From a childhood spent running free in the open air of Inis Mór, Maura Derrane has risen through the broadcasting ranks to become the queen of afternoon TV. Here she tells us why the serenity and escapism of the West always draws her back home
There’s no other word for it, Maura Derrane is aghast. “What?!” she splutters. “That’s so mental, ah…no….,” She seems momentarily lost for words and I fear I may have made an error in judgement by confessing to one of the West’s most famous daughters that I have never set foot in Galway City.
“But you’d love it!” she enthuses. “It’s a really multicultural city but so laid back. It’s a city but I always think of it as a town, it’s got a real ‘town’ atmosphere, really chilled and alternative, anything goes and I love that.”
Talking 19 to the dozen, the RTÉ presenter starts to rattle off the myriad appeals of Galway, like seeing world class performers at the Galway arts festival, the mish-mash of society and café culture in the city. “The closest comparison would maybe be Cork, with its pedestrianised streets and all that,” she muses. “But it’s still not as cosmopolitan as Galway in my opinion. There’s no other city in Ireland like it.” Her passion is such that I’m nearly booking my train fare before I’ve hung up the phone. And yet it has been nearly two decades since the glamorous gaeilgeoir was a full-time resident of the county. Born in 1970 she spent a magical childhood growing up on the Aran Islands on Inis Mór, the eldest of four girls. “People didn’t have much and mum used to make clothes for us,” she says. “We had that country thing where if you don’t have something, you make it.”
Mostly life was spent outdoors. “It was very free,” say Maura fondly. “There were no boundaries or barriers. You didn’t feel fear, growing up as a kid in the ’70s, you didn’t know there was anything except safety and open air.”
She’s in Inis Mór today when I call to chat and currently looking out on a misty drizzle when just hours ago there had been bright sunshine. “That’s the perils of island living,” she laughs. “I was meant to come on the plane yesterday but at the last minute fog came down and we (herself, son Cal and her enormous pet cat, Teddy Bear) had to get the boat. It was so rough I nearly puked – but that’s what it’s like!”
She’s laughing but, as anyone on the island knows, transport is a serious issue. The futures of the ferry service and Aer Arann have both looked dubious and Maura has been outspoken about preserving the islands’ accessibility. “Aer Arann is the most important thing for the islands, I think without it we’d be very cut off here,” she says. Compared to what she grew up with, the seven-minute flight is a dream. “We used to take the old tug boat to Galway, which took three hours,” she says. “It was epic, it was like going to America.”
Using her public profile to highlight issues affecting her birthplace is something that’s important to her and she loves being welcomed home. The day before our interview, she did her stunning Weekend photoshoot in House Hotel in Galway city. “Three different people came up to me to say, ‘Hi Maura, oh you’re back, you look great,'” she says. “I was thrilled. It’s so lovely to get that acknowledgement – and its not just about: ‘Oh, I’m so great.’ It’s not a vanity thing, because I’m far too old for that! But what it is, is the acknowledgement of the work we do on the show.”
When the moment comes, retiring to Inis Mór, where her mum, sister Barbara and four-year-old nephew Ethan still live, seems a likely option. But that’s a long way off because, right now, Maura’s reign as first lady of afternoon television is at an all-time high. Latest figures show that Today, which she co-presents with Dáithí Ó Sé on RTÉ, is pulling in an average of 106,000 viewers, up 13pc on the previous year’s ratings.
Having been on our screens for the best part of two decades – first as a crime correspondent on TV3, then fronting RTÉ’s Afternoon Show and Four Live as well TG4’s Feirm Factor – and experienced the highs and lows of broadcasting, Maura’s pragmatic about basking in Today’s success.
“Television is a very transient business, more than any other kind of media. You don’t know where you’re going to be from one year to another, especially when you’re a presenter, because you’re at the whim of whether you’re flavour of the month of not. And that’s not just with your bosses, but with the public. If the public don’t like you then you’re gone and you’ve got to accept that. If you don’t work with your co-presenter then that marriage of television will not work. Thankfully Dáithí and I have worked and the public like us together because the ratings are proving that.”
Ah yes, whatever that magic formula is that constitutes on-screen chemistry, Maura and Kerryman Ó Sé undeniably have it. But she also reckons the show has benefited from filming in Cork, allowing them to “run our own race a bit more” and focusing more on human interest stories rather than relying on big name guests jetting into the capital.
She finds the media “very cliquey” – which she actually quite likes – and she’s never fallen foul of city versus country snobbery. “Sure country are running the media in Dublin, we’re running it!”
