- 01 Nov 21
As tributes pour in for Simon Young – who has died, aged 61 – we're revisiting a remarkably candid interview with the former 2FM presenter, originally published in Hot Press in 2011.
In the vintage years at 2fm, Simon Young was a ubiquitous presence on Irish radio and TV, before mysteriously disappearing from public view, sparking speculation around the what and the why. In his first major interview for 20 years, Young talks frankly, and sometimes painfully, to Jackie Hayden about his mental health problems, the death of Gerry Ryan, being barred from Gerry’s funeral, receiving the last rites, and his fight back to an acceptable form of reality.
One of the funniest interviews Hot Press ever ran was back in the ’80s with Simon Young, in which he hilariously lampooned the world of the radio jock, claiming, for example, that he chose the music for his programmes by using the leftovers he found lying around the studio after the last guy. His comment on the then newly-opened Century Radio was that it had its uses in that it would take your mind off entertainment.
While he also presented conventional music-driven programmes, Finglas-born Young was best known for his wit, as channelled into his ‘auld Dub’ alter ego Jimmy, an unmissable feature of Ian Dempsey’s breakfast programme on 2fm with his call-sign ‘Get outta that garden’. He also had an input into Zig and Zag routines, wrote for the stage and published successful books. His work took him around the world, most memorably to Dachau POW camp, the White House and several Caribbean islands. He once stayed in the Beverley Hills Hotel where he sat in Van The Man’s “seat”, a huge leather cosy chair Mr. Morrison ‘ponders in’ while staying there.
In person, he was enormously funny, his fast and sharp humour enlivening many a gathering. But over a relatively short period of time, Young’s career and his private life fell apart and he disappeared from public view. Now back to relative normality with a children’s book to be published next year, from his Castleknock base Young tells the story of his trials, tribulations and recovery with remarkable candour.
Jackie Hayden: How good were things for you at the peak of your career in RTÉ?
Simon Young: When things were good for me they could hardly have been better. I’d always loved radio as a medium, and here I was working with the best in the business at 2fm, Ian Dempsey, Gerry Ryan, John Clarke, Tony Fenton, Larry Gogan and so on. I had several radio programmes that I’d loved doing and I’d done some TV as well, presenting The Beat Box, The Den with Zig and Zag and Pay The Price. My character Jimmy was a huge hit on Ian’s breakfast show. I could hardly go anywhere without people shouting “get outta that garden!” at me. I also had an input into all sorts of things, like station promos, records and so on. I was really fortunate in that I loved getting up in the morning and going to work. That’s how good it was. I’d also got to travel all over the world to do shows. And I’d published two books that each sold 20,000 copies. I did some acting with Brendan O’Carroll and others. I was busy, busy, busy.
And how about on the personal front?
Things were equally good for me on the personal front. I had enough money to enjoy myself, a great social life, was happily married to Phyl, and had two great kids. I was also enjoying the success of my brother who writes thrillers under the name Glenn Meade.
So what were the circumstances around your departure?
(After a pause) There seems to be a lot of curiosity about that. It’s a pity that good news doesn’t travel as quickly as gossip... The truth is, I left RTÉ. RTÉ did not leave me. That was in 2002. I was presenting The World’s Biggest Jukebox which official figures showed was the 15th most popular show on Irish radio. I had a lot of stuff going on in my personal life at the time. There were rumours that I’d been fired, that I’d walked out after a big row, but they’re not true. On the record, Jackie, I never, ever fell out with anyone in RTÉ, or indeed with anyone in the business at all. I’ve actually been told that a lot of the 2fm crew would love me back. I reached a point with my health problems that I felt it was unfair to be getting paid, while I was beginning to feel I couldn’t do what I was supposed to do. It would have been unfair for me to continue, although I probably could have. Maybe I was stupid to think that way and walk away from a great job. It’s easy to be smart in hindsight.
Had your heath issues arisen at the time?
Not fully, but they were beginning to manifest themselves.
In what way?
My dad had died in April 1999 and I don’t think I had really grieved for him. I loved the man dearly. He’d been a big influence. He’d encouraged me in my reading and scripting. Then about 18 months after his death things started to go badly at home between me and my wife. There was a lot going on in my head. It was a baffling and confusing time for me.
So did you do anything to help your situation?
I bought an apartment near where we lived on the southside of the city as a kind of investment/place of refuge where I could be alone with all this stuff going around in my head.
