Keelin Shanley RIP, 2014 interview on her career and taking chances
If she didn't swap science for journalism, Keelin Shanley might still be in a lab. But the Morning Edition presenter tells Maria Moynihan why fear of failure should never stop you taking chances.

In Keelin Shanley’s case something borrowed also doubles as something blue.

“The RTÉ wardrobe department,” she admits, as Irish Country Living admires her Kate Middleton-cobalt gúna when she arrives for our interview from the set of Morning Edition.

Usually, she laughs, she’s straight back into her civvies after leaving Montrose to collect her children Lucy (7) and Ben (5) from school.

“Though with full make-up and hair,” she adds, joking that the studio look doesn’t always work when bundled up in a North Face jacket at the school gates.

Unfortunately, she is still missing her wedding ring, after accidentally giving it to a homeless man on New Year’s Eve with some spare change.

“I’ve received a lot of phone calls, but there’s no sign of it,” she sighs. “But I still love the husband.”

For somebody who has been up since 5.30am Keelin is remarkably fresh, MAC-d-up or otherwise. Early starts aside, fronting 10 hours of live TV a week means she has to be razor sharp, ready to react to a breaking story – like when the Pope resigned while she was live on air – while simultaneously shifting gears between hard news and lifestyle pieces. No small task, even for a three-time IFTA winning journalist.

“Of course, I was daunted,” she admits of taking on the role 12 months ago. “Like with everything you do, you say, ‘This is definitely the limit of my abilities and if I try anything else it will be way beyond me and I’ll finally be found out.’ It’s very intense from 6.30am to 11am. There’s no time for faffing about or messing. But it’s an exciting show.”

Science to media

If Keelin jokes about being ‘found out’, it might be because her career in journalism began almost by accident. Raised in Dublin, her father, professor Derry Shanley, was formerly the dean of medicine at Trinity. Her late mother Orna worked part-time as a physiotherapist while raising Keelin and her four siblings.

Keelin followed somewhat in their footsteps at first, with a science degree in Trinity followed by a move to the prestigious John Hopkins university in Bologna, Italy, to start a post-grad. “The neuro-chemistry of rats.” she laughs.

Unfortunately, or fortunately for the rodents, Keelin ended up flat sharing with a journalist and so spelled out the end of her days in the lab.

“I was only 20 leaving college and it was the 80s, I wasn’t really thinking about what I wanted to do,” she says, taking a sip of her Americano.

“But I don’t think science is that much different to journalism. For example, in journalism you can’t just make assertions, you need sources. It’s quite a good background.”

Obviously so. On returning to Ireland, Keelin got her first TV gig with RTÉ doing film reviews and gradually worked her way up the ladder to Prime Time; although she did leave for two years to live in Paris with her husband Conor Ferguson, where she was a reporter with Radio France International.

“You wouldn’t pass up an adventure like that,” she explains. On her return, however, she rejoined the Prime Time team and her work brought her as far as Haiti, not to mention investigating an array of issues at home, from drug abuse to the seminal Saturday Night/Sunday Morning exposé on Ireland’s binge-drinking culture.

Along the way, she has also presented The Consumer Show and, more recently, has filled in for Sean O’Rourke on the Today Show.

Brave

It’s hard to believe such a CV belongs to somebody who admits to being ‘painfully shy’ in the past. Although Keelin feels that to succeed in any career – not just journalism – women especially need to stop worrying so much about what other people think.

“What’s the worst that can happen? You get it wrong? Or you mess it up?” she says. “I do think that women are so worried, ‘Who am I to be doing this?’ or ‘What will they say about me if I stick my head above the parapet?’ that they paralyse themselves. You can paralyse yourself with fear of getting it wrong and so what, people get it wrong all the time you know? It’s not nice, but you survive it.”

It’s a refreshing sense of perspective that comes from experience, not just on-screen but also off. On 25 February 2011, the same day as the general election, Keelin was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was talking to the radiologist about schools and I remember she interrupted me and said, ‘You know Keelin, I would have to say I’m quite concerned about this’ and I knew immediately then,” she recalls. “You don’t have to wait for the results of the biopsy.”

Having lost her beloved mother to ovarian cancer at just 59, Keelin admits that one of the hardest things was breaking the news to her father, especially as she feared history would repeat itself.

“But it was really eye-opening to see how far they have come with treatment,” says Keelin, who has nothing but praise for the public health system that served her though surgery, chemo and radiation.

Three years on, however, it’s not something she dwells on.

“I have a four in five chance of normal life expectancy now, so that’s pretty good,” she says. “The numbers say it’s over and I’m going to stick with the good numbers.”

Which is exactly the attitude you expect from this scientist-turned-journalist as she leaves to collect the kids from school in that beautiful, borrowed blue dress. Like her, it will be back in Montrose first thing in the morning.

Morning Edition is broadcast Monday to Friday from 9am to 11am on RTÉ One.