Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Áine Lawlor

This blog began as a college assignment, whilst I was studying to be a primary school teacher. It was never supposed to amount to anything other than be a fictitious link between my prospective class and their parents.

Several years later, it is somewhat unfathomable that it has provided me with several opportunities to converse with and meet such an array of talented and incredible people. As inane as it might sound, sometimes it feels a little surreal.

One such ‘surreal’ moment occurred earlier this month; it involved me drinking tea with RTÉ broadcaster, Áine Lawlor. ‘Morning Ireland’ was the soundtrack to my college commute for almost five years and hearing news bulletin at 9am was my measure as to whether or not I was late for lectures.

Áine is the presenter of RTÉ One’s ‘The Week in Politics’ and the co-presenter of RTÉ Radio One’s ‘News at One’ but more than that, she is one of the most warm and generous people you could meet. Conversations with Áine challenge your biases and alter your perspective – even when you’re discussing gardening!


How would you describe yourself both professionally and personally?

I’m a woman, I’m a journalist, I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a sister, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend and I’m lucky. They are all challenging but I get to enjoy them all and I revel in each experience and role.

What first drew you to the profession of journalism?

It kind of happened by accident. I was President of the Students Union when I was in college which probably meant that I was a blabbermouth and a bit of a student activist. When I left college in the mid-eighties, my Mum was sick so I didn’t emigrate like most of my friends. I kind of ended up in RTÉ’s newsroom and I’m just lucky that it suited me.

Since those humble beginnings, has your perception of the industry changed?

Newsrooms have changed; we were looking around just last week and remarking on that fact. I remember typewriters and faxes and the noise of the newsroom with all of those machines constantly whirring. Now, obviously the news is consumed on different platforms and online news is 24/7. The dynamic has changed, the technology has changed but the job itself really hasn’t. From a news perspective, it’s about telling people what’s going on as quickly and as accurately as possible. It requires testing arguments that are put forward with fair questions.

A few minutes ago, you mentioned your role in Trinity’s Students Union, did your time in that role shape how you presented and reported on news items in relation to students?

It was my one ever campaign and it did teach me one thing – it’s easy to campaign and it’s so hard to deliver in office – for all kinds of reasons. It’s always such a challenge to affect change and I think that was a useful lesson to learn. I also learned a lot from when I was active in the NUJ (National Union of Journalists), particularly during the strike and the negotiations down at the Labour Relations Commission. It taught me a lot about seeing things from different points of view and to never become so committed to your own position that you don’t see the vulnerabilities in your own arguments. I also learned a great deal about dispute resolution but being a mother has taught me a lot too, as did coping with serious illness and disability – you bring all of those experiences to the table to add to the depth of your work.

From my brief experience in broadcasting, I understand the news desk to be slightly manic with a very diverse and workload and an environment where decisions have to be made instantaneously. How do you view a particular news item from the wide range of perspectives which fairness demands when time is always scarce?

That’s a discipline that you train yourself in and I suppose that’s why I come out to the garden after work. When you are working in news you have to give it 110%; your brain is firing on all levels, you are watching and responding to news inputs, you are having conversations with correspondents, you are going in and out of the Dáil. You are constantly adding to the store of your knowledge. You don’t work in isolation on any one topic but consistently building on what you already know. However, we are so lucky and it is great fun – it’s a privilege to be able to observe great moments become moments in history.

The most significant one I suppose would be the Good Friday Agreement and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to speak with John Hume on that morning and for him to start talking about Good Friday and for that phrase to then resonate down through the years. Or even the recent death of Ian Paisley, I remember all kinds of moments with him and to be able to reflect the ways in which things have changed in the North. It’s a huge privilege and to still be there – it’s wonderful!

As you mentioned there, you have been the narrator for some of the most memorable and historic news items on radio, but you have also made television documentaries that have moved the nation. Do you have a preference for one medium over the other?

No but there is a different kind of grammar for each. Television has a greater number of layers involved and there are more people working within production and it’s not quite as impromptu as radio is – which is the great flexibility of radio. Though with radio today, you’re on a webcam and it is now a medium with tangible pictures. I think that all of those divisions between one kind of media and another are increasingly breaking down.

Do you think eradicating those archaic boundaries is for the better?

Like all kinds of change, there are advantages and disadvantages. There is a huge opportunity in the way that media is opening up; it becomes more democratic but the financing of the new media and ensuring accuracy and fairness when it is so ever-present and when there is such a multiplicity of voices – that’s a greater challenge than it ever was under the old hierarchical structure.

