Her mother's daughter - Natasha Fennell and her Mum
Natasha Fennell has co-written a book on mother-daughter relationships, inspired by her mum Mary Troy
If you were to ask Mary Troy and her daughter Natasha Fennell about the characteristics they have in common, they would choose curiosity, bravery, love of travel, and not taking themselves too seriously. Their relationship is a very close and connected one, but a shared horror of sentimentality is also evident in the good-natured teasing and self-effacing exchanges between them.
Unusually, given that our busy lives tend to prevent us from analysing the various nuances of our close relationships, Natasha was given an opportunity to do precisely that when putting together her book The Daughterhood. Co-written with journalist Roisin Ingle, it's a beautiful and fascinating read that explores the complex, joyous and sometimes frustrating world of mother-daughter relationships. The idea came to Natasha a few years ago, when Mary was diagnosed with lupus and pulmonary hypertension, which means she is constantly hooked up to an oxygen machine to help her breathe. Not that you'll hear her complaining. "I'm feeling grand," she smiles. "I never lost my sense of humour or my spirit."
With the terrifying realisation that her vibrant mother's health was declining, Natasha, 46, wondered if she had been a good enough daughter and had fully expressed her gratitude. This became the impetus for the book, which explores nine different mother-daughter relationships, some wonderful, some fractured. The women came together over six months to tell their funny, heartbreaking and poignant stories, aiming to improve their relationships with their mothers, before it's too late.
Mary, 74, is a very warm and strong person, who has had a fascinating life. "There was a defining moment when she decided to go back to college at 56 that made me see her as an ambitious woman with her own path in life," says Natasha. "She studied Hebrew and Judaism and went to Jerusalem for second year."
Mary was the youngest of five children and grew up on O'Connell Street, Limerick. Her parents Kathleen and John Troy were doctors - her dad helped Frank McCourt's family and was mentioned in his Pulitzer-winning book Angela's Ashes. John sadly died of a heart attack when Mary was only 10.
When she left school, Mary volunteered at a creche in Bethlehem in 1959, went to Israel, and then came back and did a mind-boggling two degrees simultaneously - Arabic and Hebrew by day at Trinity, and sociology at UCD at night. She got married at 23 to writer and philosopher Desmond Fennell, and their eldest son Oisin was born while Mary was still at college. She says she realised straight away that the baby was his own person, and she was just caring for him. "I felt bad for thinking like that until I read Khalil Gibran's On Children," she says. "It basically said your children are not yours, but are arrows going into the future. You can give them your love but not your ideas, and your job is to make them the best arrows they can possibly be."
Mary and Desmond had four more children, Cilian, Natasha, Sorcha and Kate, and moved to the tiny, beautiful island of Maoinis off the coast of Connemara in 1969. They stayed for 12 years and were involved in the beginning of Raidio na Gaeltachta, and Mary also taught. She and Desmond are now separated, but he is very much part of the family.
When Natasha was born, Mary was concerned because she had a squint, and tests revealed that she had toxoplasmosis, a condition that can lead to visual impairment and brain damage. Mary actually had it too, but it hadn't affected her, while Natasha is legally blind, with only 30 per cent vision. Her brain was, thankfully, unaffected and the condition doesn't hold her back in any way. She is known as the country's leading confidence expert, and regularly talks on the topic and delivers courses around it.
"Natasha was frightened for the first two years and wouldn't go near anyone but me, so I carried her all the time," says Mary. "Then she came into her own. I am quieter than she is, and wouldn't be as definite about what I know or my ideas. She is an incredibly kind person, to me in particular."
Natasha studied public relations at DIT, and worked at Carr Communications for four years, Her interest in working in politics was sparked there, as the firm had the Fianna Fail account. She left to travel for three years, spending time in the US, New Zealand, Australia, Bangkok and Thailand. At one point, Mary joined her and they went backpacking together for six weeks. "It was the first time we spent a block of time together as adults, and it was a very important part of our relationship," says Natasha. "I came back and worked at RTE as a researcher for four years, and then a position as head of fundraising came up in Fianna Fail. It was during Bertie Ahern's time, and while I loved it, my mother let me know quite often that she did not approve!"
Natasha then decided to retrain as a career and life coach, and set up Stillwater Communications with her brother Cilian, former producer of The Late Late Show and Saturday Night with Miriam. Stillwater provides training courses and bespoke communications services.
As Natasha and Mary are both single, they have been able to spend lots of quality time together over the years. "We both love theatre, reading and cooking together and we have a lot to talk about," says Natasha. "My mother is a kind person, and she taught me to make a conscious effort to be kind and not to judge people too harshly. I still trust her judgement and go to her for advice. I know from all the mother-daughter conversations I've had that I'm incredibly lucky. Mary Troy is a woman I genuinely love being around as she is so much fun, and she also happens to be my mother."
The Daughterhood, by Natasha Fennell and Roisin Ingle is out on Thursday.
Simon & Schuster, €16.99