Memories of the past, ideas for the future

African poverty to a bed with Sharif

Doireann Ní Bhriain was a television presenter and reporter in the '70s and '80s, hosting Eurovision in 1981. The voice of the Luas, she is now an independent radio producer, voice and presentation trainer and voice-over artist.

Having started my broadcasting career as a child actor, and then as a radio continuity announcer in RTÉ, I arrived in television in the early 70s to be plunged, head first, into life as a presenter/reporter on a series of daily magazine and weekly current affairs programmes. It was an extraordinarily priveleged job. We travelled the roads of Ireland in search of stories and were treated like royalty everywhere we went. The filming equipment was heavier, and more awkward than it is now, the roads seemed to be much longer, allowing for plenty of stops along the way, and our crew’s arrival in small places was much more of an event. I got to know people and places I would never normally have met or visited, I had an access to people’s houses and private lives and was welcomed into parlours and kitchens the length and breadth of the country.

I worked with talented, wise and generous people from whom I learnt a lot. People like Cathal O’Shannon on ‘Tangents’, Breandán Ó hEithir and Proinsias Mac Aonghusa on ‘Féach’, and Nuala O’Faolain on ‘PM’, with whom I travelled the highways and byways for two summers, ‘drinking tea for Ireland’, as Nuala said, in search of women to take part in our ‘Women Talking’ series. I worked on traditional music programmes with producer Agnes Cogan, and also with Ciarán Mac Mathúna. Walking down the main street of a small town in Ireland with Ciarán was like walking with the Pope. It took forever, because everybody stopped to shake his hand, and he greeted everyone with warmth and curiosity.

One of my glamour gigs in the early days was an interview I did with Omar Sharif in his hotel bedroom in what was then the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge. Sharif was a big star, best-known in Ireland at the time for his role in Doctor Zhivago, but I think he’d come here to play bridge on that occasion. To be honest, it may not have been his actual hotel bedroom, but we did sit on the edge of a bed for the interview – or so my memory tells me! There was very little of the security and PR handling that goes on nowadays when journalists are admitted to the courts of the stars. I was star-struck, polite and terrified, because he was the first real film star I’d met. He was charming and courteous and just as good-looking as he was on the big screen, I thought.

Another memorable interview was one I did with Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, in the grounds of State House in Dar es Salaam. I had taken a year out in the mid seventies and worked in Kenya. When I came back, Agnes Cogan and I persuaded the powers that be, with the help of the Department of Foreign Affairs, to send us to Tanzania to make a documentary. There was a lot of interest at the time in Nyerere’s African brand of socialism, and he was a very charistmatic and well-loved leader. We visited a number of Irish aid projects in different parts of the country, travelling around in the one of the ubiquitous VW kombis, and staying in grubby little ‘hotels’ in small rural villages and towns. We were met everywhere with the warmest of hospitality from the Tanzanians and the Irish aid workers, many of them priests and nuns, who were working and living in very basic conditions. Our trip coincided with the Pope’s visit to Ireland that year, so we were the only people leaving the country as he arrived! What other job could offer such priveleged access to so many people?

In 1981, I took a week’s break from presenting the ‘Women Today’ radio programme to present the ‘Eurovision Song Contest’. The presenter’s role wasn’t such a huge deal as it is today. But it indulged my performer’s instinct, and the showbiz part of it gave me a fantastic buzz. There was no autocue in those days, so my script, in Irish, English and French had to be in my head, and on cards I carried in my hand, and kept shuffling into the wrong order. I didn’t mind the live broadcast to millions, or the multi-lingual presentation, but what terrified me was that I’d get the cards mixed up. I got letters from people complaining I was showing too much chest in what they thought was a low-cut dress. I was on a high for the whole week, but the following Monday, I went happily back to present my daily radio programme, leaving the glamour behind. Not long after that, I took another year out to take up a journalism fellowship in Paris for a year.

My years co-presenting ‘The Women’s Programme’ with Marian Finucane still remain a real highlight. Following on from the radio programme ‘Women Today’, which Marian and I had both presented, we had a sense of being part of a world that was undergoing radical change, and that we were helping to make it happen. Our audience ranged from women in politics to women on factory floors, on farms and in the home, as did our subject matter. Nell McCafferty’s acerbic, incisive, and sometimes hilarious look at how women were reflected in the papers is something I still remember vividly. And, we had a fantastic team with Clare Duignan and Nuala O’Faolain as our first producers. And I met my husband, while I was covering a story for ‘The Women’s Programme’ in Northern Ireland. I had always been curious about Northern Ireland, and I persuaded the newsroom to let me work as a news journalist in RTÉ’s Belfast office for two summers. That opened out a whole new world to me an gave me invaluable professional experience too.

Later, when I became pregnant with my first child, along came ‘Bookside', which meant I could spend hour upon hour resting up while reading, book after book after book. After two years of that series, I became a radio producer and left TV behind, though I’ve done bits and pieces over the years since then. It was a golden era for me. High-octane living, huge job satisfaction and a feeling, sometimes, that my work was making a difference, endless fun and laughter and making some lifelong friends - what more could I have asked for?

You can watch an episode of 'The Women’s Programme' from 1984 on the RTÉ Player: TV50 Classics here.