Sunday 16 December 2018

From broken wings to soaring high - former journalist Orlaith Carmody

Former journalist Orlaith Carmody overcame tragedy, and found love a second time with Dragons' Den star Gavin Duffy. She spoke to our reporter about the tribulations that helped form her

Orlaith Carmody. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Orlaith Carmody. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Gavin Duffy and Orlaith Carmody
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'Aminefield". That's how Orlaith Carmody describes media interviews in her new book about leadership and communication, Perform As A Leader. And from the besuited, arms folded, full length picture of her on the cover, I do have the vague feeling that this communications expert and former journalist may be too polished and savvy for any interesting detonations during our chat. But right up front she explains that she's in fact so polished that she understands that allowing us a little glimpse of her ragged edges is part and parcel of being savvy. "When journalists get tetchy I think it's because they are getting worried that the person answering the question is boring. An interview is going on and the answers were boring and the broadcaster can hear the radios clicking off at speed. I tell people to be honest, be yourself and answer the question. Sometimes people wear the bus-driver's hat and they make themselves very formal and stiff because they think they're representing the company. I say have the confidence to nudge the people awake with stories, wit and insight."

Can I get an amen in here? If only all interviewees explicitly understood this quid pro quo, I think, as I nod vigorously at her. To be fair to Orlaith, she is as good as her word. And while she knows the brand is the book, and it is very much a how-to effort, she's also conscious of explaining herself in a memorable way. The opening chapter deals, for instance, with one of the most formative experiences in her life: the death of her first husband, Kieran, to whom she was married before she met her current spouse, Dragons' Den star Gavin Duffy. His death, she writes, was "a pivotal moment" and for her was "the point where everything you have ever known ends abruptly and a new normal has to begin."

She was 25, working as a journalist and newly married when she stood in a corridor of St Vincent's hospital in Dublin and was told that her new husband had an inoperable brain tumour. The news was delivered with horrible bluntness by a presumably harried nurse and Orlaith felt her world tilt on its axis. Kieran lost his hair to radiotherapy, ceded his physique to rounds of steroids, which depleted rather than promoted muscle growth, and was soon wheelchair-bound. Still his "fight and his attitude" left a lasting impression on Orlaith. "It was a terrible time but it was great in a way too. It was so vivid and everything seemed to have such significance. It was very intense. We went on holidays to France one time and I remember his family and his mum saying 'what if anything happens over there?' But to my mind it had to be done. If he was alive we had to keeping living and he himself was choosing to say yes to each stage of his life. And the memories were extraordinary."

Like any widow-to-be, she scrabbled around for last options. "He got the best of care in Ireland but we were in contact with Japanese doctors, we found a doctor in America and spent six weeks in the States quite close to the end. His colleagues in what was then Telecom Eireann took care of the fund-raising, which was incredible." She speculates that it must have been "tough for Kieran's family afterward, having to deal with this young one full of fire. I must have been hard work, I think when I look back as a mother myself now."

He would survive for three years. After his death she felt "like my life was over. Here I was getting toward my 30s, my career had really been on the back burner during the years when we were dealing with his illness. I thought I'd never have kids. I really didn't think I had many options."

The personal and professional healing began through a fairly unlikely avenue. In 1989, the year Kieran died, she saw an ad in the Irish Independent saying that Charles Mitchel, the legendary RTE broadcaster, was being brought out of retirement by Gavin Duffy, an entrepreneur who had set up the country's first licensed provincial radio station, LMFM. Something about the ad convinced Orlaith that her future lay in local radio and she tried to make contact with Duffy. "I just went after him with the same relentlessness I had done with Kieran." The only problem was that he was apparently avoiding calls from someone and perpetually dodged her. Eventually she managed to set up a meeting and was quickly installed as one of Duffy's producers.

What followed is not your tale of normal office romance. In an interesting twist, Orlaith says that Duffy in fact issued her with a completely-out-of the blue marriage proposal - which predated any dating or mating ("there obviously had been chemistry" she concedes but "I had my history and I was there to work"). But otherwise "It was just like that; we went for a coffee and he said to me 'I want you to be the mother of my children'."

Did she think he was kind of mad?

"It was very much his personality, larger than life. I was shocked; is he joking, is he serious? I was grieving still, it was very new to me. We were working around the clock together and when someone is always there it's intense. He began to rely on me. I was edging my way into his life without meaning to. He had just come out of a relationship as well. I still felt married. It felt like we were having an affair, even though we were both free agents."

It was another couple of years before he asked again, this time "properly."

Sometimes when a child dies the remaining children feel like they will never live up to the object of their parents' grief, the saint on the mantelpiece. I wonder if she thought Gavin would have ever felt like this?

"No because he recognised that what I had been through had made me who I was, so he wouldn't have wanted me any different. I wasn't unscathed but I was ready to face life again and I'd considered my life an awful lot." At this point in the interview Orlaith gets a little emotional. "In fact when we were getting married he had the stones from my original wedding ring included in our engagement ring and he said to me 'that's because Kieran is coming with us.' It was extraordinary. Gavin can't sing for nuts but he wanted to sing for me and the song he chose was Angel With Broken Wings because he said that was how he saw me."

Her wings would take her from LMFM to Century Radio before she landed with a bump in the RTE newsroom. She and Duffy ran a communications company in those days but while they would bounce ideas off each other she was primarily focussed on raising their children, Lorcan , Cormac, Cathal and Aislinn. "I had four under five at one stage. After I lost Kieran I was desperate for a second chance to have kids and luckily Gavin wanted a family as well." She also went back and did a masters in film and television at DCU.

Her forbear in this was her mother who had gone back to Trinity in middle age to study psychology. Orlaith grew up in Kilmacud in the 1970s, one of seven siblings, cycling past the television mast and dreaming of media stardom. Her father had worked for Aer Lingus before setting up his own business, which failed. "Money was absolutely tight", she recalls. Not for her and Duffy, you imagine; LMFM the station she first charmed her way into, would eventually be sold to UTV for €10m in 2004. Their kids work normal teenage jobs however, she proudly confirms, and she braves their withering eye rolling to insist on family meetings where issues get a frank airing. (She tells me she felt compelled to respect her son's wishes after he told her he was temporarily dropping out of law in UCD).

Besides their media training business and his minor celebrity from Dragons' Den she also has the credibility which comes with years on the board of RTE. She was through some of the key crises for the organisation, including the Mission To Prey scandal. She and Duffy watched the fateful programme together, she says, and she had an inkling something was up. "That priest walked toward the camera. Not away. He did not seem like someone with something to hide."

You could say much the same about Carmody - open and frank as she is - even if through the most personal information, she retains a curious control.

"It's about being yourself" she tells me. "And I try to practise what I preach."

Perform As A Leader by Orlaith Carmody is published by Ballpoint, priced €14.99

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