Were there drink or drugs issues?
No. As you well know, I enjoyed a drink or several. Alcohol has never really been part of any of my problems as they developed. I’d never had any interest in drugs. Nothing has ever gone up my nose apart from my finger or a pair of nose hair clippers! I didn’t put any drink up my nose either!
Did anything else trigger your problems?
I’d had a big car crash beside where the Red Cow roundabout is now. I was in my new car going down to buy the papers when I was whacked into by a car with two joyriders. My car tumbled over several times and ended up upside down a hundred yards away. There were lots of people around, leaning in to ask if I was okay. One of them stole my wallet and later tried to use my credit card. Although I was really scared and shocked, I was taken to hospital and given the all-clear.
What were you doing workwise when you moved into the apartment?
I was still working for RTÉ and I was able to do the school runs with the children. I’d keep them until 7.30 in the evening, until my wife would call to pick them up. Although we live apart, I still have a good friendship with my wife and kids. What was going on in my head was taking me to a place I’d never been to in my life and it was really scary.
Were there any other women involved?
No, there was no other woman. Or man. Myself and my wife simply weren’t getting on as well as we used to. It happens in relationships. Family life is not always like The Waltons!
You stopped presenting the show, The World’s Biggest Jukebox. Why was that?
Because things eventually got so bad that I had a nervous breakdown.
How did that manifest itself?
One day I was sitting on the couch in my apartment working on some script material... It’s hard to explain... suddenly it was like my head was buzzing with all this stuff flying around me, my dad’s death, my marriage, the children, the work, the car crash, being away from the family home and I felt totally overwhelmed by it all. I had already begun to feel really anxious and nervous and this got worse. I broke into a sweat. I was shaking all over, my hands felt strange and I was really tearful. I felt I was almost literally falling to bits. If it had happened in the street people would have noticed there was something wrong.
So what did you do?
I got my sister to call around and she called the doctor. He gave me something to help calm me down. It was all a bit of a blur. I remember being in the hospital, a private hospital. I was in there for about seven weeks and came out for a week and went back to my apartment.
Were you feeling better then?
I was still feeling nervous and anxious and having panic attacks.
Were the panic attacks related to anything specific?
The doctors talked to me about DRS which is Delayed Reaction Syndrome. So my dad’s passing and the marriage problems seemed to be a major part of what was happening to me. I felt I had lost control of everything, including my mind and my body. I had isolated myself in the apartment and because I needed a crutch, I started drinking more than I should have. I suppose the isolation and the
loneliness, especially that sense of separation from the wife and children, added to it.
Do you think there were any other underlying issues apart from the pressure?
I was later diagnosed with suffering from Peripheral Neuropathy which is an attack of the outer nervous system. They told me it has many causes. I also had TIAs which are Transcient Icshmatic Attacks. They’re like mini-strokes in the brain which don’t last long. I was prescribed to take aspirin for them and I have never had one of those strokes since I started taking that simple tablet. I also had sleep paralysis which was diagnosed in the Mater Hospital’s sleep analysis unit. My doctor once told me that if I wake up in the morning – that’s a pretty good start! I tell him that I never trust a man who keeps a bed in his office!
Those problems seem like a lot of serious stuff to have at the same time.
That’s not all, Jackie! An awful lot of tests and MRI and CAT scans had to be done before they spotted that a tiny blood vessel in my brain sent me into what is like a computer crash, and only time itself ‘reboots’ a person after they’ve had one of these. I fell into comas too. The longest coma I was in was for eight days and that was brought on by a reaction to an anaesthetic.
You said that you left RTÉ. Did you leave RTÉ with something specific in mind?
Do you mean as in go to another radio station or something? No. I had no plans at all of any kind. I had reached a point where doing something like that would probably have been impossible and would only have added to my troubles. I left, basically, in a haze of confusion. In hindsight I was probably not in a fit state to make such a life-changing decision. I felt that I was no longer really capable of delivering the goods to RTÉ like I had been.
Had you thought what you were going to live on without your RTÉ income?
Part of me didn’t even think of that. I had some money put by to keep me going. Money wasn’t an issue then.
So why leave if RTÉ still had work for you to do for them?
I felt all this pressure on me, and the work was just one thing I could resolve by getting rid of it.
How did you quit?
