Anne Cassin has continued with her work on Nationwide since lockdown, having made her way home safely and just in time, from Nepal. Donal O'Donoghue hears her story.
"I don't want my whole life to be defined by work," says Anne Cassin towards the end of our interview. We
are talking about the topical if somewhat contentious issue of retirement. It’s a long way off for the broadcaster and co-presenter of Nationwide, but I suspect, like many of us, it’s there at the back of her mind, niggling away.
"I can speak only for myself but I look forward to the time when I can do more things with my husband," she says. "My father died at 92 but my mother died at 72, so I want to be fit and healthy enough to be able to do other things in life when I finish working. Of course, I might feel differently when that day comes but there are things other than work in this world."
Indeed. Not that Anne Cassin is planning to step away from the cameras any time soon. Not with the fire in her belly and the miles to go. Her late father, the actor and stage director Barry Cassin, was still going strong
into his 90s, while her mother, Nancy, who ran the family farm, was by all accounts a formidable woman. Their eldest child strives for a similar path.
"People sometimes ask me about getting into the media and what qualifications you need," she says. "For me, the best qualifications are being curious and being able to communicate. There’s no point being on television if you’re really not interested in the people you are talking to. And I think I’m good at that."
Anne Cassin is sitting in her car in RTÉ. It’s mid-morning and today she will be working on her latest Nationwide story, a visit to Birr and the traditional farmhouse of Pat Egan and family, due for broadcast in
August. "I’d go mad if I had to work from home," she says and largely she didn’t have to.
Throughout the pandemic, Nationwide remained on air. Archive stories were dusted down and repackaged but Cassin and her co-host, Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh, were also on the road, observing social distancing guidelines as they filmed new stories for the show that has been a window and mirror to the nation since 1993. With Covid-19 forcing the cancellation of many landmark events and festivals, the series, and its hosts, also had to adapt to the times.
Anne Cassin was on the other side of the world when lockdown began. At the end of February, she trekked to Everest base camp with her husband, Donagh, returning home from Nepal on March 15. "We heard in Kathmandu that Ireland’s rugby match with Italy had been cancelled and we were incredulous," she says.
"The tourist industry shut down in Nepal as we were returning from base camp and we were exceptionally lucky to get home in the nick of time. Donagh’s parents kept an eye on the kids while we were away and it was a bit of a struggle leaving them – maybe I shouldn’t say that – but Ellen is 21, Joe is 19 and Heather is 15 so they are quite big!"
At times, Cassin seems to be editing herself: wondering what she can and can’t say. Maybe it’s the default position of the life-long journalist who has worked in sport, news and politics, and presented a variety of shows
including Capital D and Crimecall.
In many ways, Nationwide is the perfect fit for someone who grew up on a farm in North County Dublin, separate from the city but also not. Her mother was the farmer ("She drives tractors. She reaps. She sows. She dehorns cattle" was how Barry Cassin put it in his 2012 memoir), while her father was immersed in the arts. His daughter was his constant companion, watching from the wings, mesmerised by the world beyond the footlights.
"When I was young I was very interested in the arts and in theatre and was very much glued to my Dad," says Anne. "At one point, a short-lived ambition, I considered a career in the theatre. But as time goes by, your upbringing, the farm, the rural landscape, and the values that my mother had, come to the surface a little bit more. So yes, I do appreciate those two sides of my early life. Of course, the other side of that is that we have such a responsibility as parents to be kind and gentle and loving to our own children, if that doesn’t sound too pious."
She was the eldest of five. "There was a bit of a meal made of me being the eldest," she says. "It was always a bit of a laugh that the lads would poke fun at me." Her mother would sometimes drop by her school, Loreto in Balbriggan, kitted out in full farming regalia. "I’d be morto," says Anne of those visitations. "I just wanted my mother to be a stay-at-home mum, to be fairly invisible. She was nothing of the sort. She’d come into school in her Wellington boots teamed with her Kinsale smock. She was a little bit on the eccentric side. Now I look back on that with nothing but affection and admiration for her independent spirit and her confidence to be herself."
Nancy died suddenly in the summer of 1999, some two months after the birth of Anne’s daughter, Ellen. "That
was terrible but in another way I was just grateful that she got to see Ellen and was part of that experience for
me," says Anne. Barry Cassin died in January 2017, busy almost to the end.
"I don’t feel he has really died," says Anne. "I feel his presence around and sometimes I wonder why that is. Maybe because he was in our lives up to such a short time ago. Maybe because he lived such a long life, so I didn’t feel that sense of being cheated as I did with Mum. It was OK to say goodbye to him whereas with my
mother I felt nothing of the sort. But he hasn’t faded. Maybe your parents never do."
For a brief while, Anne contemplated following in her father’s thespian footsteps. While working at Radio Nova, she completed a year at the Oscar School of Acting. "There was a show-off in me as well as being shy," she says. "There was that part in me that wanted to go out there, to communicate and to be seen. That found expression in broadcasting. I don’t have any regrets about not embracing acting fully, where you have to totally immerse and become somebody else. I didn’t have the drive to do that. So I bailed from acting school after the first year and I think I made a good choice. I suspect I might have been too uptight to have been a good actress."
By then, Anne was already on the broadcasting path, having studied communications at the College of Commerce in Rathmines. Following her stint at Radio Nova, she joined the RTÉ newsroom in 1988, where she met her husband-to-be, Donagh (they married in Croatia in 2004).
Her broadcasting brief was wide, across TV and radio, before she replaced Michael Ryan on Nationwide in 2012. Since then, she has become "kind of famous", as she once put it, far from the shy girl who grew up in the countryside and found refuge in reading (she’s still a big reader). "I decided to be not shy in my early 20s," she says. "It was about deciding to get out there, smile a bit and throw myself into life."
Travelling around a country still in lockdown sharpened her perspective on the role of Nationwide as living history. "I did a programme for Good Friday which was about the churches being closed for Easter," she says
"I remember standing in front of the cathedral in Waterford saying how not since Famine times have parishioners been unable to worship in their church. In that moment, I really felt that Nationwide was documenting history as it happened and we had a couple of programmes like that over the past few months. So 2020, for me so far, is all about being a witness to these significant events through the lens of Nationwide."
@OffalyHeritage @IWTLaoisOffaly @offalycoco @opwireland @TullamoreDEW @SuzanneHilitetv @RTENationwide Delighted to meet up w Tom Egan again and see Lough Boora Discovery Park. Perfect for open-air activity ! pic.twitter.com/7XGGPtQKyG— Anne Cassin (@abcassin) July 27, 2020
And the show goes on, an eclectic rattlebag of stories from around the country, embracing cultural, social,
political and historical elements as well as the odd and unexpected. In recent times, Cassin travelled to Courtmacsherry to meet a dollmaker, visited a small farmer and WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) host in Kenmare, and journeyed into the hills on the edge of the capital for a story about the Dublin
Mountains Partnership. 'Have stories, tweet me’ is the tag on the show’s Twitter but more usually, one story leads to another on the show.
Next up for Anne, among other things, is a programme on Offaly post lockdown and later a family holiday in their favourite haunt on the Dingle peninsula. On the road again, miles still to go, balancing work and home,
that life-long see-saw that keeps Anne Cassin hungry.