Wednesday 22 November 2017

Dragons' Den judge Norah Casey: Anything but a Dragon in real life

Dragons' Den judge Norah Casey has been described as a bitch, but the opposite is true, Barry Egan finds, as the entrepreneur reveals that the real investment in her life is the love she feels towards her family and those close to her

JUDGE FOR YOURSELVES: Norah Casey was a respected nurse before she moved into publishing. Photo: Gerry Mooney
JUDGE FOR YOURSELVES: Norah Casey was a respected nurse before she moved into publishing. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

FOR a so-called bitch -- so called, erroneously, by her fellow Dragon Gavin Duffy -- Norah Casey is doing a great disservice to her TV image today at lunch in the Four Seasons.

There is a very old woman at the table opposite, who has fallen asleep. Norah sends the waitress over to check on her for fear she has passed away. (Mercifully, she hasn't.) Former nurse Norah also ministers to me on my upset tummy, suggesting various remedies and potions.

Norah, the CEO of Harmonia, Ireland's biggest magazine publishing company, says her own tummy, or indeed any other part of her body, wasn't upset when she heard what Gavin had to say about her. "Oh, Gavin just says those kind of things," she laughs referring to his quote: "Norah settled into being a Dragon instantly. First and foremost she is a lady, but she can be a bitch disguised with a disarming smile."

"Gavin is kind of playing to the audience a little," Norah says, smiling. "I've heard worse." But is it fair? If a man is tough in business, he is the bee's knees; whereas a tough woman is a bitch ...

"That's absolutely true," says Norah, who joined Gavin, Niall O'Farrell, Bobby Kerr, and Sean Gallagher on Dragons' Den, the popular RTE series, last month. "And talking about Dragons' Den, I was very conscious of the fact that women who are horrible, -- people don't like them. I am not like that. At this stage of my life, I am just going to play myself and if it's not good, then that's fine. I haven't got great puns. I sit and look at [the other Dragons] and think, 'I'm crap at this.' Because they are so much longer doing it than I am. I would be completely in awe of their witty comments. I'd be the one who would be slightly gauche."

I've known Norah for almost 15 years. She is anything but a bitch. She is charming and hugely engaging; friendly to a fault. She would do anything for you. She also possesses a dry wit -- its dryness accentuated by her slightly impervious, slightly sexy London accent. When I enquire about what she got up to at night when she went to Scotland to nurse when she was 17, Norah giggles: "We were in the middle of nowhere. We were almost nuns for God's sake."

The almost nun landed a plum job with the Royal College of Nursing in London at the age of 23. She was on three times the salary she was in Scotland, and with it came her own secretary, company car and office. "It was quite a twinset-and-pearls environment, and I think I lowered the average age by about 50 years," she says.

I joke that most of the nurses I know are party animals, so she must have gone wild in London at such a young age. "I wouldn't describe it as wild, but you couldn't not have great fun in London. It was that time. I kissed a few frogs. I thought they were all princes. I just wasn't in love with them. If you ask me now, do I remember them, the answer is no. They were the days when I wasn't serious about anyone, to be honest."

That all changed when she met dashing Peter Mason, 14 years her senior, in a chi-chi restaurant in Kensington with a crowd of mutual friends in 1985. They married in August

of 1987. It was not a happy marriage for Norah, for reasons outside of her control.

"Peter was a great guy, ran his own business, but," she says haltingly, "he had very bad coronary artery disease. He wasn't healthy. Just before we got married, he had a triple coronary bypass. He came out of hospital to get married. And that was the pattern of our marriage: he had heart attacks every six months. No matter what he did, he could never stop the relentless pace of... [his bad health]."

Asked about the effect it had on their marriage, she says: "It was inevitable that it would have an effect. There is a lot of psychology written about that, about how it affects people's behaviour. I think in the early days, he always had that ambition that he would get better -- and be on strict diets and fantastic exercise regimes -- but it was just relentless. Six months after we got married, he had another heart attack. His aorta was blocked. They tried all sorts of experimental things. There was never going to be a good outcome, I think, for him. He took that very, very hard."

