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Maggie Taggart: 'Cutting back on work suits me as I felt jaded and needed a change'

Veteran broadcaster Maggie Taggart tells Stephanie Bell how winding down her career has given her time to pursue other interests including a surprising love of foraging

By Stephanie Bell

As an instantly recognisable face from our TV screens you may be surprised to find Maggie Taggart on her hands and knees poking through wild grasses and weeds while out and about around our shores and countryside this summer.

The veteran broadcast journalist is a keen forager and her current passion is for Sea Beet which she describes as a nourishing plant "a bit like spinach" which grows along the coast.

As we catch up with her to chat about her home life and a change in her career she is excited to have recently stumbled upon a plentiful supply of the wild plant which she enjoyed cooking in some homemade Greek pastries with feta cheese.

Elderflowers and wild garlic are also on her list of favourite foraged foods as she reveals herself to be an earthy type who away from the drama of daily news reporting takes pleasure from the simple things in life.

Maggie grew up on Belfast's Ormeau Road where she still lives with her husband of 38 years John Morrison, a landscape architect turned award-winning writer.

John writes dramas for radio as well as film and TV scripts. He also teaches. The couple got together when Maggie was studying at Queen's University and married a few years later.

Pointing out that she is not the type to wear her heart on her sleeve, Maggie surprised herself and her husband when she agreed to take part in a BBC project recording personal thoughts on the theme of 'Why I Love'.

In it she opens her heart about her feelings for John - feelings she says she doesn't usually vocalise but as a result of making the video now believes we all should make an effort to tell those we love how we feel more often.

Maggie laughs when I mention it: "You've seen that? John didn't even watch it until this week actually and it has been on YouTube for nearly a year.

"I think I was asked to say what I loved and I mentioned walking and reading but the big thing in your life is your partner and it seemed wrong not to talk about him as something or someone I love.

"I said he was my big support and my big defender and he supports me in public and in private.

"He was totally embarrassed but very pleased when he watched it.

"I think we go about life and maybe don't say the things we should be saying to the people we care about and I do say it a lot more now."

Maggie is best known as Arts and Education Correspondent for the BBC, a role which she held for 19 years up until two years ago when she decided to go part-time and changed to news reporting.

She grew up with her sister Noreen on the Ormeau Road to older parents both of whom had a great influence on her and who sadly she lost over 30 years ago.

Her mum Patsy was a secretary in Central Library and her father Barnie ran an electrical engineering business in Cromac Street and was also known for his agricultural inventions.

Explains Maggie: "My parents were older when they had me and my sister. My mother was a great woman who sadly got Parkinson's disease quite early and for the last seven to 10 years of her life wasn't herself.

"My father was great. He didn't treat us like girls; he made sure we had all the opportunities we wanted and always told us to just do the best we can.

"He was a bit of an entrepreneur and an inventor and was very much to the fore as an agricultural engineer and developed a very early version of an automatic cattle feeding system.

"Daddy died about 30 years ago and mummy just before him."

Maggie hadn't intended to be a journalist and growing up decided to pursue a career as a social worker. She studied social sciences at Queen's University and while there she realised she had a natural interest in other people's lives and started to consider a career in the media.

She started writing for the University's student newspaper The Gown to try and build a portfolio and was fortunate on graduating to get a job in Downtown Radio as a trainee reporter.

She says: "It was a complete fluke and I probably only got it because I could start straight away."

She was a natural and her career soon took off.

In the late 70s she went freelance and spent some years working on the infamous "graveyard shift" for the BBC, covering the news desk from midnight until 8am and working on radio current affairs programmes as well as TV news.

She says: "I did everything except sport as I was no good at sport.

"I also worked for RTE doing a music programme on Sunday mornings and did a programme for Downtown Radio playing music my husband chose, I was really informed by his choices."

She also worked on Woman's Hour for BBC Radio 4 and even went into business with her sister setting up a media training company for small businesses which they ran for a couple of years.

Her freelance days ended in 1995 when she got the job of Arts and Education Correspondent with BBC NI, a post she held for 19 years until she started a job share as a broadcast news journalist two years ago.

She says: "That gave me a lot of opportunities. Education stories are always hot news as it is so central to people's lives.

