This year has been a big one for Mairéad Ronan, during which she has learned to back herself. She talks to Donal O'Donoghue about coping with grief, her toughest days and stepping into the limelight.
In March, she won Dancing with the Stars, just a few weeks after Getaways, the travel show she co-presented, was axed. In May, she and her family moved into their new home, last month she got to anchor her own radio show (Mairéad Ronan on Today FM) and just now, she’s back hosting Ireland’s Fittest Family in its seventh season.
The day after we spoke Ronan would broadcast her radio show from Cork and then high-tail it to Castlemartyr Resort for Anna Geary’s wedding, having attended the wedding of another Fittest Family coach, Davy Fitzgerald the previous weekend. "My favourite pair of shoes is in my bag right now," she says, producing what looks like a pair of designer flip-flops. "I will drive to Cork in these tomorrow."
My last encounter with the broadcaster was a little tetchy, but this time, Ronan is refreshingly straight-talking, opening up about the loss of her mother, Maureen; the break-up of her first marriage and finding love again. Before we meet, she texts twice to apologise that she is running late: a climate change demonstration has caused Dublin traffic to grind to a halt. She is still apologising when she arrives, offering a hug and looking a million bucks (later she will tell me how her mum would never leave home without looking her best).
It’s mid-morning but with a busy home life (with her three children, Bonnie (1), Eliza (3) and Dara (12) she has yet to have breakfast. "Poached eggs," she says without even looking at the menu, as I admire the sparkling jewellery on her fingers which includes a costume piece she bought when she got the Today FM job in September. It’s a short hop from our meeting place in the city centre to the radio station where Ronan worked for some 15 years, graduating from intern to producer (on Ray D’Arcy’s show for 11 years and subsequently Ian Dempsey) before going freelance in 2016. Now she’s back with her own show, Mairéad Ronan, every weekday from noon. Yet when offered the job, initially she says she wasn’t champing at the bit.
"Long gone are the days when you would be given five or six years to grow a radio show. That doesn’t happen any more except maybe in RTÉ. So I had to think that if I take this on and it doesn’t work and I’m cut loose, how will I be with that? My husband Louis, my sounding board, said that I just had to take it on the chin, just like when the movie show (RTÉ TV’s The Movie Show) got cancelled or Getaways got axed. So if I give my all I’ll have no regrets."
Regrets are something Ronan is wary of. Last year, she said that her biggest regret was not leaving Today FM sooner. In 2014, she had been offered a job with another broadcaster. It was tempting but the one year contract was too much of a gamble. "I really wanted to take it but Louis and I weren’t even engaged at the time," she says.
"I also had a failed marriage behind me. So my focus was my son. I don’t like saying I was a single mum because Dara’s dad was very heavily involved in his life, but the day-to-day running of things was me. So I was putting the roof over his head for six of the seven days. So a one year contract was not enough. I would have left a stable job where I knew what I was earning. It was too risky. When I did leave, I got lots of work. I didn’t back myself more, I suppose."
She’s backing herself now. "I won my first ever trophy," she says of her Dancing with the Stars triumph. During the intensive training for the show, she lost over three stone, from the birth of Bonnie in August 2018 to the grand final in March this year. There is a tenacity here. Mairéad is a life-long GAA fan who gets the maverick style of manager Davy Fitz, ever since she first saw him at Croke Park. "I couldn’t take my eyes off Davy for the whole game. He got into trouble for trying to stop a point by throwing his hurley in the air."
She says she has a thick skin. "If someone doesn’t like a show or doesn’t like you, you have to live with that. So you get a very thick, tough skin." Still, after she signed up for DWTS, the doubts came. "I looked at the line-up and thought, 'Sh*t! I’m the one with no obvious role,’" she says. "I felt like a fraud coming down those stairs and being introduced as ‘television presenter and radio star, Mairéad Ronan’ and I’m thinking ‘I’m not on radio anymore so they shouldn’t say that!’ I told the show’s producers before the first show that the introduction was embarrassing. They had to talk me round."
Once on board, though, she gave it socks, body and soul; written to by some but popular with the public. Now she is back on the dance floor for the Dancing with the Stars Live Tour, when she was reunited with the other contestants for a show that will be yet another entry in a full diary.
Mairéad Farrell was born, as she once put it, in "the posh part" of Finglas in Dublin. Her two sisters, Simone and Olga, were 12 and 10 years old when she arrived, somewhat unexpectedly. "I was a surprise," she says with a laugh. "My two sisters doted on me. We were a close family, still are." Her eldest sister, Simone, was a mother to her in some ways. "She was my godmother also and in a lot of photographs, she’s there with me on her hip, my little mammy. Simone was strict on me saying things like ‘You need to study more!’ whereas my mother was like ‘Don’t be listening to her, you’re doing great!’ So my sister was the boss which is kind of funny."
