Every now and then, when Maia Dunphy takes her seven-year-old Tom for a walk somewhere, beautiful things can happen. The traffic light turns green, the rain stops or the heavy traffic eases. “That’s Nana,” Tom might say. “She did.”
s Maia says he associates his beloved grandma Helen with kindness and positive things that happen: “When he makes that association, it’s just beautiful.”
It has been over six months since Helen died of pancreatic cancer, which has left the 46-year-old broadcaster and her family dead. It was a six-month period like no other, notes Dunphy. There are the peaceful moments, like the green traffic light man, but also the turmoil of an unexpected grief, like the time her mother’s cell phone number was reassigned and WhatsApp notified her with a notification: “Mom’s gone.”
“People told me to watch out for that six-month mark, and I said, ‘No, I’ll be fine,'” says Dunphy. “On Mother’s Day, my phone was full of messages from friends. And I wasn’t even a wreck for it. I don’t think I even recognized the six month mark. Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. I was prepared for that.
“But this week I had to go in Ireland AM and I took Tom to my friend who took him to school,” she adds. “He threw up out of nowhere and freaked out. And I was really pissed because any other time I would have called my mom and said, “I know it’s not 7 o’clock yet, but can you come?”. And she would have been like Harvey Keitel pulp fictionlike ‘leave the mess to me’.”
Over the years, Dalkey-born Dunphy has made no secret of her closeness to Spanish-born Helen and her father Tom, a former president of Dublin Zoo.
“When I came back from London as a single parent [after splitting from husband Johnny Vegas]which really was never my plan in life, my parents became my most important family unit again,” she says.
“Single parenting can be pretty lonely, so I started hanging out with them and spending weekends with them.” During Covid, the family became even closer than ever. “I kind of formed a bubble with my parents because they were within a 5km radius, so I started seeing them a lot, but still some distance away.”
Dunphy didn’t know it then, but she would be deeply grateful for so much quality time with her parents. In the summer of 2021, Helen received the devastating diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
“You google and you see the very low survival rates, but you still think, ‘It doesn’t matter, she’s going to be in that 5 percent range,'” says Dunphy. “Last August she just said, ‘I’m going to hit that.’ She was so determined it was unreal. They were planning to go on holiday to Mallorca in June and my mum had a photo of that terrace in Mallorca on her phone and she said ‘I’ll be on that terrace in June’.”
Helen was admitted to St Vincent’s Private Hospital in January and died five weeks later.
Dunphy says the day Helen died was “extraordinary”. “I had done a play for [RTÉ show] Sunday Miscellaneous Around the time my grandma got lost in Paris. This morning I could hear mine Sunday Miscellaneous piece and the song Not, Je Ne Regrette Rien [by Edith Piaf] play down the corridor. You couldn’t invent it. The next day I needed to keep things normal, so with my baseball cap and mask on, I just stood back at the school gate, exhausted.
“I now think the world is divided into two groups – people who understand and people who are fortunate enough not to.”
After two well-received series of What planet are you on?, Maia had hoped to start a master’s degree in climate policy last year but has since put her studies on hold, partly because a degree on campus didn’t suit her. “It’s definitely an area that really interests me,” she says. “Doing the show for RTÉ gets you into people’s minds in a different way than just being a one-trick pony.”
Not that there’s a big chance. Earlier this year, Dunphy launched a podcast, Read The Roomwith actor/comedian Paddy C. Courtney, with whom she shares a sharp sense of humor.
“It just came from a conversation with Paddy where I said to him, ‘If you want to do something together, let me know.’ I had just started a podcast called How to build a humanthese were pretty much parent talks and then i realized that what i was trying to do i’m not sure i would have listened to it so why should i expect other people to listen to it?
Dunphy has amassed a sizeable following on social media. After becoming a mother to Tom, she wrote The M word, a book that eventually became a popular online community on Facebook for “people who happen to be parents.” She is no longer involved with the platform and admits she “misses it so much”.
“The Facebook page has thrived and has just been a wonderful place for people to share stories and ask questions like, ‘Is this normal?'” says Dunphy. “When you’re in the eye of the storm, the support is really helpful.”
Dunphy is also involved with a number of ambassadors and charities including Our Lady’s Hospice & Care Services, Dog’s Trust and Dublin Simon Community.
We’re chatting today because Dunphy leads Zenflore’s Mind Your Mates campaign, which encourages friends to look out for one another in post-lockdown times.
“I have a feeling you’re probably dying to get back into pubs after lockdown at 20, but I don’t,” she says. “A lot of things like meeting for coffee or the occasional walk have not really been put back together. We keep saying we’re going to meet, and we really don’t. I’ll be really honest – when we think of looking after people, we tend to think of older people, but a lot of other people, like single parents, are really isolated.”
On the dating front, Dunphy admits she’s “died a toe in those murky waters” but is determined to keep this aspect of her life more private going forward. “I certainly learned the hard way to keep things to myself,” she says.
After appearing on Dancing with the stars In 2018, Dunphy had to deny rumors that she was romantically linked to dance partner Robert Rowinski.
“Deirdre O’Kane, who was on the show the same year as me, has a great joke about it. The producers said: “Would you be worried? Strict Curse? There are a lot of people in the UK and US who went on the show and then left their partners for much younger, hotter dance partners. She said ‘okay sign me up’. We always laughed a lot there.
“It wasn’t an easy time in my life and I was such a bad dancer [when I signed up for DWTS], so I thought ‘well we’re never gonna win this, we might as well be friends’. And he became a very, very good friend.”
Still, the rumors tickled her. “More than anything, I loved that no one was like, ‘He wouldn’t look at her twice,’ or ‘He’s eight years younger and a total ride, so it can’t be true,'” she says. “It was a total ‘yeah’ moment.”
For more information on Mind Your Mates, visit precisionbiotics.com/ie/zenflore/mind-your-mates.
https://www.independent.ie/life/i-certainly-learned-the-hard-way-to-keep-things-to-myself-maia-dunphy-on-love-lockdowns-and-losing-her-mother-42008073.html Maia Dunphy on love, lockdowns and losing her mother – ‘I’ve certainly learned the hard way to keep things to myself’ –