About 15 minutes into meeting RTÉ's new chat-show hopeful Brendan O'Connor, he mentions "the really hurtful and unfair way you attacked me when I was on Tubridy on new year's eve a year ago." I had written a review of that show in which I imagined television producers attacking O'Connor with the words "Kill it! Kill it!" I didn't feel bad about it at the time. I feel a bit bad about it now because O'Connor seems genuinely hurt. "I did think for a minute 'Why the f**k should I do this interview?'" he says. "'I don't need to. That guy was a c**t to me' and then I thought, 'No, he probably isn't'. I'm not going to let defensiveness run my life."
This response might come as a surprise, because Brendan O'Connor's public image is of somebody who says what he wants and doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks. On television and in print he doesn't pull punches. His appearances on Don't Feed the Gondolas, You're a Star and (to a lesser extent) You're Fired were often built around O'Connor saying the blunt, rude things that, his defenders say, "everyone was really thinking". Furthermore, his opinion pieces for the Sunday Independent are often aggressively pro-government apologias for the powerful and he's often supremely scornful of limp-wristed lefties who disagree. At the same time, I wrote mean things about him and he still chose to meet me, and he is, for most of the interview, open, funny and self-deprecating.
So did this iconoclastic media figure and future host of RTÉ's Saturday Night Show come from a family of showboating opinionisers? "My family are not in show-biz," he says. "They're a middle-class Bishopstown family who are all, in different ways, left of centre but who are probably half-mortified by me a lot of the time. I'd be too if I was them. Cork people are funny about that kind of thing. I think they'd find it funny that I was talking about myself in interviews like this."
O'Connor went from the bosom of Bishopstown to a commerce degree in UCC (where he was very involved with the philosophical society) followed by a period in the post-academic wilderness. "For a while I was a warden in the student accommodation in Castlewhite and lived in this kind of penthouse apartment. Then I was supposed to be doing a masters for a year or two, but I was really just extending the college experience. In those days I was a slacker. I was hanging around with a sort of bohemian leftie crowd."
That changed, I note. "Bohemia wasn't for me," he says with a smile. "I like to be clean. I like clean clothes and working and paying my way."
O'Connor eventually found his feet with a journalism course at DIT and a writing gig at the Sunday Independent. Shortly after this he appeared on television for the first time as a panellist on Don't Feed the Gondolas. "It would be recorded on Sunday morning. You'd be out Saturday night and you'd rock in hung-over the next morning. Sean [Moncrieff] had the responsibility of it being his career and he was the host, but for me it was just about chucking stones in from the outside."
The way O'Connor paints it, he was dragged slightly reluctantly towards responsibility. Six years ago he hesitated about taking a job as editor of the Sunday Independent's Life magazine, a lifestyle supplement which tends to feature effusive articles about celebrities and society girls. "It's a middle management job, really," he says. "Anne Harris [his boss at the time] suggested I should and could do it. I would have been happy in many ways staying at home sending in my pieces every week. I had a good life. I was living in Ringsend near all these friends from Cork, all of whom were in various degrees of unemployment. There was a guy who was writing his novel, a guy who was trying to be a dotcom millionaire, a guy who was an academic. One guy had a coffee machine and we'd all go over there in the afternoon and drink coffee and shout at each other for a while. I was already married [to journalist Sarah Caden] but it was before we had kids [he now has a daughter]. We were like a salon – a cranky Cork salon. So in a way I kind of thought I was conned into taking a real job. But I ended up really enjoying it."
I ask him whether the magazine sometimes has its tongue in cheek when dealing with the tiny goldfish bowl of Irish celebrity. "God no! You can't have in-jokes in a magazine like that. People take it at face value and the fact is that these things are probably more important to more people than the serious pieces that the likes of you and I write. The stuff that's in Life is real life and it's important to people. I'm very proud of editing a glossy supplement. People love fashion and people love to consume. People enjoy consumption. And I think they understand that consumption doesn't replace a spiritual existence. They can consume and have a spiritual existence as well."
