By Marisa Reidy
TODAY FM listeners will know him best as one half of the hilarious duo, Dermot and Dave; Others might know him better from Ireland’s stand-up comedy circuit, but comedian and presenter Dermot Whelan has added yet another string to his bow in recent weeks by becoming a number one best-selling author in Ireland.
CONNECT caught up with Dermot just weeks after the launch of his new book, Mind Full – which aims to make the whole area of meditation and de-stressing accessible and fun for everyone.
As friendly, open and honest as you might expect from the funny man we have come to love on radio, Dermot explained how his fast-paced life and his attempts to juggle too much at one time made him realise that things needed to change – and how mindfulness and meditation transformed his life.
Taking us right back to his college days, Dermot explained that he had always considered ‘some form of media’ as a career choice, but decided to study archaeology first to see where it took him.
“The reason I did archaeology was because I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was 11 and I thought this is for me,” Dermot joked. “But seriously, I used to read books on ancient Rome and Egypt and Greece and loved it all, so when it came to university I said I’ll study archaeology and if I still love it after, I’ll keep doing it, but I’ll try and get into some class of media after that.
“I was always interested in radio and telly though and used to make my own really terrible radio plays on a tape recorder in my bedroom, as well as home movies and fake news reports,” Dermot explained, revealing that his obsession once led to a very embarrassing incident for his father.
“I remember one time I was obsessed with news reports where people had been killed and so I drew two chalk outlines of bodies in my driveway, like you see in the movies, with fake blood around them and made a fake news report about a murder scene. The only problem was that my dad came home from work with his American boss and I had forgotten I’d even done it, so they arrived to find chalked out body marks on the driveway of our house.”
After leaving college Dermot ended up working as a runner on a short film and in fact spent most of his 20s working in the movie industry as an assistant director, which he jokes really just meant you ‘made tea’ for the actors.
At 27, however, he decided he had enough of that and wanted to get into radio so he ‘packed in his well-paying movie job’ and decided to work for free in a community radio station, which is now Dublin City FM.
“They needed a news reader and even though I didn’t know anything about news, I could do a really good impression of a newsreader, so I just did that and robbed the news off 98FM’s website and I was working in radio,” Dermot admits.
Dermot later moved to 98FM and admits that while there, he used the newsroom at night time to make his own comedy sketches and more fake news reports for his own amusement. His boss at the time heard them, however, and loved them so much that he gave Dermot a job doing comedy sketches for the late night talk show and for the morning breakfast show.
“From that, I got offered the presenter role on the breakfast show. So all that happened in space of two years. I was put together with Dave (Moore) and we’ve worked together for 18 years now.”
Dermot’s move to Today FM came in 2014, when he had finished working on RTE’s Republic of Telly TV show and things, as he says, were ‘calming down.’
“I got a call from the boss of Today FM asking if I’d be interested in working for them, and to be honest, that was a dream come true because I always loved Today FM and wanted to be on a national station. So I took their hand off if I’m honest and couldn’t wait to get there.”
You only have to listen to Dermot and his radio partner Dave for a matter of minutes to understand why they are best friends for so long and to appreciate just how much they love what they do. Dermot considers it a privilege to be able to go to work every day to a job he utterly loves.
“I was only saying it a couple of days ago to the team that, whatever is going on in my life, I always wake up and get excited about going in and doing the show. I absolutely love what I do,” Dermot tells CONNECT. “Even if you’re dealing with something hard in real life, the radio studio is always this safe, fun, creative environment that I get to go into every day, and I know Dave feels the same way. I am genuinely excited about going in every day. I get to work with my best friend and a great team and we have total control over what we do and say, which is very rare in any kind of media.”
Dermot says that the pandemic made him even more grateful and more aware of the fortunate position that he is in.
“Once the pandemic hit, people really did turn on their radio for entertainment and reassurance and to be informed, and I am very conscious of and grateful for that. It’s a really important time in our country’s history and I never take for granted how fortunate I am to be given three hours a day of people’s attention. I think our show is good mix of entertainment and more serious things – of light and shade – and the fact that so many people have tuned in and laughed with us makes me very aware of how fortunate I am.”
While perfectly happy in his career right now, Dermot admits that it wasn’t quite so peaceful a few years back when he was trying to pack so much into his career and home life, unaware what the pressure was doing to him. It was this shock revelation, brought on by a serious panic attack, that introduced Dermot to the whole area of mindfulness and meditation – first as a participant, then a teacher and now an author.
“As I was getting into radio, stand-up, starting a family, getting into television and doing all these exciting things in the mid noughties, I wasn’t aware of the impact that stress, lack of sleep, anxiety and all of these thing could have on my system so I ended up having a panic attack on the way to perform at a comedy festival,” Dermot explains. “The truth was I was really worn out. I was burning the candle at both ends and I was doing my best to do all these new things, but I didn’t have any way to manage the stress that was associated with it. After that incident, it gave me a bit of a fright, so I said there has to be a better way of dealing with this than pints
“Only in recent years, looking back, that I understood what was happening to me. I thought this was what life was, and you just worked really hard and tried to have some fun at the weekend and try and keep it all together. But the truth is that our body gives us little signs, and if we’re not aware of those signs we can miss them. Then our bodies will shout a little louder and eventually, if we’re not listening at all, you could have something like an anxiety attack or a panic attack or some other kind of health challenge as your body is screaming, trying to tell you that you’re doing great but you’re doing too much.”