"And as Arts Correspondent it also got me to quite a few awards ceremonies including the Emmys in New York and the Oscars.

"I was very low down the pecking order at the Oscars and people like me had to go in early before all the big stars and we were segregated from all the famous people, who were kept away from people like us asking those questions.

"It was interesting to see Judi Dench avoiding people; she seemed quite shy and spent the night hiding behind a potted plant.

"Ben Kingsley was a bit more outgoing. It was so interesting."

She feels grateful that she has enjoyed a full career doing a job she loves and says she couldn't imagine doing anything else.

'I'd been on the alert 24-7 so it's nice to have more time to relax'

While she thrives on serious journalism she doesn't take herself too seriously and is as comfortable enjoying the glitzy side of the job as she is interviewing politicians.

Two years ago she decided to reduce her hours which meant a change in roles which she welcomed, and she was delighted when the BBC granted her request for a job share.

After almost two decades specialising in one area she is enjoying the challenge of news again.

She says: "Arts and Education is a 24-7 role so it wouldn't be possible to do it as a job share, so I gave it up and I am a senior journalist now instead doing half a job with a colleague.

"Working part-time suits me perfectly. Arts and education is such a specialism I was living it, eating, breathing and drinking it. I have covered most of the stories and I was feeling a bit jaded and keen to make a change.

"I now work across TV, radio and online, covering news and current affairs three or four days a week depending on the shifts.

"I've covered some fascinating stories and it is a steep learning curve but I am a quick learner and that's the buzz about it. There is a bit of adrenalin when you are going to stories you don't know much about and have to learn very quickly. It's a new challenge and it's great. I love it.

"I had always been on the alert 24-7 as the job does dominate your life, and it is nice to have more time to myself now to do various things and relax a bit, and it has worked really well."

She has a number of hobbies including walking and is a member of three local walking groups. Every other weekend she joins her fellow hikers to walk one of Northern Ireland's many beauty spots from Restrevor to the Glens of Antrim, Rathlin and the East Antrim Plateau.

She also keeps herself fit by going to the gym three times a week for either a workout or classes. Working part-time has also allowed her to spend more time with family and especially her sister's three grandchildren, her nieces and nephews.

She says: "I've been free to take them to their classes and events and I love doing that and getting the chance to spend a bit more time with them. When I was working full time I just couldn't do it. We have nephews and nieces on both mine and John's side of the family who we are close to and love to spend time with."

As a couple she and John enjoy nights out at the cinema and going out for dinner as well as holidays and short breaks in Ireland.

Maggie says: "John likes to holiday in Ireland in country house hotels or Enniskillen, and we just load the boot up and drive off.

"I also enjoy walking holidays abroad with some of my friends from the group and I've been on five, one a year and they are great, we go on five-to-six hour hikes and I really love them."

While she has more time on her hands since going part-time, Maggie is never idle. Even while holding down a full-time job she thrived on challenge. A few years ago she studied for a part-time two-year Masters degree in Film and TV Management and Policy at the University of Ulster.

As well as keeping fit she has discovered a new passion for up-cycling furniture and is currently lovingly restoring a very special item - a sewing table made by her father 50 years ago.

"I am in the process of sanding it down and then I will stain it and there is a great pleasure in it because my father made it with great care for my mother and I want to look after it. I will be using it as a reminder of him and the great influence he had on my life," she says.

Her foraging is another hobby that gets her out and about, looking for wild garlic, elderflowers and more recently sea beet: "I love to cook with them as much as I can. Sea Beet is full of vitamins like spinach and its food for free. I also collect blackberries and elderflowers.

"I am a good potterer. I like to keep busy. My husband tells me to try and wind down but I do like to keep active and I always have something or some sort of project on the go.

"I started a book club 12 years ago with friends and there are nine of us in it and we meet once a month. Usually you read a book and forget about it but with the club it stays with you better and you can discuss it which is great."

And while busier than ever despite reducing her working hours she has says has only now finally learned that it is ok to sit and do nothing.

She adds: "Recently I've found that I can just chill out now which is a new thing for me. I can just sit and read a book and nod off and it's fantastic. "

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