The death of her husband taught Norah Casey a lot about courage she tells Richard Fitzpatrick
Norah Casey speaks about losing the spark for life when her husband, Richard Hannaford died from cancer three years ago and in her book, the broadcaster and Dragon’s Den mentor shares that experience of facing adversity and coming out stronger the other side.
Making a reality TV show for RTE 2, she witnessed a very different kind of strength in Traveller women. In Norah’s Traveller Academy, Casey mentors four young traveller women in entrepreneurship. Making the series was a learning experience for Casey.
“Nearly all the women, bar one, were told by their teacher to sit at the back of their class or they were moved into a remedial class, partly because the teacher felt they were going to move on shortly. This group of women had so little by way of formal education and help in their lives but I underestimated that once you have it inside, you have it,” she said.
“I didn’t fully understand what it means to be a traveller – the discrimination, the disadvantage, the health issues, the lack of confidence, particularly with the women. I’ve had experience of people saying to me about working with ‘knackers,’ ‘tinkers’, ‘watch your jewellery’, ‘what have you got them in your house for?’ I can see it blatantly in people I would have seen as well educated, politically correct, who wouldn’t dream about saying that about any other race”.
Norah herself found it hard to re-ignite the spark or drive that had made her one of the country’s most successful businesswomen when Richard died.
She has got there though and is launching a beauty range called Beoir with Christine Collins, one of the Traveller women from the Traveller Academy.
“If anybody had told me the things that I’ve experienced myself when I was going through the immediate aftermath of Richard’s death,” she says, “I would have been grateful to them. As time went on, and I was speaking so honestly about grief and bereavement, and how paralysing it can become, I was conscious that other people were writing to me, talking to me, stopping me in the street, and I didn’t want the story to just end there because I knew it had changed for me. I knew I had found a different way to live life and be fulfilled.
“When Richard was suddenly gone, it was like half of me was gone. The enormity and pain became quite paralysing. I have good friends who have similarly lost loved ones and they’ve never moved on. They live ‘shadow lives’. They’ve no joy or meaning to their lives and don’t feel that there is anything that they need to fulfil in their future. They see themselves living their lives until eventually they pass away. For me, it was the understanding that Richard hadn’t fulfilled his life. If you’re able to stand on your own two feet and you’re fit and healthy, you owe it to them to live life to the full.”
Casey met Hannaford, a BBC correspondent, in 1991. The pair worked in London. Both were emerging from difficult relationships. Casey separated from her first husband when she was 31 years of age. Their first steps in love were so tentative that it was months before they kissed, but once they’d fallen in love, says Casey, it was “often difficult for others to share their space”.
They married at the University Church, St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, New Year’s Eve, 1996, and returned to Ireland to build Harmonia, the country’s largest magazine publisher, which includes Irish Tatler and Woman’s Way in its stable. Their son Dara was born in December 1998. Within five months of being diagnosed with cancer in May 2011, Hannaford was admitted to Blackrock Hospice, with only days to live. It was 12-year-old Dara who asked a palliative care doctor how long his father had left to live. Casey, not having broached the subject, is forever grateful he uttered the question. “Having been a nurse myself I missed all the cues. Even looking back now I admonish myself about that, but at the time everything happened so fast with Richard’s illness. He was going through chemo, then his spine cracked, and they were finding more tumours. At the time, we were going to St Vincent’s Hospital for this experimental chemotherapy. We did believe we could buy more time even though Richard was sleeping for longer and longer and his pain wasn’t well controlled. We thought that this new regime of drugs had just floored him.
“Even the day before Dara had that conversation [with the palliative care specialist], I said to a nurse, ‘Gosh, Richard’s not eating very much and he’s sleeping a lot’ and she was kind of looking at me and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You know your husband is very sick.’ I was thinking, ‘Does she think I’m stupid? I know he’s sick. He’s cancer in most of his major organs.’ But actually what she was trying to tell me was that he was dying. As far as I was concerned Richard was only in for a couple of weeks and I was taking him home.”
Casey speaks convincingly about the second start bereaved people can get in life, or people hitting their sixties, especially now that life expectancies have stretched so much in the space of a generation. She’s reinvigorated herself by taking a backseat as chairwoman of her publishing business, which had become “a comfort zone”, to focus instead on several broadcasting and documentary-making ventures. She cites the fact that the biggest growth of PhD and Masters degree graduates is amongst the over-fifties. It takes courage, of course, to change track in life. In her book, she mentions arriving at TV3’s studios to do a slot covering as host on Vincent Browne’s current affairs show. It was the summer after her husband had died. It was her first taste of doing some broadcasting in a long time, and she was suddenly gripped by fear. After signing in at reception, she went into a toilet to throw up. Despite the anxiety, she got through the programme, and was exhilarated driving home. She had turned a corner.
“In the book, I just want to use my personal experience, of telling my story, and saying, ‘Look, this is what worked for me.. I have never been more petrified than I have been over the last two years.
“I take on things and look at myself and say, ‘What the hell are you doing even contemplating doing that?’ But I still make myself do it because after I know that I feel good about it. I’m not talking about bungee jumping – I’d never do that. I’m talking much more about putting yourself out there. It energises me and moves me forward as a human being. For me, it was opening the door to do something a little bit different. Once the door was a little open, I threw it open fully.”
Norah Casey’s ‘Spark! How to Reignite your Passion for Life – and Become the Person you Always Dreamed of Being’ is published by Penguin Ireland.
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