Several years ago, I spoke to Louise Duffy on the phone. At the time, she was pregnant with her first daughter, Esmé, now three. After we had sorted the work matter that was the reason for our call, we got to talking about careers more generally.
uffy knew I had left a staff job to go freelance after having my daughter. “How’s that going?” I remember her asking. It’s a conversation I find myself having regularly with other women; sometimes I’m on the other side, asking them how it’s going. By which we all mean, how are you managing it? Can you do both? Find the time so that it feels manageable, and not crushingly hectic? That’s what Duffy, then a broadcaster with Today FM, was asking me that day.
Media is a fairly all-consuming career, in no way a ‘clock off at five’ lifestyle. Even before she’d had her daughter, Duffy knew she wanted some kind of flexibility. Or something that would allow her a decent amount of time with her child.
Several months after we talked, she had her baby. Several months after that, she returned to work, presenting an evening weekday show on Today FM, where she had worked for a number years — first on the morning show, then afternoon, and now this latest slot. She was a calm, chilled-out presence on air; funny, relaxed, and with a passion for music.
Then in the summer of 2019, it was announced that the station was ending Duffy’s show and, with it, her employment.
“It was a funny time,” Duffy says now. “It was no shock to me. When you’re in radio, it becomes very personal to you. It’s hard to kind of say where you stop, and the radio show begins. Because you’re trained [to be aware] that everything is fodder for your show. So, anything you see in that day, you can make that content. Because it’s hard to make 10 hours of content every week, it just becomes you.
“When my time in Today FM ended, I had already learned to detach from that, because there had been movements throughout my career; changes that I perhaps didn’t want to happen, that I had to come to terms with. I guess I had toughened up. And I had a plan B ready, because I wanted to have a very solid career that wasn’t dependent on my Instagram likes, you know?”
When did that toughening up begin? Was there a moment when something just clicked?
“There was one move that happened, and I was upset about that, and it hurt. Paul was amazing during that time,” she says, referring to her husband, former Kerry footballer and fashion designer, Paul Galvin. “He was just so supportive about it, and he said, ‘This is only just a part of it. It’s only a chapter, and you have got to keep going’.”
We need to reinvent ourselves, she says, pointing out that very few people now stay in the same job for 40 years. “Those disappointments toughened me up. And they also taught me that I am not a radio show. It’s part of what I do but it’s not who I am.”
As our conversation during her pregnancy had suggested, Duffy herself had already begun to feel her days hosting the show might be numbered. “I got pregnant, had a baby, went on maternity leave, came back and did the show. But I don’t think I fitted the show any more. And I don’t think the show fitted my life any more. I had this beautiful little girl at home, and sometimes I would give her to Paul as he was coming home from his day job. We’d meet in town and maybe have a coffee or whatever and pass her over. It didn’t fit, really. I was missing out on some very important times with her.”
Her life at that moment also didn’t fit with what was required of the presenter of a music show, she reflects. “In that I wasn’t the girl who was going to a music festival for three days in a row. I wasn’t available as much as I [had been]. The square peg didn’t fit the round hole, or whatever.
“For the human psyche, if you don’t feel that there’s a pathway for you, or a ladder for you to climb, no room for progression — if you feel that that’s not going to happen, it starts to feel actually unhealthy. And for me, I knew there was nowhere else to go there. So, it wasn’t the healthiest place for me to be.”
What had once been the dream job, in reality, no longer was — although, as is often the case, she needed help acknowledging that. “I think it would have been a while before I walked away from it. When they made that decision, they made that very easy for me.”
Her only regret is that she didn’t get to say goodbye to her listeners. “You’ve people that come with you all the way along, and I’d have loved to have had more time to say goodbye to them, but otherwise, no, it was absolutely fine; as I said, I had a plan B.”
Plan B was, in the immediate term, the consultation work she had been doing with The Communications Clinic, the PR and media training agency set up by Terry Prone. “Essentially my job there is helping people to improve themselves, and their communication. That was something I was doing all the while, and continued to do. After six months, I went in there three days a week, and I’ve been doing that since.”
She also hosted the Brown Thomas Podcast, interviewing designers, and began podcasting with The Communications Clinic. She and Paul had another daughter, Elin, now seven months old. “So you kind of have a worry, oh, what am I going to do? But, it worked out, and it got busier than ever.”
Now, Duffy has a new show — TV instead of radio this time. Currently airing on RTÉ, The Ballycotton Sessions features the likes of The Academic, Damien Dempsey, Wallis Bird, Saint Sister, and The Coronas. “I have a true love of Irish music, I always have. It is set in this really beautiful location — it’s called Sea Church, right on the seafront in Ballycotton.”
The eight-part series is focused on the two things she loves most in her work — music and interviewing others about their stories. After their performance, Duffy chats to each artist. “I had an eight-week-old baby, so I was raring to talk to somebody who wasn’t going to throw up on me,” she laughs of when the series was filmed last year.
