Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Aileen Hickey, a successful journalist-turned-barrister and fabulous mother of five. Aileen lives in Dublin with her five children and her husband, Matt Cooper: the highly successful journalist and radio presenter with his own show, ‘The Last Word’, on Today FM.
I began by asking Aileen about her childhood; where she’d grown up, where she’d gone to school and what she did after finishing secondary school. She was born and raised in Millstreet, Co. Cork; Aileen attended the boarding school in Millstreet, even though she lived less than a mile away from the school. “I could practically see my house from the window!” Although there was a non-boarding school community school in Millstreet, it was out of convenience that Aileen attended the boarding school, as her father owned a hardware store and her mother was an ambulance nurse who would often be on call, day and night. Aileen was among the minority of the girls in her year that didn’t go on to do nursing. Instead, Aileen made the big move to Dublin having only visited there before. It was a brand-new course at the time, Communications in DCU. Aileen lived in digs for the first while, but didn’t like it at all; “I didn’t like the digs lady, and she didn’t like me!” After a while she moved into private accommodation with friends she’d made.
Aileen spent time in America on a J1, and when she came back to Ireland in 1989 she wanted to begin working in newspapers; “But because I didn’t have enough of a journalistic qualification I began working in advertising in newspapers.” She worked for a while in The Dublin Tribune, and when that closed down in the early 1990’s, Aileen moved to the Sunday Business Post, “again, selling advertising.” Although advertising wasn’t the area in which Aileen really wanted to be, she “wanted to see how newspapers worked.”
While Aileen was there, she applied to do the Masters in Journalism in DCU. As the Masters course was a full-time one, Aileen had to give up her work in advertising when she did the course in 1993. The course was one year, and after it Aileen did freelance work for various newspapers;
“I was doing big features for the Irish Independent, particularly for the weekend section on Saturday. I was doing property stuff as well for the Sunday Business Post. I had my own column in the Sunday World for 10 years called ‘Sunday Money with Aileen Hickey’.” Aileen did that full-time column for about ten years, while also doing features for the Sunday World, so Aileen really was doing ‘quite a bit’ of freelance work.
Journalism is a highly competitive field, and I was curious myself how Aileen found her experience was in general, but also in particular what her experience was being a woman in the field; I asked Aileen if she felt herself that she was in any way or at any point presented with further challenges or perhaps barriers as a woman when it came to her work.
“No, not at all,” was Aileen’s confident response to this, “I couldn’t say that I was ever overlooked or that I ever felt that it was seen as a negative. Anyways, as a matter of fact, some of the stories I would cover, maybe a murder story, I would be sent to the place to do background research and found out stuff”, so Aileen never felt that anyone thought twice about sending her off to cover particular stories because of the fact that she’s a woman – a great reassurance to female aspiring journalists.
“I did a column in the Sunday Business Post called ‘Influences’. It generally involved me talking to a well-known business man, like chief executives of big companies, PLC’s and stuff, to find out who their influences had been from childhood and education-hood, to when they went on into adulthood, and they never reacted like ‘oh I’m not telling a female journalist this!’. I remember I was sent to the North Sea to cover an oil company at one stage; we were flown out by helicopter out of Norway … I would’ve not only been the only female journalist, but would’ve been the only woman [that was staying on the oil rig].” Aileen really does feel that being a woman never held her back or impacted on her journalistic career, or anything that she did, in any negative way.
Married to Matt Cooper, Aileen explains one of the reasons she did move away from journalism;
“Matt had a much higher profile than I did and … a lot of our contacts were the same,” as well as the fact that Aileen had “always half fancied doing law at some stage,” so they decided Matt would carry on with the journalism and Aileen would embark on a new venture. “He encouraged me. I couldn’t have done it if he hadn’t have encouraged me.”
Aileen was about 28 when she began her studies to become a barrister. Although Aileen wasn’t pregnant when she started the four-year long course, she did become pregnant during the time. I wondered how Aileen managed to juggle two small babies and her studies during a four-year long law course…
“During the four years I had two! In fact, when I got called to the bar I was heavily pregnant, and with a baby in my arms! It was great. I still kept up some of the journalism stuff until I had to give it all up.”
I asked Aileen when she started her work as a barrister, and if she kept up any of the journalistic work on the side;
“I started as a barrister then in 2007, and by that stage I had five kids under the ages of 7, and it was just too hard to keep all of the balls up in the air, so I give it all up [the journalism work], and I didn’t do much journalistic work after that, probably not for a good while, until the kids got a bit older. In the last eight or nine years I’ve dipped my toe back in; I’ve been doing the Midday show on TV3, which is now the Elaine show, probably for about eight or nine years.”