I simply rang the then head of 2fm John Clarke and explained to John that I was going through some issues with my marriage and that I felt my work had become overpowering in the situation I found myself in. There were changes in 2fm at the time as it was gearing up to target a different audience. So when I told them I was leaving nobody asked if I should think about it for a while... nobody tried to change my mind...
Were you disappointed with that?
Well, I’d had several chats with John before that and told him I was beginning to feel I wasn’t up to it anymore, so I don’t think my resignation came as a surprise to him or anybody else.
What was the response from your other colleagues at 2fm?
Well, it was all done fairly quietly. I suppose I’d been away from RTÉ for a while and hadn’t really been up to having visitors, apart from my own family. I hadn’t been presenting anything for a few months, so... a lot of them probably felt it
Were you not disappointed that some of your colleagues didn’t visit you in hospital?
It’s not easy dealing with people who have had breakdowns, and some people have the same difficulty they would have if they were standing beside somebody who has AIDS. People often feel a sort of discomfort with certain illnesses, and I was not really in a fit mood to encourage visitors anyway. There were times I wanted visitors and there were times I didn’t, whether they were aunts or uncles or mates. It was me. It’s not their fault. I kind of just wanted to hide anyway.
What was your worst period during all this?
While I was in hospital my weight ballooned up to 28 stone because I developed this tendency to retain fluid in the body. So at one point they had to operate on me to drain the fluid. But my temperature and my blood pressure dropped and I went unconscious and they really thought I was going to die. In fact there were several times when it looked like it was all over for me. I had some kind of seizure too, and it was so severe that it took four female nurses and three male nurses to hold me down. The priest was called three times and I was actually given the last rites during one of his visits.
Were you conscious of the priest giving you the last rites?
Yes. I could hear the doctor talking and the nurse crying, but I was also quite weak and wasn’t too aware of what was happening. But as you can guess, I didn’t actually die. I came around several hours later. Over a five day period they drained off 32 litres of fluid, that’s about 90 small bottles of coke! I also remember a doctor asking me if I ever had an out-of-body experience which I actually had when I was 12 growing up in Finglas.
Did you ever feel suicidal at any time?
I did indeed. Several times.
Were these serious thoughts or merely fleeting?
Well, a doctor explained to me that everybody at some stage in their lives will think about suicide. They say that what goes in stays in, in most cases. And in those many moments of feeling hopeless, that all of this stuff in my head was getting too much for me, I thought about ending it all. I wanted to get out of the awful place I was in.
So what stopped you going down that route?
(Long pause) Thoughts of my children. Fear of what might be on the other side. I’d got to the point that I was afraid of living and I was afraid of dying. People say that suicide is a selfish act. I believe that you should never judge somebody unless you’ve walked in their shoes. I don’t see suicide as a selfish thing. I think of it as a manifestation of an accumulation of thoughts and fears that can make you feel that living is not worth the effort any more. So you have to get yourself to a point where you feel you are worthwhile and that living is worthwhile. Unfortunately, labelling people is one of humanity’s worst ever inventions. Once you’re labelled with something it’s like that’s what you are forever and you can’t get away from it.
Did you ever think, I’m not a bad guy, I didn’t deserve all this?
I went for counselling to the Rutland Centre and that’s how I learned to begin to like myself again. Nobody with only one leg comes back form Lourdes with two legs, but they might come back with some hope that will sustain them. The Rutland gave me that hope because I hadn’t been getting that nice feeling that you get from life in the here and now. For me, that’s what spirituality is – living in the here and now. Most of our lives are spent thinking about the past and the future.
At what point did things start to get better?
When I started to write down the things I felt had hurt me in life. I was told that certain things can only be dealt with by writing them down.
What kind of things were you hurt by?
I don’t want to go into specifics, but I feel I’ve been taken advantage of, partly through my own fault because I’ve tended at times to be a bit of a softie in my dealings with some people. There were times when I failed to stand up for myself and stand my ground. Muhammad Ali said it’s a lack of faith that prevents us from doing anything. You have to believe in yourself and maybe I didn’t believe in myself enough.
Who most helped you pull through?
Lots of people. Doctors. You can always rely on an Irish Mammy to be there for you, especially when you’re the runt of the litter and the maternal instincts kick in. The rest of the family were great too. I also would really like to thank all of those people who got in touch with me via email or Facebook and the various message boards and by phone after the news of my illness. They certainly lifted my spirits and helped me a lot.