In particular, with social media…

Yes, exactly. Twitter is a great news feed and a useful but we need to be aware of the ethical, business and plain employment issues that arise with this new media but also, this is the kind of industry where you need to embrace the future.

Your interview technique is one which is both celebrated and feared in many media and political circles…

Ha! I wish it was that effective with my kids!

…Is it something that was almost innate for you or is it a craft that you have honed and refined throughout your career?

You learn over the years and every so often, I try and almost prune my questioning technique; we all slip into bad habits. I try to ask the right question, in the right place, keeping it comprehensible and succinct, not showing off your homework – just getting on with asking the question – and you must always be fair.

I was at the inaugural Women on Air conference earlier this year and one of the moments which continues to resonate with me was when Ursula Halligan outlined what she believed were some of the boundaries for impeding a greater number of women from working on air. She listed them as childcare and the role of image in the media and the importance in which the industry and sometimes the importance women themselves place on their image and personal aesthetic. Do you think that boundaries exist for women in the media industry?

It has always seemed to me that if you really put your mind to it, you can really achieve a lot of what you want – maybe not everything, but an awful lot. It is tough and in any one life, we probably can’t have it all but can have an awful lot if you are willing to work very hard. I work with a huge number of women – that’s certainly one way in which the newsroom has changed over the years – I think it is about determination and resilience and it’s not just women that can find themselves disadvantaged and I think we need to be alert to the many kinds of disadvantage that keep certain stereotypes alive on air.

It’s not just gender but can extend to ethnic minorities, socio-economic background, disability, sexual orientation, etc.


But back to you, Áine! Earlier this month, you were inducted into the PPI Radio Awards’ Hall of Fame but what emotions or words meandered across your mind / body when you discovered that you would be in receipt of this award?

I was completely surprised and it was totally unexpected – I know that people always say that all of the time but it really was gobsmacking! I think it hit me when I saw Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s picture on the wall and to be on any list that Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh is a part of, because he is one of my heroes in broadcasting, is incredible. I remember mornings on Morning Ireland when Mícheál would walk into the room sometimes to do an interview and you really felt that ‘somebody’ has arrived – he has that presence about him and is such a legend in broadcasting. I don’t think that I am a legend yet, personally but I would hope to be – one day!

I bet your children tell you that you’re a legend all of the time!

Ha! I’m not so sure.

What are the qualities of a broadcasting legend?

Mícheál is just Mícheál and he has done his work with grace and humility. I remember when I started out; a producer said to me that it is never about you, it’s about the story. I think Mícheál was always about the story and I think in an era where there is much more focus on personalities in media, what I like is to work in a way that focuses on the story – you serve the story and thus, you serve the listener / viewer.

I know earlier we spoke about moments such as the Good Friday Agreement and Ian Paisley but you presented the inaugural Sunday Morning Ireland programme which has been defined as a ‘historic moment’ by various print media.

Oh that’s right – that was the pig meat crisis, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was but if you could depict a story which impacted upon you most, what would it be?

Barrack Obama’s election – any election, actually! Elections are addictive if you are in this line of work.

I remember Miriam O’Callaghan tweeting in the midst of the Scottish Referendum that she was incredibly jealous of the UK’s journalist who were taking part, commenting and critiquing on such an historic occasion.

Those moments are always special! I was watching Peter Taylor’s documentary on The Trouble’s the other night and he was able to bring his forty years’ experience to the programme. He was replaying interviews that he had done with people back in the dark days and repeating them to those people in present day. It was a fascinating insight into a story but for all of the fun of elections, there is no story that matches seeing people being blown apart or seeing people die / wounded in dreadful circumstances and the suffering which they have to go through. The North was the story that in a way mattered most and the road to that peace was so exciting. Of all the stories, that’s the one that I am always conscious of particularly those families where the pain of all of that still goes on and you have to value those stories above any other.

My final question for you, you have had an incredible career that I could wax lyrical about for a significant period of time, but what remains on your ‘bucket-list’ for the next decade within both a professional and a personal capacity?

I want to go on doing what I am doing for as long as possible. I just love asking questions, I love talking to people, I love politics, I love the closeness that you have with the people who listen and watch, I love that way it makes you feel part of the community so just more, please!

Thank you very much to both Áine and Laura for their assistance with this interview. I would wholly recommend that you follow Áine on Twitter.

Interview originally published Oct 14, 2014

Sinead Burke