“I was so happy to be there, and chat to them as well. It was really special because those artists hadn’t been able to do anything for so long. For all of them, it was the first gig back.”
You get the sense she is much more comfortable with the focus of attention on someone else, that ‘the limelight’ is not a part of her job she needs or relishes.
“In radio, I was always trained to make it the Louise Duffy show. ‘You won’t believe what happened today when I was walking to work.’ When you’re interviewing someone, you’re actually not important then. Your job is just to bring that magic out of them.
“I’ve learned a lot in my craft in the last couple of years. And a lot of that is through The Communications Clinic, and podcasting with Brown Thomas, and learning that I’m not important any more.”
Her younger daughter is seven months now, and while on the one hand, she is dreading leaving her for longer periods of time, ending her maternity leave, she is also ready to ramp things up workwise.
I know it can be frowned upon to ask women in interviews about managing motherhood and career. I get that it is problematic because men who are fathers are rarely asked this question. However, simply not asking women is not the answer. This merely ignores all that women are managing, silencing it into non-existence. It also ignores the preferences and interests of many women; that conversation I had with Duffy about how to manage both, without feeling like you are shoehorning motherhood into the ends of days and overcrammed weekends, is one I have on an ongoing basis with most of my friends who work and have children. It is of major interest to them. How do you do it? Are there ways it could be easier? Should we not talk about them?
“I don’t find it problematic,” Duffy says of being asked about motherhood and career. “My children are the biggest part of my life, the most important part of my life. For me, I have no problem ever being asked about that because that’s a reality of my life, and it impacts what I can do, and where I can go. Motherhood is so intrinsic. And it impacts your career.”
If the pandemic had one, very slim, silver lining, she says, it is that it brought some reality into our professional lives. “A kid popping up on a Zoom; you’ll try and maintain professionalism, but we were all working from home, we all became a little bit more understanding, and forgiving and accepting. More generous to one and other. I hope that remains.”
The notion that motherhood and professionalism are in some way mutually exclusive is laughable, after all. “It’s funny, when a kid comes along, then your career for a while has to take a back step. But they also give you that incentive to work harder. I for sure work harder now than I ever did pre kids. In every aspect of your life, you’ve to work harder. But they give you that drive too.”
We talk about how she finds being a working mother, both of us trying to avoid phrases like ‘balance’, or ‘making it work’. “I’ve never achieved either,” Duffy laughs. “Balance, my arse! It is mental, and it is absolute chaos and joy. I adore my two little women, they’re just fab. It’s really busy. The domesticity is sometimes overwhelming, I find.”
She posts regularly on her Instagram about what a wonderful father Galvin is to their two girls. Watching that unfold has been a joy, she says. “He’s amazing, I have to say.”
The pair first bonded over their shared love of clothes. ‘Is your jacket Balmain?’ her now husband asked her. “In his Kerry brogue, which was funny. We are two family people — we value our time together.”
They had at one time contemplated a move to Mayo, where Duffy grew up and her family still live, but their life is in Dublin now. Duffy is close to her family; she grew up in Crossmolina in Mayo, with three brothers, two older and one younger. Her parents were business people, working together.
Both her mother and her grandmother were, like Duffy, always into fashion. “That was always encouraged in a down-to-earth way. You’d have your ‘good’ dress,” she pauses, smiling. “It was just always something that I was interested in, and then just worked to fund that lifestyle for myself, always having part-time jobs from the age of 13.”
During lockdown, she embarked on a professional project with her father and brother, setting up a filling station on a site the family had long owned. The project is indicative of the open mindset Duffy maintains around her career. “There are too many little things, you do feel a bit ridiculous sometimes,” she laughs bashfully.
After studying broadcasting originally, she then moved on to law, but never practised. “I don’t think you can do that any more — pick one thing. You can have your dreams and your aspirations, but you might be brought down another path along the way of achieving those. I think it’s really important to be open. In terms of my career, it’s kind of Jack of all trades and master of none. While it might sound a little haphazard, it’s lovely to have variety.”
There is stress with what is sometimes referred to as a portfolio career. “The stress comes in when you feel like you can’t say no to something. When you feel like, I’m freelance, so I should do it all. Because there’ll be busy months and there’ll be quiet months. I think to have a constant is quite important for me.
“I think about the future a lot now, particularly since I have two daughters. We’ve talked about children taking the forefront for a little while, but now, for me, I’m very focused on it, and when I go back to work, I want to start working steadily towards something, and really put plans in place.”
She claims to not be a good organiser, a planner, but as her plan B unfolds beautifully, Louise Duffy strikes me as someone who knows exactly what she is about.
The Ballycotton Sessions airs on Thursdays at 11pm on RTÉ2 and is available to view on demand on the RTÉ Player
Photography by Evan Doherty; make-up by Jennifer Doyle, hair by Graham Santeliz Molloy, both at Brown Sugar, Ranelagh tel: (01) 485-1988, brownsugar.ie. All clothing from Brown Thomas, brownthomas.com.