Indian Summer: Norah Casey embraces her Indian heritage for Strictly Against Breast Cancer
Growing up, Norah Casey was unaware of her Indian heritage and the story of her great-grandmother, who was born in Calcutta but married and settled in Dublin 2. Now in a phase of life where she's no longer 'chasing her tail' but instead focusing on pursuits to nourish her soul, Norah's participation in Strictly Against Breast Cancer next weekend is a nod to her heritage.
Published 16/11/2015 | 02:30
'The things you never notice as a child," Norah Casey says, as she proffers her phone, which displays a snap she has taken of an old black-and-white family photo. In it are various members of her extended family and her mother, as a young woman, with her hands on the shoulders of a man sitting in front of her. Even as Norah hands me the phone, what stands out is how much darker that man's skin is compared to the skin of all the other Irish people in it, pictured at the beach, probably some time in the 1950s.
"I never even noticed that his skin was darker until I knew," says Norah. The man in question is her father's stepbrother, Patrick, known in the family as Parky. He and Norah's dad, Harry, had the same mother, whose own mother, Elizabeth Meeroe, was Indian, born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the early 1800s. So, the stepbrothers were both one-quarter Indian, though Parky's skin was, by chance, darker than Harry's. "But all of us on my dad's side of the family have dark hair and dark eyes, and some of my cousins are very dark," says Norah. "We all have a certain look."
As a child, however, Norah never knew this about her family history. "It really wasn't talked about until I was in my teens," she explains. "Not until we were slightly older. I mean, growing up, there were Indian books in the house, and old cabinets and stuff like that, but they just got thrown out and nobody ever explained them. We didn't know about the family history until we were slightly older."
As she discusses her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Meeroe, you can see that Norah Casey loves the intrigue of it, and even the exotic quality of it all. A case in point is the fact that, when she agreed to participate in the Strictly Against Breast Cancer dance event this winter, she specifically asked to do a Bollywood number. Her dance partner, Zab Malik, is Pakistani, and Norah jokes that they are doing something to improve Indo-Pakistani relations, as well as raising funds for breast cancer research.
She's buzzing over the Bollywood dance, and as she shows me old photos of her family - her grandmother, her stepuncle, her father and her siblings as kids - she also shows me snaps from the previous day's shoot for LIFE, seen here on these pages. "Would you look!", she laughs, "My mother said to me, 'They'd put you back on the boat!'"
The family believe that Elizabeth Meeroe was born in Calcutta in the early 1800s. They don't have her birth cert, but they have her brother's, explains Norah. Elizabeth came to Ireland with her family as a young girl, when the English Army captain, to whom her father was batman, was stationed here. "Elizabeth went to work for my great-grandfather when she was young, and they married. I have that marriage cert," says Norah, shuffling through some pages to produce a reproduction of a page of a church registry with both their names on it. "He was Dodd," she continues, "and quite old, 69 or 70 at the time, and he had been a widow for years with a grown-up family.
"And she was a minor," says Norah, "Which then meant she was under 21. We think about 18. They got married and had children, one of whom was my grandmother."
Norah shakes her head at the romantic nature of it all. Obviously, she responds to it as the story of her family, a story much more exciting and unusual than most Irish family histories, but you can't help but be aware of Norah's professional response to it, too. With decades of writing and publishing under her belt, Norah loves a good story, and this is that.
"This was around 1850," she says. "What were the chances of that?" She breaks down the odds, explaining how when people were on foot or on horseback, they married within a 10-mile radius, which expanded to a 30-mile radius, and then extended across the country with the advent of the train and cars. "My father was from Dublin and my mother's from Leitrim, that was the extent of it in their day," she adds. "But in 1850, men in Dublin 2 did not marry girls born in India. And, today, in Ireland, it's amazing to find that in your ancestry."
When she was growing up, the family history that was talked about in the Casey house was mostly concerned with her Casey grandfather, who had fought in the 1916 Rising and was imprisoned during the Civil War. "I was digging out photos for you this morning," Norah says, flicking through the hundreds of pictures on her phone until she arrives at one of her paternal grandparents. "My grandfather and grandmother met in 1916. He was 16 and he had grown up in Haddington Road and Barrow Street [in Dublin 2] and he took up arms in Boland's Mill. He met my grandmother then, and she was in Cumann na mBan, trying to blow up the line to Belfast and stuff. They met gun-running, basically."
Her grandfather was in prison in Frongoch, Wales, during the Civil War, then in Northern Ireland, and then at The Curragh, and, later, he was given a grace-and-favour job and home in a gate lodge of the Phoenix Park, where Norah's father grew up.
Her father was the eldest of that family, and his father died young, probably due in part to how he had suffered in prison. "So my father gave up his career ambitions and came home and took over my grandfather's job and the lodge, because his siblings and mother would have been turfed out otherwise," she says.
Norah and her five siblings also grew up in that lodge, and she shows me pictures of her father in his constable's uniform, in one of which he's holding her as a baby.
"Our childhood stories were always about our grandfather and what he did as such a young man, and then you forget that he married this incredible woman who was in Cumann na mBan and did all these things. But she had been married before, and she had a son, Parky, my father's stepbrother." Norah doesn't go into detail of the first marriage of her grandmother, who died before she was born.
The Indian side of the family, however, in terms of culture or even cuisine, never seems to have played a part in the family, right down the generations. It's possible, she says, that the Meeroe family simply wanted to assimilate into Irish society. Also, the fact that her father didn't talk much about it suggests to her that he didn't grow up in a situation where his mother was carrying the traditions through the generations. And it must have been difficult, too, in mid-19th-Century Ireland, to be different.
