"Over the years you get told different things," says Sinead Kennedy of her life in broadcasting. "Like maybe you shouldn't laugh like that! Somebody once compared it to a foghorn while another guy, a co-presenter, said I sounded like a constipated duck. And I’m like: 'I know it’s the most horrendous noise but it’s me!’
You get told things you need to work on. I know that you’re never going to be everybody’s cup of tea and I’m fine with that as well. But there will come a time when someone will say ‘We don’t want you presenting any more’ for whatever reason, whether it’s my age or my accent or my laugh. So I’ve always been thinking about the long game, about what else I want to do."
You’ve got to love the effervescent Kennedy: the broadcaster who cut her teeth in children’s TV (Sattitude), who winningly co-hosts Winning Streak with Marty Whelan, sports platinum blonde (or sometimes pink) hair,
has completed a Master’s degree in psychology and has made a number of thought-provoking documentaries. These include Skin Deep, The Crossing and most recently, the award-winning Laura Brennan: This is Me.
Currently working on a radio documentary, Kennedy is also teasing out a TV documentary on dementia and next week, she will be co-hosting a new magazine-style TV show with Kevin McGahern, Summer at Seven. She might look and sound kooky to some, but you pigeonhole Sinead Kennedy at your peril.
"My hair at the moment is in an absolute state," says Sinead of her crowning glory which she dyed pink during the lockdown. She spent those months in her native Cork, sequestered just outside Kinsale where, among other things, she worked on her surfing technique ("standing on the board!").
Recently returned to Dublin, she is elbow-deep in a new radio documentary for RTÉ’s Doc on One series.
She can’t reveal the subject matter, only that it’s the darker side of human behavior, and it’s due later this year.
With Winning Streak on furlough, she is as ever working on Plan B. "Some people only see me once a week on Winning Streak and may have a certain perception," she says. "But while I love light entertainment, there is this whole other side to me."
Sinead Kennedy grew up in Ballincollig on the western outskirts of Cork City. The eldest of four (two girls, two boys), her "number one dream job" was always to work in broadcasting. So following her Leaving Cert, she did
a one-year media training course before landing a dream gig with RTÉ at 19.
Sattitude was a natural fit, great fun and experience but the clock was ticking for her after ten years in young people’s TV. "You’re thinking about age, you’re worrying about staying too long in case you get pigeon-holed but if you’ve nothing else you need to stay to gain those on-air miles. I was very fortunate that people took a chance on me and I was able to prove that there was more to me than throwing cream pies in people’s faces."
After she married her long-term partner, naval officer Conor Kirwan, in 2014, Sinead – like so many other women working in media, – was put in another box, and repeatedly asked the baby question (I was guilty of
this failure of imagination too). She politely kicked questions about her parenting intentions to touch because, as she said, she believes there is more to her "than my reproductive organs."
So we don’t plough over that ground. In any case, right about now she and Conor should have been in Africa, driving from Cape Town to Zanzibar, another epic trip to go with their honeymoon backpacking through Belize and a 2018 adventure on the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian railway.
But that was before the pandemic. "Life is so different now and maybe in a way it was meant to be," she says. "Maybe I wouldn’t have been here and thus not considered for Summer at Seven."
In April, Laura Brennan: This is Me, chronicling the final chapters in the life of the HPV vaccine campaigner, won a Gold Award at the prestigious New York Festivals Film and TV Awards.
"When we won I thought of Laura and her family and how she was not here to enjoy it," says Kennedy. The two became close during filming and Laura’s death in March 2019 hit Sinead hard. "She was one of the most incredible people I ever met, so positive and full of energy and I feel so privileged to have had her as a friend."
It was Laura who persuaded Sinead get a smear test. "One day she turned around to me and said ‘I assume you’ve had a smear test’ and I went ‘Yeah, I think I’m overdue.’ And she said ‘Cop on and make that call!’ I did."
Sinead’s no slouch herself in the energy stakes, buzzing with chat in an hourlong interview conducted in two movements. "No worries," says Sinead just as I realise the battery is dying on my phone. "I’ll jump in the shower, get ready and we can chat again before I leave for RTÉ."
Shortly afterwards, we're back. During lockdown, she has kept in contact with her parents in Ballincollig via Zoom, phone calls and sometimes "parked outside the window having the chats." Usually helter-skelter, lockdown put the brakes on. "It allowed me to step back from what is the constant chaos of my life," she says. "I love living in the chaos but I had to slow the pace right now."
Maybe. For the past two years or so, Kennedy has also been working on a TV documentary about dementia. She hopes to find someone who will agree to be filmed and tell their own story, similar to Laura Brennan. It is a complicated, delicate project (the subject, because of their illness, may be unable to finish the story and need someone to take up the baton) and she knows it will take some time to nail down.
"Hopefully it will raise awareness or help people who are going through something similar," she says. The idea
for the documentary came after she hosted a night for the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, which had a profound impact on her. Consequently, her thesis for her Master’s in mental health science would focus on dementia.
First though is Summer at Seven."I've never worked with Kevin [McGahern] before, so I’m very excited about it," she says of her cohost. "We are trying to navigate life coming into the new normal." And that new normal will also reunite her with her 'other' other half, Marty Whelan. "I miss Mister Whelan," she says.
"But we have no idea when we will be back. Because the audience is such an integral part of Winning Streak, we really can’t manage without them. Then there’s the five people whose names were picked out. And when we do come back, I reckon hugging will still be off the cards. So I’ll have to rebel against every natural instinct not to do that."
That love of people, and their stories, is tangible: but Kennedy still grapples with herself. "I have a thin skin," she says. "I’m getting better over the years but it has taken a long time to get used to rejection. When I was
21, just two years in the door in RTÉ, an opportunity came up to present a show. After the screen test, I was told it came down to me and the person who ultimately got the job. I took that very badly, wondering why I wasn’t good enough.
"But there are only certain things you can change about yourself. You can slow down how you speak and people have changed my hair over the years. So I’m trying to live by the mantra ‘What’s for you won’t pass you’. It’s just that my mind works differently."
In an interview a few years back, Sinead Kennedy said that the trait she least liked in herself was her naivety, someone who always saw the best in people. But isn’t that a good way to be? "Yes, I appreciate that now but I’m also someone who has no filter," she says.
"If you ask me a question I’ll answer it! That’s how I am: impulsive, straight off the bat, someone who says what they think. And that can get you in hot water. I’ve had situations come back and bite me on the ass. I’ve learned how to be a little more careful now, which is a shame, that you have to be more censored and watch what you say and know when to shut up."
But that is what makes Sinead Kennedy who she is. at and her distinctive laugh and her Cork accent…and her empathy with people, whether hugging them on Winning Streak or asking the telling question for a TV documentary. A smart cookie, enjoyably different, refreshingly straight, someone who knows from experience how the wheel of life spins, where this week’s winner could be next week’s loser.
So there will always be a Plan B or a Plan C, just as a person is always more than what you see on TV. For Sinead K, it’s about living life the best way she knows how and having a laugh along the way.
Watch Summer at Seven on RTÉ One every Thursday at 7pm.