At school, she was well-liked. "I really got on well with my teachers and the nuns but I was a C student. I remember saying this to a teacher one time and he said that’s a ‘C for consistent, Mairéad, and there’s nothing wrong with that.’"
She worked in Arnotts part-time from the age of 16. Following her Leaving Certificate, she did a course in HR, then dropped out to work full-time in Arnotts. "When we were told that Mam was dying, I gave up my job at Arnotts to stay at home with her. My Mam said to me, ‘What is it that you really want to do?’ And I said that I’d love to work in radio or TV and she said ‘OK let’s get you on that course!’ The day of my Mam’s funeral was the day I got the letter for the interview at Ballyfermot College."
Her mother died on April 2, 2001 the day before Mairéad’s 21st birthday. "I was very practical when my mother died," she says. "For me the main thing was that she was not in pain any more. It was as simple as that for me in the two years after. And I was thinking why is everyone else so upset? But my Mam was only 60 years old when she died and should still be with us. A few years later, in my mid-20s, I really struggled with the loss. I realised ‘Sh*t. I don’t have a mam and she is never coming back!’ It will be 19 years next year, a long time. I turned 21 the day after she died and I didn’t celebrate my birthday for years afterwards."
In 2004, Mairéad, then 24 and working at Today FM, got married. Within a year, she realised the marriage was a mistake, a panacea to salve the pain of her mother’s death. "The grief didn’t really hit me until I became a mum," she says. "I was 26 when I had Dara and it was only then I realised how much my Mam loved me. Now when Dara says to me ‘I love you Mam’ I tell him, ‘You’ve no idea how much I love you!’ He laughs at that. But I had no idea how much my Mam loved me until I had my own children. In that moment, I wish I could have apologised to her for being cheeky. I wish I could have thanked her too but I couldn’t. But I could thank my Dad, Robert."
Does she have a religious faith? "I am a cherry-picker with religion but certain things have happened that have made me think," she says. "I do believe my mother has watched over me and I have taken strength from those feelings at the tough times in my life. The toughest thing was my divorce. I think it was even tougher than losing my Mam. It’s really tough to go through divorce in Ireland but I think that it will get easier. Sometimes a breakup can be clean but those years of dragging on can be terrible. It didn’t happen for us because Dara was always the main focus. So my only advice to anyone in a break-up is to keep it away from the child. If you fake the smiles it works. But I definitely had to dig deep for strength in those days."
In 2011, she met businessman Louis Ronan. "I first met him at a Today FM singles event," she says. "Louis popped in to see Jenny, Ray Darcy’s wife, who he knew and I just happened to be there as I was working on the event. I never go to work with a hangover but this day I had one as I had been to a Republic of Telly wrap party the night before. So I don’t remember how Louis looked or anything he said, just that he was a really lovely guy and that was that. Then three weeks later I was out with my sister, Olga, when I got a big smile from this guy. I reckoned he was smiling at the person behind me and then I realised ‘Oh, that’s that guy Louis!’ He invited me to a gig that night which I thought was really cheeky. It was a slow burner."
The couple married in Ronan’s native Tipperary in June 2015. For years, Mairéad had talked about getting a brother and sister for Dara but getting pregnant with Eliza was in many ways a joyous surprise. "I never really
expected it," she says. "Having Eliza was such an easy calm experience and a little girl was so lovely. It was around then I started to think there is so much more to life than just working and that was when the seed was planted that going back to work full-time might not be for me (Bonnie arrived in August 2018). And that was unusual because I had worked since I was 16. It was Eliza (born in 2016) that made me leave Today FM and go freelance and take jobs here, there and everywhere."
Mairéad Ronan will be 40 next April. "It is a big deal for me," she says. "I’m not afraid or ashamed to turn 40 because so much has happened to me in life. I’ve lost loved ones: my mother of course, as well as my best friend Linda’s mum, who died when she was just 44. So I’m very happy to be where I am in life and feel privileged to be on national radio and television. I never expected to win Dancing with the Stars. So I will absolutely celebrate my 40th especially as I didn’t celebrate my birthday for so long."
Aware of how short life can be, how regrets can hold you back, how grief can get buried and how fear might stop you from being the best you can be. "I like to celebrate things in life now," she says and that’s her new deal: no regrets if possible and be ready to back yourself from here to kingdom come.