Terry Prone: ‘I never do parties, dinners. I’ve always been reclusive and shy’

The communications guru, writer and broadcaster’s memoir is full of contradictions, just like the woman herself

The many contradictions of Terry Prone intrigue, and they tell her story. Hers is an always interesting story. Good job too; boredom is the worst thing in the world, she confides in a dramatic whisper.

That observation goes to the heart of a woman who’s spent her life working hard to be an interesting commentator, and training others to be their most interesting selves. Avoiding boredom was the drive, too, in editing her memoir, chopping the initial script in half. Her early acting experience had been useful as Gay Byrne Hour scriptwriter, “because I knew how to write the spoken word. Most people don’t. They write big long sentences, use abstruse language that’s conceptual. Whereas I just knew how to write for Gay. All of that comes together to create a picture memory of particular scenes.

“Editing the book, on Jonathan’s [Williams, her agent] instructions, it struck me that it was almost storyboarded. It went from scene to scene.” This was “wanting to get rid of the boring bits, the bits in between the big scenes”.

But back to the contradictions; maybe they’re ironies.

Contradiction one. Television has been central in the life of Terry Prone, communications expert, writer, broadcaster, for 60 years, since the smart, entertaining, opinionated 13-year-old girl burst on to RTÉ’s Teen Talk and became a Late Late Show panellist, not to mention training generations of public figures for TV appearances. But, get this: she doesn’t watch TV. “Never did.”

With all the Late Late Show talk, what did she make of Paddy Kielty’s debut? “I didn’t watch it.” They hadn’t a TV at home as her parents disapproved. She has one now but rarely watches. “I have never seen a complete Late Late Show. If you’re my client and I prep you for it, I watch your bit. Otherwise, no. Never.” She recalls a quote, “there’s a lot to be said for people but books are better, or something like that. And for me, books are always better because it’s all concentrated. I mean, we’ve made television programmes. But watching television...” She sounds despairing.

If this is reminiscent of Noel Coward’s line that “television is for appearing on, not for looking at”, her imperiousness is warm.

I’m here because of her memoir, Caution to the Wind. The here is her home, Portrane’s Martello tower, north Co Dublin, on a wild windy Saturday. She’s invited me to lunch, but first, there’s a tour of her Martello. Finished in 1806, it’s one of 78 (20-odd extant) stubby, cramped coastal towers built by the British admiralty when they were expecting Napoleon to invade. He never did: they cost gazillions and were never used for defence. Now, “Ireland is a disgrace with its Martellos, because they are rotting.”

Prone and her late husband, Tom Savage, bought the tower in 2006, and restored it. The conservation officer initially terrified her, but later was very pleased with the work, she says. “She said something to the effect that people who buy Martello towers are nuts, but they’re usually nuts on the side of the Martello.” Their son Anton (also a broadcaster and a director of the Communications Clinic his parents founded) no longer lived with his parents by this stage but “he had quite an obsession with Martellos. He would be very much into military history. He was the most marvellous consultant, because he was fierce about protecting the authenticity of it.”

The tower has two floors, the top one now a circular gallery, both levels lined with thousands of books, alphabetically by author’s name, in categories belying her wide interests. Television, poetry and plays. Business. Paperback fiction, hardback fiction. Upstairs, the second World War, the Holocaust, biographies, autobiographies and memoirs, a section on America. “I’m always reading eight books at a time,” she tells me later. “A hundred pages of one, 100 pages of another.”

There’s a stove and comfy chairs, and a reinforced glass floor displays the subterranean cistern they discovered. This stone tower had various “break-out” additions, which now form a large bathroom, office, dressingroom, her small bedroom, tiny shower-room, sunroom for sitting and dining, and the large kitchen with a U-shaped island, where we are now.