O'Connor was also, at this point, solidifying his television reputation as a judge on RTé's You're A Star. In many ways Life was the unapologetic flagship magazine for boomtime consumption, You're A Star was the epitome of 'be all you can be' boomtime ambition, and in his opinion pieces O'Connor was, and is, the archetypical boom-warrior. He has risen in defence of defrocked taoisigh and bankrupt developers and he has attacked the blame-hungry "mob". "Am I a capitalist? Yes I am. And despite what's happened I believe capitalism has done good things for this country. Was I invested in the boom? No. But there was a boom going on and what were you going to do? Spend the time mithering about the fact it's going to end some day? The nature of being a newspaper guy is you're in the moment and you base a lot of what you write on what's going on right now... Then you move on and adapt and I think that's a really healthy approach. The bust hasn't affected my thinking on things. I don't think it's radically changed my world view. I think capitalism is still the answer."
I mention an article he wrote in 2007 in which he suggested it might be a good time to invest in property. At this point, possibly remembering my review and suspecting a journalistic stitch-up, he gets very angry. He doesn't let me speak for a few minutes as he talks at me and even does a bit of pacing around the Sunday Independent's kitchen. On the dictaphone recording you can hear me in the background saying things like: "I'm just trying to..." "If you'd let me..." "Could I..." but I never get beyond that. This extract sums up the gist of what he says:
"I'm doing a chat show here and you want to ask me if I was wrong in this one piece I've written. Will we go back over your work and see where you've been wrong or indeed if you've ever had the balls to come out and say anything important? This is ludicrous. It's ridiculous. I'm meant to be sitting here doing an interview about a chat show I'm doing on Saturday week and you want to talk about something you probably found on Wikipedia. Don't bullshit me. I came here and opened up out of respect. And you know why? Because I believe in freedom of speech. Anyone else would have said 'I'm not sitting down with that c**t'. Seriously they would. You went away and found a piece in Google and harangued me on this one piece I wrote in 15 years of writing."
After a while the storm is over and he's sitting down grinning self-consciously. "Look, I've no wish to airbrush over anything I've written in the past," he says. "But do I regret it? No, because it was valid position at the time. So yes I got it wrong in one article. Is that what you want? But I'll tell you something, at least I got it wrong because I was trying to think originally and make my own judgements. Anyone can be like Fintan O'Toole and follow the consensus: be for the poor and against the rich; be for all good things and against all bad things. You can have that simple view of the world, but I don't know what the point would be because there are a hundred other guys doing that. I'd rather be a guy who thinks for himself and gets it wrong."
O'Connor strongly believes that he's going against the "Dublin" media consensus and that despite his privileged position he speaks for the common man. "I don't want to be connected to the people," he says. "I am connected to the people." But the question now is whether the people want such an opinionated chat-show host? Those who've flourished in chat– Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny, Miriam O'Callaghan and Ryan Tubridy – tend to take more tempered positions. "Well it's not a current-affairs show," says O'Connor. "People can argue quite strongly about politics and still sit down and have a laugh together. I'm not going to be there haranguing Fintan O'Toole about his left-wing opinions. A huge part of me is about people. That's what Life magazine is about and that's what the show is about. I'm curious about people and interested in them and when I'm in a good mood I bounce well off them." He grins, possibly realising that he wasn't entirely in a good mood five minutes before. "So I have to make sure I'm in good form every Saturday night. That's more difficult than you think... having to think ahead to ensure I'm happy at a certain time and place."
He says The Saturday Night Show won't necessarily have A-list stars. It will aim to be looser and more spontaneous than The Late Late Show and that guests will be chosen according to how "interesting" they are rather than whether they've a movie to flog. He knows it's a risk. "But who wouldn't do a chat show if they were asked?" he asks. "Everybody who's ever been near a television wants to do a chat show. They used to say everyone in Ireland thinks they have a good novel in them, I think the modern version of that is that think they have a chat show in them. In one way I'm thinking 'Why am I drawing this on myself?' but in another you'd be mad not to. I'll reach the age of 80 and say, 'I did a chat show. I reached the pinnacle of my second career. '"
And TV is a second career, he stresses. "It's a sideline and I think that's what it should be for everyone. There are about five people making a secure living in television; the rest of them are terrified people who don't know [what they'll be doing] from month to month. I remember when I was doing Don't Feed the Gondolas, an older producer said 'Never let them break your heart. There are people all over the country who've been ruined by RTÉ.' But I never expected anything from them. I never pushed for anything from them. And I think it's important not to need anything from them because then you become one of those awful needy television people and that's not a good look for anyone."
'The Saturday Night Show' begins on Saturday 30 January at 9.40pm on RTÉ One