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Caitríona Perry: ‘We’re leaving the country on a one-way ticket... but we will be back’

As the RTÉ news anchor departs the station and Ireland to be chief presenter for BBC News in Washington, she reflects on ambition, loss and destiny

In May 2014, while reporting on Michael D Higgins’s five-day tour of the United States, Caitríona Perry decided to drive rather than fly from Chicago to Bloomington in Indiana, where the Irish President would make a sentimental return to Indiana University, where he had studied 47 years earlier. She always tried to be thrifty with the RTÉ budget over her four years as Washington correspondent. So, she rented “a big pickup truck”, she says, laughing now at the memory. “Myself and the camera person just driving along. Flatlands everywhere.” Bloomington is 350km south, in the heart of the heart of the country.

“And we could see this hurricane on the horizon. It was like being in the middle of a movie. Like, you can see the twisters up over there, miles and miles away, not anywhere near you. And then you think: yeah, maybe we should have flown. But when you’re not just going from airport to airport; when you actually drive through the countryside and can observe the sort of stuff that’s going on when you just stop for petrol, or gas, as they call it, or have a sandwich in the local diner, it’s then that you get, by osmosis, a sense of the place, you know?”

She summons this detail in the RTÉ canteen, reputedly a hotbed of in-house gossip and intrigue, but quieter now than the Dáil in August; you scan the room for a sighting of Patrick Kielty, but nothing. Perry’s announcement that she is to leave RTÉ, where she has worked for 16 years, for a leading role in BBC’s rapidly expanding news channel in Washington, coincides with a turbulent time for the national broadcaster. As she explained to Ryan Tubridy, when she found herself sitting on the Late Late sofa to talk about the move, the opportunity to join the BBC was “amazing”.

US broadcast news has never been more histrionic or politically entrenched as the nation’s democratic values are stretched taut. The British standard bearer is hoping to assume the role of trustworthy neutral, resistant to the tug and pull of the US’s political and ideological wars. Perry will work as chief presenter for the BBC News channel in Washington. The dream of returning to work in the fascinating realm of US politics and culture was, she admits, intoxicating and irresistible. She saw the advertisement, applied and, to her professed surprise, continued to leap the interview hurdles until she was offered the post. This week, she worked her final news shift with RTÉ. With her husband and their daughter, almost four, and a nine-month-old baby boy, she will return to Washington in July.


Right now, her feelings are in flux as she speaks about a pivotal moment in her working life. If her career falls into identifiable category, it would be under fearless ambition. Growing up in 1990s Knocklyon, Perry had a gut instinct that journalism was for her.

“Before I knew what that job even was, I wanted to be a writer, telling stories. You know, I wrote a couple of books when I was in school – I use that term very loosely. I think they are still in my parents’ attic, actually, I must dig them out.”

So if she places herself back in fifth year, say in Sancta Maria College, the all-girls school just a few minutes’ walk from her home, her friends and former teachers might have guessed at this trajectory; from radio reporter with distinctive voice to fledgling RTÉ reporter to foreign correspondent to Six-One news anchor to this further ascension – a return to Washington under the lights of the most fabled initials in broadcasting: the BBC. Is this what they would have expected?

“Mmh... probably,” she laughs.

“Yeah, you know, I was always this very driven person as well, and ambitious. So... probably.”

It’s a seldom remarked-upon fact that for a nation which happily peppers its everyday conversation with all sorts of salty phrases and swearing, the Irish are coy about using the A-bomb, particularly in relation to themselves.

“Yeah, ambition is kind of a bad word, isn’t it?” she nods.

“But I don’t think it should be. And maybe that’s from having lived in America for those four years. We are bad at owning our strong points or owning our talents or owning our achievements. We kind of like to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s nothing.’ ‘Don’t ask me about that.’ And, you know, humility is a good thing as well. Nobody likes a boastful person. But you can, you absolutely can be humble and ambitious. And there is nothing wrong with having goals and having dreams. You know, I do lots of talks to kids in schools and colleges and young women starting out in their career. That’s one point that I always stress, like: don’t sit around waiting for somebody to come and give you your dream job. That is not going to happen. You have to go out and get it. And you have to sell yourself. No one else is going to sell you. You know, you have to tell people what you’re interested in, what you like doing, what you’re good at. And go after what you want.”

That was her mantra from the day she left Dublin City University. She parlayed a work experience stint at Newstalk into a full-time job. “The station was just going on air at the time. Five people to one computer, and it was very exciting.” After two years, she moved to Today FM as a courts reporter and became deputy head of news. Upon joining RTÉ, she was on the bottom rung. “Back to: who are you again?” she laughs. “What’s your name?”

