Donal O'Donoghue has a heart-to-heart with chatshow host, Brendan O'Connor
“I cried a lot at the beginning but I cried myself out quickly enough”, says Brendan O’Connor. “What went on longer was the anger. It was kind of a mindless anger where you’d feel like wanting to kick something.”
One year ago, O’Connor’s world was turned upside down. In July 2010, his wife Sarah gave birth to their second child. Mary was born with Down syndrome. Initially the news sent the journalist into a tail-spin of shock and incomprehension. Tears gave way to rage, but he grew up too, learning some things about life and himself. He wrote of his rollercoaster experience in a recent Sunday Independent Life Magazine article: an eloquent thought-piece that pinballed across love and pain and the whole damn thing.
Chronicling the year he finally ‘grew up’, the 41-year-old reckoned the past year made him slightly more real, slightly more patient, slightly more loving. For him, Mary and her big sister, Anna, are the best thing ever. When we meet O’Connor says that he’s ready to talk about anything. “I’m an open book”, he says and while initially wary, he is mostly engaging, frank and frequently funny. Anxious that he might be seen as trading his own life – to promote The Saturday Night Show, he occasionally checks himself. But he reasons that this is what he is and this is what he does.
“Why would I have reservations about writing that story?” he asks. “This is about my experience of it and to some degree Sarah’s as well. I believe that there were lots of good reasons to write it. It’s also what I do. In the beginning, I used to always see the mark that Mary has but right now I don’t see it. Mary’s different and that’s it. She’s the best craic ever and a total joy. The other stuff – the help that Mary gets and all that – is part of our lives but you just take it all in your stride.”
We are seated in a discreet corner of a hotel in the Gucci-heeled Dublin suburb of Ballsbridge. O’Connor lives locally. Even though he describes himself as a capitalist (“who isn’t in this country?”), he admits that he’s not a very good one. He bought his home at the height of the property boom and it subsequently crashed into negative equity. He and Sarah now rent (“a long story”) but he adds, as he occasionally does when he fears he might be bemoaning his lot, there are many people in a much worse situation than he is. A few hours after we meet, O’Connor and his family were off to Majorca – a week of r ’n’ r before he plugs into the heart of Saturday night with his RTÉ chat show.
O’Connor is an unlikely-looking chat-show host. On TV, he seems to swallow up the studio, a big man with a mean look in a pinstriped suit. But there is a boyish cheekiness to him and an edge to his questioning that very often gets the best out of his guests. Even if he is guilty of trading on this bad boy public image – TV adverts market O’Connor as a man able to make even little babies bawl in terror – he says it’s just a mask, and an accidental one at that. “I do have an unfortunate face”, he says and laughs. “Occasionally during the show the producer, will say into my earpiece: ‘smile’. It usually happens when someone is talking to me but maybe my way of looking interested is to scrunch up my face. It’s not meant to be glowering – it’s meant to be curiosity.”
If curiosity is something he has in spades, O’Connor is also prone to melancholia (like most Irishmen he would argue). But the self-obsession that dogged him has been nullified by the events of the past year. “It was quite unreal but to be honest I don’t think I know the half of it”, he says. “We had a baby but there are people who walk out of the operating theatre with no baby or with a baby who is really sick. I had Anna, who was then two and a half, and she was like my little shadow. So we kept doing the usual things because she was there. We were meeting friends and going for lunch and all that. In way it was a nightmare and you wake up every morning thinking this can’t be happening. Now these are all clichés, I know, but I suppose they are clichés until they happen to you.”
Last season, The Saturday Night Show’s 30-something weeks of prime-time TV was a welcome distraction for O’Connor. “I don’t want to sound like Twink or whatever, but you had to put on a smile every Saturday night because that’s showbiz”, he says. “Last year it was really busy because I was only getting to grips with doing the thing and we had a small baby as well – although in fairness Sarah was doing most of that. So you just had to go on and be jolly on the television. In that way the series carried me through. But then something happened a few weeks before the end of the run, someone else’s bad news, that raked up everything that I had avoided for the previous nine months. I limped through those two last shows.”
Friends tell him that he has mellowed in the past year or so. He shrugs. “Look, what has happened doesn’t necessarily make you a better person”, he says. “The thing is that while I’m a tough enough person when I need to be I’m also quite a soft person: a bit sensitive and all that kind of thing.” He pauses and toys self-consciously with his cup of tea. “So what has happened in the past year hasn’t altered that in any way.”