On that point, Norah shows me a plaque that she and her extended family recently erected in Glasnevin cemetery, bearing the names of Elizabeth Meeroe's Indian brothers, who died impoverished in Dublin and were buried in paupers' graves.
The plaque may be to the brothers, but it is the women in the Meeroe/Casey line that fascinate Norah, for whom being a strong, gutsy, self-determining feminist is the cornerstone of her character. She's not just a successful woman, she's a bona fide survivor, as were the women back the family line, with whom she so identifies.
The week before we meet, it was the fourth anniversary of the death of her husband, Richard Hannaford. She has talked a lot about Richard's death, the effects of it on her and on their son, Dara, who is now in fifth year at school, and the loss is still one she feels profoundly. And while she has gone through massive pain in the past four years, Norah would say herself that she has undergone huge positive change too. Driven by her simple desire not just to survive, but to relish life.
"For six months after Richard's death, I did nothing," she says. "I was disinterested in life; just sitting on the sofa every night with Dara, eating and watching Netflix and not caring about anything. Getting up every day was a chore, but we did it. We made a pact that we would get up every day. But after that first six to eight months, I went into warp speed, and I didn't slow down again until last year." Norah lists off her warp-speed activity - variously her radio shows on Newstalk, the Today show and The Takeover on RTE; her publishing business, Harmonia. It would exhaust most people, but she just wanted to be busy and distracted, and she achieved that.
Then, last year, Norah decided to slow down. Relatively. In 2013, she stood down from Harmonia, but last year she left Newstalk, launched a motivational book, Spark!, did a TV series with Traveller women that she had always wanted to do, and she refocused a lot of her energy on Dara. "He has me 115pc now, and he has never had that before," she says. "At warp speed, I was paying someone to come in in the mornings and get him out to school. Now I'm making sure I've made spaghetti Bolognese and have it waiting for him when he gets in from school. He loves it!"
Her relationship with Dara is very clearly the primary focus of Norah's life, and a month spent together in Africa in January really "rewired" both of their brains, she says. "We came back different people," she adds, explaining how she has since started running and climbing Bray Head every week, training with Pat Falvey to climb Kilimanjaro. "My friends joke that they couldn't get me out for a walk a year ago, and now I'm climbing mountains!"
The difference between going for a walk and climbing a mountain is that one seems aimless and the other is a campaign, and Norah loves a campaign. Strictly Against Breast Cancer is a campaign, too. A former nurse, Norah has been involved with Breast Cancer Ireland for years, particularly since her own brush with the disease.
"In my early 40s, I discovered lumps in my breasts," she explains, simply. Reluctantly, a locum GP sent her for a mammogram, and in the Mater they discovered lumps in both breasts. They were benign, but behind them the surgeon found a phyllodes tumour.
"It's just a mass, contained in its own sac, and it doesn't throw out any secondaries, but it grows and invades the space around it and it would have continued into my chest and invaded my organs," Norah explains. "So I had a partial mastectomy and, because it has a very high chance of recurrence, I was under monitoring for a long time. I got used to one boob being smaller than the other, that was fine, but it was the fact that they were different shapes and nothing fit properly. You become self-conscious about it, and I was constantly on the TV pulling at my clothes.
"I was due to have the reconstruction when Richard got sick, and then I didn't care about doing anything. Then, after he died, I kept putting it off because I was too busy and I didn't have time. Finally, I did it last year, but I went into work two days later, and I told no one."
She adds: "I was always happy to talk about Richard's death but I didn't talk about the mastectomy until I did the [breast cancer] shoot in LIFE magazine [in March]. It was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life. Dara didn't speak to me for about two months. Barry McCall, who did the photographs and would be a good friend of ours, had a talk with Dara about how important it was.
"And it was important, but I'd rather get up and speak in front of 1,000 people than ever do that again. I was there with all these fabulous people and not only am I not a model, I have all these scars. But anyway."
A bit of fear never stopped Norah Casey doing anything she thought was worth it. And Strictly Against Breast Cancer is worth it, though she dodged signing up for it for the three years since she was part of the judging panel, despite being asked annually. Finally, with this being her year of trying new things, she thought to hell with it. "I thought, 'I think I'm great on the dance floor after a couple of glasses of wine, but do I want to get up in front of all those people?'" Norah says. "I was really torn. But eventually I thought, 'Feck it, it's only a dance'. And, anyway, it keeps me fit.
"I'm in that weird period of my life where I want to stop chasing my tail and I want to do things for my soul," says Norah, still flicking through the photos on her phone, looking for something significant. She finds her grandmother and shows her to me. "My mother says I'm the image of her and just like her, too," Norah says with a satisfied laugh. "She was a character, always wearing exotic hats and things and always great fun. Apparently I'm her all over again."
Strictly Against Breast Cancer to support Breast Cancer Ireland's pioneering research programmes will take place on Saturday, November 21, in the Convention Centre, North Wall Quay, D1. For tickets, tel: (01) 402-2747, or see breastcancerireland.com
Sarees by Maharani, 10 Market Arcade, South Great George's St, D2; tel: (087) 905-4489
All jewellery and accessories, Norah's own
Photographed by Kip Carroll
Styled by Cathy O'Connor
Hair by Elle Doyle
Make-up by Leanne Mooney using the db Face make-up collection, exclusively available at Dylan Bradshaw, 56 South William St, D2; tel (01) 671-9353 or see dylanbradshaw.com
Photographed in the boardroom of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 123 St Stephen's Green, D2