I asked Aileen if she enjoys being part of the talk show, because although a journalistic type avenue, it also involves live broadcasting and public speaking which would be a lot different to writing for newspapers;
“I really enjoy it because first of all it keeps me involved, and it’s interesting. I enjoy the people that I am on the show with and the topics [we discuss]; Elaine is great and, yeah, I really enjoy it! I was doing some writing last year also for the Sunday Business Post, kind of like a personal column, so I’ve been dipping my toe back in!”
Aileen has most definitely kept in touch with the journalistic world and remained successfully involved in one way or another throughout her careers.
Fascinated by Aileen’s ambition and all that she has achieved up to date, I asked her if there is anything that she has always wanted to do but has not gotten around to doing just yet?
“Actually, that’s a very interesting question because I did threaten at one stage, probably about 7 or 8 years ago, that I might give Medicine a go! But I said it to Matt, and he wasn’t sure of it and said that it was just a step too far. I mean at that stage I had been in college for 8 years, and it would’ve been an indulgence too far. I’m not even sure if I would have been able for it! But, I mean I hope that there is going to be other things, more [to come down the road] … My youngest is in 4th class now, and I hope that over the next few years I find other areas that I can both challenge myself in and get new life experiences in and do more learning but as of it yet I don’t know what they are. I am a great believer in decade change, which basically means that, I always think at the end of 10 years ‘God, I never imagined ten years ago that this, this and this would have happened’ so I’m always thinking ‘I wonder what can happen in the next ten years, both good and bad!’ I don’t know really what else there is out there…”
I ventured a guess here that Aileen was excited to find out what the next ten years had in store for her, and an enthusiastic “Yeah!” confirmed my belief.
Aileen got married in UCC’s very own Honan Chapel, and I know a lot of UCC students are aware of that possibility for them, so I asked Aileen about this; how she liked it and her experience of having her wedding in the beautiful Honan Chapel…
“How did you know that?!” a somewhat surprised Aileen asked me. I told her that I had done my research, and we laughed. Matt Cooper, Aileen’s husband, studied at UCC.
“Matt did his degree in Commerce in UCC, and actually a couple of years prior to me doing my masters in journalism, Matt did that same Masters in Journalism course as I did. We met in the Sunday Business Post when I was still selling advertising there and he was the business editor. I started on a Monday, and we were going out together by the Friday! And we were engaged that following year.”
“[The Honan Chapel] was beautiful! My parents had been a little disappointed that I didn’t get married in Millstreet, but it was beautiful. Now, I hadn’t been to UCC, but I had plenty of friends who went to UCC. It is a beautiful place to get married and we were very lucky that we had the option to get married there; that was 1995.”
My last question for Aileen was this; What advice would you give to aspiring journalists, as I myself and a lot of our readers are, both in general, and then as well more specifically in today’s world of journalism knowing that, with advancements in technology, it’s a field in which there are rapid evolvements and changes required?
“Now, my advice for anyone trying to break into journalism would be to do a degree in something entirely unrelated to journalism, I think, so that you have a different perspective on a particular area. I think a lot of the really good journalists that I know [specialise in something, a particular area], so their primary degree could have been anything from Engineering to Psychology or whatever. I just think: have a degree in something that you are really interested in, and then decide to go into journalism after that. Obviously, the journalism world has totally changed what with social media and all the rest of it, but that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t space for really good journalism. It’s just, I think, it’s going to be harder. I don’t think myself that newspapers are completely dead.”
When I put it to her that most people would consider that newspapers are on the way out, Aileen responded with a sharp “I sincerely hope not!
“I mean I still prefer, particularly at the weekend, to sit with the newspaper rather than looking online. Similarly, if I wanted to read a book, I have a kindle, but I much prefer to read from a physical book. I hope that there will always be space for people who are really good at writing. I think, whatever area of journalism people want to break into, it has to be something you really enjoy yourself, whether it’s writing about agriculture or property or so on, it has to be something that really engages you and that you really want to do. The journalists whose careers didn’t work out boxed themselves off in areas that they weren’t actually interested in. So, I think have a much more broad-based degree and then decide after that if you want to go into the area of media or journalism and just make sure that you are interested in the area that you decide to work in and get involved in. As well, be prepared for working long hours, not like in any other job, and maybe not always getting your stuff published and getting knocked back a couple of times, but y’know just like any other job you’ve just got to keep at it.”
Aileen is the perfect example of a woman who has proved that it is never too late to embark on a journey of learning and experience work in many different areas in a lifetime; it is never to late to go and do anything you want to do. Aileen has done journalism, TV, she’s a barrister – all the while being a mother of five kids!
“I just think as long as you’re involved it keeps you going every day; I have a motto that you have to do something you enjoy every day, whether that’s an elements of your work, or whatever else you are doing, but you have to be doing something that you enjoy because if you’re enjoying it, first of all it doesn’t feel like work, and second of all you do a much better job at it. That’s where you have to be. I have done stuff before, by the way, that I didn’t enjoy, and I wasn’t good at them because I didn’t enjoy them.”