Wednesday 21 March 2018

Taking life in her stride... Jessica O'Gara on life in Paris and marriage to Ronan

Having just done the first of three charity horse races in aid of Irish Injured Jockeys, Jessica O'Gara talks to Emily Hourican about life in Paris and marriage to Ronan

Jessica O'Gara. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Jessica O'Gara. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Jessica O'Gara will visit Ireland later this month with her husband Ronan to take part in the Corinthian Challenge horse race. Photo: Kip Carroll
Jessica, Max (3) and Ronan O’Gara at the Curragh

The day I meet Jessica O'Gara, she is exhilarated - and still a little disbelieving - after riding in the Corinthian Challenge in aid of Irish Injured Jockeys at the Curragh the day before.

"It was terrifying," she says, emphatically. "I was terrified. I've never experienced anything like it. But," she adds immediately, "I want to do it again today, to see how I could improve." She rode Jack Blue, a Jessica Harrington-trained horse, and luckily she enjoyed it, because there are two more to get through - this is a three-leg event, with races at Gowran Park in September, and Leopardstown in October.

The whole thing was over in "about two minutes. It was a blur. All that hype and adrenalin, and then it's gone." Jessica's children - she and husband, former rugby international, Ronan O'Gara have five, all aged under 10 - were at the Curragh to watch their mother. They must have been very proud, I suggest? "They were cross," she laughs. "They wanted to know 'why didn't you win, mum?'"

As for Ronan, "I asked was he ever in fear that the mother of his five children might get an injury? He said when he saw me hop up yesterday, he did go, 'oh God... she's off...'", she laughs, clearly unperturbed by Ronan's lack of mollycoddling. "He did say yesterday, 'after 20 years of you coming to watch me doing things, it's great that finally I'm coming to watch you do something."

Jessica O'Gara will visit Ireland later this month with her husband Ronan to take part in the Corinthian Challenge horse race. Photo: Kip Carroll
Jessica O'Gara will visit Ireland later this month with her husband Ronan to take part in the Corinthian Challenge horse race. Photo: Kip Carroll

Jessica is vivacious and energetic with plenty of can-do attitude. However, that alone was never going to get her round the racecourse. Luckily, she also has a background in hunting, eventing and a bit of show-jumping. "I rode as a child and as a teenager. I gave up when I was about 16, and I really haven't done it since."

So how did this all come about?

"Basically, Ruby Walsh was on to Ronan and said 'would you do the Corinthian Challenge this year?' Ronan said, 'I've never really sat on a horse, I don't know what I'm doing, but Jess might...' At first I said no, then I was thinking about it... I thought, 'you know what, it would be amazing'.''

And so she found a yard in Chantilly, an hour or so north of Paris where she and Ronan have lived since 2013 - after he retired from active playing, Ronan took a job as coach with Paris club Racing 92 - and three times a week left the house at 6am to ride out. "I took it seriously," she says. "I had to. It's so different to what the French call 'classic' horse riding; the balance, everything is different. After my first day, they [the instructors] were saying, 'I don't know if you'll be able to race. I was totally out of breath. It had been decades...I couldn't walk afterwards," she laughs. "I was so embarrassed. I didn't know I was this unfit. I love yoga, and tennis, but just the muscles I hadn't used. But after a couple of weeks, I started to get used to it."

When Jessica says, "it would be amazing", partly, she means it would be amazing to do something so worthwhile - and she is quick to point out that without the generosity of sponsors SoftCo, it couldn't have happened - partly it's the excitement of going back to something she loved, but also, she means the chance to do something that is hers alone, after many years of being first and foremost a mother.

"I'm so happy I did the race. It was completely separate to children, something just for me," she says. "When they're very tiny, they need you so much. You're always thinking about them, then it's brilliant - a big treat - to have the opportunity to go to a race yard, and ride out. Now that I've done it," she laughs, "I don't want to stop."

Jessica and Ronan O’Gara at the 2016 Longines Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown racecourse. Picture: Conor Healy
Jessica and Ronan O’Gara at the 2016 Longines Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown racecourse. Picture: Conor Healy

You can't have five children without them taking over a good portion of your life, and Jessica seems a particularly devoted and hands-on mother, who took a sabbatical from her career as a primary school teacher to be at home. "I do miss the job," she says, 'and I'll definitely go back. But it's amazing how life works out. Six months ago, this wasn't even on my radar. Last year, Ronan and I did the Champions Weekend, where we were sport and style ambassador, and I was at the Curragh in my dress, my heels, my hat. I never ever would have dreamed I'd be standing in the parade ring in breeches. Life's great like that."

Presumably it is this kind of easy-going, accepting attitude that has allowed her to take the move to Paris - a city that can be notoriously difficult to settle into - very much in her stride. "I read that book, French Children Don't Throw Food, about a month before we moved over, and it was really helpful to me. The author is American, living in Paris, and she had three children, including twins. I was really identifying with her. She wrote about how you go to the playground and you see the French parents there, sitting reading a book while their kids play, whereas an Irish person or an American stands at the bottom of the slide and shouts 'wheee' and catches the child...She's right. I noticed that. And now I've stopped myself doing it. Let them learn through discovering the world, don't pander to every need."

So do her children throw food? "No, they don't. Not really," she says. And do they eat everything? "They are good eaters. It's 'obligatoire' to taste all food in the school canteen, so they've been made to taste plenty of things that they mightn't have had with me.

''My younger two came home a few months ago and told me 'mum, I love ratatouille'. I'd never have cooked it for them because it's the kind of thing I thought they'd hate." Sadly, the ratatouille turned out to be the tinned variety, but still - score for the French.

The children aren't just adopting French eating habits, they are - much to Ronan's apparent disgust - adopting French teams and athletes as well.

