outside of Charleville, headed for Cork, before driving to Waterford for two nights, up then to Tyrone, on to Croke Park for the All-Ireland hurling final, back down to Waterford and home to Galway: “I could nearly sleep inside in the car for you at this stage.”
A broadcasting veteran at 46 (“I’m half my life on television this year”), Ó Sé has co-presented RTÉ One’s Today show for a decade, and with the Rose of Tralee returning after a two-year pandemic break, he’s about to present that for the 11th time.
He claims the biggest mistake any TV presenter could make would be to assume the good times will last indefinitely: “You’re in for some kick up the behind if you think you’re going to be there forever.”
He began as a weekend weather presenter on TG4 after completing training as a secondary school teacher in Limerick’s Mary I: “I was teaching, I was part-time at the weather for about a year, and then I was full-time on TV, and I haven’t worked a day [as a teacher] since.”
He believes that, for anyone in media, an interest in people is essential: “If you’re not interested in people, forget about it. Stay at home.”
He adds that an ability to listen, a bit of empathy and an understanding of people, are all vital: “You’re not paid to talk, you’re paid to listen. The least important person inside in the Dome there at the Rose of Tralee is me. I’m like a referee. If they’re not talking about the referee the following day after the game, he’s after doing the right job.”
Two years co-presenting The Daily Show with Claire Byrne led to the afternoon Today show: “all of a sudden we’re here 10 years later”.
When the Today show began, it had 80 shows a year, each 50 minutes long: “We do 170 now and they’re two hours and a quarter. The show was transformed, but again, it’s the easiest show you’ll ever do, you sit and you talk to people.”
During Covid, Today regularly topped 170,000 viewers, getting an audience share of 23% and 24%. By comparison, he says, when the show is off the air, viewership for that timeslot is around 5%. Co-presenting Today five days a week (Maura Derrane joins him three days, and Sinead Kennedy for the other two) puts him “inside in people’s living rooms, five afternoons a week”.
Sometimes, he says, the lines can get blurred, but mostly that’s OK: “I remember being in an airport two years ago and this woman came up to me and said ‘How are you Daithi?’ Not too bad now, how you keeping? ‘Not too bad now, Daithi. Paudie got the second mortgage.’ I’m thinking in my own head, ‘Who the fuck are you, and who the fuck gave Paudie the second mortgage?’ But I said ‘Oh Jesus, that’s mighty shtuff and did he buy or build?’ and she said ‘Oh he built of course!’ and she took me through the whole planning process and everything!”
He says things like that happen all the time, and it makes him feel like he’s doing his job: “Mostly now I’d have a 22-year-old, a fine-looking woman, come up to me and say: ‘How you doin’, my grandmother loves you’.”
Ten years ago, he married former New Jersey Rose, Rita Talty, and their son Micheál Óg — named after Dáithí’s dad Maidhc Dainín — is seven now. He regrets that Maidhc Dainín never met Micheál Óg, and he recalls performing CPR on his dad the day he died: “We tried to bring him back to life and it didn’t work, we had the paramedics on the phone, Rita was pregnant at the time. My father was on the chair and I was trying to bring him down on the floor to do the CPR.
"He was going cold at that stage, he was drawing his final breath and I said, ‘Jesus, mind, Rita, you’re pregnant, you can’t’, and my mother had caught his legs and we’d brought him down on the floor to do CPR, and he died.
"I do believe in my heart and soul that there was one fella passing on the baton to the other in some outer ether while my father was on his way out, and the young fella came along about five or six months later.”
With the Rose of Tralee returning this year, Ó Sé laughs when reminded of the Father Tedepisode with the beauty contest: “This must be five or six years ago, I was up on stage and there was about 2,500 people inside in the Dome, and there was a big huge banner down the back and it says ‘They’re all lovely girls, Ted’. Ah, Jesus Christ Almighty, I couldn’t stop laughing. There is no bigger compliment you can get to have one of the biggest sitcoms ever having a go at the Rose of Tralee. That was one of the funniest episodes of the whole thing, the Lovely Girls Competition.”
Still, though, a memorable criticism of the festival came in a 2018 Irish Times piece by Jennifer O’Connell, when she described it as “the misty-eyed and slightly maudlin drunk propped up on a New York barstool, still warbling about the home country long after closing time”.