She was on the entertainment desk at the start. “Reading stories about Britney Spears at midnight on a Friday night and thinking this is not for me. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” she clarifies. “There are lots of people who love entertainment journalism. It wasn’t where my goals lay, let’s say.”

It might be worth pausing here. RTÉ, as an institution, is a strange and unwieldy beast. It has a threshing-machine quality which, if one is not careful, can transform a journalist into a television personality. News presenters straddle a fine line in that they are well-known names and faces who, by nature of the job, are habitués of Irish livingrooms.

During the pandemic, Perry received many letters from viewers, living in isolation, glad of her company. But as a rule, the news presenting cohort tends to keep their personalities guarded. It was a role that suited Perry. In the rock pool that is Irish celebrity, it would be easy to become part of that squad. But she has maintained a reserve. Her husband has exercised a right to keep his identity out of the public domain. Nor are their children’s names out there.

Of course, 16 years ago, in RTÉ, nobody knew or cared who she was. The task for Perry then, as she saw it, was to become noticed for what she could bring to the newsroom. She has a happy knack for being deadly serious about her career while lightly poking fun at the methodology her younger self employed to make things happen.

“You know that saying, dress for the job you want, not the job you have? So, I came in to work in a suit every day; suits were the fashion then. Into the office! Every day!”

If eyebrows were raised, so be it. She carried a hefty contacts book from her radio days. And her desk was near the News at One desk and near the Morning Ireland team. If she ever heard mention of a contact that she had, she quickly volunteered. “Oh, I can help you guys, I’ve a number for that person.” By the by, she was made a Morning Ireland reporter and served as relief editor for News at One.

After that, she moved front of camera. Her coverage of the harrowing Jill Meagher murder case in Australia was her first foreign assignment. While there she contributed to the Lions rugby coverage and put together a package on the Irish in Australia. That experience gave her substance as a potential foreign correspondent. In RTÉ, the Washington post is recycled every four years.

And hands up: she adored it. The 2am alarm calls for Morning Ireland; the overnight flights for cheaper fares, the gruelling road trips, the waiting, the bad coffees and the endless hustle for interviews was exactly what she wanted. She is personable and used the “Irish calling-card” to get to know people of Irish heritage working on Capitol Hill. Famously, she was beckoned by Donald Trump during a media briefing in the Oval Office when he was speaking with Leo Varadkar. That night, Perry went to a baseball game and turned off her phone. When she switched it on, she was greeted with endless interview requests. She had become a story and could have featured on networks across the world. Smartly, she declined them all and stuck with being a reporter.

Shortly before her time in Washington ended, C-Span, the public affairs network, carried an hour-long interview with her in which she talks about her time covering the US. By then, the relatively sanguine close of Barack Obama’s second term had been supplanted by the berserk menace of Trump’s ascendancy to the White House. Everything she had sensed about the US was suddenly in graffiti across the sky.

[Keelin] was always researching the latest treatments and developments and we’d spend time plotting and planning how she could get access to them

“I felt anyway when I lived there, from moving there initially, that it was a very racially divided country anyway. There is nothing new about that. It has been brought out into the open more – and not just racial inequalities but all kinds of intolerances.”

The C-Span interview took place the day before she and her husband left to return to Ireland.

“The movers were in my house packing. And I said I have to go. And I ran to the C-Span building on Capitol Hill. Did the interview and then ran back home. Oh, you’ve got the diningroom done.”

The lure of returning to co-host the main evening news – the pinnacle in RTÉ – with Keelin Shanley was tempting. But there is a sense, listening to her speak of that time, that she just wasn’t ready to come home. Shortly after returning to Dublin, she participated in a public event in the IFI on the subject of Irish people who had lived in the US. Afterwards, she was struck by the number of people who came up to her with a similar warning.

“Be careful, now, it’s gonna take you two years to settle back in and then it’s like, you know, there were all these returned emigrants. And I was saying, ah no, it will be fine, it will be fine. But it does actually, it does take you a while to settle back.

“It was a tough adjustment. And because you’re particularly the Washington correspondent, there’s so much news going on, you’re working all hours of the day and night with the time difference and all of that, and particularly that period, like coming out of that election campaign, Trump and Clinton and his first year in office, and all of that was just so frantic. It was tough. I found that tough.”

