My favourite room: Natasha recreates her home turf
Natasha Fennell's colourful house in Dublin is modern and open plan, but the communications expert has also managed to recapture some of her Gaeltacht childhood memories. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
To hear communications expert Natasha Fennell speak – and her melodious voice is one of her many strong points – is to immediately recognise her as a West of Ireland woman, so the last place you'd expect her to live is in one of the warren of red-brick terraces close to Dublin's centre.
Her home for her formative years was the tiny Gaeltacht island of Maoinis, which she loved, but Natasha was actually born in the Dublin suburbs and apparently she loves living here.
"I'm deeply connected to here," Natasha says. "I might have lived here in a previous life."
The interior of her bijou home is something of a surprise, too. It's a riot of colours – orange, red, purple, yellow and green – yet they blend beautifully, combining to create an earthy, life-affirming backdrop to her life.
It's obvious Natasha loves colour, but there's another more fundamental reason why it plays such a major part in the decor of her home. She was born with toxoplasmosis and, as a result, is legally blind; she can get a better handle on her environment if it's defined by strong colours and shapes.
"My mother contracted it from cats when she was in Russia," Natasha explains. "It was immediately diagnosed when I was born, but, with a mother's intuition, she kept turning on and off the lights, and noting my reaction, and she told the doctors 'This child can see'." The doctors agreed, but told her mother that Natasha would go blind in her teens. She kept all this information from Natasha – she even sent her on an exchange to France when she was 13. "She wanted me to do everything," Natasha says affectionately.
Sure enough, at 16, she did go blind, but, fortunately, after two months of rigorous tests and a revolutionary new treatment from abroad, she got 30 per cent of her sight back in one eye.
Natasha tells the story of her sight problems, not to garner sympathy – as a highly successful career woman with a thriving business, she doesn't need or expect it – but, rather, to explain what kind of woman her mother was. Another example of her mother's tenacity was Natasha's education. When it came to her Leaving Cert, her mother and her school, Colaiste Iognaid, in Galway, campaigned successfully for the exam papers to be enlarged, so Natasha could read them; she was the first student in Ireland for whom this was done.
She's proud of both her parents. Her father is the well-known writer and broadcaster, Desmond Fennell, and her mother, Mary Troy, who was 11 years younger than Desmond, was interesting in her own right. When they met, Mary had already done two degrees – Hebrew and Arabic in Trinity, and Social Science in UCD – at a time when most women didn't even go beyond secondary school.
Natasha is the third of their five children and, after she was born, they moved to Maoinis. "At the time, there was a kind of exodus from Dublin to the West. It's a tiny island. There was a beach in front of our house, a beach to the west of us and a beach behind us. There were only 300 people living there, all Irish speaking. We learned our English through the tourists," she says.
The family went to live in Galway when Natasha was 11 and, after her Leaving Cert, she studied public relations at the then College of Commerce in Rathmines, followed by four years with Carr Communications. Here, and in subsequent jobs, her fluency in the Irish language proved invaluable. "They had the Fianna Fail account and, because I was the only one who could speak Irish, they asked me to coach the politicians. I was 23 or 24, coaching the likes of Albert Reynolds and Padraig Flynn," she marvels.
After her stint at Carr, she travelled for three years, mainly in the States, Australia and New Zealand. At one stage, she spent six months working in sales for the Sheraton hotel chain in Fiji. She also spent nine months teaching in Bangkok. Natasha fell in love with both Fiji and Bangkok, but then homesickness hit her.
When she got home, she got a job as a reporter on the RTE Irish-language programme, Leargas, and travelled the country interviewing people about their stories. She enjoyed it thoroughly, but, five years into it, she decided to move on again and, this time, she landed a job as director of fund-raising for Fianna Fail.
"It was 1999/2000, during Bertie's time," she recalls. "I remember an event in the K Club, a golf classic; all men. I was the only woman, apart from the waitress. I remember Bertie walking in– the air changed, and all those men were scrambling towards him. I realised I was selling power."
Natasha spent four years with Fianna Fail and, again, learned a huge amount – about politics, politicians and, most importantly, people – but she felt it was time to move on again. She and her brother, Cilian, who had been the producer of the Late Late Show, came together in 2006, and opened up their own company, Stillwater Communications, which is a highly successful, bilingual communications company. All her jobs – the public relations, the selling, the TV reporting and the fund-raising – combined to give her a great insight into people.
"Our tag line is it's all about stories. So, we work with companies on 'what narrative does the company want to communicate?'" she explains. They've worked with many of the top companies in Ireland and, recently, have gone international, with clients in China, Dubai and San Francisco. "There are six of us in the company. We're small, but we like to think we deliver big," she says.
A new aspect to the business for Natasha is a workshop she's developed called the Art of Confidence. It's based on her own experience, and on her dealings through the years with different business people. "I'm of the belief that confidence is contagious. If the top is not confident, it filters down," she says. " So, when the whole recession came to our doorstep, it came to our organisations, then it came to individuals, and people didn't know where to put themselves. So I started looking at it."
Having road-tested the workshop, she believes she can help to instil in a person a belief in themselves that, given certain skills and knowledge, they can achieve certain goals. "I'm bursting with confidence about this," she says with a laugh, adding, "Companies are finally seeing the value of instilling confidence in their employees, and they're seeing the value of what a confident culture can do in work."
The company offices are in the city centre, so they're very convenient to her Dublin 4 home, which Natasha bought 12 years ago. She gutted it in 2009, and made the whole downstairs a large, open-plan space. The area to the front is for relaxing; this leads to the dining area and, beyond that, is the kitchen.
The kitchen has a bifolding door, which opens completely, making the little courtyard, with its awning, an extra living space in good weather.
Meanwhile, the living space to the front is really cosy for winter, complete with a real fire. Doing the opposite to most people, who install gas fires in their fireplaces, Natasha had the existing gas fire removed and she reinstated a real fire, in which she always burns turf.
You can take the woman from the West, but you can't take the West from the woman. "I'm a real Connemara girl at heart," she admits with a laugh.
- For details of the Art of Confidence workshops, see www.stillwater.ie