Sunday 25 August 2019

When love blooms later

The lightning bolt can strike in the most unusual places, from a gardening course to a skiing accident. Anna Coogan speaks to three couples who found romance when they least expected it

BLOSSOMING: Marie Staunton and her husband horticulturist Christopher Heavey in their garden in Kinsealy. Photo: Tony Gavin
BLOSSOMING: Marie Staunton and her husband horticulturist Christopher Heavey in their garden in Kinsealy. Photo: Tony Gavin
Pictured was Emer Purcell and Alan Metcalfe with Michel (age 9), Charlie (age 7) and Daisy (age 7) with dogs Molly and Sassy. Photo: Conor McCabe.
Ella Griffin and Neil Cubley

Anna Coogan


Model-turned-gardener Marie Staunton was 39 when she decided to follow her dream and study plants and flowers at the National Botanic Gardens. She met and fell in love with horticulturist Christopher Heavey, and two years later the couple shared their passion for each other as well as nature when they wed.

A year later, and when she was 42, Marie gave birth to her adored son, Thomas. "I know my friends and family were happy when I married," Marie says.

"But they were thrilled when I had a child. For me, having Thomas made everything seem complete," she says of her energetic six-year-old who keeps her on her toes.

For former model Marie, changing careers and marrying just when she was entering her fifth decade was like a second coming in terms of happiness and purpose. Now aged 48, she is happily wed, a devoted mum and is gardening columnist with the Irish Independent.

Marie lets out a laugh when asked if she has turned into the perfect wife. "I'm cleaning out the guinea pig cage and I'm not sure if that makes me a good wife and mum, but someone has to do it," she says.

She began modelling in 1986 and appeared in the first ever Supermodel Show in Dublin alongside Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Helena Christensen. Marie was the height of glamour at a time when the rest of us thought roller discos and boob tubes were cool.

"I had been in a long-term relationship and felt very much part of a couple and very settled," she says of her previous relationship with model agency boss turned retail guru Eddie Shanahan, which ended a couple of years before she met Christopher.

"So it wasn't that I didn't see myself as the settling-down kind because, as far as I was concerned, I'd already been settled," she says. "At the time I began studying at the Botanic Gardens, I was the typical mature student and very nervous about making the right impression and getting the work done. I wasn't on the look out for a man," she says.

In 2007, Marie graduated from the College of Amenity Horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens, and has since carved out a very successful career for herself among flowers and foliage.

She remembers her very first impression of her husband-to-be. "Christopher was lecturing our class and I thought he was very kind and thoughtful and a good listener," she says.

"It was only when we had an end-of-year do in a place in Malahide that I got talking to him outside a classroom environment, and I realised how much we had in common and how well we got on," she says of falling for her mentor.

"I liked how relaxed he was and how happy and funny he was, and that we had so much to talk about because of the course," Marie says of the man who quickly became her team-mate both professionally and personally.

"We made it official two years later, which I suppose was quite quick. But when you reach your 40s you start to look for something to do with your life which really interests you," Marie says.

"I'd already had a very long career in modelling and was still working as a model when I reached 40. But horticulture had always been my first love, and I had decided to make it my life. And while I wasn't looking for romance when I met Christopher, it's probably fair to say that my life was changing and he became a very big part of that change," Marie says.

"I'd never had a shopping list when it came to the qualities I was looking for in a man. I think you just know when you know," she adds.


When she was aged 42, businesswoman Emer Purcell took herself off on a skiing holiday to Austria with friends. Little did she know that four years later she would be a busy mum to three lively children, fathered by a man she had met on the glistening ski slopes.

"I literally crashed into Alan while I was out skiing," says the company director, now 52, who as well as running her successful gift business, is constantly on the go as a hands-on mum to Michael, 10, and seven-year-old twins Daisy and Charlie.

The skiing accident happened in March 2003, and by April 2004 Emer was cradling her firstborn son – and though surprised she says she was nowhere near shocked. "I remember an elderly aunt asking me when I hit 40 if I regretted that marriage and children had passed me by," Emer says. "I was taken aback, as I still felt marriage and family life were available to me at the time."

She had founded her successful business, Hampers & Co, in 1996, and was a real "busy bee" at the time when she met her partner Alan Metcalfe.

"I can honestly say I was never one for whom a ring on the finger was important," she says. "I'd had long-term relationships before I met Alan and I was seeing someone at the time we first met."

"In fact, Alan and I still aren't married. The children keep asking where our wedding photos are though so we might just get around to it.

"To me the children are the commitment."

Alan came fairly close to knocking her off her feet 10 years ago when they crashed into each other on the ski slopes – and the way Emer tells their love story, he fairly swept her off her feet in a romantic sense too.