"They cheer for France in sport...Ronan gets annoyed because they're not cheering for the Irish. One of them was even cheering for the All-Blacks against the Lions." But, as she points out, the youngest child, Max, was born in France, the second youngest, Zac, now five, was just 13 months when they moved over. They go to French schools, play French games, sing French songs. Did they ever consider putting the children into English-speaking schools? "No, we thought, 'if we're going to do this, let's do it and let them benefit from the full experience'."

Ronan and Jessica O'Gara pictured at the People of the Year event sponsored by ESB and Organised by REHAB, in 2006.
Ronan and Jessica O'Gara pictured at the People of the Year event sponsored by ESB and Organised by REHAB, in 2006.

Will they stay in France? "Ronan has two more years of his contract, so we'll stay for that, but with rugby, things change, so you never know. If the team started losing, if they began clearing out staff, these things can happen pretty fast..." Is that stressful, I wonder? "No," she says. "I feel I've been living with rugby for 20 years."

So is it a bit easier now, when there is no longer the pressure of playing at international level? "The earlier part, when he was playing, it was terrifying. Well, not terrifying, but you'd be nervous for him. As a kicker, the No 10, you're either the hero or a zero. I only now understand why his mum was so upset and why she'd have the rosary beads out watching him and she was so nervous. Now I have my own kids… before, I was the girlfriend, or the wife, and I was never that worried about him, but when it's your own child, it's different. I said to her, I understand now. As a partner, you're separate, even where you love them." As a mother, we agree, you're not.

How does life in Paris suit her? Was it lonely being the mother of very small children - which can be lonely anyway - in a new city? "It was great," Jessica says. "Johnny and Laura Sexton were there at the time, and Laura had just had Luca, about two months after I had Max. It was her first baby, she didn't know any other Irish people in Paris, so she was always with me. That was lovely."

And has she made friends (that too can be notoriously difficult). "I'd have lovely friends," she says, adding however, "there's a different dynamic when you're a coach's wife, not a player's wife. I'm the older lemon now. Some of the players' wives, the English-speaking ones, they invite me whenever they're doing something. I'm in a group with them, I'm only a couple of years older than them. I tell them 'You're so nice, letting granny here come along...' and they say 'you're one of us,' but at the same time, Ronan's not playing anymore, he's a coach. The distinction is there for Ronan, he has to be serious. He can't go out on the lash with the lads. But it's all good. He understands, they understand. With me," she says, "it's easier. It's not like we'd be talking about our husbands all the time when we're out, that they'd think 'we'd better not tell her in case she says something...'"

Through the children's school and activities, she has another group of friends, mainly French. "The other mums invite us if they are having a family picnic or something, they include us." There is, however, as she acknowledges, a language barrier. "I wouldn't be able to have a full-on conversation. I wouldn't get all the jokes. You can get lost. You don't want to stop the conversation every few minutes and ask for explanations."

The kids, she says, help her. "Their homework, there's a lot of grammar. That helps." Ronan, she says, has 'Cork French'. "He uses it all the time. He puts the 'effing' into the middle of a sentence and they understand it. 'C'est effing pas possible…' he has all the rugby vocabulary and slang, but his verbs aren't great at all."

As for what we delicately call 'the climate', in Paris - meaning the fear of another terrorist attack, Jessica is robust. "It's there, it's at the back of your mind, but you can't live thinking about it," she says. Would she ever consider not doing something or going somewhere, out of caution? "I would at the time of the attacks, but not now. The children learned about it at school, they call it 'the bad people'. And they saw the Manchester attacks on the news. I wouldn't show them too much, but they're aware. It's a bad world out there, isn't it?"

In general, a certain admirable kind of 'get on with it' attitude seems to prevail with her. I ask about that The Late Late Show appearance - the one where Ronan, joking, said "I wouldn't be nervous getting up on Jessica but I would be nervous kicking a ball." Did she mind? She gives a shout of laughter. "I know my husband. That's the kind of thing he'd often say...I didn't even...He could have not done it on national TV, but anyone who knows him and knows me, knows that he's quite likely to throw a joke...It's water under the bridge at this stage."

She clearly doesn't - in the nicest possible way - give a damn about the whole thing. So in general, how much would other people's perceptions of her and Ronan, matter? "It's not a bit important. As long as we're happy doing what we're doing. If you start worrying about how the world views you, you'd be..." she shrugs, not bothered to even finish the sentence.

Jessica, Max (3) and Ronan O’Gara at the Curragh
Jessica, Max (3) and Ronan O’Gara at the Curragh

And of course, as she says, she knows her husband. The pair first met as children, then "met properly" in their first year of college. "It's been a long time. We're 11 years married, and we were together 10 years before that." Twenty-one years in all, I say. "You're making me feel old now," she laughs. "Ah no, it's been lovely."

Life as the wife of a rugby international can't always have been easy - not least because of the way in which players lived, as Jessica says, "in a bubble for their entire career. They had everything done for them. Ronan couldn't worry about outside things. He'd forget so many things, he could forget his passport. He was so focused, anything outside was irrelevant." As a result, "the month after he retired, he rang me, I was on the beach with four kids, and he asked, 'can you book a flight for me?'."

And yet, she clearly doesn't resent this in the slightest, even saying, "The night before [the race], I said 'I'm so nervous.' He said, 'now you know how I felt...'" To which Jessica responded, "'it's a little bit different, I'm not playing for my country. You're not comparing like for like here. I don't know how the hell you did what you did when I'm feeling like this over this...'"

The pressure, she says, is even more intense for the next leg of the Challenge - "the kids were not happy with mummy for not winning" - but it's her own kind of pressure, that of someone who is determined to do well, do her best, get on with it.

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