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From working for auntie to caring for auntie

Helen O’Rahilly told David Hennessy how conversations between her and her auntie while they were both coccooning has led to a book, why she decided to return home after three decades in the UK and how the horrors of 7/7 have left a lasting mark on her.

After thirty years as a TV producer with the BBC, Helen O’Rahilly decided to move back to Dublin but never saw the pandemic coming. Offering her own house to two Irish medics who had returned from Australia to help in the crisis, Helen moved in with her 90-year-old auntie.

When Helen started tweeting her auntie’s best lines, she built up a following on the social networking site. People all over the world were finding solace in the funny exchanges between Helen and her auntie when times were dark. Now the tweets are to become a book, The Stairlift Ascends.

Helen told The Irish World: “When I came back to live in Dublin I was with my aunt and becoming Irish again after being in the UK for 30 years. And then Covid hit. Here we were, a 90-year-old and me in my early fifties living together in my Ma’s old house. Covid hits us and I thought, ‘Wow, none of us planned for this’.

“Instead of hiding under the duvet, I’m a prolific Twitter user so my aunt was coming out with some classics. I said to her, ‘Can I put these down?’ She said as long as you don’t use my name and no photograph. I said, ‘That’s fine, I’ll just call you the aunt’.

“The next thing this hashtag took off and I was getting messages from America and Australia. Over the summer it built up into this group of people saying, ‘Have you nothing to post about your aunt today?’ And I wouldn’t because I would wait for her. Something would strike me and I would say, ‘That’s going in a tweet’.

“That’s the way it started. It was just irregular tweets about this funny, feisty 90-year-old and myself trying to cope with her.”

The title comes from the time of day her aunt would retire but still be issuing instructions. With no one else to rely on, Helen and her aunt helped each other get through the entirety of the first Irish lockdown.

“We both had our own space. Luckily I took over one part of the house and had my computer there. I would do all the cooking and we would have dinner together. Then she would go in to watch the television and I would bring her her medicinal Jameson at night.

“The whole thing is called The Stairlift Ascends because usually it was when she was on her way to bed she would give me instructions for the next day. The pithiest, funniest lines would come out 9.30/10pm every night as she’s sitting on the stairlift and she says, ‘Don’t forget about those bins. I want them all jet washed by tomorrow’. And I’m saying, ‘It’s ten o’clock at night’.

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“You get the instructions or you get the summary of the day, ‘That was another terrible day’.

“We managed. We survived. Her very down to earth style punctured my media-type personality. I used to be very direct and she just cut me to the quick. I had a fair few ear bashings from her, you know?

“It’s kind of like partially going back to being a teenager again but we’ve kept each other going. The dynamic, whatever developed during lockdown: It’s kept both of us going.”

So how does her aunt feel to now be the subject of a book? “She told me that she’ll have to go into hiding but as I pointed out to her, ‘You’ve been in hiding so it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to have the paparazzi at your door’.

“If I make any money on this book she’s going on a blow out in Arnotts.”

Helen is quick to point out the book is not making light of Covid in any way, shape or form.

“I know people who have lost people. I know the sadness of not being able to see them in their last hours. This is by no means a thing to make jokes about. I would never, ever do that. I know friends who have had it and who are having a dreadful time with long Covid. This is just a little light in the dark about how two people of different generations kept each other going.”

This is not the first time Helen has collated family conversations. A previous idea of hers brought her solace following the passing of her mother.

“A few years ago when my mum was still alive and I was in London and she was in Dublin I did a sequence of messages on Facebook to my close friends called, ‘Ma and Me’. I would write out conversations that Mam and I had had on the phone some of them just surreal, bizarre, funny.

“Sadly my Ma died last year but I used to look back on them and I was so delighted that I kept them because I can hear her in them when I read them back.”

In her long career with the BBC, Helen was Director of Digital Television for the BBC, Channels Executive for BBCi and a deputy Controller of BBC One. She explains why she felt it was time to leave London.

“I left for a few reasons really. Brexit was one of the final straws for me. I felt the tone, the atmosphere in London was changing.

“I had done everything I wanted to do. I loved living in London. I loved my friends, my neighbours, my colleagues at the BBC but a lot of my London-Irish friends had moved back here. My Irish connections in London were diminishing and at a time my mum was getting very ill I thought, ‘It’s time to go back’.

“I knew Dublin had changed a lot.”

Helen was RTE’s first female director of television and has spoken about the station being ‘anti-gay’.
Ireland was one of the first country’s to bring in marriage equality in 2015 and says Ireland has changed very much for the better from the country she left.

“Certainly since I left it’s a different country. You see that in all the various referendums and in the general tone of conversations, the general tone of acceptance that you get. I really am very glad to be back here in a much more welcoming country.