Perry and Shanley first anchored the six o’clock news together in January 2018. The news cycle was defined by the furnace in US politics, then the pandemic, then Ukraine. Perry twice became a mother. And the time was also made unforgettable by the cancer diagnosis through which Shanley continued to work. Her death, aged just 51, in February 2020, fell on the same day as the Irish general election. In the years since, Perry has remained in touch with the Shanley family and thinks of her friend as a kind of guiding force.

“I think of Keelin very often. I have a little phrase ... ‘WWKD’ – What Would Keelin Do? She was always an excellent judge of situations – personal or professional. We were such good pals and had the best time together on the Six-One. We were fused together on the Six-One at a time of what you might call big life events ... she with her diagnosis that her cancer had returned, and me with becoming a mother and settling back to life in Ireland ... and we became very close very quickly. We always knew that we had each other’s backs. David McCullagh and I have the same understanding.”

Through an extraordinary combination of determination, grace and the confidences of those close to her, Shanley continued to work while keeping her illness private.

“And then, later, she didn’t want too many people knowing just how sick she was,” Perry remembers.

“She wanted her work life and her time in RTÉ to be the ‘normal’ part of her day for as long as it could be. So, I helped keep her secret. If she was going for treatment in the morning and would be a bit sick coming into work, I’d do the heavy lifting to ease her workload as best as I could. And have a coffee and a treat ready. Or a big box of grapes. Whatever she fancied that day. I just did whatever I could to make her time easier.

I have a curiosity in me about the world and about doing things. If I see anyone in any walk of life who [is] successful, you think about what it takes to get to that point

“She was always researching the latest treatments and developments and we’d spend time plotting and planning how she could get access to them, how she could get on clinical trials. She was determined to exhaust every possible chance she could get, to manage the cancer and prolong her life however she could, and I was happy to help her with that mission.

“She was a tremendous colleague, so talented and so fun and always interested in finding out the latest bit of gossip. And she was such a skilful journalist and broadcaster. She had a natural lightness in her delivery while also being well able to grill interviewees when required ... which is really the sweet spot for a TV news journalist.”

All of this – her early days, Shanley and this dramatic return to Washington – is swirling around as Perry finishes a paper cup of coffee. It’s a Friday in May; sunny and sleepy in Montrose, an industrial lawnmower making the rounds outside the Lyric FM studio. She is on Six One duty later. But it’s not her day for sourcing the live studio interview so it’s not as manic as it might be. She has a sense of what awaits later this summer when she joins the BBC. But these few weeks are an opportunity to take a breath. She is, in the true sense, leaving. Still, she doesn’t regard this as an Irish family emigrating.

“I don’t see it like that. I mean, technically, we’re leaving the country on a one-way ticket, but it’s not… it’s not where I go to find fame and fortune and see where the world takes me, if you know what I mean. Like, it’s for a defined job, which is open-ended. I mean, we definitely have a view to come back. We are planning a few American wakes, for sure. But we will be back.”

All four grandparents are alive and well and are naturally conflicted; delighted at the appointment and dreading seeing the family off at the airport gates. It’s one of the oldest Irish stories. She will miss family terribly. She will miss her friends and colleagues at RTÉ. She still has a gang of close friends from Sancta Maria; they’ve a WhatsApp group called Home Girls.

“They are very proud, I think. We all remember each other when we were spotty teenagers with braces and bad make-up and clothes. In many ways with friends you are frozen in that point of time when you met them, even though everyone has grown up and got married and had children and that. You still remember those growing-up stresses and how you got each other through it.”

For the next while, they can tune into the BBC News channel to keep in touch with her. In a way, Caitríona Perry has taken the harder road. In RTÉ, she had made it to the top of the tree. Now, she’s moving to the continent where television is king and kingmaker and the “news cycle” is vast and daunting and impervious to sleep. She gets to prove herself all over again. And it makes you return to the why of it; of what it is that makes her want to keep moving, reinventing, going, seeing what happens next.

I come from a very ordinary background, nothing fancy, no lawyers or doctors in the family

I don’t know,” she admits before trying to answer that question.

“I have a curiosity in me about the world and about doing things. If I see anyone in any walk of life who [is] successful, you think about what it takes to get to that point. It was Olivia O’Leary and Veronica Guerin growing up. But not just [in] journalism per se.

“I come from a very ordinary background, nothing fancy, no lawyers or doctors in the family. But my parents did instil in me and my sisters a very strong work ethic. I don’t know. Thanks for asking!

“It’s like, life is short. It’s for living, you know? We can all moan... my friends will tell you that I’m prone to do a lot of moaning myself. But I also have the philosophy that if you are going to moan about something, fix it. No one else is going to fix things for you. You are responsible for your own destiny. And if you can, you should try.”