The marriage ended in 1993. Peter died in 2001. "It is very difficult to talk about him sometimes, because my son is only vaguely aware that he existed," Norah says. "I am not trying to hide it. It's just ... " She trails off.

Does she think if Peter hadn't had his heart difficulties, the marriage would have been successful? "Yes, I do," she says immediately. "I mean, you always question yourself whether or not you know ... I was talking the other day to someone about true love and that you know the right person the minute you meet them. If I'm being totally honest, Richard [referring to her second husband Richard Hannaford] is definitely the true love of my life and you asked me earlier was I too young at 27 to marry. I don't think I was too young, but I don't think I had experienced true love either at that point. Do you understand me? I didn't feel the heart fluttering thing."

Norah, who at this stage had left nursing to go into journalism and publishing, got that heart fluttering thing when she met Richard (who worked for the BBC) at a media dinner. They were friends for a time before it grew into something else. "After I left and our marriage had split up, Richard in London moved from being a very good friend to being my partner," she says. "We talked about things that were real, because we were friends to begin with.

"The odd thing when you leave a marriage is that you want to leave for yourself. There is always this thing where you hold yourself back from anything that might cloud your judgement because, really, I was dealing with a much bigger issue in my life rather than would I be with somebody. It was only when I felt released from all of that that I looked at Richard."

I ask what was the bigger issue? Did she feel guilty about Peter for some reason? "No, but you do, if you've ever split up from somebody, you know that you don't want to have lots of things clouding the way you think. I think the release and the pressure was off me and I felt that Richard was definitely the right one. It was so totally different to anything I'd ever felt before."

The vivacious brunette (she dubs herself the Ryanair of Irish publishing) adds that she had given everything to trying to make the marriage work with Peter. But her feelings for Richard are "so phenomenally different. It is very difficult in life to always compare things, but I do know that he is the person I'd want to be with. We are 14 years together and we're still madly in love."

They were married on New Year's Eve 1996 in the University Church on St Stephen's Green in Dublin, followed by a black-tie dinner in the Shelbourne Hotel and a honeymoon around Ireland.

Norah Colette Casey, who was born in 1960, is an intriguing woman. When she worked as a nurse in Scotland, she had a deep-seated fear that one day she would have to minister to a child or a baby with burns. A few years later, Norah spent a year studying burns and plastic surgery -- not plastic surgery for vanity purposes, she explains, but for people who had disfiguring burns like "young babies who were the victims of house fires or young kids who fell into fires, and many of whom in their teenage years had multiple suicide attempts". Norah faced up to her fears.

Norah had to face up to fears of a different sort when she tried for more than three years to have a child. She tried everything, chief among them being intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). She explains: "IVF is where you throw it into a test tube and hope for the best," she laughs now. "With ICSI, I got to the point where they were injecting the sperm into the egg and hoping for the best. I kept losing. I was 34. If you are injecting yourself for 15 days of the month and you are producing 28 eggs, you can imagine the disappointment when you don't get pregnant."

The high-flying publishing tycoon -- who today is looking chic in a black Nicola Waite dress and red Jaeger coat, and with her hair coiffed -- adds that she initially had this philosophy that she would never allow it to define her. It would be just good if it happened. That proved very much not to be the case, however. Very quickly, Norah found herself allowing it to be "the whole bit of my life. Everything was about the fact that I needed to have a baby. If somebody phoned me and told me that she was pregnant, I'd burst into tears."

I ask her, rather gauchely, how many miscarriages she actually had. "I had lots," she answers. "Very early ones. You can debate for ever when does life start. These were early miscarriages. The issue for me on the last one was that it was quite late. It was about 10 weeks." This final miscarriage happened at the end of 1997.

Did she think then she was never going to have a baby? "Yes, I did. I remember leaving St Thomas' Hospital in London [where Norah was living at the time running a thriving publishing company] and my mother was over. I bought a bottle of brandy and about 200 cigarettes and I said, 'That's it.'"

Norah had been on a strict regime of folic acid, no drinking, no smoking. She decided there and then she was going to stop the insanity and accept that she was going to live her life without ever becoming a mother. It was her last ICSI. "It was phenomenally awful," she says. "The cycle you go through is debilitating beyond belief."

