Eileen Whelan is an Irish journalist, newsreader, and presenter with RTÉ Ireland’s national radio and television station, where she has presented the One O’Clock News and Six One News as well as all other news bulletins on both radio and television.
Where did you grow up and go to school and college?
My family moved around quite a bit while growing up. My Dad worked on farms, so that took us all over the country. I was born in Limerick and left there when I was two. We were fortunate enough to live on the grounds of Howth Castle in Dublin for several years. The castle grounds were our playground, so that was an amazing place to grow up! We moved to Wicklow when I was 12 and I still live in the town today. I feel incredibly lucky to live close to the sea as I love swimming and walking, and we have some fabulous beaches on our doorstep and some great walks too. I studied singing for several years and really wanted to pursue a career as a singer. I spent two summers working with the Bunratty Singers in County Clare. I suppose I fell into journalism and broadcasting when I got a part-time job as a newsreader in a local pirate station in Wicklow called WLCB (there were no independent radio stations back then). The broadcasting bug bit and I was hooked. I spent several years in pirate radio, I also worked at Q102 in Dublin before eventually getting into RTE after applying several times. I started off freelancing, doing the overnight sub-editing shifts on Radio 1 and reading news on 2FM. It was a great learning curve and a fantastic place to hone my writing and broadcasting skills. I also worked at RTE Cork 89FM, RTE’S local radio station in Cork.
When did you know you wanted to be a journalist and newsreader?
From the first day I sat at a microphone I knew I had found my future career. I loved the buzz when the red light went on and I especially loved the immediacy that comes with radio. Mine was on-the-job training and I learned so much about broadcasting and journalism by just doing the job every day. It’s the best way to learn!
In your early years as a newsreader did you get nervous before you went on air and how did you deal with those nerves?
I was absolutely terrified for the first few months! We had to prepare everything ourselves, so that often involved running to the studio with a script that you hadn’t even read properly. it was very much a last-minute thing. When I started working in RTE I really felt nervous all over again. Suddenly, the whole nation was listening, and I was very aware of that. I got very used to talking myself down out of nervous situations, literally taking deep breaths and telling myself “You can do this.” It still works today!
It must be very difficult when you have to report or present bad or upsetting news. How do you deal with this, conscious that you are appearing in people’s living rooms all around the country?
Yes, it can be extremely challenging, and I regularly fight back tears. I find it exceedingly difficult to report on stories about children suffering in any way. It’s all part of being a parent! Watching pictures of human suffering especially now as the war in Ukraine continues is particularly hard.
As a Newsreader, you had to work right throughout Covid 19. Again, this must have been so challenging and stressful, as you were acutely aware that the nightly Covid 19 numbers that were released equated to people’s lives and health.
Yes, I worked right through the pandemic and the early days were especially hard as the story was so unpredictable. It is almost surreal looking back now, that the entire world was consumed by this one story. Our audience figures were through the roof so there was an added layer of responsibility every night.
Is it difficult to be always having to be immaculately dressed and looking your best on front of the camera?
Unfortunately, how we look is often the first thing many people notice when we come on the TV. People very often only comment on what I am wearing, or my hair or glasses! However, we are extremely fortunate to have a fantastic make-up and wardrobe department to keep us looking our best. It is a big plus in my job to be able to have my hair and make-up done every day and plenty of advice on what to wear on screen.
Tell me about your experience of working in London in 1997.
I was lucky enough to be awarded a journalism fellowship at McAlaster College in St Paul Minnesota in 1996. When that was complete, I decided to take a sabbatical and work in London. I freelanced at several places including Sky News and ITN before getting a job at BBC World and News 24. I spent a wonderful 4 years in London. It was an invaluable experience working as a journalist in another country. I was there for some very high-profile stories and managed to report for RTE on several occasions too.
Do you ever find it had to switch and relax after presenting?
Not really, I’m good at switching off. However, having spent the day in the newsroom I usually like to watch anything other than news programmes when I get home. Right now, I am loving “Bad Sisters” with Sharon Horgan and Eve Hewson on Apple TV. It is dark but funny and the perfect switch off!
Have you ever had any interest in working behind the camera be it in radio or television and producing programmes?
No, I love being front and centre!
What advice would you give young journalists starting out?
Try to get some on-the-job training, it is invaluable. Go to your community radio station and offer to work free of charge or contact your local free newspaper and offer to write some freelance articles. Nowadays, there is so much scope to write your own blog or record videos on social media, the world is your oyster!
In 2014 you sang ‘You don’t have to say you love me’ on the Late Late Show ‘Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes’ in support of the LauraLynn Foundation? Have you always loved singing?
Yes, I was delighted to raise money for such a deserving charity. I really enjoyed appearing on the Late Late Show, it was a fabulous night. However, I have had much better performances in my day and I cringe now when I talk about it – so enough said!