'I'd love to spend more time in Belfast but Ruth is really busy ... she's riding a wave of popularity'
After leaving his Sky breakfast show the 56-year-old presenter is returning to the city and tells Una Brankin what the future holds and why he's fascinated by the paranormal
He's taller than I remember, and still has a fresh complexion, inherited from his mother, Josie. "No wrinkles on a balloon," he dead-pans. "It just being fat. No need for any of them fillers." Eamonn's in town for the pre-launch of an upcoming Eamonn Holmes hometown mini-tour in a former London cab, now emblazoned with his image and the ITV This Morning logo.
The much-admired broadcaster is supportive and amused by the whole idea of the project, dreamt up by Belfast taxi-driver George Pirie (62), which will take tourists on a trip to see where Eamonn grew up. The jaunt begins at the site of his two-up two-down family home on the New Lodge Road, which had an outdoor toilet and was kept spotlessly clean by his house-proud mother, and takes in his school - St Malachy's on the Antrim Road, and even his place-of-birth 56 years ago, the Mater Hospital on the Crumlin Road.
His youngest son, Jack (14) - his child with wife Ruth Langsford - is less impressed by the attention-grabbing cab bearing his father's face.
"George came to pick us up in the taxi from the airport this morning but Jack wouldn't get into it - he wouldn't even have his picture taken beside it," scoffs Eamonn, shaking his head. "He said 'this is so embarrassing'.
"'What's embarrassing about it?' I said. I don't know… He took another taxi home to the house I have up by Stormont and I came down here to see you."
We've spoken on the phone a few times in recent years but I haven't seen Eamonn since a visit to his former home in Carryduff, more than 20 years ago. He's immaculately turned out, in a crisp white shirt and good black suit, and is all smiles and twinkly-eyed chat with the steady stream of well-wishing passers-by at the Europa hotel.
He's genuinely delighted by the adulation.
Doesn't he get fed up posing for endless selfies with strangers?
"Wouldn't it be worse if nobody bothered," he says. "With Sky, I was reporting and commenting on things I'm not experiencing myself. I like getting out among people."
After a scoot around town in the 'Eamonn Holmes taxi' (much in demand for hen parties and girly outings, apparently), we head to a corner in the hotel bar for drinks, which another admirer insists in paying for.
"That's Belfast for you - very hospitable," Eamonn remarks. "Part of my reason for leaving Sky is because I want to spend more time here. I'm over quite often but everything's crammed into the weekends.
"Ideally, I'd be here from Tuesday to Friday. It would be easier for me than Ruth - she's extremely busy; she's riding a wave of reluctant popularity at the minute. She gets up at 5am every morning.
"As for me, I've been doing day-time TV for 36 years and I'm not getting any younger; I had to get off the conveyor belt. There are things I want to do and I was running out of time."
One of those things is to see more of his friends and family circle, including his 87 year-old mother and his four brothers, and his children from his first marriage: daughter Rebecca, a former beauty therapist now selling property with Simon Brien's estate agency in Belfast, and his sons Niall and Declan, who runs a craft beer business Eamonn has invested in.
"It has come to the point in the business where Declan needs a partner around, to bounce ideas off and all that. We get on very well - he looks after production and I can do the marketing."
Eamonn came up with the name for Declan's first brew, Galloper's Golden Ale, after a north Belfast mill-owner who, as legend has it, promised to come back to haunt the streets if he didn't get into heaven. Decapitated in an accident at his workplace, he was true to his word - his headless ghost, on horseback, is said to pound the dark alleys of the city to this day.
The story was told to Eamonn as a child by various relatives, including his religious aunt Bridget.
"I remember at Halloween in our house on the New Lodge Road, my auntie Bridget tucking-up us up - my two brothers and me; there were three of us in a double bed - and saying, 'Now, if you don't think of Satan, he won't appear. Night night...'
"And of course we'd be lying there thinking of nothing else. I'd another auntie and uncle who swore they saw a headless nun, and then of course there was Galloper Thompson, the headless horseman. Declan liked the idea of that for the beer."
Eamonn enjoys spooky stories. One of his new freelance projects is a programme on mystical Ireland, its myths and its spectres.
"I'm not interested in going about spinning wool and eating oysters," he asserts. "This programme will have more of a Game Of Throne feel to it, with ghosts and banshees.
"I wouldn't dismiss anyone who thinks they've seen a ghost and I can't stand the way the English broadcasting media approach anything paranormal," he adds with evident distaste. "Fine, you have to ask 'had you been drinking at the time?' and so on, and question what exactly the person saw, but these English, they're laughing in advance of the person's story and not believing it, as if, how could that be true?
