Vivienne Connolly: Life after my marriage break-up
Vivienne Connolly fell for supermarket heir Mark Dunne. Yet their marriage collapsed after four years. Barry Egan tries to find out why and hears that the rawness and hurt have faded, to be replaced by mutual respect
'By all means, marry," Socrates once advised. "If you get a good wife, you'll become happy; if you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher." Vivienne Connolly was a good wife. Yet when her marriage to Mark Dunne, a man she describes as a very good husband, ended in 2010, she became, unintentionally, a philosopher of sorts. Vivienne says that you are "only a version of yourself if you are not being true to yourself. I think it is very hard, but once you are true to yourself and you own up to it, or admit it, there is freedom in it." the model and actress says of the hard truths she had to face when her marriage to Ben Dunne's son Mark and the father of her two kids – Katie and Ben Jnr – unravelled. They were legally separated in April 2011.
"And without being selfish," she adds, "that was one of the things I couldn't get past for a long time: I felt very selfish. I kept saying to my sisters – 'How can I do this to my kids? Take their father away? Take that whole unit away?' That's the one thing I always miss – the family unit – because I had it."
But, she continues, Mark lives only five minutes down the road from her in Castleknock. He picks Katie and Ben up three mornings a week and has them every second weekend. Because she was on TV3 first thing this morning, Mark took the children last night because, she explains, "if I am working very early in the morning, he'll take them the night before. So I don't have to disturb them. Mark is a great guy. When we were splitting up, I said 'I wish you well'. He deserves to be happy."
I ask Vivienne if the earlier "be true to yourself" credo came from sessions in therapy. "Obviously when myself and Mark were breaking up, we went to marriage counselling," she answers. "I wanted to try everything. I didn't want to walk out of my marriage. It wasn't one of those – 'Hey, listen, I am out of here. I'm done with this!'" Vivienne says with a laugh. "But that quote is more to do with looking at myself and realising things. I went through my dark stages and I absolutely learned from that. You can only suppress your true, true feelings for so long and then your body reacts with your mind."
She is referring in particular to the post-natal depression she suffered in the past. It is not for nothing that Susan Sontag famously described it as "depression is melancholy minus its charms".
In hindsight, Vivienne had a touch of it with Ben, her first-born, but "I didn't realise at the time". He was born on April 22, 2004. Then, with Katie, born on August 22, 2006, "it came out more to the fore. I recognised it then: that low feeling of no motivation and that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach in the morning. I went to the GP. I'm glad it happened, to be honest, but it makes you look at things differently and makes you get in touch the real you again," she says with a bright smile. "I think that's what happens to a lot of people. You lose a bit of yourself along the way and not realise it."
Thankfully, she found herself again along the way.
Vivienne Lee Connolly was born on January 23, 1972, the middle child in a family of five: between an older brother, Derek, and sister Lorna, and a younger brother, Carl, and sister Elaine. The daughter of Liz and John – who had a dry cleaners and a drapery shop in Carlow town – she grew up in a four-bed house on two-and-a-half acres in Kilmeaney. She went to school at St Leo's Convent nearby. The principal, Sister Kathleen, was, Vivienne remembers, "tough but good".
Sister Kathleen clearly prepared her well for dealing, a few years later, with a certain lothario while on a modelling assignment in Spain. In 1991, Vivienne, who went on to become one of Ireland's top models (first with Morgan Brand and then with Eddie Shanahan: she still models and is now with Andrea Roche's agency), was working in Madrid. Under duress from her Spanish booker, she, and some other young models, had dinner with Julio Iglesias one night. He made various unwelcome and unsuccessful attempts to chat up the 19-year-old Irish beauty.
"He was trying, but he didn't get anywhere," she chuckles now, over lunch in the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin. Undeterred, the smooth-y singer of To All The Girls I've Loved Before rang the agency the next day and asked to take Vivienne and the other girls to one of his islands for a week. An appalled Vivienne couldn't say no fast enough. "I got great pleasure in it," recalls Vivienne, "because he was quite arrogant."
