UTV's Rita Fitzgerald: 'We're a very musical family, so when the drums and guitars and singing are at full pelt we tend to make a lot of noise'
Engaging UTV presenter Rita Fitzgerald talks to Alison Fleming about her idyllic childhood on the family farm in Co Down, her love of travel and how music dominates her family gatherings
Growing up in a large family on a farm in Co Down, Rita Fitzgerald always had a wanderlust. The third youngest of a family of nine, by her own admission her childhood was a magical one. But keen to experience life outside the family farm on the shores of Camlough Lake, she left home to study A-levels in Belfast, before travelling the world. She never imagined for a minute that she'd come back and establish a successful broadcasting career.
But after years of adventure, that's exactly what happened. Now back home with her own family in east Belfast - architect husband John (52) and six-year-old daughter Ellie - she's on our screens every Friday night as a roving reporter on UTV Life.
Rita (46) is a powerhouse of energy and a natural raconteur. Recalling her idyllic, early life growing up with four brothers and four sisters on the McNulty beef farm, she paints a Walton-esque picture of family life.
"It was totally crazy. We had our own football team as well as a band and all these years later when we get together each summer, we reform the band," she says.
"I'm already feeling sorry for the people across the lake. We're a very musical family, so when the drums and guitars and singing are at full pelt we can make a lot of noise."
"Two of my older brothers live in Australia, but come home every year for the family get together. The ages range from big brother Anthony who is the oldest at 57, down to youngest sister Fiona who is 40 and, with 25 nieces and nephews, it can get very busy," she says.
Rita's mum Anne, who helped out on the farm while raising her brood will be 80 this year, while dad Eamon is 86. Among Rita's most precious memories of her childhood are the times spent together as a family during hay time.
"The summers always seemed to be really hot and we would be up baling hay. It didn't matter if you were man or woman you would carry the bales whether you were fit for it not," she says. "We'd stack the bales in the barn then all pile on to this rickety old tractor and teeter down the road on top of more bales and stack them in another shed before going for a swim in the lake at the end of the day. It was a real family event."
With a McNulty in practically every class in the local school, Rita says it was a real joy coming through St Paul's Secondary in Bessbrook because her older siblings had paved the way for her.
And the friendships she made as a child have lasted to this day.
"Elizabeth O'Hagan was one of my earliest friends, and although I don't remember it, she tells me how she tapped me on the shoulder in nursery school one day and asked if we could be friends, and I was delighted. We're still friends today and go on holiday together. She has a big family of her own now, but we always make time to see each other.
"I had to work hard at school, but my problem was I didn't work hard enough. My school report always said things like 'if she applied herself could do very well.' I got there in the end, doing my A-levels in Belfast.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to be. I was very athletic and a natural singer, so I thought I would try something in sport, PE or music. All these years later it has completely changed, but music has always stayed with me. Laziness got the better of me when it came to sport, though.
"I always wanted to go and start seeing the world around me. I just wanted to be in a city and I think that can happen when you're brought up in the countryside, so I went at the earliest possible age I could."
After studying A-levels at the College of Business Studies, followed by a degree in social science in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Rita took off to travel around Australia, touring the US on her way back "on a shoestring budget", and came back to Dublin for a year before deciding to explore the countries on her doorstep.
"I went to France with O-level French. I couldn't even ask for a loaf of bread, totally blagging it.
"I remember a lovely girl who worked in the boulangerie on the corner of the street I lived near in Toulouse - she was so patient with me.
"I'd go in every day and get progressively more confident in asking for things, and I think she pretended to understand me. I ended up staying in France teaching English for three-and-a-half years."
Having satisfied her thirst to travel, Rita came back to the UK to study journalism at Leeds, aged 34. A relative latecomer to the profession, she was soon landing shifts freelancing at the BBC in Belfast on Good Morning Ulster, Evening Extra and Talkback.
After a summer working for the Stephen Nolan Show, Rita landed a life-changing job with a radio station that's now part of the Q network.
"Robert Walshe was the presenter of the talk radio show, and I took over when he moved on to manage the stations. It was incredible," she says.
"There was nothing like it for me, and I hadn't realised that jobs like that existed where you could just fire up the microphone and do great interviews with chat and banter on everything from politics to light features.
"I did that for a couple of years before getting the opportunity to work at UTV."
Starting off on radio news bulletins, Rita quickly made her screen debut reading the TV news before landing her own series, Ulster Unearthed.
"I had been knocking the door of the then boss Michael Wilson telling him how great I was," she jokes. "He finally believed it and gave me a chance with my own six-part series which did really well.
"I've done all sorts of things from the weather to news, and now I'm features reporter on UTV Life. It is a workout every week for me. It's like Challenge Rita! What can we put her through this week?
"I do end up in all sorts of situations from sporting challenges and everything in between. Doing the programme from Aintree this year was a real highlight. It was great fun."
Working with TV veteran Pamela Ballentine, and a dedicated production team, Rita describes her working life as "warm - everybody pulls together".
The build-up to Friday night fun takes her on the road across Northern Ireland with her cameraman.
"It's a challenge to get all the filming done and we've been working ahead of ourselves for the summer special coming up at the end of June," she says.
"Already I've been doing amazing hidden coastal walks to the Causeway, which have been breath-taking, and to get to do that as part of your job is amazing.