Over the years, O’Connor has also had attended counselling on and off. “It has helped me”, he says. “Of course, I worry sometimes that it’s an indulgent thing to do but look if it helps, it helps. I think everybody would benefit a bit from it. You can talk to your friends and family but it’s nice to have time to yourself where you don’t have to worry about the other person’s stuff. Rather that than taking Prozac or whatever.”
O’Connor met his wife Sarah (Caden, a fellow journalist) during a Sunday Independent photo shoot on Sandymount Strand. It was for the newspaper’s Culture Vulture slot and the group were dressed in Victorian garb for the occasion. Afterwards, he and Caden chatted and for a while, office politics and all that, they dated, unknown to their colleagues. “We had a secret little affair”, he says. “It was furtive hand holding at office parties and stuff like that. But it then gradually came into the open.” Now he shares his home with three women (or is that the other way round?) and he loves it. But then, he will tell you, he always has had a soft spot for the company of women.
Even so he was 38 when Anna was born. “I didn’t feel any mad primal urges to reproduce”, he says of becoming a dad. “Sarah was keen to have children and I was like, sure. But I didn’t know what to expect [from fatherhood]. In many ways I don’t plan my life. I tend to blunder into things, so I didn’t think through what it would mean. I thought it might cramp my style a bit, but what it does is reconnect you to such great joy – the daily joy. It’s a great laugh being a dad and I grew up in a family where there was six of us and that was always a great laugh.”
Brendan O’Connor grew up in Bishopstown on the western edges of Cork city. He was the fifth of five boys, followed by a baby sister. His father was a microbiologist and high-ranking civil servant with An Foras Talúntais (The Agricultural Institute). Like his father, college was University College Cork, where he studied Commerce (as did three of his brothers). He enjoyed his college days: wild times. “But nothing outside of the ordinary”, he says with a smile, “nothing bad enough to land me in prison.”
Following his degree he won a Ford postgraduate bursary worth about £10,000. “This was like firewater for someone like me”, he says. So he never finished his Masters in Business Studies. Eventually a friend suggested he apply for the postgraduate diploma in Journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology. He did and within a month was knuckling down to a career in journalism. “Of course, I still like a party but the price gets higher and higher as you get older”, he says.
As a columnist with the Sunday Independent, O’Connor has ruffled more than a few feathers, RTÉ included. His politics, he agrees, is right of centre and he remains a capitalist, despite all. “I think most people are, even though some see it as a crime now”, he says. “The fact is that we live in a capitalist system.” He is also unafraid of – or maybe even attracted to – the contrary view. He says that the demonisation of Bertie Ahern (they crossed swords a few years back on the flight home from France following the marriage of Ahern’s daughter, Georgina) is something that concerns him. “My first instinct when people are being demonised is to say ‘hang on a minute’”, he says. “I think that there is a terrible mob mentality in this country and in the media. I’m not going to defend [Ahern] but I would defend anyone against a mob that is being inconsistent in its thinking.”
He says that there is no competition between his show and The Late Late Show. “Genuinely, and I’m not being diplomatic”, he insists. “If there are any guests that are in any way desirable they will go to the Late Late Show. So that leads to us looking for people who are less obvious and potentially more interesting.” In any case he argues that the LLS is a totally different animal just as he believes that his broadcasting career – before the chat-show he hosted Don’t Feed the Gondolas and was a judge on the talent show, You’re A Star – is a tenuous thing. “Some new guy could come in and I could be history”, he speculates. “So I don’t think long-term with RTÉ. In a way I’m trying to be more optimistic. I suppose I’m a realist.”
This week, O’Connor is back in the TV hot seat. After the past 12 months he believes that he’s more bullet-proof and less anxious about being caught in the crosshairs of public opinion. But being the man he is, he’s still bedevilled by doubt. “If I have an ambition it is to be more open to everything”, he says. “In the past I would have said no to life a lot and been very set in my ways. When you host a chat-show your personality is forced into the light. I can be an awkward, shy kind of individual and you have to deal with that. I have also become more open to things outside the purely rational. I hesitate to call it spirituality because that makes you sound like a middle-aged divorcee. I think that I have more of a relationship with the God in me and the God in everyone than I ever had before. I’m only beginning to understand that.”