Her own clique includes some of TV’s leading ladies. “We were at a friend of mine’s (Claire Byrne’s) wedding recently and it was great, I caught up with people I hadn’t seen in ages which was fab,” she says animatedly. “I miss Dublin in many ways because that’s still my hub. I was in my 20s when I moved and we grew together. TV3 started when Claire, myself, Gráinne Seoige, Colette Fitzpatrick, all of us were that side of things.
“It’s been great being off for summer because I’ve gone up for nights out and caught up with people. I was out with Maire Kearney and Marie Toft (both producers with RTÉ) there recently and I had a great night. We ended up in Whelan’s!” she gives a shriek. “I hadn’t been there in about 100,000 years and I just thought: ‘This is the maddest thing ever, we’re in Whelan’s at 2am!'”
There’s always a lot made of the bitchiness that supposedly exists whenever women have to share presenting duties with another woman. However, Maura says if there is bitchiness on set, then it’s certainly not solely a female affliction. “Men bitch too, everyone bitches. The rule in my head is, if I’ve a co-presenter, then I think it has to be balanced. I’m not trying to outdo Dáithí, he’s not trying to outdo me and if there’s ever an issue, we have to discuss it.”
Now entering its fifth year, the Today slot is the longest time Maura’s spent in one presenting role, which begs the question, how much longer does she see herself by Dáithí’s side on the sofa?
“I always say that these shows get about six, seven or eight years,” she says frankly. “Everything has a natural cycle and when something ends after a number of years then it’s right that it does. I know I’ll just go on to something else. Would I go back to news? I don’t know. Would I ever go down the documentary route? Maybe. But what I do now is a lovely mix. So if I get another couple of years out of a show like this then, yahoo!”
One thing she won’t be doing is casting her eyes to the UK. “If I was 20 again then maybe I would, to be honest, but now, no way. To go to the UK you need to be 20 years old because you’re going to have to work up the ladder for almost 10 years before you get anywhere there. I think you have to be very youthful for all that competitive stuff. No kids, no husband, just yourself. I’m too tied to here and I’m very happy in my lot here.”
At the start of this month she turned 46 – although she’s initially reluctant to divulge that specific figure. “I think people attach a big thing to age, a certain mentality. Like if you’re 46 or whatever then you can’t have the same attitude as someone who is 36,” she explains. “I just think it puts you in a certain category,” she pauses briefly. “Then again, I look at someone like Celia Holman Lee, whose got a better figure than me, better everything than me and I’m like, ‘roll on’,” she laughs.
She feels “more definite” in her 40s, “but I’ll be honest, I think 30s is the best,” she admits. “You’re old enough that everyone will take you really seriously and you’re a grown woman, but you’re young enough to cling on to being kind of girly. You can’t get away with that in your 40s, you have to be fully grown up.” And ultimately she reckons it’s a sad fact of TV life that men tend to fare better than women as they age. “It’s harder to be in it longer if you’re a woman. The longevity of a woman is harder because people are more critical of how you look as a woman and I don’t think it’s fair. But you know, it’s a reality of life.”
Certainly online, it’s often how she looks that gets most feedback. Everyday her outfit choices (which she puts together herself, there’s no wardrobe department in Cork) are listed, and hotly critiqued, on the Today Facebook page. “Someone will say, ‘Maura, that did not suit you’ – they talk to me like I’m in their sitting room – and the next one will say: ‘That was lovely on Maura, what are you talking about?’ I think it’s the funniest thing ever. I roar laughing and have to read it.”
Her sisters, especially make-up artist Róisín, “give out to her” constantly about not having her face on when she’s out and about. “Róisín says to me, ‘Oh my God, the state of you…you’ve no make-up on” and I’m like, ‘So what? I’m in the bloody car, who cares?’ But she’s like: ‘What if you went into a petrol station and people recognised you?’ I don’t care!”
But she’s knows she has to “be presentable” when she’s on TV, a photoshoot or judging ladies’ days, like she’ll be doing at Listowel races this September. She gets regular facials and has had laser treatment on her face. Down the line she wouldn’t rule out cosmetic work. “Perhaps I should have had a tummy tuck done when I was in having Cal…” she jokes.
Of course, Cal’s arrival was no laughing matter, culminating in an emergency C-Section at 34 weeks in May 2014 after Maura suffered a bleed that caused her to lose two litres of blood. As she recovered, the bulk of parenting fell to her husband, the Fine Gael TD for Waterford, John Deasy.