"You get the head blown off you, which doesn't always look great on camera, but it's great fun. I've also been cycling through the iconic Dark Hedges, waiting on the crowds to leave so we can actually get a piece-to-camera filmed."
Away from the camera, music plays a huge part in her life and has done from a young age, playing in a folk band called Driftwood throughout her studies in Newcastle.
It's still an important part of McNulty reunions.
"We all love getting together and when my family are home in the summer we do lots of session stuff, pulling in friends and family and everyone who can play an instrument. All sorts of genres and all types of music," Rita adds.
As a busy working mum, she might not have a lot of time to herself, but when she does get a few moments, she makes them count.
"To relax, I am a huge fan of outdoor swimming, and there's nothing better than to have a nice mindful swim, with your own thoughts and the breeze in your face," she says.
"I love to cook with a glass of wine in my hand, in the kitchen on my own, and I'm in heaven. It's not about Tom Kerridge or Jamie Oliver, it's more Rita Fitzgerald and it can be a bit hit or miss.
"I wouldn't be one for a recipe book, but I'm pretty good. I like to experiment and throw everything in, although I sometimes throw something in which I wish I could take out.
"John is a wonderful cook, albeit a reluctant one. He'll do it when he has to, and he's fantastic. "
Rita has been with husband John for 12 years, after they met in a mutual friend's coffee shop ahead of John's school reunion. He was in full tuxedo, they hit it off straight away and eight years of marriage later, Rita says he is still her best friend.
An architect responsible for developments including the Arc Apartments in Titanic Quarter, Rita says John is one of life's great listeners "and I'm one of life's great talkers so there's probably a bit of balance there".
"He's a very charming man, with great integrity and respect and always has a nice warm smile on him," she says.
"He really makes me laugh, and still gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling all these years later which is gorgeous.
"He started his own business during the recession, so it was tough for a while but he now has a great team and he skips out the door and loves going to work. He does a mix of posh houses and larger projects.
"Now I'm managing to finally get his skills turned on our house. My architect hubby who's always doing wonderful things for other people's properties is now going to transform our home".
In the early stages of their relationship, John built a bolthole in Donegal which the family escape to whenever they have the opportunity. And at the centre of the Fitzgerald home is six-year-old Ellie, who her mum describes as a "fabulous wee woman".
"Just before you called this evening she talked me into a water balloon fight, so I'm sitting here with soaking trousers. She's still out there with her dad playing away.
"She's into her gymnastics, and although I'm trying to talk her into ballet, she hasn't bitten yet.
"You know what it's like when you're that age, you don't walk to the shops when you can skip. It's wonderful."
Motherhood was always something that Rita wanted, but as she grew older, she feared it would never happen for her.
"It was always a goal, and it was something that started to give me a bit of worry when I was in my late 30s and it wasn't happening for me. So, when it did happen when I was 40, John and I felt extremely lucky.
"We try not to spoil her because she's on her own, but I don't know how successful we are," Rita laughs.
"She's got a bit of both of us. She looks very much like John, and his side of the family are very artistic and she seems to have that.
"She's also just got two silver medals in sports day so she may have got that from me. Musically, she's like me as well, always making up songs in her head.
"As for the future, it's hard to know what to encourage your kids to do. When I was growing up, the goal was to get to university and secure a job, and I hope that's still the same for her generation.
"I really hope that's still the path as opposed to just getting a job straight out of school, but we'll see.
"This week she told me she wants to be a tiger and an artist when she grows up, so there's still a while to go.
"I love watching her and John together, he's such a wonderful father to her," Rita adds.
And when it comes to seeing her mum on TV, Rita says Ellie very much takes it for granted. However, she's just worked out that mum isn't just on her TV at home, but also on her friends' TV's. "There was great fun when she realised that," Rita adds.
And with their daughter growing up, John and Rita are planning to make more time for themselves as a couple.
"Everyone knows you have to work at marriage with children around. You need to keep the romance alive," she says.
"Sometimes we don't even feel like we want to go out for dinner by ourselves, because we're happy staying at home with gorgeous Ellie, but then we're always glad we did because you need to have that time together.
"We haven't gone away much since Ellie was born, but now that she's six she's getting to the stage where we're happy to leave for a couple of nights. We'll fly away for a couple of days this year to celebrate our wedding anniversary."
Her life now is a long way from the family farm and the lust for travel that took her around the world. Firmly established as a TV favourite, Rita is thankful for the help and kindness she's been shown over the years by her colleagues, and her positive outlook on life is contagious.
"I was always grateful for the people who were kind to me and showed me the ropes, and I try to do the same for other people coming after me. You really do reap what you sow in life," she says.
"My mantra is to be as happy as you can. If I was looking back and speaking to myself as a younger person, although I did go through life fairly light-heartedly, I would say 'be lighter'. There's always time to do everything you want to do in life.
"Don't let the pressure of succeeding get to you. We have only one life, but there are a lot of years in it. I changed career in my thirties. You can do these things at various different points in your life."
And now it seems that her thirst for travel has been quenched with the life she's made for herself in Northern Ireland, something she never thought would happen.
"I was always trying to leave home and grow up and go and see the world to the point I thought I'd never settle back here, but I did and now I realise there was always that pull, especially when I lived in France," she says.
"I'm so glad I did come home, and that I still have my folks, John still has his parents and we've got great family and friends. It's so easy here in Northern Ireland. It's a lovely place to live."