Igrew up in Castleknock, next door to the Phoenix Park, and most young friends of mine at school would have all had parents from the country at that time. [Today], a lot of people commute from places like Kildare and Cavan (where my parents are from) but that wouldn’t have happened back in the day.
Growing up, it wouldn’t have been unusual to travel and visit your granny on the farm at the weekends. I’d go a step further and spend a lot of my summer and Christmas holidays on the farm with my grandmother and my uncle; they were small farmers in Ballyjamesduff. So I became acclimatised to rural life from a very young age.
While I’d spent a lot of time on the farm, it didn’t necessarily mean I knew a lot about farming. So I had a lot of learning to do when I started working in local radio at Shannonside Northern Sound, though my main focus there was on sport. I was - and still am - a sports fanatic. I applied to Shannonside Northern Sound in the hope that I’d get my foot in the door, get the experience and get into RTÉ as soon as possible to become Ireland’s greatest-ever sports broadcaster!
My two brothers and my sister are younger than me, and they’re mad Dubs. I grew up supporting Cavan because I had such an interest in football from a young age and my dad was a Cavan supporter. They were the matches he went to, and I went with him, so I grew up knowing no different. And then I lived down there for so long; I, maybe, appointed myself a naturalised Cavan person. I’m complicated in that regard – I’m from Dublin, but with a strong Cavan connection.
Of course, I love Castleknock and I’m still here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Dublin. I’m moving to Brussels for three quarters of my time, but my base will always be here in Castleknock.
Becoming an agri-journalist
When I started reading farm news bulletins on local radio, little did I realise that this was the career path I was going to end up on. When I got into RTÉ, in 1998, I got in by the virtue that I had done the farming news on local radio and there was a vacancy in RTE’s agricultural department. Again, my idea was: I’ll get in here, get my feet under the table and then maybe knock on the sports editor’s door. I ended up reading the daily farm news bulletin and, after a couple of years, I was given the opportunity to present a couple of RTÉ’s agricultural programmes. I was also given the scope to play around with sound and editing, which I’ve always enjoyed.
At the turn of the Millennium, the radio landscape completely changed and we had to become more competitive. I honed in on my love of sound and started presenting what, up to that, would have been pretty technical agricultural news stories. I tried to present them in a way that would connect the general listenership with agricultural stories. Up to then, agriculture programmes were presented for the agricultural audience. I thought, ‘Let’s not alienate all of our listeners by only talking about CAP reforms and the like – let’s bring everyone in.’
That’s how Countrywide emerged, because I kept knocking on my bosses’ doors, saying ‘Can we move the agri-programme into a more listener friendly slot?’ And they said, ‘You can - if you create a new name that doesn’t have farm or agri in it.’
That’s what we did in 2009, and our small team have spent the last 13 years continuing to build that brand up from almost nothing. And it has been a success, because Countrywide is now the 12th most listened-to programme in the country, as we speak, with a record listenership – and they’re not all farmers! Yet, we’re all talking, at the core, about food, farming, and environmental and rural affairs.
Of course, we would cover the big issues and interview the politicians, but what I enjoyed most about Countrywide was getting in the car, driving to a farm and walking around with the farmer; listening to them chat about life.
We all know how important it is to be cognisant of the threat of climate change and the role each one of us can play to meet our obligations. Obviously, reporting on agriculture, climate change has been front and foremost - more than a lot of other areas and sectors - and it’s brought me in contact with the big issues, which include producing more food in an environmentally sustainable manner while underpinning farmer incomes, and continuing to allow rural areas to flourish.
Farmers know what is being asked of them; all they probably need is some direction on how they get from a-z. We made it our business to focus on what is happening on farms, and I don’t think there’s a radio programme anywhere in the country that has focused on the issue of agri-emissions more than Countrywide. We not only focus on the problems, but on the solutions. We have these binding targets to meet and farmers want to play their part, but the sector is only as strong as their weakest link. It’s a very emotive issue for all of us to try and digest.
The new role
So much of what happens in Irish food and farming begins in Brussels, in terms of policy. It’s the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s membership in the European Economic Community (EEC), and the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) has been there since then, as well. I’ll be overseeing policy developments and relaying that information back to the ICOS members in Ireland, which includes the very smallest of local co-ops to the ones we’re more familiar with.
The co-op movement has a long and proud tradition in Ireland, started by Horace Plunkett, and I think it has an amazing future ahead. There are going to be great opportunities for rural communities to adapt the cooperative ethos and develop it even further.”