Vivienne was slightly more receptive to the amorous advances of a young Dubliner she met in the Barge pub in Ranelagh in 2000. Three days later, they went for lunch at the Bailey and then, that night, dinner at the Unicorn. On December 3, 2005, she married the son of a certain supermarket tycoon in Ashford Castle. Sadly, four years later, their marriage ended. Almost everyone who knew them was shocked.
"Obviously, the worst thing that happened me was my marriage break-down," Vivienne says, "but I mean, it definitely teaches you an awful lot. At the start, it was all very raw. Mark and I were lucky, I suppose, in a way, because we went through all our stuff for a long time before anybody knew. So we had that chance not to do it publicly and to respect each other."
I ask her what she learned from it all.
"The biggest thing really was the different stages you go through. I didn't realise that. But at the start there is a lot of hurt. There is a lot of ... I wouldn't use the word regret, but yeah, regret that it didn't work out, because you have it in your head that this is going to work out. But I learnt that it is amazing how you both go through these different stages, but then you come back. Everything, thanks be to God, is amicable and lovely between myself and Mark.
"He has met John," says Vivienne, referring to her partner, TV producer John Norton, whom she has been seeing since last summer.
"Mark is a lovely guy. He really is. And that is the biggest part of the regret for me. I questioned myself. You know, this guy is lovely and brilliant and a great dad and a great husband – and it still wasn't working out. So I learnt to respect that person as an individual and go, 'It isn't working between us' and move on. Any bitter words between each other really are only words and they are only how you are feeling at that moment."
She remembers one day – "I was kind of upset about things and emotional and he is quite practical" – Mark saying to her: "'You have to try not to attach so much emotion and try to separate the emotions from the practicalities of it." "And from then on," Vivienne says, "we did.
"Now," she continues, "if we ever get annoyed with each other over certain things, that is dealt with, but we get on ourselves and just move on with it. I know that Mark thinks I'm a good mother and I think he's a great father," she adds. "We have said it openly to each other. We are both going to be in each other's lives forever. We were both raised with our parents around, so we just want to do the best for Ben and Katie, and give them the most solid upbringing we can, because we don't know what they're experiencing."
She adds that both herself and Mark are modern parents, very open with their kids. That said, she admits that there are times when she doesn't want to say too much and burden them with problems inappropriate to those so tender of years. "But also I will say to them: 'You can talk to me about any thing any time you want'.
"And as new partners were being introduced – Mark has a girlfriend and I have a boyfriend – the kids were sat down and reassured," she explains. "We give them reassurance all the time: that they have only got one mum and one dad, and nobody is ever going to replace that. Mark' s girlfriend is not trying to be their mother and my boyfriend is not trying to be their father. And never will."
When she met John Norton last May, Vivienne says her main concern was her children. "There is so much more at stake when there are children involved," she explains.
Vivienne adds, even though John has been introduced and is great with kids – he has a six-year-old son James in Dublin and a 16-year-old daughter Ceara in America from two previous relationships – she does worry sometimes that the relationship may not work out down the road.
"But," she counters, "the way I look at it is: I can't live my life going, 'I can't meet anybody.' I just have to be very careful. It wouldn't be healthy for anyone." John, she says, was introduced to her children as a friend at the start – "to see how they would interact, and then it was a natural progression. John is a child at heart himself."
They first talked properly at the VIP Awards in March 2011. They knew each other to say hello, but didn't know each other that well. "It was off with Mark about a year and a half at that time and we had great banter with John at the bar. I went to Krystle nightclub in Harcourt Street afterwards with some friends and left John in the Shelbourne."
Over the course of the next year, he sent her messages on Facebook and Twitter in relation to whether she'd know anyone who would be interested in Dublin Wives. (John's production company, Straywaves, produced the reality show for TV3.) Eventually, almost 12 months later, John sent Vivienne a 5am tweet asking her out on a date. "Are you seriously asking me out on Twitter?" was her reply.
Before she would give him an answer, Vivienne did her research on John, asking her circle of friends about him. "I wasn't ready for a relationship. I wasn't in the headspace. I wasn't interested in jumping from one relationship to another. I was just trying to clear my own head and focus on the kids."
