When Fiona Mitchell decided to accept the job as RTE's London correspondent in 2014 little did she know what lay ahead: three major terrorist attacks; the Grenfell Tower fire disaster; two general elections; a Royal baby and a Royal wedding; the Brexit referendum, and that she would lose both of her beloved parents - all in the space of four short years.
As she nears the end of her stint in London, the Killeigh native describes the last four years as “a whirlwind” and agrees that if she knew what she would be facing into when she first took the job she would probably have “run a mile in the opposite direction.”
Arguably the most recognisable face on RTE television at the moment, Fiona Mitchell has rarely been off our TV screens over the past year as she keeps viewers abreast of the twists and turns in the on-going Brexit saga, and she fears that people are nearing the point of what she describes as “Brexit fatigue”
She laughs heartily when she recalls a time she met a neighbour in Tullamore on one of her visits home. “Do you know what she said to me? She said 'oh thank God you're home Fiona, at least I know I won't have to look at you on the telly tonight' – now, that's what I mean by Brexit fatigue” she adds.
While she will probably be forever associated with Brexit, and she is well aware of that, Fiona Mitchell has had a very eventful four years in London, brushing shoulders with the 'who's who' of British society, and reporting on some of the biggest news stories of our time.
While every news story is memorable in its own right, one of the stories which had a deep affect on Fiona was the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, which resulted in the loss of 72 lives when a fire swept through a 24-storey apartment block in North Kensington in the early hours of June 14, 2017.
“I live just three streets away from Grenfell Tower, so I am still faced with daily reminders of the terrible fire, and I find it hard to believe that such a tragedy could unfold in one of the wealthiest parts of London” says Fiona Mitchell, who adds that the fire brought out “a sense of community” among the people who live in the area, which is something she feels is largely absent when you live in a city as big as London.
Having grown up and gone to primary school in the small village of Killeigh, Fiona Mitchell knows the value of community, and says it was never more evident than when she lost her beloved parents, Paddy and Phyllis, within two years of each other, after she had made her move to London. The Mitchells had moved from Killeight to Tullamore some years ago, and Fiona says the entire community just “put their arms around my Dad” and looked after him after her Mum passed away.
“We had very little time with mum, who took ill and died very quickly just after Easter, but I was back and forth to Tullamore for the last year of my Dad's life, and I used to always think of the contrast between being in a big noisy city like London and being in Tullamore, where you could go outside the back door and be in complete silence or just listen to the birds singing.........the peace and quiet was an amazing and very welcome distraction for me.”
Fiona Mitchell's first brush with journalism was in the newsroom of Midlands 103, where she worked for almost three years, having completed a Masters Degree in History at Maynooth University. “Barry Flynn was the News Editor and he was terrific, so I learned a lot there, and above all, I learned that all news is ultimately local, and that was a great lesson to bring with me right throughout my career ” she says.
In 2000, Fiona made the big leap from Radio 3 to RTE where she worked as a reporter on Morning Ireland and the Foreign Desk before being appointed News Editor in 2006, and she says now that if she was asked on her first day in RTE what her dream job would be she would immediately have said to be the London correspondent!
“Ireland and England are so inextricably linked through our shared history and experiences, and I have always been fascinated with the idea of reporting from London, so I could hardly believe it when I finally got the job I had always dreamed of” she says, adding that “maybe I got a bit more drama than I was expecting over the last four years.”
At the time of her appointment to London, Fiona Mitchell had already been on a regular commute to the English capital anyway having met and fallen in love with well-known BBC Foreign Correspondent, Alan Johnston, whom she married in a “very low key ceremony” in Scotland last summer.
Ironically she first met her husband eleven years ago in Dublin when he came over to do an RTE interview, and they have been together for the past ten years. She laughs about the time she took a year's sabbatical from RTE and went to Rome where Alan was based as the BBC's Rome Correspondent. “I think news just follows me everywhere I go because Pope Benedict resigned when I was living in Rome so I ended up being just in the right place at the right time and I did loads of freelance work for RTE from Rome” she says. This experience gave her a renewed hunger for working at the coalface of journalism as opposed to being behind the scenes in an editorial capacity, where she had been for a number of years in RTE.
Fiona Mitchell was forced to take another sabbatical from RTE for almost a year when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 31years of age. Her only sister, Frances, who now lives in Louth, had been diagnosed with the same disease just two years previously, so both sisters went through their treatment together and Fiona says “in an odd sort of way it was comforting to have someone so close going on the same journey” although she acknowledges it was very hard on her parents. Fiona and Frances have one brother, Barry, who lives in the US state of Indiana.
“Somebody once said to me that the best and worst things about this job is I never know what the day will bring...........it is an amazing job, and I feel so privileged to have been given the opportunity to do it” says Fiona Mitchell, who is due to complete her four-year stint in London at the end of March.
Asked about her future plans, she says the only thing she knows for definite is that her job as London Correspondent is coming to an end. “It has been a wonderful experience, and I have loved every minute of it, but at the end of the day, home is home” she says.