"Let's face it, your country doesn't give an SH*T about the poor," the enigmatic grey haired man said to me as we spoke in the library of the Dylan Hotel in Dublin over St. Patrick's Day weekend. His name is George Hook, and he was fired up that afternoon.
Why wouldn't he be? He was going to be on the television the next day hosting one of the biggest rugby matches, Ireland vs. France for the Six Nations title. It was the day Brian O'Driscoll would retire (the BOD as he was called) and either go out in glory or defeat (Ireland won and it was quite a time in the local pubs).
His radio show Monday through Friday on Newstalk.ie 106-108fm (which streams) is immensely popular and verges on becoming the number one afternoon drive show in the country. I find myself starting my day with it thanks to Sonos (Ireland is seven hours ahead of us).
He's controversial, and there's definitely a love/hate relationship as with any host. A cab driver told me he thinks he says things "just to get a rise out of people, you know?" Others start with, "well, he's from Cork..."
"Cork is below the Mason-Dixon line in Ireland," he laughed when I told him of the comments.
Quick to come back, he embodies just that, the ultimate comeback. Hook takes no bones in telling of a broken past.
"I was an abysmal failure in business," he stated matter-of-factly. "Here I was 55 years old, no bank or creditor in the country would lend to me, every one of them was suing me and my wife was one step away from leaving me," he recalled. "We were sitting with the power off, because I hadn't paid the bill. To say it was dark times... well, quite! Then the phone rang, it wasn't on the power grid obviously. It was a TV station asking if I'd come in the next day to do two minutes on a Rugby match. I've always been around Rugby, coached it, all that. Now, you know when they call you the night before, they've reached the bottom of the barrel," he laughed.
"But the pay was just what I owed on the light bill, so I said yes! of course!"
What comes next may be interpreted by some as divine providence, by others as a massive stroke of luck.
"I went in, and a huge storm, a hurricane, took out all the other sports that day. There was suddenly no racing, no auto sports, nothing, and all they were left with was me and the Rugby. They asked if I thought I could talk for three hours. Well..." he remembered with a laugh.
That started him on the next chapter of his life. The first can be read in the his biography Time Added On from 2005.
Radio has been good to Hook. His show is hugely successful, and while the station has changed over the years around him, he's still there, talking away.
"I'm the type of tax and spend liberal the Bush family would like to exterminate," he began talking about Ireland and America. "And if we were to have a democratic election tomorrow where we voted for our president, this country would be 80 percent Democratic. We are a nation of tax and spend liberals. But you think we're the same, and we are talking about the same things, but we're not. It's a very different conversation here because of the nature of the discourse," he said.
In other words, there's not as much division, shouting and radicalism surrounding issues such as gay marriage: "It will pass in 2015 no doubt," Hook said. On abortion: "We will have that conversation and make those decisions, but we will do it calmly and once they are made, we will accept them and move on," he added.
"However, the biggest obstacle to gay rights are gays themselves," Hook went on, showing the spark that gets him the ratings. We were talking about the Boston and New York St. Patrick's Day controversies, and openly gay groups marching with signs stating they are gay. "There was room to work there, just as in this country. The authors of the gay marriage bill would probably denounce it now as something far away from their intent, but the fact is, gay marriage will be a reality in a Catholic country that didn't have divorce until 1996 within the next 14 months."
Hook uses an American conservative host on his show weekly for a different point of view. I asked if he was going to feature an American, could he at least get one that likes America?
"But that's why I do the segment," he injected. "In Ireland, we have nothing like that kind of talk. I went to Boston and heard Michael Graham and thought, people will throw things at their radios if they hear this, so I had to have him on!"
Hook's fame is lost on his wife. "She doesn't listen and if she hears what I've said on air from someone else, she tries not to listen to them either," he laughed. "We have a deal, she knows I'm committed to our marriage if I wash the dishes every night in the dishwasher. Well, I'm known as many things, but I'll tell you this, I'm the best darn dishwasher in all Ireland," he laughed.
His reinvention is miraculous, and that's not lost on him.
"Look, I went from failure and back again. Radio is a miraculous medium for the Irish, we love to talk to communicate."
Hook doesn't apologize for his opinions. And while he says he's a tax and spend liberal, many would argue he's a conservative in liberal clothing. But one thing is for sure, if Progressive Radio in the United States had voices like Hook's, the format may not be failing in so many markets (if it even exists in the market). I couldn't help but find so much common ground with this 60-ish Rugby player from Cork; including his story of reinvention. Many of us are looking around in our 40s or 50s and reassessing, relaunching, reinventing.
Hook doesn't have to worry ever again; his future success is almost assured. He has a loyal fan base which is growing, not shrinking. He is in demand on TV and radio, and given streaming radio is becoming and international sensation as well.
I know I'm listening.
For the complete interview, see the videos below.
George Hook Part 1 (Plus GoPro footage of Parade and motorcycling Ireland)
George Hook Part 2
George Hook Part 3