Tuesday 20 March 2018

Lighting your own spark, Norah Casey and her mother


Norah Casey and her mother Mags
Norah Casey and her mother Mags
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Norah Casey and her mum Mags are each other's biggest fans, having had similar life experiences.

Nothing drives me mad about Norah," says Mags Casey, mum to the famous broadcaster and magazine mogul. "I love her unconditionally. One of her best qualities is that she believes that holding grudges is a waste of time, which is a good philosophy."

Margaret aka Mags, is lovely, funny and wonderfully vibrant, and if I reveal her age, the Leitrim lass and former psychiatric nurse will kill me. She's the youngest of Patrick and Kate McGowan's six children, and got married at 23 to the late Harry. They moved to a three-bed lodge in the Phoenix Park as Harry was a groundskeeper, and had six children, Betty, Catherine, Leo, Norah, Ciaran and Carissa.

"Harry was lovely," she says, "so good-looking and very kind. He was a man before his time because he washed up, changed nappies and wheeled the pram. Norah was such a good child and always passed her grades, and was fun-loving and always wanted to be out with her friends."

"Charming rebel" Norah was very mischievous and was always in trouble with the nuns at school. She started calling her parents Mags and Har in her teens, and decided to follow in her "firm but fair" mum's footsteps by going to Loch Lomond in Scotland at 17 to do nursing training.

"I had a bit of a wild streak in me, but I was lonely," she recalls. "I was always in the queue in the nursing home to phone home, and would be bawling my eyes out to my mum. Mags, who became a counsellor, used reverse psychology to calm me down. She would tell me I was fine and then say, 'Actually I don't know what you are doing over there, come home,' which made me want to stick it out."

Norah went on to become the face of nursing in London, and was on BBC and wrote for the Guardian, which led her into journalism. She began working in Sky at weekends, had a radio programme, worked in print and did her master's, so she was very busy, but loved it.

She carved out a stellar career in publishing before starting her magazine empire, Harmonia, in Dublin.

Mags and Harry visited her regularly during her years in London, and they went on long holidays together all over the world. Her brother Ciaran is now running the company, which publishes titles like Irish Tatler, U and Woman's Way. Norah is doing a lot of TV and radio work, including her forthcoming RTE2 series where she helps traveller women to build businesses.

"Norah works hard but she plays hard too," says Mags. "I am her greatest fan - I listen to anything that she is on. A lot of people have compared her to Oprah."

Norah says that Mags is much wiser than she is, and is the first person she calls whenever she has a problem. They get on famously, although they don't always agree politically, but both are "sort of Libertarian," and abhor racism.

Norah met her late husband, Richard Hannaford, in her early thirties, and after losing several IVF pregnancies, their adored son Dara came along in 1998.

"When I lost the last IVF child before Dara, I was so upset, I made Mags bring me to the nearest off-licence to buy a bottle of brandy and a box of 200 cigarettes," she says. "I hadn't smoked in years but I didn't care. Mags is very calm, wise and she is my best friend. I always call her to see what she thinks of interviews, and maybe I do that because she is so nice and supportive. She is very tactful, and will say things like, 'I'm not sure that is your colour.' We have an incredible bond and I would love to be like her. My father died when he was 69 and my sister Betty also passed away, and Mags picked herself up after both, so when Richard died in 2011, I kind of followed her."

Mags was determined to not lean too heavily on her family, so she started taking classes in French, Irish and philosophy. At seventy, she became the oldest person to do the ECDL, and is great on her iPad, Facebook and Twitter.

"We all fight over having Mags at Christmas, as she is so funny and the best craic to have around" says Norah. "She is ferociously independent and very active and adventurous, and does mindful yoga."

Mags says it was devastating when Richard died because he was like a son to her, and a perfect gentleman. On the day the hospital told Norah that nothing more could be done to save him, she was so devastated, she went straight to Mags' house. "There really aren't many people in your life that you can go to when you're raw and bare," says Norah. "When we lost Richard, Mags was my biggest support."

Norah has written a fantastic motivational book called Spark!, which is about fulfilling your potential in life, and Mags has written one of the chapters.

"It makes people question things if they have drifted into a life by default," Norah says. "People may think as you age that it is a decline towards retirement, but my message is that it's never too late to renew your passion for life and self-belief. You can dust yourself off and get up again at any time, and do anything you want to do. The book is laced with my own experiences, and I try to voice the opinions of other people who have suffered in life. There is no logic to moving on. You just have to believe you have a moral duty to live your life, and give yourself permission to laugh and enjoy life."

While Norah is now in a relationship with Peter, a firefighter, Mags, who has eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, remained single after Harry died. "I am perfectly happy and wouldn't marry somebody else," she says. "Old men can be so grumpy, and I just think, thank God I don't have a man like that. Mind you, Harry wouldn't have been grumpy."

"George Clooney is the love of her life," teases Norah. "He is only getting married now because he hasn't met Mags."

'Spark! How to reignite your passion for life and become the person you always dreamed of being' is out now. Penguin Ireland, €14.99

Sunday Independent

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