'Always learning something new'

In the course of a long, varied, career Bibi Baskin has been a schoolteacher, a journalist, a ratings-topping broadcaster, a hotelier, and motivational speaker, and her life’s journey has taken her from her native Ardara, in Donegal, to Kerala, in India. On Sunday November 17, she will be coming to Galway, along with writer Gerard Beirne, to present Suaimhneas, ‘a day of words and wellness’ at the Maldron Hotel in which Bibi will share the wisdom and insights she has accrued through her eventful and remarkable life.

These days Bibi lives in Cork and, ahead of her Galway visit, she spoke with me about her life and times and outlined what participants can expect from the day of Suaimhneas. Given that her career has seen her leave secure jobs several times for new adventures I began by asking if there was anything in her family background that gave her that daring or restlessness. “The singular transformative event of my childhood that did contribute to a later life of hopping around the world and changing careers was that one day when I was six years old my beloved father took me out for a walk after school in Ardara,” she begins. “It was a November day, about four o’clock, and by six o’clock Daddy was dead of a heart attack. What that taught me is that nothing lasts forever. I think if you carry that principle with you through life you react less strongly when something disappears out of your life that you valued, but it also sets you the example that if you are not happy with something then change it. That is the main motivational talk that I give nowadays and I will be giving it at the Suaimhneas workshop –I go through my various careers and countries and tell people how you can do that as well for yourself, you don’t have to wait to be pushed.”

Bibi traces how she moved from teaching into broadcasting where she became a household name in the 1980s; “I always loved learning and I still do to this day, it is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I found that teaching was repetitive; each year you were teaching the same text just to different faces and pupils. I knew early on that was not going to sustain me and I saw journalism as a way of always learning something new. So I went into print journalism, as a freelancer initially, but then I got a job as editor of a new Irish language paper called Anois. When it started I was interviewed quite a bit on radio and television and I thought then ‘I like this broadcasting business, maybe I will have a go.’ So I wrote a letter to RTE asking might they have a job for a female voice in radio and luckily they were actually looking for a female voice to do What it Says in the Papers on Radio 1 so that’s where I started.”

From radio Bibi soon progressed to hosting TV chat shows. She calculates that she has presented more than 1,000 live TV shows and interviewed some 6,000 people. Does any particular interview stand out in her memory? “The one I remember most is José Carreras,” she replies. “The reason it sticks out is that the researchers had given me questions for him like ‘what’s your favourite opera?’ but I decided not to do it that way and instead I asked him ‘what is your favourite pop music’ which led to a chat about The Beatles. I knew he would have been a great friend of Pavarotti so I next asked him what they chatted about and he went into a story about football. I will always remember the way it ended; I said ‘you were in the wings of La Scala and the audience are applauding and you were about to walk out what do you think about?’ and he said ‘my late mother’ which was beautiful.”

Outside of her broadcasting career Bibi developed a keen interest in the Indian healing system of Ayurveda which she still maintains. “Ayurveda is a fully fledged medical system in India,” she says. “I discovered it about 30 years ago and what I loved about it from the beginning is that it is holistic so it combines mind and body treatment, whereas here in the West if you have a mental issue you go to a different kind of doctor than if you have something physically wrong. In Ayurveda, which is 5,000 years old, they combine both. I was particularly interested in the psychology; it divides all of us into three mind/body types so it is quite easy to get to know it, and if you study the three types you understand yourself and others better and it will help you to grow more tolerant.”

Her interest in Ayurveda healing led Bibi to visit India in 2001 where she found an old colonial property in Kerala which she renovated and opened as a heritage hotel. “One of the great experiences India taught me is to slow down,” she says, reflecting on her time there. “Nothing happens on time in India and you learn that there is no point in pulling your hair out in frustration so you end up slowing down as well and becoming a lot more patient. I was 15 years in total there. I got totally immersed, I learned some of the language, I wore local dress simply because it suited the 30 degree Celsius of a tropical climate. I hired only Indian staff and I made new friends who were Indian.”

And how has she found Ireland having returned to live here in the last few years? “Well I missed the whole Celtic Tiger thing, both its rise and fall,” she observes. “When I came back I firstly noticed all the building that had gone on in the Tiger days and I was not impressed by that, but I think the quintessential core of Irishness is still there, I still find Irish people to be hearty and generous. One area however where I have noticed that heart seems to be gone is when you are driving and pull over to let someone pass. You used always get a wave or a smile, but now it always seems to be just a big sour face. Another thing I have noticed is people in their fifties who own their own businesses are still working themselves to death, mentally, physically, or both. People seem to think that working hard is somehow heroic but from my study of wellness I have learned you also need to do nothing at times. We might think if you do nothing you are a lazy lump, but that is not true, you need time for the mind to process all it has gone through in the day, for the body to relax. I am a great believer in creating a sense of calm, and you cannot do that unless you still the mind so I would like to see Irish people taking things a bit easier and perhaps my talks in a small way can contribute to that.”

That brings us back to Suaimhneas, where Bibi is joined by award-winning author Gerard Beirne. Bibi gives a taste of what participants can expect from the day: “Gerard is a writer as well as being editor of The Irish Literary Times and he will be looking at the healing power of words. There will be a gentle group discussion with all of us around this with a view to helping the group to express themselves. This is not a course for professional writers; it is just for people who would just like to be able to express themselves a bit better. The whole purpose of the combination of Gerard and myself is to increase self awareness with the aim of reducing stress and anxiety in your life. It is an unusual combination. It is for anyone who wants a day away from the helter skelter of life, a day of tranquillity and an opportunity to get a better insight into your life, and to improve your powers of expression.”

Suaimhneas, a Tranquil Day of Words and Wellness is at the Maldron Hotel, on Sandy Road, on Sunday November 17, from 10 am to 5pm. Tickets for the day are €85 which includes light lunch and refreshments. For more information and bookings contact 083-8561559.

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