"But, what if there was some sort of energy source or a portal to the past or whatever there? Let's test it and see. These ones don't want to admit it could be true because they think they'll look stupid and not right in the head. I think they poo-hoo it because they're frightened it could be true."
It follows that the Irish mystic Lorna Byrne, who writes about her communication with angels, was treated respectfully when interviewed by Eamonn on This Morning.
"She has a massive following," he observes. "Of course Ruth says, 'bloody nut case - you bloody Catholics are all the same.'
"But you see, we Catholics have the whole extra religious aspect to it that I don't think Protestants have, with our exorcisms and holy water and the devil and evil and all that. I'm not sure they have as much, apart from Dracula.
"Anyway, when I'm doing that sort of item on This Morning or whatever, I have to have someone to rubbish it.
"I tell the producer I can do that; I'm a journalist, but they insist.
"My approach is, 'let's not set out to prove you're a liar'.
“The whole thing fascinates me. I wouldn’t pooh-hoo anything.”
He admits to a fascination with the banshee, in particular.
“I remember this old cinema in Duncairn Gardens and seeing the scariest film ever there. It was a Disney film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People — Sean Connery was in it ...”
“Surely that wasn’t scary?” I interrupt incredulously.
“Scary as hell,” he declares. “There was one scene where someone was dying and a banshee arrived and they had to exorcise it. It sacred the wits out of me.”
Warming to the theme, he describes himself as a spiritual person.
“I believe in luck and fate, and I’m very positive — I’m very big on positivity. I think negativity attracts negativity, and people who moan and complain all the time are creating a fait-accompli.
“I’m good at pulling myself up by the bootstraps and getting on with it. I think hard work brings luck, that’s the way I was brought up by my parents. My mum is 87, by the way, and she’s absolutely convinced she’ll meet my dad again when she dies.
“Me? I don’t know. I think we have to make the most of our time here and not leave anything to chance when the lights go out.”
Other freelance projects in the Holmes pipeline include a a programme to mark two anniversaries — the beginning of the Troubles and the death of Elvis Presley (left). A lifelong fan, Eamonn was working in the Christian Brothers past-pupils union bar on the Antrim Road on the night Elvis died, in August 1977.
“When the word spread, the people all went home to hear the news. We served no drink that night; we just played Elvis. It was a shock. When you think of it, he was only 42 years of age.
“And it’s very important to me to do the programme for the anniversary of the start of the Troubles. I was a child of the Troubles, from eight years of age to 25, when I Ieft. It affects lives so drastically; and makes you the adult you are.”
The longest time Eamonn has stayed away from Belfast since he left for England, was the three months or so he spent recuperating from his double hip replacement earlier this year. He’s moving around well these days, although he admits to finding getting in and out of his novelty taxi “not easy”.
“I need medication, sleep, rest, physio and hydrotherapy, and I should be all right by Christmas,” he says, draining his shandy.
“The problem is that my legs are in a different position now so I feel the strain down under my knees, in the muscles. I felt the strain in my shins on the plane.
“When I was in New York filming the second series for How The Other Half Live for Channel 5, my foot swole up — desperate,” he says, suddenly sounding very Norn Ireland. “When I was doing the first series, before I’d had the hips done, it was very painful getting about then, too.
“But so many people live with chronic pain daily. Mine hasn’t gone away but I keep thinking it will. I’m on less medication now.”
He’s looking forward to going father afield to meet obscenely rich people for the third series of the Channel 5 series with Ruth. In the meantime, he’s enjoying the lie-ins since leaving Sky News.
“I really didn’t want to hear the alarm going off at 3.45am every morning for the rest of my life,” he concludes.
The hip replacement was a life changer in that respect – I had to stop and reassess. I might not be away forever and I could be lured back but I have to resist that.
“And if all else fails, I can always brew beer or run a fleet of taxis here...”
Before I leave, he suggests taking a selfie of the two of us for my mother, who sent him eggs and potatoes straight from the hens and field at home that morning.
“Ha ha ha! Look at us,” he laughs on seeing the unflattering result. “We’re the same vintage, aren’t we?”
I’m about to protest I’m a good half-decade behind him.
But he goes on: “Well, I’m glad we’ve both survived this lark this long. That’s what it’s all about - hanging on for grim death and keeping relevant. Cheerio love.”
With that, he’s off to the football and, no doubt, dozens more selfies. Welcome home, Eamonn.