Prone opens her home for public tours from April to October. Present today are a couple of people who’ve booked the tour online, her sparky, no-nonsense sister Hilary Kenny (a major player in her memoir) dropping in some books she’s passing on, a Communications Clinic colleague Aileen Gaskin, and Bryan Greene, gardener, builder and now tour guide too. “He’s just my rescuer. I could ring him in the middle of the night and say, ‘Bryan the lift is broken. I can’t get off it.’ He’s like a kind of semi-brother to Anton.” Tom Savage, her beloved husband, former priest, former RTÉ chair, who died in 2017 aged 76, is somehow here too: in pictures, in her references, in their life projects.

Which brings us to contradiction two. Terry Prone is formidable. She’s been professionally analysing people’s presentation of themselves for decades, noticing and dissecting every detail. She is widely read, accomplished, clear-thinking, smart, very well connected, experienced in life and trauma. Terry Prone of all people doesn’t need minding, but she’s asked her colleague Gaskin to stay for lunch and the interview.

At only one stage, when she’s talking about Catholicism, she looks over at Gaskin in mock frustration. “Jesus, I shouldn’t be answering any of these questions, should I? You should be a Clipboard Nancy telling me to stop!” We all laugh. Maybe there’s a tension. Funny thing is, she’s chatty and open, and there’s little she demurs from answering. Some of her answers go around the houses with stories, examples, colourful interludes; but they don’t appear to be an attempt to divert.

After decades training politicians of all hues, you might expect some juicy gossip in her memoir. “We were the first media trainers in the country, political or otherwise,” she says. Well over halfway through the book, you realise she’s still a teenager. She doesn’t get into the politicos, on the advice of agent and lifelong friend Williams; “all the political stuff” needed to be taken out. She didn’t like it but agreed it would have overwhelmed. “I’d be asked all the time about particular politicians. And anyway, that’s volume two.”

Her memoir covers childhood, teenage years, early career in the Abbey and RTÉ, journalism and training, being “the only woman in the room”, falling in love, having Anton, a horrific car crash. It ends with the heartbreak of Savage’s death.

A large part is a startling elucidation of how the combination of her parents, sister, her own personality, all went to create, by age 13, this ready-made opinionated controversialist. As a teen she had the self-possession to give value as a TV guest. Even now “I would never go on a radio programme without having prepared. I know I need to be able to offer something. People who go on radio prepared to do pub talk astonish me. You’ve been given a chance to reach thousands of people. It’s not good enough to just spout off the top of your head. I have to make sure I have something that somebody else will pick up on and find interesting, fresh or a different angle. It’s your job. It’s your duty.”

As a communications consultant it “really drives me insane” when people say she teaches people how to be sincere and that “once you can fake that you can fake everything. I have spent 60 years trying to help people tell the truth in a way that is interesting, understandable and memorable. Because the truth changes people’s lives. It changes people’s possibilities.”

It seems her mother, Moira Prone, was the original communications consultant. “She would have been saying okay, what are you going to say if they touch on such and such,” forcing teenage Terry to tease out original angles.

It was a childhood filled with books, writing, drawing – and obsessive competition entries, encouraged by her impressive, idiosyncratic mother. “My mother was such a feminist, such a believer that everything was in your own control and that you just have to work for it. But she was not a dragon mother. Hilary kind of believed for a long time that our mother had secret access to our subconscious, and also to our IQ. Hilary would complain she was gonna get brain fever from all the homework she had. My mother would just look at her and Hilary would slink away. Hilary became the first computer programmer in the Irish Civil Service.”

Her mother didn’t argue when Prone wanted to quit piano (“I was shockingly bad”) or drawing, or skip her UCD exams to play in The Shaughraun with the Abbey in the West End, or indeed quit college altogether when her acting and broadcast careers were blossoming. “She wanted us to achieve all we could, but it needed to be what we wanted to achieve.

“My mother always stressed: earn your own money.” Prone still has her mother’s household accounts, which her mother presented to her father. “It left her with a sense that women should not be in that position, no matter how loving, no matter how generous. Earn your own money.