The couple met in 2002 and married in Rome in 2005. But Maura isn’t the stereotypical ‘politician’s wife’, nor are you likely to find the pair sitting into the night planning political strategy. “I’m not a politico and I’ve no interest in the real nitty gritty. John and I wouldn’t really discuss politics. We’ll discuss it in the main, but I just think it’s exhausting talking about what you do all the time or talking about what he does all the time.”
However, she does find herself defending him. “The longer I’m married to a politician the more I think the public can be very cruel sometimes. I think it’s terrible. Individuals are blamed and it’s not their fault. I see how much you give of yourself and your life when you’re a TD. You’re never ‘off’, that’s your gig the whole time. I think it’s very consuming.” And thankless? “Well yes, frankly. You can see how the public voted this time and the only way to describe it is all over the place. I’m all for stability in the country so I worry when you’ve got too many people fighting for the same bit of power.”
During the election, the couple were like ships passing in the night as John spent time in Dublin then returning to Waterford to canvass whilst Maura shuttled between there, work in Cork and visits to Inis Mór. “That was it, I just didn’t see him,” she says. There are some relationship gurus who would contend that no marriage can survive two high-flying careers… “It’s not easy sometimes, to be honest,” admits Maura slowly. “It would be much easier sometimes if one person was based in one place. It’s not easy with everyone wandering around, I’m not going to deny that.”
They don’t do ‘date nights’ but she’s looking forward to them both hitting the Galway Races this year and then there’ll be family holidays in France and Inis Mór. “John loves it here as well. He totally gets it, the serenity and the escapism of it.”
Since having Cal, she spends more time back home, drawing on her mum’s support and hoping to expose her son to the same outdoorsy childhood she enjoyed. “It’s so important for Cal. He loves it. It’s amazing how even at the age of two he ‘gets’ his surroundings and I can see the freedom he feels out discovering things on the beach and just being outside.”
Maura went back to work four months after having Cal, something she has absolutely no qualms about. “I didn’t feel any guilt. I was happy to go. I’m off now for summer and he has become clingy. When he’s with the minder all day I think he’s happier and more balanced, that’s just my own opinion. That’s why he’s become so independent, because he was minded early on by other people.”
It’s obvious that the issue of parental guilt is one that leaves her fuming. “I hate this thing that women are in competition with each other the whole time about parenting and the ‘proper’ way to parent and to breastfeed or not to breastfeed. It’s everyone’s choice. You’re not a bad person if it doesn’t work out for you, you’re not a bad person if your kid doesn’t sleep… I think there’s enough going on in the world, why on earth would you put this guilt thing on top of it? Go away! Everything you do, you’re doing it for your child. I would say to anyone feeling that guilt: ‘Don’t listen to anyone else, just think of yourself.’ Cop on and just forget about it.”
She’s similarly unapologetic about allowing Cal screen time. A controversial topic given that, according to experts like the American Academy of Paediatrics, toddlers should have none, or no more than an hour of screen time per day. “People are very against iPads for kids, I’m not,” she says emphatically. “I don’t stop Cal watching his favourite things on TV or using my iPad. I’ve all these really educational apps on it and they’re great, especially when we’re travelling.”
She doesn’t watch afternoon TV when she’s off for the summer, “I have enough of it” she laughs but she is a big fan of Peppa Pig and In The Night Garden. “It’s so lovely in the Night Garden. I’d love to live there,” she gushes. “Oh My God, if I could live in that Tombliboo House I’d be gone in the morning.” But I’m betting her heart would still belong to Galway.
‘Today with Maura & Dáithí’ returns to RTÉ One in the autumn
Maura’s top five Galway experiences
1 Visit the Aran Islands: “This has to come first! The most beautiful place in the world is Inis Mór.”
2 The Galway Races: “I always make Galway – it’s wild! Prepare yourself for three weeks before you take a day in Galway. You don’t even need to see a horse, you just have to be into the social aspect and the Ladies’ Day is the biggest in the country.”
3 Eat at Aniar Restaurant: “We’ve had the chef (JP McMahon) on the show, he’s cooked us everything from his restaurant and it’s all amazing. He’s like an Irish Heston Blumenthal. There are lovely dishes with seaweed in them and foraged mushrooms, it’s mind-blowing stuff, just unbelievably good.”
4 Go for a drink: “There are loads of nice bars on Quay Street. Neachtain’s has a lovely atmosphere and Murphys – Dáithí always drinks in there – they’re real old man bars. O’Connor’s in Salthill is also really cool. There’s always a good band but it’s not ‘diddle-dee twee’ just really lovely, and I love the owner.”
5 Explore Kylemore Abbey in Connemara: “It’s just stunning”.