“I mean homophobia is not gone from society. There are pockets of it all over in every institution still. We can only make incremental changes and change the views of people we come into contact with.

“I’m sure people in direct provision don’t feel that general tone of acceptance. Our own Lord Mayor Hazel Chu has horrific abuse on Twitter. Anybody who is seen as ‘other’ is treated to abuse from a small group of sadly dysfunctional alt-right people who are very loud. That exists here. We can see it manifesting in the states and in Britain, this ultra-nationalism and horror of others. We have to learn to deal with it and support those who feel that they’re still being treated as less than equal.”

Helen has been vocal in her criticisms of RTE and the Late Late Show in the past, branding it ‘utter sh*te’ one occasion but is keen to give credit where it is due now.

“RTE has always had a very tough financial position. We were €50 million down on licensing- The evasion is huge- and they have limited funds to cope and produce quality programmes that compare to the BBC and I think they do a pretty good job.

“They keep their end up but Covid has cost them a fortune. I know the director general Dee Forbes has to make pleas for more money, more funding every six months and I feel for her.

“It’s a very tough job. I think RTE have covered the Covid problem brilliantly actually. They generated a very good series of early evening programmes to explain the changing situation to people.

“Their radio has been superb, particularly Liveline with Joe Duffy. I think they’ve coped more than adequately with this dystopian year.

“I think the Late Late has coped admirably with the lack of an audience and still getting big stars on zoom. I also think the tone of Ryan Tubridy’s intros and conversations on the Late Late have been superb as well. I give full marks to them.

“I’ve been well known for my criticisms of RTE but this time I think they’ve actually done very well.”
Helen goes on to say that her previous comments were not directed at host Ryan Tubridy but calling for the whole programme to show more ambition.

“It was never about Ryan. I think Ryan was always very good. He’s a very intelligent, well briefed and interested person. I think it was just about the nature of his guests. It seemed to be sometimes, as we said, ‘Guests from the RTE canteen’: RTE people talking about RTE programmes. I just didn’t like the tone of some of the programmes.

“They’re up against Graham Norton with triple A list celebrity stars but some of the Late Lates during this period have matched anything.”

Her long career as an investigative journalist saw Helen in some dangerous situations like the time she came face-to-face with the mafia in Las Vegas.

“I was a producer-director for various programmes for the BBC including Watchdog and in Las Vegas there was a mafia-backed company that had set up an arm in Britain. We were sent over there. We interviewed the FBI in Las Vegas beforehand and the FBI man took me aside and said, ‘Ma’am, you do know you’re dealing with organised crime?’ So when we turned up at the gate, we were met with a gun and a warning to eff off and leave. That was quite scary.”

In the course of her duty she would also have a rottweiler set on her and be smacked in the face with a chain.

“The presence of a camera makes people very angry especially if they’ve got something to hide so they will lash out. These things were par for the course.”

Asked if anxiousness has crept in at any stage over the last few months, Helen is reminded of a horrible day in London in 2005.

“I’ve been anxious in so many situations where there’s been real fear of injury or death. For example on the horrible day of 7 July 2005 I was driving to the BBC and I heard the tube bomb at Edgware go off underneath me. By the time I got in to Television Centre the stories were coming in that there was a multiple terror attack.

“And that night I was in TV Centre until 11 o’clock because obviously it was such a busy news day. My car was parked across the road. The security guard wouldn’t let me out. He said, ‘You can’t go across the road. There’s a possible bomb’. So I literally had to go up and sleep on the sofa in the controller’s office in the BBC and I spent the night there. It was such a weird, terrifying night.

“That was fear and I think once you’ve been through that you can cope with anything else.

“Yes, it’s worrying but I never let it get into my head. I wanted to just keep my aunt safe and me safe and if it meant us sticking in our house for six, eight, ten weeks we would do it.”

Did she ever encounter anti-Irish feeling due to the IRA bombing campaign? “Not really. I was in BBC Birmingham when I first started and I used to see signs in little corner shops saying, ‘No Bank of Ireland, no AIB’. And I innocently thought that they had a problem with the banks’ coding or something like that until I realised it was a hangover from the Birmingham bombings. That was the only physical manifestation of anti-Irish that I encountered.

“I filmed up and down Britain and you occasionally got comments, ‘Could they not get a British person?’ It just washed over me. It didn’t bother me. I never had any anti-Irish whatsoever when I was with the BBC.

“Another aunt of mine was in a government job in London and in the 70s she had to deal with terrible anti-Irish sentiment when the bombs went off.”

The Stairlift Ascends – Tweets from a Covid Cocoon by Helen O’Rahilly can be preordered from O’Brien Press.

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