“My sister was enormously important.” One story is emblematic of Prone’s formation. Visiting their grandparents on Dublin’s South Circular Road, her grandfather in his shed, the girls outside, Hilary spoke to him and he backed out of the shed. “I’m watching, and thinking, he reacts differently to Hilary. And realising, I talk about me to him, and he’s nice to me. But Hilary talks about him to him.” His different reactions to them was an awakening. “Hilary does everything naturally. And I had to learn to do many of those things.”

She says she’s messy. “Yes, completely.” Most of us would recoil at the thought of strangers traipsing through every room of our home. Yet every weekend she leads tours of her Martello, from rooftop to bedroom to terraced garden. A seeming contradiction, it takes a particular kind of private-public persona to manage that.

Religion definitely raises contradictions. Her childhood home was religious. Her father was what was known as a “spoiled priest”. Then she worked for the Catholic Communications Centre for years, where she fell in love with Fr Tom Savage; the reactions and fallout from family and colleagues were dramatic.

I was shocked by the sexual... the awful damage done to children by priests, the awful damage done by the church on behalf of Ireland in relation to institutionalising children

“I have always been fascinated by the church as a communicator. The designation of rank, by colour or type of clothing. They understood the semiotics. That a local parish priest could stand with a pointer in front of one of the great cathedrals and explain to the illiterate and innumerate the story of this particular panel in a rose window. They understood the primacy of story. The Gospels are just such fantastic communications, taking complex concepts and making them not only understandable but visualisable. And to be involved with the church at that time [the 1970s].

“It wasn’t because of the religion, there was a sense of: this is exciting, this is the intellectual heartbeat of Ireland at this time. It was the sort of convinced excitement that happened later with the equal marriage referendum, this sense of we’re on the verge of saying something to the world.”

“And then the church got its fatal attack of cowardice and decided that the” – her disdain is palpable – “come-all-ye singin’ populists like Michael Cleary and Bishop Casey were an inevitable trend. The same sort of view is taken of the Trumpist Republicans in the US. The only thing for a decent speculative intellectual priest to do was retreat.” She’s worked up.

She talks about why Savage left the priesthood. Here, sitting after lunch in the sunroom, her husband’s favourite place at the Martello, her voice is intense. “He told me he loved me, but he told me he had already decided to leave the priesthood, and why. Which was to do with a bishop refusing to take action over a priest who was molesting children.”

She recalls another priest at the communications centre, saying the vocations fall-off was tragic. “Tom said, no it isn’t, that what we should be asking is not why we have so few priests now, but why we had so many in the past. We had such a gross oversupply. What was pulling them to the priesthood in such huge numbers? He said there was economics and there were other... grim factors. He meant the desire to be close to children in cruel and damaging ways.”

Was she shocked at what was going on? Was Tom shocked? “Oh Tom was not shocked because of why he had left the priesthood.” She pauses. “I was shocked by the sexual... the awful damage done to children by priests, the awful damage done by the Church on behalf of Ireland in relation to institutionalising children.”

Brought up a Catholic, “I wouldn’t regard myself as anything now. At a certain stage it was a feeling of nah, I can’t force myself to believe in this. So I don’t.” She says, “It’s funny, you can go from a set of assumptions that add up to Catholicism to realising, no I don’t have those any more. And there isn’t a big epiphany or moment of abandonment.”

A few months before he died, she asked Savage: “Do you believe in anything now? He looked at me and he said, ‘I believe in you and I believe in Anton’.” She whispers: “And that’s more than enough to be going on with.” Then she flips. “This posset is very good.”

This posset is at the heart of another contradiction. Prone is an excellent cook, and enjoys it. She made us chicken, nibbed almonds and lemon, with pasta, followed by raspberry posset. They were delicious. With all the chat she didn’t eat much.

For many years “I was fat, and to be fat in the theatre was not a good thing”. It ended her acting career, she maintains.

She lost the weight years ago. But “the world is full of people who lost weight and who are on the cliff of gaining back the six stone. No guarantees ever.” She’s wary of talking about it.

