Broadcaster and mum-of-two Marie-Louise Muir opens her heart to Maureen Coleman about her life, her love of the arts and how she is coming to terms with the stillbirth of her baby boy earlier this year.
As Northern Ireland's best-known arts broadcaster, Marie-Louise Muir's name is synonymous with championing the works of poets and playwrights, authors and actors. Having presented Radio Ulster's evening show Arts Extra for almost nine years, the Londonderry native admits she is in a privileged position — walking the red carpet at glamorous awards ceremonies, working alongside cultural greats including Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel and being part of an industry that she is passionate about.
Next week she takes on a new role, fronting The Arts Show on BBC2 Northern Ireland. Broadcast monthly, the programme will complement her radio show and will give viewers a fresh perspective on contemporary and classic arts and culture. Marie-Louise will be in her element, delving deep into the psyche of high-profile guests and exploring the talking points behind the local arts scene.
“I know I'm very lucky to be doing my dream job,” she tells me over lunch in Harlem restaurant in Bedford Street. “There has always been a rich arts scene in Northern Ireland, but recently I've noticed a growing confidence
and wider recognition of the wonderful things people are doing here.”
While her passion for the arts is obvious, Marie-Louise doesn't define herself solely in terms of her job. Motherhood, she tells me, has given her a sense of balance and perspective and it's a role that she relishes. Married to Johnny, who also works for the BBC, they have two little girls, Catherine (7) and Rebecca (4).
To an outsider looking in, the BBC's golden girl of arts has it all: a strong marriage, two beautiful children and a glittering career. But earlier this year, just a month after celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary, they were dealt a heartbreaking blow when their little baby boy was delivered stillborn. It's the first time Marie-Louise has spoken publicly about her devastating loss and she tells me she was unsure about bringing the subject up. But after much soul-searching, she concludes it was the right thing to do.
“It was at the end of May and I was five months pregnant,” she says quietly. “I had to deliver the baby, a little boy.
“I thought long and hard about whether or not to talk about it today, but when it happened to me, I spent so much time on the internet, looking for people with similar stories. I think it helps to know you are not alone.
“The trauma of what happened really affected me. It totally knocked my confidence. I took two months off, I didn't know what to do with myself. But I have two small children and I had to get up for them every morning.
“It's one of those things you never think you're going to have to deal with, burying a child,” she falters, her voice trailing off.
The opportunity to present the new arts show was “bittersweet”, she says.
“This awful thing that has happened, it will never be forgotten, but I do believe you have to get on with your life,” she says. “And I know I am lucky to have two wonderful children and my dream job. It's just I love being a mother, I really wanted a third child. But I can't put myself through this again.
“Having children has domineered my life for the past 10 years. They've been such a great leveller. Now I have to forge out a new sense of self. That is hard. No-one gives you a guide for that.
“I think people find it hard to talk about the death of a baby, it's the last great taboo. We can talk about the death of a parent, but when it's a child, people don't know what to say. But I got great support from the staff at Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital, who were amazing.”
As a result of her loss, Marie-Louise has been missing her late father's presence more acutely of late. John Kerr, a former Mayor of Derry and a popular figure in his native city, passed away in early 2007.
“Dad was quite a shy man, but a great communicator,” she says. “I was able to chat to him about things. I miss that.”
Her love of the arts was passed down by her father, a former teacher, and her mother Carita, an actress and singer. Marie-Louise's parents
first met while appearing together in a play in Derry.
“When dad saw mum he announced ‘that's the girl I'm going to marry',” she says.
The Kerrs relocated to Birmingham, where Marie-Louise and her two brothers, Robert, a legal aid lawyer and James, chief executive of the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry, were born. Returning to Northern Ireland, they set up home in Newry. While there, Carita Kerr threw herself into the local arts scene, organising Newry's first Young Musician of the Year competition. She was also invited to sing for Pope John Paul II on his visit to Drogheda in 1979.
As a young child in Newry, Marie-Louise, an accomplished singer and musician, was painfully shy. But that was to change when the family moved to Derry.
“I hated performing, hated being in the spotlight,” she says. “But when we moved to Derry in 1981, I started going to Thornhill College and really felt like I'd come home. I blossomed there. I had a great schooling and some wonderful teachers.”
It was while at Thornhill that English teacher Mary Murphy introduced her to the work of poet Seamus Heaney, sparking a love affair that has endured to the present day.
The death of her beloved father and Heaney's compassion will always be inextricably linked in her mind.
“Dad died on a Saturday. The previous Wednesday I did an interview with Seamus and told him that my dad was ill. Those two things are inseparable now for me, dad's death and Seamus Heaney's kind words about him.
“You know, sometimes I think I fall a little bit love with the people I interview. In some way, they enrich my life.”
On leaving Thornhill College, Marie-Louise moved to Dublin to study English Literature at Trinity. During the summer months, she'd head back to Derry to “hang around” the Field Day Theatre Company, putting up posters for their shows and working with people like Brian Friel and Stephen Rea. An arts administration course at UCD followed and Marie-Louise landed a job working for the year long Derry festival, IMPACT 92. It was through this job that she discovered her talent for broadcasting, putting together packages for Radio Foyle.
Marie-Louise went on to present her own Radio Foyle shows, including At Home With Marie-Louise Kerr and 3 To 5 Live. For Radio Ulster she hosted a Sunday morning programme This New Day. After completing a BBC Production Training course she worked as an assistant producer for six years, but the lure of presenting drew her back and she was given a few stand-in slots, before taking over from John Toal as host of Arts Extra. It was a job tailor-made for Marie-Louise. For the last three years she has travelled back to Derry once a week to present the show.
The new television show will feature interviews with guests such as Oscar winner Terry George and actor Adrian Dunbar and will allow Marie-Louise to put her journalism skills to use as she gets to grips with her subject in lengthy segments, rather than soundbites.
“I’m absolutely delighted to be at the helm of our new arts show,” she says. “Over the years I've got to know so many artists, writers, actors and directors. I feel like I've been a small part of their lives, in some way, so it's a privilege to be celebrating their work.”
The Arts Show starts on BBC Two, this Thursday, September 27, 10pm. Arts Extra is on BBC Radio Ulster weeknights, 6.30pm