"I met him later that night and within half an hour of talking to him I knew he was someone really special," Emer says.

"It wasn't long into our relationship when I knew here was someone who I could go the whole way with, children, the lot."

There was no hesitation on her part that she had finally met "the one" and immediately felt at home in Alan's company.

"Being with Alan was like putting my hand into a glove," Emer says.

"We complement each other, I'm a person who wants everything done yesterday, and Alan is more laid back, in the sense of what we can't do today, we'll do tomorrow."

Alan is an engineer by profession but now works with Emer in their hampers company, and between full time jobs and raising their three children in their Clontarf home, the couple spend every waking hour of every day together.

Emer had sought advice following the birth of their first son Michael on whether or not they should try for more children – before going on to have twins at the age of 45.

"Overall, the feedback I got was that I should feel blessed to have one healthy child at my age. But I'm not one for taking advice on board," Emer says with a laugh.

Interestingly, she never feels envious on seeing younger mums who have buckets of energy for running after their little ones.

"I have to mind my health and I eat well and I make sure I get lots of sleep and I always aim to be in bed by 8.30pm so I can give the children 100 per cent," Emer says.

"By the time I met Alan, I'd started the business, bought a house in Raheny, and done a lot of travelling. I had achieved a lot of things which were important to me. When I look at mums in their 20s I wonder if I would be resentful if I was in their shoes.

"I wonder if I had settled down younger if I would have had a sense of 'I wish I could have done more things before I had children'. I honestly feel the way things happened for me was perfect."


Author Ella Griffin was aged 40 when she boarded a flight to the Greek island of Skyros with the sole purpose of spending a fortnight on a creative writing course. Yet if writing was her aspiration, the Greek god of love, Eros, had different ideas, and she returned home having met a handsome Englishman who would become her husband.

"It was coming up to the first anniversary of my mum's death and I really wanted to keep my mind off things," Ella says of the reason why she chose to spend time on the white-washed Greek island.

"I wasn't looking for a holiday romance at all. What I wanted was to bury myself in my writing after a year of grieving and feeling a terrible sense of loss."

One morning, while Ella was out standing on the terrace and struggling with a coffee pot, she uttered four exasperated words out loud – "I need a man."

"I turned around and Neil was standing there and I felt an instant sense of recognition," she says of the first time she laid eyes on the man she would go on to marry.

However, the epic love story under the blue Mediterranean skies – and which ended with Ella in a wedding dress in the pouring rain in Connemara – wasn't without a few glitches along the way.

"I avoided Neil in the beginning and I fought against my feelings for him because I didn't think the timing was right," Ella says. "There were lots of women on the course so I just presumed that he would end up being attracted to one of them."

Yet Neil Cubley, a copywriter and a divorcee with two young children, felt a similar strong pull in Ella's direction, and when the chick lit author left Greece at the end of her writing course, she had received an invitation to visit him in England.

"The day after mum's anniversary I was on a plane heading to see Neil and I was feeling happy. This was a huge surprise to me, because at the time I hadn't thought anything in the world could make me feel happy," Ella says.

Three months later she travelled to Somerset to meet Neil's then six-year-old son, Aidan, and his eight-year-old daughter Elli. Ella, now aged 53, says of her first meeting with her stepchildren: "Again I felt it, that powerful feeling of recognition."

The couple's romance developed quickly, and soon they were making frequent visits back and forth between Liverpool and Dublin.

"We were heading off down the road one day to buy a pedal bin and I had this sense of complete joy," Ella remembers. "I realised that I'd never felt happier than when I was doing simple everyday things with Neil."

The couple met in October 2001, and Neil proposed to Ella in April 2002.

She had split up with an ex around the time of her trip to Greece and says: "My ex was married by the following March. Neil proposed to me six months after we met, so I just know this was how it was all meant to work out."

Life had certainly taken her by surprise, as all through the years she had never seen herself as being the marrying kind.

"I was always so excited when my friends got engaged and I always loved going to their weddings," Ella says. "But I never got it, marriage, it always seemed like a total mystery to me.

"Looking back now, I think I must have had some fear of commitment which was bordering on a phobia.

"I kept willing it to go away, and I kept hoping that one day I would wake up and want what every woman of my age seemed to want," Ella adds.

"It's not that I wasn't romantic, I was. But the whole settling down thing had just passed me by."

Today Dublin-based Ella and Neil are well settled in their creative lives and home, and Ella's stepchildren are regular visitors.

"The day we got married in Connemara was in the middle of a storm, yet it all felt very natural and perfect. I had no hesitation whatsoever in committing to Neil forever," Ella says.

Irish Independent

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