Noting that it dates from 1959, when Darby O’Gill and the Little People had its world premiere in Dublin, she asked “So is there any hope of breathing new life into the festival and making it relevant for the post-MeToo era?”
Ó Sé says while O’Connell “certainly paints a picture” of the festival, it’s one he doesn’t recognise: “The Rose of Tralee is actually this huge juggernaut that comes around every year and people like Jennifer O’Connell will take an old shot at it, and no problem like, but I can only tell you the backbone of the Rose of Tralee really is a celebration of Irishness, and it’s also even moreso the celebration of Irish women, and when is the celebration of Irish women out of date?”
But isn’t she right to say that the festival belongs to the Ireland of 1959, the Ireland of Magdalene Laundries and mother and baby homes? After all, the Rose of Tralee had a ban on unmarried mothers until 2008, and until last year no entrant could be married.
He replies firmly that he believes the festival has moved with the times, citing the announcement last year lifting that marriage ban, raising the age limit for contestants to 29, and allowing trans women to enter the competition.
“If you identify as a female, you can be a Rose of Tralee. You can say all those rules were there, but all those rules have been taken away as the years went by. If you go back to Maria Walsh [in 2014], an MEP now, she was the first Rose of Tralee who happened to be gay. And I remember when the story came out people just went ‘big deal’. I think the Rose of Tralee has moved away from that dark, dingy after-hour bar that Jennifer described.”
He mentions the festival’s Irish diaspora appeal, and as a child of the Irish-American diaspora whose own eldest brother and sister were born in Chicago, he feels the yearning for a connection to the homeland is something us native-born can overlook: “Part of the diaspora that comes through with the Rose of Tralee, you’ll hear on stage. ‘My great, great, great grandfather left in the 1800s’, and all of a sudden there’s a connection there. It’s a complicated web, to be honest, the whole thing. There’s lots of different layers to it, and I think people like certain parts of it and they don’t like other parts.”
Fair enough, but doesn’t the Rose of Tralee present a deeply sexist view of women? He replies, perhaps more sharply than intended: “In what way sexist though?”
Well, is it not a beauty contest? And if we’re not doing measurements exactly, aren’t we measuring women by their loveliness? “No, no, I don’t think you’re measuring women at all by their loveliness. I think you have ladies on stage, women going up on the stage, telling their story, a lot of it can be very, very hard, a lot of them have been through a lot.”
He accepts pageantry is part of it, but he feels it’s more about Roses telling their stories, and celebrating their achievements: “For example, for somebody that was 28 or 29, with a lot done in college and a lot of travel done, it’s about showcasing themselves in the best way, and what’s wrong with that, what’s wrong with being proud of their achievements? Isn’t that a good thing? I think it’s a good thing.
“Look,” he says, sounding both weary and defiant, “if people don’t want to watch the show, I can’t tell them to watch the show. Like, watch something else if ye don’t want to watch it. Loads of people have a go at the Rose, and they’re entitled to their opinion, but I can only give what I think myself.”
With the festival worth millions annually to Tralee’s economy, and given his own decade-plus presenting it and the fact he married the former Rose of the Garden State, his spirited defence is unsurprising, but does feel genuine.
As for his own career, he swears he’s only ever thinking about the current job, the next gig along: “Honest to God, my plan is just to keep going because I’m a contract worker, I’m not RTÉ staff. So you have to keep taking these gigs, they keep you going all the time, but at some stage you have to start being selective.
“But when you’re doing the Today show, there’s 170 of them a year, and the Rose of Tralee is one of the biggest gigs of the year, and luckily enough I’m often doing stuff for TG4, so that keeps me out of trouble for the summers, and I’m just happy to bob along.”
Might the Late Late be in his sights at some stage? “I’m asked this three or four times a year. My answer always is there’s not a presenter in the country who’d turn it down, it’s the best paid gig with the biggest viewership. Everyone would do [it], but I’ll tell you, I know Ryan Tubridy for a long, long time and his job is very, very safe.
“To be honest, TV is a funny one because you can only play the hand you’re dealt, and you could be there for the rest of your life trying to do other things,” he says.
“Part of the thing is you’re always looking forward and always trying to get better again but sometimes you don’t realise what you have. Once you realise what you have, you say ‘Jesus, I’m happy out with what I have’.”
- The Rose of Tralee airs August 22 & 23 on RTÉ One from 8pm