Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'If something happened in my love life wouldn't that be lovely ... but for now I just march on'

He's long labelled himself a 'young fogey' but now he's approaching middle age, broadcaster Ryan Tubridy is coming over all boyish - a bit like his idol, JFK, about whom he has written a new book. Just don't expect him to open up about his own love life, writes Kirsty Blake Knox.

There's something about Ryan Tubridy, host of RTE's long-running Late Late Show, that seems out of time. When he first bounced onto the TV screens and airwaves, he seemed old beyond his years and went to great lengths to stress that he was the broadcaster's resident "young fogey".

Now that he actually is middle-aged, he has a giddiness that makes him seem positively boyish. This makes it rather difficult to place him.

His silhouette is the sort that you don't see much of these days: all angles and ends. He looks as if he should be standing on a street corner, in an old movie, wearing a trench coat and a slouch hat. "I'm a monochrome person, living in a technicolour world," he says taking a seat beside me.

"I look like I belong anywhere - the 1940s, '50s, or '60s. Anywhere but now."

I am with him to chat about his new children's book, Patrick and the President. It sees him return to his favourite subject - JFK and his historic 1963 state visit to Ireland.

It's been a bountiful source of inspiration - or, perhaps more accurately, obsession - for Tubridy. In 2010, he produced a television documentary about the trip, and the following year his book JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President hit the shelves. "Yes, it's becoming a bit of a Mastermind specialist subject at this stage," he admits.

But this one is different: a children's picture book exquisitely illustrated by Belfast-born PJ Lynch (right). Tubridy relished working on it because, as he loves to tell anyone who is listening, he is a big kid at heart.

"I love what they love," he says enthusiastically. "I like cartoons and sweets and silly things. I prefer to err on the side of fun rather than seriousness."

The book came to fruition in a roundabout way - he met with some children's book publishers in London to talk about a different project centring around "two non-human characters inhabiting my head".

They listened politely before telling him to park that idea. Instead, they wanted him to revisit JFK's trip and tell it through the eyes of a child.

"It comes to life because of PJ's drawings," Tubridy says, of the work of award-winning illustrator and Laureate na nÓg PJ Lynch. "He makes the past breathe again."

Lynch, who was born in Belfast 55 years ago, was appointed Irish children's literature laureate in May last year, a post funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Irish Arts Council along with other partners. He lives in Dublin with his wife Barbara and their children Ben, Sam and Evie. As well as illustrating and writing books, he also designed a huge mosaic for the Marian Shrine at Knock. He has won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal twice and the Christopher Medal three times for his work.

Lynch has played the part of Time Lord and drawn Tubridy, in the guise of a news reporter, into the book's pages. "It's a sort of Where's Wally? and here he is," Tubridy says, pointing at his own illustrated face.

As research for his book, Tubridy made his way to New Ross to meet people who were still in short pants and school skirts when JFK came to town. "I put my recorder down and asked them to be kids again. They described how the plane came out of the sky like a flying saucer," he says.

Tubridy was a child himself when he made his telly debut - at the age of 12 - after writing a letter to a newspaper complaining about the Irish state broadcaster's film output. He appeared on Anything Goes reviewing films, while on Scratch Saturday and Poparama he rated and slated various books.

After studying history and classics at UCD, he started working as a runner and roving reporter in the radio building. In fact, he has spent practically his entire teenage and adult life working within the confines the broadcaster's headquarters, Montrose, or, as he calls it, "Montrosia".

"RTÉ is a madhouse," he says. "Totally bonkers, but I love it".

September marks Tubridy's 10th season on the juggernaut that is The Late Late Show. "A lot has happened," he says. "As a host, I have been really good at times and really not so good at other times." Even after half a century on air, The Late Late Show remains one of the country's favourite topics to give out yards about. Last month, for example, there were two separate Late Late scandals that got the country talking.

The first was the Valentine's Day special. The programme featured 200 "single and salivating men and women" (Tubridy's words) leering at each other and making copious and laboured risque jokes.

There were more than 300 emails and phone calls complaining and wondering if there was anything holy and good left in the world.

The following week, news that a researcher on the show had reached out to drug dealer John Gilligan - the man widely suspected of being behind the murder of journalist Veronica Guerin - made headlines. When asked if he thinks approaching Gilligan was a good idea, Tubridy switches into PR autopilot. "The Late Late Show has always invited controversial guests onto the programme," he begins.

But does he think it's appropriate? "It's not an issue. My comfort with it is not an issue because it isn't happening... I don't have to confront or deal with it because he's not coming on the show. It's not an issue. And that's it."

The subject of his own love life sees Tubridy turn coy. Tubridy's last serious relationship was with Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, the 2005 Rose of Tralee and an academic scientist, with Disney princess eyes and dimples. They dated for five years, shared a house and looked all set up for happily-ever-after. But then things changed.

In interviews, Tubridy talked about how he was a "gobshite with women", and said you would need "the patience of Job and his extended family" to live with him.

She said she wasn't ready for children and he told reporters he had no plans on proposing. They announced their separation before Christmas in 2014, via their agent, Noel Kelly, promising to "remain friends".

So, a few years older and wiser, is he seeing anyone new? "No," he says flatly. "I am not. I'm a busy man. A busy man doing my own thing."

