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'I miss Steve terribly when he's working in Belfast, but I don't say so as not to hurt him'

RTE's Miriam O'Callaghan tells Sarah Caden how she misses husband Steve Carson when he's working at BBC Northern Ireland... and looks forward to being reunited with her late father and sister in the afterlife.

It's a bit odd to be asking Miriam O'Callaghan what she thinks about the idea of being a granny. For one thing, it's not like any of her eight children are planning to make her one any time soon. Her eldest - barrister Alannah McGurk - recently got engaged to Fiachra Breathnach, but that's merely a statement of an intention to marry ... and there's no need to get ahead of ourselves.

"Any baby that comes, it's a joy, it's a gift," she says. "Obviously, I loved babies - I had eight of them myself!"

Alannah and her sisters Clara and twins Jessica and Georgia are Miriam's four daughters with her ex-husband, journalist Tom McGurk. Her four boys Conor, Jack, Daniel and Jamie, are with her husband, Steve Carson.

Miriam has seen it all with the kids, really, having basically gone from working behind the scenes in the BBC when the girls were small, to moving front of camera as they grew up, before, ultimately, becoming one of the best-known women in Ireland.

She has seen how having a parent in the public eye affects the offspring - and she clearly reckons it's worse when they're adults.

"The older my children get, the more conscious I am that they live private lives," Miriam says, "and that there's a knock-on effect of having a parent in the public eye. There are pluses, but they are very often outweighed by the minuses."

She adds: "I didn't start out planning this career. I began as a solicitor and I then went into the backroom-boys-and-girls section of TV, so I never set out to have a public life. I slipped into it.

"Then, one day, you wake up and realise you are well-known and that means that anyone associated with you has to live with that."

Miriam is probably one of those people who looks how she feels. She believes herself to be lucky and she is grateful for it. She's been through separation and divorce and, though she doesn't speak of that, it has to leave scars. Also, the death of her sister Anne - who was only in her 30s when she died from cancer - followed a year later by the death of Miriam's father, were tough blows, and she references them both all the time.

So, Miriam is grateful for her life, for the fact that her mother, also Miriam, is still with her.

And she is grateful for her husband Steve. Several years ago, he left his job as head of programmes in RTE to take a job as head of productions with the BBC in his native Belfast.

She has always been adamant that she had no doubts about Steve leaving RTE and, to some extent, leaving Dublin.

"I miss him terribly when he's not around, though," Miriam says. "But I don't like to say that too much, because I don't want him to feel bad. And I love visiting him in Belfast.

"And, anyway, he's home at weekends and every Wednesday, and Tuesdays and Thursdays I'm on Prime Time and not at home."

While she doesn't resent Steve being away and is happy in the rhythm of the house when he's gone, Miriam has none of that thing of carping that Steve's under her feet or messing with the domestic routine when he returns in fits and starts.

"We love when he's home," she says, "but this works for now and we'll do it for however long. It's good. And I love Belfast; I love going back, and hearing about the BBC; because that's where I started, too."

People fascinate Miriam and she loves to get to the bottom of what makes them tick, what makes them happy, how they have dealt with the difficulties life has presented to them.

Often, she says, she sits in front of people who have been very successful in life, who have excelled in the arts or business or in their own niche. And that brings a level of life satisfaction, she says, but it doesn't ward off personal trauma or tragedy, and it's how people come to terms with those that really interests her.

"I can tell if they're very unhappy within five minutes," Miriam says, "because you can spot in life who's happy and who's not. Because if they're happy, they have a happy attitude and it filters though every bit of their lives. You can see it in their eyes and their body language.

"It particularly upsets me when I see couples who are unhappy with each other. I think, 'It's your only life; don't be mean to each other. If you're not good to each other, then you're not good for each other.' I would never say it to them, not in a million years, but you can spot it."

The one question that Miriam asks every interviewee is whether they believe in an afterlife. She is a woman who has her own answers to the big questions about this life, but she's just not certain about the next.

"Every rational bone in my body says it doesn't exist, but I want to hope," says Miriam, "so I keep asking, just in case. I want the answer."

Miriam laughs at herself, but there's a serious heartfelt desire for her rational side to be wrong on this one.

"I believe it's probably the case that this is it and it's over in a blink so enjoy it, love it, don't be unhappy. I become more and more certain that this is the truth," she says.

"I think. Apart from the 1% of me that thinks I will arrive in heaven and drink fine champagne with my sister and my father. I'm just not sure; but hey, it will be a lovely surprise if it happens."

If it happens, it will be a long way off, I suggest. Miriam O'Callaghan has a lot more living and loving to do yet.

"Yeah, they might be waiting a while," she agrees with a laugh.

"But they will have eternal youth on their side."

Belfast Telegraph


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