'Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference", is a well-known quote by Robert Frost, and though she doesn't quote him - she is much more likely to spout the poetry of women - it's as if media mogul Norah Casey lives her life by these words.
Most people, when faced with a life-changing event, take stock and usually end up demanding less of themselves; a standard response is: "I need to take time to smell the roses", or sentiments to that effect. Not Norah. Or, rather, she goes through the motions of pulling back, but in fact opts to do much more.
Take, for example, when her beloved husband Richard passed away in 2011 after a six-month illness; instead of taking life easy, Norah - who runs a stable of magazines including Tatler, Woman's Way, Food & Wine - threw herself into a whole new career as a broadcaster, both on radio and TV. She took a summer off, but that was it. And ever since then she's been powering on with all sorts of projects.
She got another wake-up call last autumn when she began to feel really ill and almost died, but, being Norah, she is back in the driving seat and planning a huge enterprise called Planet Woman.
Many women are called superwomen, and Norah is one of those; at moments, she obviously believes the soubriquet. At the time she was struck with illness, she was organising what was to be the inaugural Festival Of Women event. She decided that it was not a good time to be ill, and basically ordered the illness to go away.
But it refused to budge. "It was really bad; I nearly died, and that's the honest truth. I'm still pretty cross with myself, I was five days ignoring this rip-roaring pain in my tummy," Norah recalls. "I don't know what I thought it was, but I was in that frame of mind where I thought I couldn't be sick and I was determinedly ignoring it, saying, 'It's food poisoning, it'll go away'. I don't know what I was thinking."
However, the pain worsened. "I was out in RTE on the Friday; at that point, that was day five of pain. I'd had two days of pulling the car over, to double up with pain. I was vomiting, I wasn't eating, I was really feeling rough. But I drove out to RTE, went into the studio and that's when my appendix ruptured. I still went through the whole of Friday night without a doctor," she muses.
Fortunately, when a friend arrived to take her to a lunch on the Saturday, Norah's 18-year-old son Dara intervened and begged his mum's friend to take Norah to hospital.
She ended up in Blackrock Clinic where, after an ultrasound, the consultant told Norah that while her inflammatory markers were supposed to be seven, hers were actually 370. Her appendix was seriously damaged and pus was oozing out.
During the first night in hospital, her colon ruptured as well, and her appendix developed gangrene, and they took her to surgery. "The consultant did say to me, 'It's filthy dirty in there, it's going to be nasty. You're not going to recover easily'. There were pints of pus coming out of me all the time. I don't know how my friends came to visit me - it was so bad, the nurses used to put cocoa beans under the bed to take away the smell; it was disgusting," Norah, a former nurse, elaborates.
She was in hospital for six weeks; she wasn't able to eat or drink and was terribly debilitated. She kept thinking of the possible consequences if she hadn't finally gone to hospital.
"Imagine dying of that? My poor husband got a cancer that you couldn't prevent or cure, and I allowed this to happen to me," Norah says. "I could have died. In the early days, the doctors were saying I should be in the morgue. It was the biggest life-changing experience for me. I might have died from something I could have prevented, instead of ploughing on and pretending I was superhuman," she notes, adding, "I do have a tendency to want to be superwoman; it was a harsh lesson."
But that doesn't mean she's going to take a year off any time soon. "I have to find the right balance between keeping my brain active and not overdoing it," she says. And she feels Planet Woman is going to be the happy medium. "It's loosely based on the fact that I do a lot of mentoring, and I'm very conscious of the fact that when I walk away, there's nothing there to keep the women on track. So I decided to do something specifically for women in the corporate world.
"Before setting it up, I decided to find out what's really different between women and men, and work from there," she explains, adding that she felt there must be something concrete that holds women back from succeeding in the way men do - banks and other corporations have the same learning materials for all their staff. "Both John and Mary have the same qualifications. Why does John get to the top and Mary doesn't?" Norah muses. "I have a firm belief that there are a lot of things I can't change. I can't change things around discrimination, I can't change a company's culture, but I can change the woman herself," she says confidently.
Norah got a handful of dedicated people on her team to go though the available research to find out the proven differences between the sexes, and she decided she would base Planet Woman on that. Her researchers came up with only a few differences, but they are key.
