Giggling Galway broadcaster with a sharp edge

SARAH MCINERNEY’s steady rise from Sunday newspapers to RTÉ’s top tier of broadcasters stems from her work ethic and upbringing in Galway, not just luck, she tells Maxim Kelly.

There are three Sarah McInerneys: the gregarious Drivetime radio presenter with a hearty laugh, the tough TV interviewer regularly skewering politicians, and – surprisingly – the shy, Galway-accented woman who considers herself a country girl at heart.

“I’m actually a bit of an introvert. Like, I can be extroverted when necessary. But my favourite thing is to be on my own, in a quiet room, with a book; leave me alone everybody!”

McInerney is speaking to the Advertiser on her rushed lunch break at a staff canteen in RTÉ’s HQ. The “only canteen left” between the separate radio and television headquarters, stresses McInerney, where there is a chastened atmosphere amongst staff in the wake of the The Toy Show Musical debacle currently wending its way through various Oireachtas committees.

Tall and slim, dressed casually in jeans and a chunky, woollen, off-the-shoulder jumper, curly-haired McInerney is a strikingly beautiful west of Ireland woman, famed for the block-colour jumpsuits she regularly sports on RTÉ’s flagship Primetime.

Curly-haired nerd

“As a [young] teenager, I would have been a total nerd: no interest in make-up or clothes, and an absolutely awful hairstyle – well actually it was not dissimilar to what I have now! I didn’t go to discos; didn’t really talk to boys. I was really very sheltered, and a bit innocent.”

Immediately, however, McInerney pivots from light-hearted chat about hairstyles, to the challenge of interviewing an Israeli Defence Forces officer during the cataclysmic bombardment of Gaza. Galway has produced a journalist at the peak of her profession, clearly capable of operating at multiple levels simultaneously.

Sarah (42 ), is the middle child of primary school teachers Dan McInerney from Co Clare, and Martha Stagg from Co Mayo. Her elder sister Ruth is a teacher based in Galway, while younger brother Tim is a history lecturer in Paris.

So is Sarah 'the black sheep’ in a family of educators? “Tim makes a podcast on current affairs, The Irish Passport, with journalist Naomi O’Leary, so it must be in him too,” she chuckles.

McInerney’s parents both taught in Mervue. They lived in Renmore where Sarah attended Scoil Chaithríona until eight years old. The McInerneys then crossed the Corrib, and Sarah enrolled in Barna National School overlooking Galway Bay, where she developed a life-long love for the sea.

With husband Thomas, and sons Caelan (9 ) and Ben (5 ), she recently moved to Howth in north Dublin where they “finally” found a house for sale with a sea view. It’s a 40 minute commute to work in RTÉ.

For secondary school, McInerney attended all-girls Salerno in Salthill. “I loved it,” is her simple account, and her school pals are still some of her best friends.

It was in Salerno where the shy Sarah “always stuck in a book”, began to tap into her extrovert side, and it was the public speaking club ran by her Geography and English teacher – now Salerno’s principal, Marie Flannery – where McInerney found outward confidence in herself.

“We went to the national finals in Trinity College in Second Year, and were devastated to lose,” she recalls.

McInerney, a veteran interviewer, is coy about her latter teenage years in Galway. She says she outgrew her shyness thanks to public speaking, and enjoyed socialising with friends in Salthill’s bars and nightclub scene, rather than “going into Town” to Galway city.

Aged 18, the avid reader who often spent Saturdays in Galway City Library as a young girl, moved to Dublin to study Journalism in DCU, under the misapprehension that it would involve lots of literature.

Inky reporter

After graduating, she worked in print for 15 years, as a reporter for the Sunday Tribune – “best job ever” - and political reporter for the Sunday Times with a Leinster House beat. Next was national radio; moving to Newstalk, winning News Broadcaster of the Year, then television with stints on BBC and TV3. She currently co-hosts RTÉ Radio One’s 'Drivetime' with Cormac Ó hEadhra, and co-presents 'Primetime' on RTÉ 1 with Miriam O’Callaghan and Fran McNulty.

McInerney can be conversationally ferocious, feared by government and opposition TD alike. Her interviewing style is swiftly diametric, in that she can switch from sympathetic to confrontational in an instant. There is warmth too, and her laughter is infectious amongst guests on live radio.

Although her mother hails from the well-known Stagg political family in Hollymount – Sarah’s uncle Emmet was a Labour TD and minister, and late uncle Frank a PIRA hunger striker – McInerney says her home in Barna was not an overtly political household.

“I wasn’t really interested in politics at all until I began working in journalism, then I got really interested in it,” she says. “When that realisation hits that actually everything is political, it becomes very difficult to ignore.”

McInerney is keen to stress her impartiality: “From how I approach my job it’s quite clear that I’m not going to give any favouritism to Labour, or to Sinn Féin, or to any other political party,” she asserts, and the hint of steel she wields on TV glints through the normally sunny Galway girl whose laughter bubbles through every second sentence. One wonders if coming from the west of Ireland, outside south Dublin’s old school tie nexus of media and politics, gives her useful, outsider perspective too?

Making her own luck

McInerney first landed a temporary top slot with RTÉ Radio in 2020, when fellow Galwegian Seán O'Rourke stood down after attending the controversial Oireachtas Golf Society dinner held in a Clifden hotel during Covid restrictions. Some detractors insinuated she got the job by luck.

“I worked really hard to get to where I am, and work really, really hard every day to stay where I am, but I also got lucky with vacancies opening up for me at the right times. You have to be ready for a bit of luck when it comes around, and that’s where the hard work pays off,” she responds. A quick archive search of radio reviews once McInerney hit the airwaves certainly backs up her assertion, with praise such as ‘forensic’, ‘relentless’ and ‘fierce’ bandied by critics.

McInerney may not have been political in her youth, but she remembers her “shock” when Co Mayo’s Mary Robinson was elected president. Already smarting from not being allowed to be an altar server in Barna Church – then boys only – McInerney learned Ireland had never had a female president or taoiseach before: “These are formative little moments in life when the world teaches you there’s a difference being a boy or a girl. That injustice has really influenced my approach to life and my work.”

With a national platform now, is she trying to influence change? McInerney, a self-described feminist, pauses before rushing back to work: “I don't know. But maybe as a mother of two boys, I might.”

 

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