Norah says she couldn't go through it again. She took a break from work for a few months. "I had not a very nice miscarriage. I had to go back into hospital. It was all very physically messy."

And psychologically mes-sier? "Yes, and I think I'd also reached a phase in my life where I needed to move on. Maybe I relaxed. I don't know. I don't know why to this day but I went from that miscarriage to being pregnant in April."

She recalls how the same doctor who treated her earlier at St Thomas' Hospital had brought her in again. "I was ovulating and my body still thought it was under ICSI. He thought I had this medical syndrome. So he did a scan and told me: 'You won't believe it, but this is a six-week foetus. It is totally natural.' Straight from a miscarriage, I got pregnant with Dara. And I subsequently had the easiest of pregnancies."

On December 17, 1998, miracle child Dara was born. Ever since, Norah (and Richard, who runs Harmonia -- which publishes U, Woman's Way and Irish Tatler among others -- with her) have given him the blissful childhood that she enjoyed growing up.

She grew up in the Phoenix Park area in Dublin. Her father was a park ranger. The Casey family ended up there because Norah's grandfather Leo "was 16 in 1916. He fought in Boland's Mill and was subsequently interned in a prisoner of war camp in North Wales".

When he came out, he got the job of minding the park gates in the North Circular Road and the graves in Arbour Hill. He was very close to Eamon de Valera. Norah can remember De Valera passing the gates and waving at her. "Magisterial is the word I'd use. He might have stopped to my father but he never spoke to us at all."

There was six children in the Casey family: Betty, Catherine, Leo, Ciaran, Carissa and the new star of Dragons' Den, all packed tightly under one roof. "I wasn't brought up privileged," she says. "There were six kids and two adults in a three-bed house," adding that she is a typical middle child. "I am always chairing the meeting. I am a little indecisive sometimes."

Her mother Margaret, a psychiatric nurse from Leitrim, still lives in the same house. "At 80 years of age, she is still a very strong woman," says her famous daughter. "She goes into town every day looking for a bargain in Brown Thomas," Norah adds with a laugh.

"Most people say we're phenomenally alike. My mother has non-stop energy," says the Irish businesswoman, who does Pilates every week and has a personal trainer who comes to her house in Ranelagh three times a week. "My mother was a wonderful mother. She gave us a wonderful childhood. We played in the People's Garden all day and went to the zoo all the time."

She has lots of fond memories of working in the zoo as a summer job, looking after the pets in Pets' Corner. Her friend's father was the superintendent of Dublin Zoo. Indeed, when she left the Sisters of Charity school in Stanhope Street at 17, Norah spent the first eight months raising two baby gorillas at the zoo. She thought she was going to be a vet all her life.

Her father is, sadly, no longer around. He died in 1999, four days before his 70th birthday. Norah can still remember the sunny day of his funeral on April 5, and walking to the church in Aughrim Street with a broken heart.

Her son Dara was five months old. Harry had come to London to see the young child only a few weeks before he died. Norah's brown eyes mist up a little at the memory. With that, the disappointingly un-bitchy Dragon has to leave to go back to her Richard and Dara.

In Ireland, couples are breaking up at the drop of a hat. What keeps she and Richard strong? "I absolutely believe that there is somebody for everybody."

Do they argue? "Hardly ever," she says in that brisk voice of hers. "The only time we would ever fall out or disagree is if we are under tremendous pressure."

I enquire how her husband would describe her. "Well, I hope in very loving terms, as he spends most of his life telling me he loves me, but I also think he thinks I'm pretty formidable in arguments because I tend to talk very fast and he is usually struggling to catch up.

"And also, he thinks I'm a bit of a rollercoaster because when we met first, I tended to be quite spontaneous. Getting up on a Saturday, I'd convince him to go with me to Paris for the day. We did all sorts of crazy things.

"But having a child," she concludes, laughing, "makes you a bit more grounded in the spontaneity stakes."

Dragons' Den continues on RTE One tonight, 9.30pm

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