Dermot explained that it was by pure chance, after his own panic attack, that he was introduced to the whole area of mindfulness and meditation, when author and now close friend, Siobhan McKenna, asked him to launch a new book that she had just written.
“It was then I found out that she taught meditation to the guards so I thought: well, if she’s teaching it to law enforcement there must be something in it. So I said I’d give it a go, even though I think it’s for hippies and Californian types who wear yoga pants all the time,” Dermot joked.
“I soon realised there was an awful lot of really important science in there and that these techniques were incredibly effective and how doing a small bit every day could have a huge impact on your relationship and work and energy levels and your sleep.”
Dermot started practicing these techniques over ten years ago and saw such a hugely positive impact in his own life that he became a teacher about three years ago.
“I suppose there were a few reasons for deciding to become a teacher. The first was because the techniques were so effective and worked so well for me that I wanted to share them with people, but also I realised that you can learn these techniques without buying into the whole wellness, crystals and chakras part of it. That often puts people off. So, if I could communicate these ancient techniques but in a way that’s modern, scientific and hopefully funny, then it could help a lot of people like it helped me. It’s important that people know that doing a very small amount can have a big ripple effect out into the rest of your world. That’s why I wanted to become a teacher.”
Mindfulness, Dermot explained, is anything that takes you into the present moment when we’re not worrying about things that happened in the past or things that might happen in the future.
“That could be simply playing with your pet or your new baby, listening to your favourite song, it could be washing dishes, if you’re simply working on that task in front of you. Meditation, then, is a form of mindfulness – it’s the tool that brings us into that present moment. That’s when our nervous system can be nice and relaxed and our inner alarm isn’t ringing, so the more times we can put ourselves into that space the more beneficial it will be. The one myth I’d love to bust, however, is that meditation doesn’t mean clearing your mind of al thoughts – that’s impossible because we have 80,000 thoughts a day and they’re not going anywhere.”
Another misconception about this whole area, Dermot says, is that mindfulness is just for elite athletes or ‘monks in robes who live in the Himalayas.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth…
“It’s for absolutely everybody and the benefits are huge. There is a great science around it and it has been proven that regular meditation, even for beginners, can shrink your amygdala – the part of your brain responsible for fearful, anxious or angry thoughts. So, if you think about it, how can we continue to have the same levels of anxiety if the part of our brain that’s producing them is shrinking? So, if you excuse the pun, that was a no-brainer for me,” Dermot explained.
“These techniques have been scientifically proven to lower anxiety, reduce depression, lower the levels of stress hormones in your system, improve your sleep, lengthen your attention span, create kinder thoughts towards yourself and other people, lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure – the list goes on and on. If we could put all that in a pill, you can be guaranteed that a big pharmaceutical company would be charging you handsomely for it. But we don’t have to put it in a pill because it’s free and all we have to do is make time, even for a few minutes in our day, which can be enough to keep us a little bit happier and a little more balanced.”
Back in April, Dermot celebrated a culmination of years of practice and teaching when his first book, Mind Full , was officially released. Within weeks, it was the number one best seller in Ireland. Still reeling in the success of the book, Dermot says it is so satisfying to see such an amazing reaction.
“The book makes the whole area of meditation and de-stressing accessible and fun. It was really important to me that I could communicate the science and the techniques in a way that put a smile on people’s face, but didn’t expect them to join a cult or give someone their bank details in India,” Dermot joked. “These are every day, simple, usable techniques used by everyone from athletes to the military and we can use them too. All the books I had read were either too spiritual or too academic, so I thought there’s got to be somewhere in the middle where I can bring this stuff to people – and lockdown seemed to be the perfect time to do that,” Dermot explained.
“The idea of writing a book had popped into my head before, but not in a massively serious way, but when Gill (book publishers) talked me though the process of what would be involved I thought: ‘Yeah I can do that’. I thought I’d give it a go. Personally, I never dreamed it would be a number one best seller, but in another way I’m not surprised because people are ready for that information now. They have a lot of challenges in their life and they are ready to learn some tools and techniques to help them navigate everything that’s happening. So the more accessible I can make it, the more people are likely to try it. It’s a book for everybody – whether that’s stressed out teenagers, parents who are struggling, people who are finding lockdown tough, or those who have any kind of health challenges. Anyone who is human and who has dealt with human issues, it will help them. Everyone just wants to feel a little bit happier, a little bit more balanced and sleep a little bit better at night and these are very doable things and human desires.So if anything I’m doing can help people improve their life in any way, then I’m very, very happy.”
Mind Full, published by Gill Books, is now available from all good book stores or online at www.dermotwhelan.com – where Dermot also offers free guided meditations for people who want to explore the whole idea of mindfulness and meditation.