She’s in our homes every week as we watch her on the One O’Clock news, but this month, Eileen Whelan turned the tables and allowed us into her world. Meeting her at the beautiful 5* Druids Glen resort, just a short jaunt from her home, we got to know the newsreader – and her family – a little better.
Armed with her infectious personality and beaming smile, she bounded into the room with her husband Larry Donnelly and 10-year-old son, Larry Jnr in tow. Missing, was her eldest son Sean, 23, who wasn’t able to join us on the day – but we left feeling like we knew him, regardless!
“I’m so proud of both the boys, they’re my world, the best things to have ever happened me,” she said. “Being a mother is equally as exhausting as it is rewarding and I wouldn’t have it any other way. They keep me on my toes, keep me excited, keep me young! There’s never a dull day with them.”
And equally, there’s never a dull day when she’s in RTÉ either, reporting on the top news around the globe. Most recently, Eileen also found herself reporting on the controversies within her own organisation, which she’s been a part of for the last three decades.
“The revelations were shocking, and it was quite a stressful story to report on. I was as angry as anyone else,” she tells us. “There’s still a lot of disbelief about how this could all have come about.” A newly appointed Director General, Kevin Bakhurst, has taken over, and she hopes it’ll bring change, and rebuild and instil trust within the company – and with audiences around the country, too. Only time will tell.
Here, Eileen opens up about her life on and off screen, coming to terms with the loss of her dad and why the new legislation surrounding IVF is so, so crucial to couples across the country.
Eileen, firstly, thanks so much for spending the day with us and introducing us to your family – well part of it at least, as your eldest son Sean couldn’t make it!
Thanks so much, we really enjoyed the shoot. Larry Jnr really surprised me too as he also loved it – I assumed he’d hate having to change outfits and try on lots of clothes, but he really enjoyed it. Who knew he was such a fashionista?! [laughs]
You’re on our screens every day, in our homes, but would you consider yourself to be quite private outside of work?
Presenting the One O’Clock news every day on RTÉ1, I’m pretty used to being recognised when I’m out and about, especially in Wicklow, my hometown. People are always interested in chatting to me about what’s in the news and getting my opinion on the big story of the day or week. They’re also extremely interested in what I wear! But am I a private person? I think most people who know me would say I’m pretty open. I’ve always believed in telling it like it is.
Your husband Larry is a political correspondent and law lecturer in Galway University, so you’ve a shared interest in all things news and current affairs. Did that draw you together initially?
Yes, it certainly did, we are both avid followers of news and current affairs. Obviously with my job, I need to stay across all developments so it can be hard to switch off – we’re both guilty of checking our news apps constantly! News programmes are always on the TV and radio in our house, much to the annoyance of our kids! There are plenty of evenings though when we come home and totally switch off from current affairs. I recently binge-watched the comedy series Fisk on Netflix and really enjoyed it.
When it comes to your own work, you’ve to report on all aspects of news, so how did you find covering the recent controversies in RTÉ?
It was very strange having to report on RTÉ in RTÉ. RTÉ News is all about trust and telling the truth, calling people to account, and asking tough questions. Suddenly we were reporting on our own organisation. I recall on one occasion thinking “My God, I’ve been writing headlines about RTÉ for something like five days in a row – what can I say today?” Having said that, I’ve always been and still am a big fan of Ryan Tubridy and I have huge sympathy for the way things worked out for him in the end. However, the revelations were shocking, and it was quite a stressful story to report on. I was as angry as anyone else at the revelations.
What’s the mood like in there now?
People in the newsroom are particularly good at just getting on with their day-to-day jobs. There’s still a lot of disbelief about how this could all have come about. However, there is a great sense of trust in our new Director General Kevin Bakhurst and staff really seem to believe that he can help restore trust in RTÉ.
There’s so much conversation now following on from talk about the licence fee not being paid, what do you make of it?
I really hope people don’t get caught up in all the negativity and will continue to pay their licence fee. Public service broadcasting is more important than ever these days. There is so much disinformation out there and fake news. Fairness, honesty and balance in reporting and news is crucial. And of course, RTÉ is not just about news, think of the fabulous sports coverage, documentaries, music, drama and arts programming.
Is it hard for you to distance yourself from the stories you report on every day, can you walk away from them when you leave the newsroom?
To be honest I struggle most days dealing with news stories about human tragedies. The recent Libya floods and hearing about total villages being swept into the sea, whole families in their cars, all drowned, it was awful. I find covering the Ukraine wars just heartbreaking – one of the saddest elements of that is once the story moves off the headlines people tend to forget about it. My ten-year-old asked me the other day why it’s not in the news anymore. I very often find myself welling up during a sad report. I cry very easily – I got that from my lovely Dad – however, no-one wants to see the newscaster in tears during the One O’Clock news!
Would you consider that to be the toughest part of your job?
