By Harry Keaney
When it comes to covering the Irish and Irish America, no U.S. network has done it as well as public television. Now, thanks to public station KTCA-TV, in St. Paul/Minneapolis, and United HealthCare Corporation of Minneapolis, one of Ireland’s best known broadcasters, Siobhán Cleary, has made her U.S. television debut.
Since September, her series of 26 30-minute magazine-style programs entitled "Health Diary" has been showing in various markets throughout the U.S. From this Wednesday, the series may be seen in the greater New York area on WNYE Channel 25 and, from Dec. 19, on WLIW Channel 21.
"Health Diary" is a medical program that looks at medical conditions from patients’ perspectives, at the personal stories behind the statistics and the headlines, at ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations when illness or disability strikes.
But while the stories in the series are indeed evocative, and even, at times, emotional, much of the appeal of "Health Diary" lies in Cleary’s gentle approach as host and interviewer. She asks the simple questions that viewers would like to ask, probing patients’ innermost feelings, perhaps even enabling viewers to empathize.
Cleary, who is also the executive producer of "Health Diary," has had a circuitous route to the U.S. She was born 50 years ago in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. When she was 2, she moved to Donegal Town, where her father, Dubliner Frank Cleary, founded the Four Masters School, which was coeducational and of mixed denomination.
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At University College, Dublin, she studied English, Irish and economics, and, after graduating in 1969, obtained a teaching diploma from Trinity College.
Theater has always loomed large in Cleary’s life and is, arguably, the reason she finds herself in Minneapolis today. While in school she acted in numerous plays, many of them directed by her father, mostly through Irish. After Trinity, she spent two years in the Abbey School of Acting, in Dublin, where one of her teachers was Joe Dowling, now a respected theater director. Later, she joined the Young Abbey Theatre, a theater educational group.
In 1994, she and Dowling, then director of the Peacock Theatre, were married.
It’s at this point that Cleary’s theater career diverged into journalism. She had two children, Ronán, now 18, and Suzanna, 21, currently an English major in her final year in Trinity College.
"Every so often I would get frustrated that I wasn’t in a play," Cleary recalled. "Then I started freelance writing and being a journalist became more important."
In time, she began working for RTE, Ireland’s national television and radio station. For about a year and a half, she worked in radio as a researcher on the "Gay Byrne Show." She also presented a TV series called "Performers," which featured Irish stars such as Paddy Maloney, John O’Connor, Joe Dolan and Chris de Burgh. Subsequently, she worked on the high-profile RTE news magazine program "Evening Extra," immediately following the main evening news.
More recent Irish immigrants will remember Cleary from "Check-Up," the RTE television series on health and medical issues that ran for eight years, until l996.
As Cleary progressed in her television career, her husband was making his name in theater. He had been in charge of the Abbey, the Gaiety and the Irish Theatre Company. As time passed, he found himself more and more out of Ireland, working in Britain, the U.S. and Canada. On Dec. 1, 1995, he was appointed artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. A year later, Cleary moved to join him in the Twin Cities.
Like all immigrants, she began by looking for work. She had an impressive resume, including having had a video production company that did medical and dental programs, and had taught communications at the School of Dental Science, in Dublin.
"What I really wanted was ‘Check Up’ again," she said.
When the health care management company United HealthCare Corporation agreed to be the national underwriter of "Health Diary," her wish came through.
Now, an ocean away from Ireland, Cleary is again in the anchor’s seat.