Q. As a child growing up in Newcastle, Co Down, you were told you were adopted. Was that traumatic?
A. My mother told me, but I can’t remember what age I was when she did so. But she did do it in the only way to do these things, which was to wait until I was old enough to have some cognisance of what she was saying. Of course, I didn’t understand it completely but it was very beautifully put: "We chose you." She said all the right sort of things. Just a few months later a friend of my sister came out with: "Oh, you’re adopted." I think if I hadn’t been told previously by my mother and I’d had to question it then I think I would have found that very, very difficult. There’s nothing to be gained by keeping any of these things in, it’s better for people just to be honest.
Q. Have you ever had any desire to find out more about your birth parents?
A. I felt like it would be disloyal and I absolutely adored my parents. Of course there’s always that question mark. And now everyone’s going back looking for their dastardly relatives on TV programmes. It’s an atavistic human condition; you want to explain some things that are otherwise inexplicable. You want to have that anchor. At one stage when I was talking about these things, Henry McIlhenny, a wonderful figure in Donegal, said: "Well, my dear, just be careful you don’t find any hideous family hiding in the woods." Point taken. You have to approach these things with care.
Q. Despite the revelation, a happy childhood then?
A. Idyllic. I was probably spoilt. One of my first memories was of throwing a blanket out of the pram when I was taken for a walk by one of the neighbours; she was almost terrified to come back because the blanket had gone. The chef in the Savoy — not the London Savoy but the Newcastle one, where they make the best ice-cream in the world — used to make my birthday cakes. They were huge, with a lake of jelly and meringue swans floating on it. There’s creativity for you and if you inculcate it at an early age perhaps people will appreciate good design and the nice things in life. My parents also played golf. I was taken as a child and given my little clubs made by the golf professional. I lasted until about the third hole when I ended up in tears, throwing the clubs at him and stomping off.
Q. Attending boarding school as a teenager proved something of a shock then?
A. I went to St Colman’s in Newry. It was like re-reading James Joyce. It was so Spartan and unreconstructed. Honestly, nobody would put up with it now. I think both taps in the school dormitory were marked "Cold", so no hot water. It was strict to put it mildly — the use of the cane was, shall we say, liberal to use that word in its most pejorative form. People used to say to me: "It hasn’t done you any harm." And I would say: "That’s not true." You end up shutting down emotionally, partly because you are surviving, rather than somebody helping you blossom. Thankfully, things have changed.
Q. We know you as a consummate and natural broadcaster, but you’d a tough time finding your vocation. First you studied law at Queen’s University, Belfast, before going into accountancy. What happened?
A. In real life Queen’s and accountancy was just a small flirtation... I reduced everything to a matter of weeks. I was a square peg in a round hole. For some reason it didn’t work and I got totally neurotic about it, maybe some ancient fears came into play. I left Queen’s and fell into accountancy. People said it was a sensible thing to do, but it’s not sensible if it’s not for you. Things were a bit more constraining then. Perhaps I could have broken out and gone mad, but there was respectability in doing something that was approved of. My parents wanted me to be secure. My mother had been ill for a while (before this period). Her brother had died in a car crash and he’d been very much her spiritual support. She didn’t have a breakdown as such, but something would recur every year and she’d end up periodically in hospital in Dublin. When I was 15 I’d visit her and take her out from this place for lunch. I remember taking her to the Shelbourne and being allowed a glass of wine. There was ice-cream with creme de menthe on the dessert menu and I had that, thinking she wouldn’t notice the alcohol element. It was poured over it so it didn’t look like it came out of bottle and it was delicious. But (that time) was all very odd indeed, really, and probably quite destabilising for me. Again, I think it was people being rigid and unsympathetic when all that was really needed was to talk about it. When I realised I didn’t want to be an accountant, it was a Damascene moment. I was in bed with flu and realised that it was nicer than being at work. It could have been a breakdown had it gone on for any longer. I was doing something I didn’t want to do and couldn’t see my way out of it. But the penny dropped and eventually I said I wasn’t coming back
Q. Shortly afterwards you got the first of several lucky breaks.
A. Yes, I bumped into someone from the BBC, who said: "What are you doing?" They suggested I work with them. I started as a researcher on live broadcasts by Gloria Hunniford and Diane Harron. Then one day they were doing an item on Christmas presents for men and were stuck for someone to do it. The producer said: "You’ll have to go on!" I was thrown in the deep end but it was good fun.
Q. During the Troubles you presented Scene Around Six and Inside Ulster, before moving to Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster, often delivering the worst type of news.
A. You must have detachment to deliver the news but there are also degrees of empathy and you wouldn’t be properly human if you didn’t show them. There’s a responsibility to connect and feel what people at the other end were feeling. People would say: "You’re in my front room every night." And you’re there as part of the family, but also as somebody trusted to be in that circle. I was very touched when people said that. You just did your best, really.