Yeah, probably! Also, the One O’Clock news, as the first tv bulletin of the day is very much seat-of-the-pants. We have lots of lives and sometimes reports come in at the last minute – while it can be a tough part of the job, I love the cut-and-thrust of it and it always keeps me on my toes!
Your dad, who sadly passed away a few months ago, adored watching you on the One O’Clock news and it brought him great pride you told us earlier. How are you doing now, following his passing?
Ah, I’m still missing my dad every day and people tell me that it never goes away. I rang him most days on my drive home from work and he’d tell me, “I got you on the One!” He loved the fast-paced nature of the bulletin. We have been clearing out his house recently so that was very moving and emotional. My dad was an amazing man and lots of people told me at his funeral that he made them feel special. He had a great ability to have a connection with everyone he met – he had a wonderful wit and sense of humour and has left gaping hole in all our lives.
He sounds like a wonderful man. Loss often makes us appreciate moments more, makes us more aware of the present day.
I agree totally – I’m reading Prophet Song by Paul Lynch at the moment, and one line really rang true with me: ‘happiness is in the humdrum.’ It really struck a chord with me. We are all guilty of not living in the moment and worrying about the next thing coming up. I’ve become a lot better at that in recent years.
Coming from a family of 14 siblings, how was that growing up?
It was mental really! The house was always a bit crazy. We had two families, in that the older half of the family had moved on when the younger set arrived. So, it worked out very well. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of money for toys or new clothes!
We’re sure your mam had her hands full! Did you take a lot from her when it came to being a mam yourself?
I honestly asked my mother every day when I had toddlers – how on earth did you do this? I still ask myself that regularly. My mother was amazing. She was especially wonderful when anyone was sick – you were centre of attention, and she was such a wonderful nurse. My kids tell me I’m a great nurse too. I’d really like to think I inherited her patience. I think as mothers today we are our own worst judges and are always worrying that we’re not doing the job right. My mother just got on with things, she didn’t second guess herself. She really didn’t have much of a choice!
You were a single parent to Sean for a number of years before meeting Larry… how did you find that time?
I’ve always loved being a mother to Sean, he was such a gorgeous baby and an easy toddler. However, nobody tells you how lonely and overwhelming it can be when you become a mother for the first time. You have all these ideal images in your head during pregnancy about how you’ll spend your day with your gorgeous baby, and it doesn’t work out like that every day.
Having a big family of your own, did you lean on them?
I moved back home from London when Sean was eighteen months, and I would’ve been lost without my sisters. They really helped me through those early years. They adored Sean – and as all their kids were older, he had all these amazing cousins too who absolutely loved him. We were so lucky.
Becoming a mam for the second time, you went through two rounds of IVF before having Larry Jnr. How was that journey for you?
IVF is notoriously expensive. It’s stressful, exhausting and heartbreaking for many when it doesn’t work out. It’s a very tough journey and add to that, the concerns about meeting the cost or having to take out a loan to cover the expense makes a tough journey even harder.
The new legislation surrounding IVF entitles people to one free round, giving some support for couples trying to have children. What are your thoughts on it?
The legislation is very welcome and will open doors for so many people!
Were you worried about doing it all again, 13 years later, starting fresh or did the life experience help?
While I was so happy and relieved to be pregnant with Larry, I did worry about doing it all again, yeah. The sleepless nights, the lack of freedom. Sean was 13 so I was just getting my freedom back. Of course, there were times when I asked myself ‘What were you thinking?’ But we thank God for Larry every day. He’s keeping us young in mind, heart and body.
How was Sean when Larry Jnr was born? Despite their age gap, are the boys very close? What’s the relationship like?
Sean was 13 and very excited to be a big brother. He has always loved babies and was a great help. Obviously, as a teenager a little brother can be a pain in the neck too, so there was a lot of eye-rolling. They’re 24 and almost 11 now and get on great. They both support Man Utd and have a huge interest in sport. They just enjoy having the craic together!
We’re sure they keep you on your toes! And sure, you’re based in Wicklow, so there’s lots of lovely mountain walks, sea swims and golf to be had! When it comes to spending family together, what do you like to do?
I’ve lived in quite a few places in my time – and nothing really compares to Wicklow. When Larry and I first got together, he missed Galway a lot. It’s such a happening city. However, once he became a father he fell in love with Wicklow. We are so lucky to have fabulous beaches, mountains, forests on our doorstep. He is also obsessed with golf, and we have a fabulous course here in Wicklow. The two Larrys spend many hours up there and absolutely love it! Larry misses Boston a lot though and loves going back, however I think with family ties here, he’s very happy to call Wicklow his home.
Finally Eileen, you’ve a big birthday next year, as does Larry! Is there a party planned, and can we come for the shindig?!
Yes, we both have big birthdays next year. I’m certainly planning to do something great every month to celebrate the event if I can.
Then we are planning a big joint midsummer party (halfway between both birthdays) as these events must be celebrated. Your invitation will definitely be in the post! [laughs]