According to Norah, the first difference is the rumination centre - the amygdala: a woman's brain responds more readily to negative stimuli than a man's. In a nutshell, if you say something negative to a woman, she'll dwell on it for a long time; a man dusts himself down and gets back in the ring, so women's way of dealing with things drives men mad. "It's an ability to look at failure; it's incredibly important in business, but it's just not recognised." says Norah. "Women like to pore over the ruins but men don't, and it causes a disconnect."
The second difference is the worry-wart centre. "While men went out hunter-gathering, women stood on the mountain and watched for danger, and women still have this ability. It's the ability to look at danger in the future," she says. "Women will always look out for risks. So when Christine Lagarde said we should have had more Lehman sisters than Lehman brothers, what she means is women are more risk averse. It's a powerful tool to have in a business, but again it's just not recognised.
"In areas of legal, finance and tech, where you need caution, women do brilliantly, but in your average boardroom where the chairman of the board is trying to get people excited about a new strategy, you'll have the women on the board saying, 'What if everyone hates it?', so the men don't value the women."
The third area is obvious - women have oestrogen, men have testosterone. Because women are powered by estrogen, they're powered to be team builders. Men are powered by testosterone, which makes them competitive. "I always advise women not to ask their boss for a raise until 5pm when his testosterone has started to wane a bit; never have team meetings with men in the morning because their testosterone is through the roof," Norah says with a laugh.
Girls have finer motor skills and learn very early to sit quietly, to be perfectly good, and boys learn to roar through school, to take knocks in their stride. "Psychologist Carol Dweck said if life was one long school report, women would be the rulers of the world, but in the workplace that good-girl quality doesn't hold sway," Norah says.
What all the research boils down to is confidence - women, according to Norah, have oodles of competence but they lack confidence. So part of Planet Woman is telling powerful women's stories to inspire those of us who are starting out. "For every woman who makes it to the top, there are nine who don't," says Norah, adding, "not having confidence is not a life-long condition; you can change your brain".
Planet Woman is, she says, "Netflix for women. It's full of powerful vignettes, cartoons, a lot of animation, snackables [brief content], podcasts - it's all digital."
Norah would be the first to admit that some of her projects over the last five years were devised to take her mind off the grief in the aftermath of Richard's death; but there was one project she found hard to undertake, and that was the house. "Richard and I didn't have enough time in this house to create happy memories, and I was too grief-stricken after he died to create the happy memories," she says sadly.
Norah and Richard had bought the house in 2004 and had done a major job in 2010. It's a Victorian villa-style home, and they added a big open-plan kitchen/dining/living space, with glass expanses opening onto the courtyards. They also added big bathrooms. Friend and interior designer Kari Rocca helped Norah with the colour schemes and finishes - between Norah's vision and Kari's experience and flair in the area of interiors, they turned the house into a delightful home.
However, when Richard died, Norah's love of her home was tinged with sadness. "I used to lie in bed, thinking, 'This is where Richard took his dying breath'. It took me a long time to even move his portrait from the kitchen to the hall. I used to have coffee with the portrait every day, until my mum said to me: 'Would you not put that in the hall? When you need to see him, go and spend time with him', but I had a mausoleum constructed to him.
"One of my friends said, 'Are you conscious of the fact that there's virtually an altar to Richard in the hall?' There were tons of photos of him," Norah reflects. "There were also areas in the house that I couldn't face. My bedroom was a big one. I ordered a new bed around year three, and then I started to think I could change the energy in the house."
She recently took stock of the whole house and decided to give it an overhaul. With the help of Emma Power of House & Garden Furnishings, she changed many of her colour schemes, making them, lighter, brighter and more feminine. She also had a lot of the dark furniture sprayed in soft creamy shades, and she added glitter and glitz with textiles by Aoife Mullane. All in all, she made the house more of a fun space, and so elegant that it recently won Celebrity Home Of The Year on RTE.
She's also opted to display more prominently the fabulous collection of paintings which she and Richard had built up over the years, as well as her collection of elephants, and the first editions of important literary works that she and Richard had given each other as gifts - all of the memorabilia that make a house a home.
"I accept that a house is just bricks and mortar, an inanimate object, but there's something about a place that can make you feel joyful or sad. I can honestly say now that I love my house."
Planet Woman will be launched on January 31, see planetwoman.ie
Norah's next Women's Academy will take place at the RDS on March 24. To book tickets, see irishtatleracademy.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan.
Photography by Tony Gavin
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