For the record, the general consensus about John was that he was a lovely fella but he had a reputation as a bit of a partyboy. "At this stage of my life," says Vivienne, "I'm kind of going, 'Is that what I want?'" In any event, she met him in Bite restaurant on South Frederick Street for their first date with an open mind. "We just clicked straight away," Vivienne says. "We talked about everything. And an hour and a half in, he gave me a kiss and that was pretty much that."
When I contacted John separately, to ask him his first impressions of Vivienne, he said he was nervous. "When I saw her she made me more so, as she looked absolutely stunning. I knew that we had some chemistry from meeting her at the VIP Awards and she immediately made me feel comfortable by making a couple of witty jokes about the manner in which I had asked her out. I think we laughed consistently for the first two hours and I was obviously smitten because I actually leant across the table and kissed her at one point, which is something I would never have imagined doing on a first date.
"Vivienne is the true definition of a lady," John adds. "She is respectful of everyone she meets. She is smart, witty and engaging, she is beautiful inside and out, and she is the most devoted mother that I have ever met, and I feel genuinely lucky to be with her."
Vivienne addressed her concerns about his bon vivant reputation around town. He told her that that came from the fact that, once upon a time, he was a single guy working on TV3's Celeb Salon and he would be out because of that "but actually, he has a young son, the same age as Katie, and he has him every second weekend. So he stays at home with him," Vivienne says, adding with a big smile: "My kids and James love each other."
Could she see herself getting married again. "When we broke up first," she says referring to herself and Mark, "I would have said 'No'." But she explains a friend of hers who has two kids from a previous relationship, got remarried and they now have four more kids. "So, I am not going to say never."
Vivienne is more sure about whether she would have more kids at her age. "Forty is not the end, but I think it is practical as well." She says that she looks at her younger sister Elaine – who is 32 and has a 17-month-old and a four-month-old as a case in point. Vivienne loves babysitting Elaine's two babies, "but I have a bit more freedom with Ben being at school and activities now; and I am not so tied down and I am enjoying that. So, if it happened, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Ideally, I suppose, no to having more kids.
"So I think we have enough on our plate really," she says, meaning her two kids and John Norton's two kids. "And as I said, I'm 40 and you have to think about the health of the child and stuff like that. And then it is going back to nappies and bottles. Do you know the way? I am kind of enjoying working again."
The breathtakingly beautiful blonde – who did a show-stopping rendition of Phil Lynott's Old Town in 2007 on Charity You're A Star – was always one with no shortage of ambition. She, of course, once turned to her parents when she was a young child and said: "I can't believe I'm nine years old and I haven't been out of this country yet."
In 2010, she did a 10-month course at the Irish Film Academy in Dublin with Rachel Sarah Murphy, followed up with an intensive training course with writer and director Terry McMahon. She also trained with David Scott and Emmett Scanlan. She got a part in Fair City in February 2011 when the show's executive producer Brigie de Courcy saw Vivienne play Queen Jocasta in Oedipus Rex at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin.
Brigie invited Vivienne to audition. She got a part as Machiavellian man-eater Ingrid Gleeson. She was invited back on the RTE soap last year from July until November. "I have just got my new showreel together, so I will be sending that out to all the casting directors and maybe to London, too. I would love to work on Raw or Love/Hate, or even return to Fair City at some point," she says, "as they are a great team to work with and I made some great friends. Aisling O'Neill is a star," she says of the actress who plays Carol Foley. "We got on brilliantly."
As do – like something out of a Woody Allen movie or an Irish remake of This Is Complicated – Mark and his American girlfriend, Gaby Rivas, and John and Vivienne; they have all had dinner together.
"I don't see any reason not to," she says. "We didn't fall out over any badness. It just didn't work. It wasn't like he went off with somebody or I went off with somebody. Anything like that."
It is a very personal question, but I ask it anyway. Why does she think her marriage didn't work out? "I don't want to go too much into it because I want to respect Mark as well. It just didn't. It was just one of those things. We were, I suppose, for the last year, kind of like two ships that pass in the night. We just weren't connecting properly.
"That was the main reason. That was really it. There was nobody else. We just started to go like that," she explains. "But I learnt from the whole life experience."
To lighten the mood, I ask her to name her five favourite books. "Affluenza by Oliver James. Memoirs Of A Geisha. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell," she answers, before adding, "Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
Vivienne Connolly is perhaps finally being.