When she was younger “I was six stone heavier than I am now. Twenty-five years ago, I lost maybe four and a half.” She can’t remember what diet. “But they’re all the same. They all hate cake and biscuits and chips.”

So, ferocious hard work. “Tedious.”

She is fascinated that people using Ozempic, diabetes medicine, to lose weight “all say the same thing. They say the food noise disappears. The food noise being, from the moment you get up in the morning, your entire day is pocked with mental references to food. I think that’s the great appeal of Ozempic. It turns that off. It makes you mentally different. That’s why I would love to be on Ozempic.”

And here she is having made us lovely posset (which we all enjoyed).

“It doesn’t matter and it hasn’t mattered for years, but knowing I couldn’t make it in the Abbey because I couldn’t lose weight, that was painful. To be unable to explain that to anybody else. Because nobody who hasn’t had this food noise knows what you’re talking about. They think oh, you just ate too many pies and you’ve no self-control.”

She has massive discipline. She’s up at 4am and in bed by eight. (Though not for her book launch.) Contradictions again: tremendous company, a generous host, an amazing contacts book, but she dreads the launch. “I never do parties, dinners. I just don’t ever sit down with more than three people. Ever. I’ve always been reclusive and shy. I can do a performance like you saw there [the tour]. When I was in the theatre, I was really good.”

Since a traumatic car crash decades ago, “my face is lopsided and it’s horrendously noticeable when I eat. Awful, awful, awful. I had several surgeries in the US involving implants to balance the face back up, and a browlift that pulled the forehead scars up out of sight.”

You resign yourself to living in the half-life of happiness

She’s open about plastic surgery. “I have a constant desire to smack young women who say, would you not be better to grow old gracefully.” She counters: “Why do you wear make-up? Why do you get your eyebrows threaded? When you get your teeth fixed, your hair dyed? For Christ’s sake, get a grip. The notion that you should yield to gravity and sun damage and take it as some kind of virtue that you don’t get it fixed. When the reality after 60 years of age for anybody, male or female, is that you’re like an old vehicle that has to sustain the NCT. You fecking well get things fixed!”

After the crash there was also brain damage, “and about 10 years of my life that’s missing”, from when Anton was aged seven, she says. But her mother’s meticulous archives, theatre’s lessons in how to watch with intensity and remember dialogue, and a facility for memorisation have all stood to her in writing an engaging, honest book, full of fascinating detail.

What does she make of what has been going on in RTÉ, anyway? “It’s a tragedy for Tubridy because of the way a quite small issue, relatively speaking, was mismanaged by him, by his agent, by the whole PR approach to it, had this rolling impact on the whole organisation, revealing stuff about the commercial area which was like a throwback to a nudge-nudge, wink-wink time where there was a separate pocket economy within RTÉ.”

And on the new director general: “Kevin Bakhurst owes nothing to nobody. He’s an outsider-insider. In his quiet, considered, low-key way he will do what’s right for the organisation, no matter who protests or argues. He’s exactly the right kind of DG for now.” More than “high-end conceptual” corporate governance, she says RTÉ needs “corporate common sense. It never made common sense to pay Ryan what he was being paid. It never made common sense to have a commercial area plámásing potential advertisers with gifts.”

Tom Savage’s death is shocking in her memoir, as in her life. Asked how she has dealt with grief, there is a long, intense pause. “Badly.”

Then, “You resign yourself to living in the half-life of happiness.” She recalls a Colum McCann phrase about (whispering it) “the small shocks of remembered bliss. Yeah.”

Then: “And apart from that you get on with it.” Surprisingly, perhaps, “Living on my own helps. And living in a Martello helps.”

Has she regrets? She pauses a long time. “No, weirdly, I don’t. I have bitter sadnesses about inevitable tragedy. But there isn’t anything that I wanted to do that I haven’t done. And the most interesting human being I ever met loved me, and I loved him right back.”

Caution to the Wind by Terry Prone is published by Red Stripe Press

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