Hearing Olivia O’Leary describe herself as a “culchie” is not what Irish Country Living expected from the veteran RTÉ broadcaster.
However, even though she has lived in Dublin for many years, the Carlow native is adamant that she is a country woman at heart.
“I must say, the minute I’m on the Naas dual carriageway and heading south – particularly when I see the Blackstairs creeping up – something relaxes inside me, and I think yeah, I’m home,” she says.
“There’s a different pace and you sort of have to slow yourself down and take time to talk to each other – and you can find out everything you need to know in the queue for the butcher’s.”
Olivia honed her journalistic skills at home, at the Carlow Nationalist. Reporting was what she always wanted to do – even from a very young age.
“I think I was a nosy kid – I’d watch people. When I was about eight or nine, I made a newspaper on the square maths paper and the big story on the front was a big plane crash. I had a whole series of stories on what had happened, but the last line to every one of them was ‘and the gardai haven’t got a clue’.”
For female journalists, Olivia is a pioneer. She reported on politics and current affairs at a time when women in newsrooms were confined to writing about fashion, beauty, ladies’ days and home economics.
Olivia presented Today Tonight, Questions and Answers and Prime Time on RTÉ, as well as Newsnight on BBC. She now talks about everything and anything as part of her popular Drivetime column on RTÉ Radio One.
“The way I try to do the column is not as an insider, I try to do it from the point of view of someone who is not in the middle of Leinster House and knows every bit of tittle-tattle going on. I try to take a more ordinary working woman’s view of what’s going on.
“It’s really just a matter of picking something that I think people would talk about it if they were chatting across the dinner table or having a drink together in the pub.”
In conversation, Olivia is intelligent and confident. However, despite landing a coveted role in RTÉ as a young journalist, she always felt the need to prove herself.
“You were a bit on your own. I really feeling very conscious that ministers would dismiss you a little bit: ‘The girl, are you sure the girl knows what she’s doing.’ There was an expectation of me, that I would fall flat on my face. I had a male boss saying to me: ‘We’re giving you this big chance and your neck is on the line and my neck is on the line.’
“I remember that being told to me as I went off to present a programme. I mean god almighty, talk about being sent out with encouragement.
“So you were very conscious that there was a certain element of: we’re bloody well letting you in here, you need to be bloody good. There was a certain grudging attitude. It was because I was a woman. They felt that it was risky.”
This pressure, coupled with a heavy drinking culture, led to a struggle with depression, which Olivia addressed on a Drivetime column in 2016.
“Looking back now, I probably didn’t spend enough time keeping in touch with home, and making sure of having a normal life with normal exercise and good food, early to bed,” she says. “By the time you’re 26, you’ve learned that lesson. When you’re 23 or 24 you’re probably still inclined to make that mistake. You do have to have a life to come home to, to keep yourself sane.”
Olivia is critical of services offered to people suffering from mental health problems, calling government cuts “the meanest of all”. She does feel, however, that the public is more open about discussing the issue and after asking her sister for help many years ago, urges others to do the same.
“People recover from mental health difficulties in the same way that they recover from a broken arm or a broken wrist. People can recover and we need to put that in the minds of the public – just because someone has suffered from depression or some other mental health disorder, does not mean that for the rest of their life they are risky or flaky,” she adds.
She extols the benefits of unwinding down during her frequent trips home.
“There is something very calming, I find, walking the land or walking along the river. We’re so lucky in this country, there’s so much room, there’s so much space,” she says.
Comeraghs Wild festival
Olivia will be making the trip down to the country this week, to recite poetry from the late Seán Dunne and others at the Comeraghs Wild Festival in Co Waterford on 14 July.
“I’ll be reading poems that have been written about the Comeraghs and Mahon Falls and Waterford, and some that are about wildlife and being out in the open,” she says. “Then I’m going to read an excerpt from Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, so it’s all Waterford connected. The Comeraghs are beautiful. It’s lovely that we still have these wild places to go to.”
The Comeraghs Wild Festival takes place on 14-16 July. Festival highlights include an open-air concert and poetry recital, which will see world-renowned uilleann piper, David Power, team up with talented harpist Triona Marshall, and Olivia O’Leary in Mahon Falls. The programme also features beach art, a walk along the famous Lough Mara loop, a ceílí, a barbecue and an Alice in Wonderland-themed picnic. For more information, see www.ComeraghsWild.com. CL