Friday 26 December 2014

A couple surprised by love

Fashion stylist Cathy O'Connor didn't believe she would ever get married.. until US writer Marc Flanagan came into her life.

Published 06/01/2014 | 02:30

Marc Flanagan and Cathy O'Connor
Marc Flanagan and Cathy O'Connor
Stylist Cathy O'Connor with models in Kilkenny
Cathy O'Connor, right, as a judge with the winner of the Best Dressed Lady Compeittion Eibhlinn Mhic Fhearraigh at Punhchestown

'I THINK there's a presumption that every woman wants to get married, but it wasn't part of my picture at all. I was very happy being on my own, and I'm not sure that people appreciate what a huge thing it is for those of us who aren't the marrying kind to reverse what we've always believed. So it's a real testament to Marc that I'm doing this!"

Ultra-stylish fashion expert Cathy O'Connor, much to her own surprise, finds herself discussing her recent engagement to her partner of four years, Marc Flanagan. When you look at it on paper, they're two people who have had very different life experiences. There's herself, 53, and from Dublin, who enjoyed lots of lovely relationships over the years, but stayed resolutely single. Marc, 65, an American father-of-two, has tied the knot three times, and is a double Emmy Award-winning writer.

"I guess it's taught me that change is always possible," says Cathy. "I remember thinking, 'I will love this man,' very early into our relationship, and then going, 'What?' as it was very unusual for me."

In contrast, the genial Marc says he is "very much the marrying kind", but when he first came to Ireland in June 2008, he was "looking for an echo".

"I was turning 60, was no longer married, and the pace of my work had slowed down. And while my life had been taken up with work and family up to then, now I was amorphous and didn't really have a direction. Each of my marriages came to an end for different reasons ... but we've all remained friends."

Born in New England in Connecticut, Marc's parents, Bernard and Shirley, both had Irish backgrounds. His family moved to Washington, where he and his sisters, Jeffrie and Robin, went to Catholic schools and he attended the Yale School of Drama to train as an actor. One of his classmates was Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, who is still one of his pals today. Marc worked as an actor for several years, but ultimately decided to become a writer, principally in the corporate world. He got married very early on, and his first child, Tara, now a casting director, was born. He also has a son, Sean, 23, from a subsequent marriage, who works with the CAA talent agency.

The catalyst for Marc's success came in 1984, when fellow Yale alumnus Meryl Streep asked him to write a short sketch for herself, Kevin Kline and Joe Grifasi to perform at a theatre benefit night. It went down a storm, and Marc was startled when audience member James L Brooks was full of praise for the sketch afterwards.

"He told me to call him at Paramount when I came to LA and I walked out the door floating on air," says Marc of the man who would win three Academy Awards for writing, producing and directing Terms of Endearment the following month. "But I presumed he was just being nice, so I never called him."

Two years later, Brooks contacted him about writing for a show he was about to launch with Tracey Ullman. A month later, Marc had moved to LA, where he quickly rose through the ranks to co-producer and supervising producer. He won two Emmy awards in 1989 and 1990 for The Tracey Ullman Show.

"Tracey won for outstanding variety, music or comedy programme, Paula Abdul won for choreography, and Tom and Bari Burman won for make-up," he recalls, of the 1989 ceremony. "There was this whole landslide going our way. It came to writer and they called out my name, and Jamie Lee Curtis presented my award. It was marvellous, but ultimately it doesn't change anything, of course."

Over the following years, Marc worked on programmes such as Murphy Brown and Grace Under Fire. It was when he worked on Madigan Men with Gabriel Byrne in 2000 that the idea of coming to Ireland was first floated.

"He asked me if I had been back to the old sod," he says. "When I stepped off the plane eight years later, I knew I was standing on ground that my forefathers had stood on, and when the guy at passport control said, 'Welcome home, Mr Flanagan', I burst into tears. I landed on Bloomsday, and saw all these people dressed up, and was so enchanted by it that I started making plans for my return. I didn't know one person, but it didn't stop me and I never felt like I was alone."

Marc returned to Ireland several times over the following year, became a sponsor of the Dingle Film Festival, and began acquiring a circle of friends here. Then in 2009, he was asked to introduce a film, Young Frankenstein, at the Odessa Club in Dublin, and got chatting to a woman from the audience. "I thought she had the face that launched a thousand ships and was so striking and beautiful with a very warm voice," he says.

"Then she was gone, and I asked photographer Conor Horgan if he happened to know the woman with the 'skunk stripe' in her hair? He said: 'That's the divine Cathy O'Connor,' and told me I would find her on Facebook, adding the caveat, 'Good luck to you'."