Q. So many people still pine for your wonderful radio chat show Rafferty...
A. I loved that time. Once we dropped everything else because Seamus Heaney came in. When he started to talk so many people had their noses pressed against the production window because he was like the Pied Piper of Language, just so enthralling and beautiful and wonderful. He was such a brilliant and gentle man, not full of himself, as we say. I was lucky enough to do a programme from Stockholm when he got the Nobel prize. His speech was the highlight of the dinner, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. We need so much more of that, a celebration of excellence and goodness and what is possible together rather than so divisive language. I wring my hands in horror at times. We haven’t progressed. Generosity pays off, and I wish everybody would have that emblazoned on their official thoughts: be generous, be open, everybody else has the right to their opinion and to exist.
Q. Talking of which, Brexit is causing problems on this side of the Irish Sea...
A. I have friends who voted for it and many of us could see and are very critical of a lot of the waste and the lack of democracy in the European system, which has expanded to other countries. The lack of democracy in the former Eastern Bloc, Poland for instance. But, on the other hand, I think it’s better to work from within and so many people could see the potential catastrophe coming for Northern Ireland. Whatever your views of Brexit, it’s an absolute disaster for Northern Ireland. It’s stirred up trouble, it’s caused problems — things that weren’t ironed out earlier on — and it’s caused great, great unease. There do not seem to be enough people in positions of power who lead by example and exhort us all to do that. Yet that’s the only possible way forward. Everybody has a particular grievance but the grown-up thing would be to look at it and say this is where we are, this is what we share, we may disagree but we will not get anywhere by harking back. It’s about generosity and a moment’s thought for the rights of somebody who is next door or in the next street or in the next county. I wish leaders could try harder and also look as though they meant it.
Q. You used to sing with a madrigal group and are patron of Northern Ireland Opera. Presenting Radio Three’s In Tune must be your dream job?
A. Living in London is great. There are free art galleries, in normal times you can walk in and see some of the greatest art on the planet. And all the orchestras — Wigmore Hall, the Royal Opera House... absolute food for the soul. The redoubtable Daphne Bell, who used to run the Ulster College of Music on a shoestring, talked me into singing with a madrigal group and that became one of the mainstays of my life through the Troubles. We’d rehearsals on a Monday night and suddenly you’d hear this wonderful sound which we’d produced. It was a confluence, people being generous, working together — here we go again! — yet in a way it was nothing to do with you, you were just distilling something written many years before. It’s lovely now to be Patron of Northern Ireland Opera and see how well they are doing with their programme for young singers from all over Ireland giving recitals. It’s an awesome celebration of huge talent.
Q. You were awarded the MBE for services to broadcasting in 2017. Did you get a day out at Buckingham Palace?
A. Some people do an awful lot more than me, but I just graciously said thank you. It was the Queen, which was very nice because she doesn’t do very many. I said: "I hope you listen to Radio Three, Ma’am, it’s very good for your soul." She sort of smiled at me. When I came out a courtier said: "Did Her Majesty say that she listened to you?" I said: "Not quite..." He said: "I think she’s more a Radio Two listener." But I’m sure she has a broad taste. I was very impressed. I was also at the Palace for a reception for President of Ireland Michael D Higgins. I’d been broadcasting so was one of the last to arrive. Someone gave me a glass of champagne, then took it away and quickly pushed me through a side door because the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were nearly at the end of the reception line... afterwards I went into the next ante room and there was the person who’d taken my glass away standing there with it on a tray. Seriously stylish — and they didn’t spill a drop either!
Q. Are you religious?
A. Everybody has their spirituality, I waver a bit. I still subscribe to the basic Christian virtues, but I am a little bit sceptical about organised religion. Of course it’s inspired some of the great music, though many churches have basically thrown out the poetry of music. The banality of what you hear in churches now is patronising. People go to be uplifted. The language has been reduced too. I’d to read something at a funeral once and announced I was reading from the King James Version. I said: "There’s been a degeneration in language where I would rather not go." And this person said: "Well, this has all been changed by committee." I replied: "And doesn’t it look like that!"
Q. How do you unwind?
A. I present the show three weeks out of four so I like to get back to Donegal when I can. That’s not possible now for obvious reasons but I’m looking forward to getting there again. I love reading. I’ve just bought Chips Channon’s diaries — they’re so outrageous. A new book about the Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen has just landed in, along with Sally Phipps’ new biography of Molly Keane. I like Donna Leon’s thrillers. She uses a lot of her proceeds to support a baroque orchestra, so puts back something. I don’t understand people who make a vast amount of money and then do nothing but sit and look at it.
Q. And what have you learnt from life?
A. We are all questing, we are all hanging on, everybody is vulnerable and the worst thing to do is to assume that your friends are all right, sorted, fine. Also, don’t moan too much, it’s very unattractive and it doesn’t really get you anywhere, it just comes back on yourself. Be as open as possible, be yourself — I know it’s a truism but I tried to be the person everybody else thought I should be for a long time and it doesn’t work. The earlier you realise that the better. Oh, and enjoy life.
Sean Rafferty presents In Tune on BBC Radio Three every weekday at 4.30pm. He will celebrate the global Irish diaspora on St Patrick’s Day with a programme of Irish poetry, folk songs and translations livestreamed from the Wigmore Hall in London at 7.30pm. See https://wigmore-hall.org.uk/ for more details.