By Amy Wall and Michelle Newman
It’s a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Dublin when we sit down for a cup of coffee with Una O’Hagan. Snow is forecast and we’re reminiscing about the ‘big freeze’ of 2010 that brought the country to a standstill.
“I’ve been traumatised by 2010. I never want to go back to that snow,” Una says.
And of course, you can’t talk about the big freeze without mentioning that infamous RTE clip of the unidentified man slipping on the ice (if you’ve yet to see it, you can find it plastered all over YouTube). Una is sympathetic to the poor guy.
“It’s the worst fall I’ve ever seen! It’s shocking and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you’ve like, ‘Oh!’. It’s absolutely horrendous and he never owned up,” she says.
Slipping aside, we’ve met to discuss Una’s latest news. After 34 years in RTE, the legendary broadcaster has announced that she’s decided to leave the station. Una tells us that the decision was a long time coming.
“I was kind of thinking, you know, I’m getting to that age where I’m 55 now. I’ve got another five years if I work until I’m 60 and I kind of thought, I’ve got another five years where I can do the same thing or I can do something different,” she explains.
“I’ve been in RTE for 34 years which is a very long time and I thoroughly enjoyed it but maybe now is the time to leave and do something that’s nothing to do with what I’ve done and challenge myself. I decided just before Christmas, ‘I’m ready for this,’ and I haven’t had any qualms about it, [any] second thoughts. I haven’t had those nightmares when you wake up and go, ‘Oh my God have I done the right thing?’. So I’m pretty sure I’ve done the right thing.
After 34 years of bringing Ireland the biggest news stories of the day, the prospect of doing something different must be exciting for Una…
“Exactly and I mean I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to be doing. I haven’t plotted it out to the last detail or anything but I’m looking forward to a new horizon. We’re going to give ourselves the time,” says Una.
“I’m working with my husband on a book and that should be out in September and then we’re going to take sort of an extended break this summer. These are the broad outlines. Then come September maybe I will start going one way or the other because I’ve a few things that I’m interested in and maybe [might] start to look at in six months or so and make up my mind, which is a very indulgent thing to do, but I think after 34 years I’ve kind of earned it!”
Una, who has already published one book with husband Colm Keane, says that teaming up with her other half “works amazingly well” even if she’s not exactly sure why.
“Neither of us are the most laid back people, but we’ve gotten used to each other’s style and it’s always a good idea to find your moments. You don’t criticise at the very beginning, you wait until the end… but so far we haven’t fallen out over this at all.”
With details of the book under strict wraps until September, talk turns back to Una’s incredible career. ‘Prolific’ is the only word that comes to mind and Una smiles as she tells us that her first day of work in RTE fell on Christmas Eve 1983. Over the years she wore many hats including radio newsreader, features television reporter, news reporter, tribunal reporter and, of course, newscaster.
“It’s been great fun. It’s really interesting, you know yourself, this journalism thing is a great job. It’s great to be paid for it. Maybe we shouldn’t tell too many people,” she laughs.
We ask Una if her departure from RTE spells the end of her journalism career and she admits that she doesn’t know.
“I mean I’d certainly never rule it out but I’m going to step back from it for a while. But what’d I’d be interested in doing, journalism wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing I would think of, but I might try some of the other interests that I have. But no, never say never.”
With her newfound freedom, we ask Una if she’s going to find it hard to get used to a new routine.
“I think it could be quite a change, quite a shock to the system. The only thing is over the last couple of years I’ve been doing career breaks so I’ve done those where I take maybe a month or two off at a time so I know I can get away, switch off, to get into a new routine,” she says.
One thing Una definitely won’t miss is her early morning alarm…
“My 5.35am alarm. I could show you it, it’s still there,” she says, pointing to her phone.
“It’s not until the 26th of February that I will be able to finally turn it off. I am more a morning person but the weird shifts that we had… We’ll be working a few days very early and then we’ll be working until late at night the rest of the time and that really does take a toll… It is very difficult and people don’t realise how stressful those early morning starts can be.”
With 34 years of covering the biggest news stories under her belt, Una has a lot of favourite memories – her meeting with Nelson Mandela stands out as being “very emotional.” Another favourite came when Mary Robinson was elected as President.
“With the distance of many years we tend to forget that this was a ground-breaking thing. I remember being in the count, I was going live on the air, and it became clear that she had won. And it was a very nasty campaign for her, really, really tough and the word came out from the tally that she was going to do it. And looking around at the faces of all the men, the tally men, the party officials, the politicians from all the big parties – they were really shocked,” says Una.
“And she [Mary Robinson] actually changed, in a way, the role of the President to what it’s become now. She didn’t make any big constitutional changes because she couldn’t but the whole reign that the President operates now is down to her and I was lucky enough to travel through Australia and Singapore with her. I was really lucky.”
With a bright future on the horizon, we ask Una if she feels a sense of freedom when she thinks about what’s to come.
“Absolutely… I can feel my shoulders, the tension is going out of them bit by bit as the days approach to leaving RTE,” she says.
And our final question – after 34 years as one of the most recognisable faces in Irish media, will Una find her last broadcast hard?
“Do you know what? I think I will. I think it will. But it’s a nice pool that’s on at the weekends. We work the same [schedules] so I will just go in and I will hear the: ‘Five, four, three, two, one, cue…’ And say, ‘Good evening and welcome, the headlines…’”