The following morning, Cathy was surprised to receive a Facebook message from the "interesting man" she had met the night before, saying that it was a pleasure to meet her and asking if she was married? "I replied that I wasn't married but was in love, to which Marc replied, 'Well, he's a lucky bastard'," laughs Cathy. "He added: 'If the wheels should come off the love cart, I can be there in 12 hours and 25 minutes!'"

The warm and serene Cathy grew up in Clonskeagh as the second eldest of pharmacy owners Stephanie and the late John O'Connor's four children. Her career developed in the area of television, and she produced, directed and worked on lifestyle shows such as Off the Rails, Head To Toe and The Movie Show.

She has now become one of Ireland's leading fashion experts, styling features for television, writing features and blogs, producing fashion shows, personal shopping, and hosting style workshops (see www.stylist.ie). She has her own unique and quirky sense of style, and, of course, the white streak in the front of her hair that Marc first noticed.

"It developed in my 20s, and while I tried to dye it, it's so porous that it doesn't take colour," she explains. "I don't mind it, although it limits what I can do with my hair at times. But while I make an effort, I'm far more interested in me being present in a situation than how I look."

Cathy is very compassionate, deep and open to people and possibilities, which she attributes to losing all three of her "gorgeous brothers". When she was 12, baby John died at six weeks old from complications; at 17, her 16-year-old brother Kevin died following a motorcycle accident, and at 19, her elder brother Gerard, 20, died in a car accident.

While the losses were terrible and changed her "completely and utterly", Cathy attributes her strength to her kind, decent parents, who kept going through what must have been unimaginable grief.

"When something as shocking as that occurs, there are very few anchors left in your life and you inevitably question everything. Losing my brothers caused me to view my life in a very different way, and I speak about it not in a 'poor me' type of way, but rather to illustrate that everyone has their own journey in life."

Cathy is very close to her mum Stephanie, 79, whom she describes as the best mother in the world. Her lovely dad John passed away from cancer ten years ago, aged 82. Although she has no children, she loves them and says the whole "tick-tock thing" can be very challenging for women. "If you don't have children and are lucky enough to be at peace with that, as I am, it's great," she says.

So, back in 2009, Cathy discovered that Marc was arriving in Ireland on Christmas Eve, and invited him to join her family for dinner as she couldn't bear to think of him spending December 25 alone. What he didn't know then was the wheels had indeed come off Cathy's love cart at that point, not that she was thinking towards him romantically at the time.

However, they hung out with his and her friends over the festive period and love began to blossom. They kissed at the taxi rank the night before Marc was due to go back home. Marc promised her that they would never be apart longer than five weeks, and he was back for Valentine's Day. They adored each other's company, loved travelling, and made each other laugh. Earlier this year, in the middle of a blazing argument, Marc popped the question.

"He said, 'I know what we should do'," says Cathy. "I said, 'What? Break up?' 'No,' he replied, 'let's get married!' It was a huge step and a seismic leap for me, so I told him to give me some time to consider it."

A few months later, Cathy and Marc were in Budapest. Cathy found herself in the very romantic, illuminated setting of Buda Castle, overlooking the Danube. and she turned to Marc and made her very charming acceptance speech.

While Marc already had the ring, Cathy wanted to become engaged in December, because it was normally a sad time as her dad and brothers all passed away around that time. "We brought my mother and my cousins to the snug in Doheny and Nesbitt's a few weeks ago, where Marc asked my mum for her permission to marry me. She said, 'Marc, you've always had my permission.' I wanted to create a different memory around that time, so Marc has really given Christmas back to myself and my mother."

Marc and Cathy threw a little party to celebrate in Residence and then went off to New York the next day. It was good timing, as Cathy doesn't like to be the centre of attention, and only has the vaguest idea of what she wants for her wedding. She has to take baby steps, so as not to feel overwhelmed, she says, but what she does know is that it will probably be in 2014 and definitely in Ireland as she believes in supporting local businesses. Marc, who is semi-retired, will spend most of his time here, and wouldn't mind writing something for Irish TV or radio. There are also possibilities for Cathy to do some work in the States.

And going back after they first met, Marc threw a party in Malibu to introduce Cathy to his friends and family. "I explained that I travelled to Ireland and fell in love with the country, and in particular, with one person, Cathy O'Connor," he smiles. "My instincts were right when I came to Ireland, because while I didn't know what I was looking for then, I found it."

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