What is it that people can best do to help someone in your predicament?
Number one, don’t tell them to snap out of it or pull yourself together or cop onto yourself. None of that helps. It can actually sound like further rejection and often makes matters worse because you can’t just snap out of it and here are all these people thinking you should. Talking to people who’ve been there just like you and got through it is a good thing too. It’s good to speak to the winners... that’s not to say there are losers, a term I don’t like in those kind of circumstances.
How did you hear of your former colleague Gerry Ryan’s death?
I was in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre when I heard Tony Fenton on Today FM offering his commiserations to the Ryan family. I didn’t quite catch all of it, and at first I thought it might be that their dog had died or there was some typical Gerry prank going on. Almost immediately my phone started hopping with texts from friends, and it began to dawn on me as to what really happened, that this awful thing was true. Then a call came from John Clarke at 2fm and I was asked by John to be interviewed on the Will Leahy Show regarding Gerry’s passing. I said I couldn’t. I was still in a sort of faint. He called me back and I now felt up to it and I did a seven or eight minute piece live on air with Will. Later that day I had Gerry’s 2fm jingles, which had never aired, remastered from the studio in Dallas, Texas where I had produced and written the first full-imaging jingle package for 2fm. The jingles were supposed to be used in a further ‘Tribute Show’ to Gerry, but they never were! But that was a terrible, terrible time.
Did you know Gerry well?
I knew Gerry for 32 years since the time we had worked together in the old ARD days.
So did you believe any of the stories that later broke about his alleged drug intake?
(Emphatically) No. I heard Ian Dempsey on the Brendan O’Connor show saying the very same thing. Never in all my time working with and socialising with Gerry did I once see him using any illegal drugs of any kind, not even smoking a joint. I want to say that on the record.
Why do you think those people come out with those stories that they “knew”, allegedly, that Gerry was using hard drugs?
I honestly don’t know what some of those people were up to. Some of them may have been doing it for self-publicity. That happens in this business, as you well know. People will piggyback on a story for their own ends. Politicians do it all the time. As for the suggestion that he was using drugs at work, well I was never offered anything dodgy in RTÉ apart from the coffee!
Did you go to Gerry’s funeral?
Yes, I turned up at the St. John the Baptist church in Clontarf for the funeral. Outside I met Ian Dempsey and a few of my former colleagues from RTÉ and we had a nice chat and a hug. I then walked up to the gate, but unfortunately my name was not on the guest-list. It seemed odd not being allowed into a church, but I suppose I can understand the situation from the family’s point of view with so many people wanting to get in.
Were you disappointed not to be allowed in?
I certainly was. So I just sat on the steps outside and listened to the service coming through on the loudspeakers. I thought Morah’s words were very inspirational.
Getting back to your own breakdown, was there anything that you learned from it all?
I learned that life is like a taxi meter. It keeps moving whether you’re getting somewhere or standing still, stuck in traffic. Some people live their lives as if they have another one in the bank. I learned that what we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others is immortal. It lives on. I think that when people lose their pride and ego their dignity rises. If I ask a God of my choice to walk with me I must be prepared to move my own feet.
Had you kept in touch with radio during your illness?
No, not all the time. I shut it out for a while. There were other things I had to focus on. Radio hasn’t changed that much anyway. Perhaps the cockpit of the studio and the dynamics of technology and cross promotions and stuff have changed a bit, but a talkshow is still just a listener earwigging on a conversation and being charged to phone in with a comment. And a DJ still is, or should be, somebody who can entertain, talk ‘with’ people as opposed to ‘at’ people.
Would you like to go back to radio?
I’ve done a little broadcasting on the station Hot Country and I loved it. I think now, after a lot of what I have been through, I would probably qualify to be a talk radio broadcaster. I’d love to try it and give it the Full Monty. Either that, or gather together a small team of talented people and go full steam ahead with a truly enjoyable few hours of radio designed for a well-defined target audience. I would also love to do some TV or radio documentaries or be a regular contributor to a show. I’d certainly welcome the calls from anybody in radio who thinks they can use me. I have other plans as well. I’ve written a children’s book which will be published next year, so I’m busy again and feeling very optimistic about the future. (The doorbell rings) Anyway, Jackie, it’s supper time. These days, Domino Pizzas arrive quicker than the police. And you can quote me on that!