Right, well, are you on Tinder? "No, I'm not on Tinder… I can hear laughter echoing around the walls at just the suggestion of it," he says.

But would you like that now? "Like what?" he says, before putting on a mocking voice and chiming "to find a nice girl and settle down".

No, not that. Just a bit of companionship, maybe? There's a pause.

"Look, if it happens, it happens. But I don't think I would particularly enrich anybody's life."

That strikes me as rather a sad thing to say, and I tell him he's selling himself short. "I think I'm selling myself tall," he laughs awkwardly and brushes the material of his trousers.

Has going through a high-profile break-up made him wary to publicise a new relationship? "But I've never done that," he says emphatically. "Look, I am a private person in a public job. I think that element of my life is for me and I keep myself to myself. Like I said, if something happens - wouldn't that be lovely? But for now, I just march on… but thank you for asking," he adds.

We move on. Several years ago, a move to the BBC seemed imminent, with Tubridy filling in for Simon Mayo and Graham Norton during the summer months. "There was a time about four years ago when there was a lot of work on the table and, if I didn't have major commitments, I would have thought about going," he says.

He's referring to his two daughters, Ella and Julia, from his marriage to RTÉ producer Ann-Marie Power. I presume the death of his father, Patrick, in 2013 must have also jolted him back home? "There are just moments in life when things changed and I found myself re-engaging. You have those moments in your life where you think, 'Okay, I'm back in the room'. For me, it's family first, then work. I think I realised I had a good thing going on here…"

Tubridy has tried his hand at many different types of show in RTÉ - from cameos on fashion shows to The Full Irish and hosting The Rose of Tralee. But everything has been aimed at the lighter end of the telly spectrum.

Given his academic and family background - his paternal grandfather was Fianna Fáil TD Seán Tubridy, while his maternal grandfather was Todd Andrews, a political activist and former director of RTE as well as heading other public bodies - it's surprising he didn't end up in current affairs.

"Would I want to do a Jon Stewart Show? No. I'm far too polite for it. But I love politics and watch it the way other people watch sport or soap operas."

The publisher wanders about in the background and talk returns to the book.

The importance of JFK's visit to Ireland - which was still something of a fledgling republic at the time - was seismic. Ireland was defined by emigration and unemployment and there was, to say the least, an acute shortage of glamour.

Suddenly, the most powerful man in the world was touching down, with his milky-white smile and honeyed skin.

He hung out with Dean Martin and Sinatra, was the most powerful man on earth - and, above all, he was one of our own. JFK wasn't just going to Dublin to walk around Trinity College and look at The Book of Kells. He was travelling back to his ancestral home, an old farmhouse in Dunganstown, Co Wexford. "There was the feeling: if he can come from here and go on to the White House, then anything's possible."

The book centres around schoolboy Patrick - who shares the same Christian name as Ryan's late father, Dr Patrick Tubridy. It's also the name of Jackie and John F Kennedy's baby son, who died just three days after he was born.

"It was right after his visit to Ireland," Tubridy explains. "I liked that circle. There was famine, destitution, emigration. Then climb, ascend, pinnacle, White House, return home - bang! Patrick."

Tubridy starts chattering about the 1960s and the States. That vintage Archie comic Americana is a dream-scape for him. "It's everything," he says. "The era, the music, the clothes, the beautiful women and their fashion and style. It was the most extraordinary time. And then JFK."

When I later talk to illustrator PJ Lynch about Kennedy, he is more reserved in his praise. "He was no Lincoln," he says. "But he was Catholic and Irish. And young and glamorous."

But for Tubridy, Kennedy is the embodiment of all the best bits of the 1960s. "He was in the White House with Sinatra floating around, and Marilyn Monroe… We had these auld fellas running the world and in comes this movie star, this rock star - and he was Irish! How cool is that?"

Kennedy had a perfect presidential CV - a good-looking war hero from a good-looking (if slightly disreputable) family, with a good-looking wife. A wealthy white man who oozed confidence and looked great on a yacht.

But, as we now know, he was no angel. JFK had a voracious sexual appetite. His infidelity was widely known, and he would chase any and all women.

"But Kennedy could quote Latin and poetry," Tubridy counters. "He had such a mind. And his speeches! His speeches and his words are too good to focus on the other stuff." Oh, baloney, he didn't write his speeches. His adviser Ted Sorensen did.

JFK's sex life is also something that Tubridy prefers to gloss over. That and the assassination. "So all the interesting stuff, then?" I say.

"The salacious element and the assassination bore me senseless," he insists. "I don't look at that side of the story with any interest".

To have studied JFK in such depth, and then to overlook a huge element of his character seems strange. Not just from a gossip's point of view, but also from a historian's. Shouldn't we paint Kennedy in the full picture, "warts and all"?

Perhaps Tubridy thinks this is a clichéd approach to the subject. Or maybe there are other, more personal, reasons for his reluctance to focus on JFK's personal life.

It's clear that Tubridy thinks there are certain things that should remain under lock and key when you are "a private person in a public job".

  • Patrick and the President by Ryan Tubridy, with illustrations by PJ Lynch, is published by Walker Books at £12.99

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