Alleluia Carole

Interrogating George Bush and blessing women from the Radical Sheep Ministry in Maryland. Carole Coleman talks to Colin Murphy

It's 22 months since 'that' interview, and Carole Coleman has moved on. Moved on from RTÉ, moved on from Washington, got married, written a book. And still people want to talk about the interview with George Bush. "Why are people still interested?", she asks. The interview brought her to a wider audience: as well as days of letters in the Irish Times, there was a favourable editorial in the New York Times and a question and answer session at one of the White House media briefings devoted to it.

And it "opened doors" for her: her subsequent book, Alleluia America! An Irish Journalist in Bush Country, has just been released in the US – this wouldn't have happened had her interview with George Bush not been picked up by the US media, she says.

Six months or so after the interview, Carole Coleman took a leave of absence from RTÉ and set off to explore the US outside of Washington and the big cities – those areas increasingly termed "red" America, which consistently vote Republican.

She found it to be, in part, a familiar place. "I'm from supposedly holy Catholic Ireland, which clearly is no longer, and (I found) that there's this whole section of America which is more like we used to be."

At one point, she attended a protest against gay marriage, in Maryland, in freezing weather, and got talking to some women from the Radical Sheep Ministry. The women said they prayed for Ireland "every day", and even carried stones from Ireland around with them.

"So I said, 'that's very nice, and may you continue to pray for Ireland'. I was just about to depart when one of the women said, 'don't go yet, we'd like you to bless us'.

"I was looking around, going, 'Bless you? What do you mean, bless you?'

"Would you just put your hands on us and bless us that we may continue to pray for Ireland?" the woman said. Carole Coleman "looked around to make sure there was nobody recording it", took off her gloves, and gave them her blessing

"I wasn't really comfortable, but they were pretty insistent."She says she found it funny at the time, and was laughing as she gave the blessing, but "came to admire" the seriousness with which people took their religion.

"I was thinking more in terms of a heavier book and then I thought, what the hell do I know. I'm not inside the White House, I'm not inside those minds. So why not just go around and try and explain "red" America to those who don't understand it."

She wanted Alleluia America! to be "light" and non-judgmental. It was "very simply done", in just six months of travelling and writing. "Everywhere I went, I brought the tape recorder and then just wrote up the notes afterwards."

"I know it's nothing spectacular, but there was never a day when I woke up and thought, I don't want to do this."

Carole Coleman grew up in Carrick-on-Shannon, where her family had a bakery. She "wasn't much good at much", she says, but she had "this idea that I would end up travelling the world, being an unattached free spirit, staying in hotels, not having much housework to do. And that's what I got when I went to the States."

After boarding school in Longford, she went to study journalism at the College of Commerce in Rathmines, and then took off for the States with a Donnelly visa, and worked in a radio station in Massachusetts for a couple of years. Then Century Radio launched, and she came back for a job there. Century lasted two years before going bust, and shortly afterwards, the Beef Tribunal started. RTÉ took her on for "two or three weeks" to cover the Beef Tribunal for Myles Dungan's Today at Five radio programme. After covering it daily for almost two years, she was given a proper contract. She then worked as Education and Environment Correspondent, and in 2000 was appointed Washington Correspondent.

Towards the end of her time in Washington, a year and a half ago, she met Larry Schott, a doctor, and they married a few weeks ago. He works for the federal government, where he's "involved in Medicare and all that business". How did they meet? "Just on a kind of social thing, through friends, just one of those chance encounters".

They had a small, family wedding, "the whole traditional thing", in a local church in Annapolis, where they are now living. They had Irish trad musicians for a session and set dancing afterwards; her father made the wedding cake and brought it over on the plane with him. She thinks they will spend a couple of years more in the States, and then perhaps move home. "I never saw myself, and I still don't, having the American kids." Annapolis is a seaside town of 35,000 people on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It's "gorgeous" she says, "sort of like a small Irish town" – she found Washington "very impersonal" and a "hard enough place to survive for a single person".

Her leave of absence with RTÉ has just ended, and staying in the US means that she will have to go freelance. She is looking forward to it. She will broadcast for RTÉ when possible, but primarily it'll mean the chance to follow up her own projects. One involves a collection of letters from the front in the First World War, sent home to her grandmother by her grand-uncle. Generally, she'd like to do more writing. She talks about China, and the possibility of doing something similar to the American book there – travelling around, asking people about religion, about work, about their lives – perhaps it's more of a dream than a project.

Religion comes up a number of times. She is a practicing Catholic: "I never left the church. I'm one of the goody-goodies who's been to mass probably almost every Sunday since I was a kid."

Preparing for her interview with George Bush, she read up particularly on the role of religion in his life. Going back over the interview, she focusses on the question she asked him about his faith: "Do you believe that the hand of God is guiding you in this war on terror?"

George Bush answered that he got "great sustenance from my personal relationship (with God)", that his God "is one that promotes peace and freedom", and that he did not think he was "a better person" than anyone else because of his faith.

"It was good", she says, "because it was as open as I had heard him be about it".

In a ten-minute interview, she asked George Bush some ten questions, interrupted him seven times, and was reprimanded by him five times. Her questions were mostly open-ended, some of them simply statements (that Irish people were "angry over Iraq", that "the world is a more dangerous place today"), and allowed George Bush to give conventional, and time-consuming answers – which she tried to interrupt. She "certainly was not intending to be rude" and"would definitely ask the same questions again", but might be more specific, she says.

"It was really just trying to poke away at this facade.

"Everyone around him will tell you that he's the one who makes the decisions, he's not some sort of puppet for Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc. I really think he is (the decision-maker).

"Even now, (after) I've worked there for five years, I've travelled the country speaking to Republicans, I still don't understand George Bush. All my Democrat friends say he's thick, he's stupid. I don't believe any of that. I think he's pretty smart, very shrewd."

"I went in there as a curious person trying to find out what was in (his) head. As soon as you get in there, you realise you're not getting into this head.

"So you're a little bit disappointed that you're not going to get this special insight into this man, even though (you've) spent the last number of months reading about him."

After the interview, the White House complained, telling her, "it's the President's job to lead the interview, don't you know."

What bothered her most subsequently was being pigeonholed as a result of the interview as being "part of this liberal elite, a lefty". One Irish woman wrote to her, saying, "you don't like George Bush because he's against abortion."

"I was like, hey, I'm against abortion too." People assumed, she says "that, because you challenged him on the war in Iraq and did what a journalist is supposed to do, then you are liberal in every aspect of your life. And it didn't describe me."

Carole Coleman was in Ireland to give a talk at the UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies on 4 April, entitled 'The US Media and the White House'.

Alleluia America! An Irish Journalist in Bush Country by Carole Coleman is published by the Liffey Press