Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Caroline Downey

Caroline Downey’s curriculum vitae would consist of more than one ream of paper. From embracing upcoming Irish music talents to exclusively producing shows that involve Barack Obama, Frank Kelly and more, Caroline is one of the most driven, ambitious individuals whom I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Extracting the profession, as a person Caroline is kind, approachable and always willing to listen to your idea – whether it’s tremendous or terrible. I could list her characteristics for many more characters but one of my favourite elements to her personality –  like me, Caroline has a penchant for ridiculous millinery.


How would you describe yourself?

I’m Caroline Downey, I’m 52. I’m the Director of the Gaiety and co-owner of MCD Concerts. I’m managing a new artist called Hozier. I produce some shows and I sit on the board of the ISPCC and the Christina Noble foundation.

I imagine that day-to-day, your schedule differs hugely.


Is there one particular element of your work or schedule that you would have preference over?

It really depends on the time of year. At Christmas and in the lead up to the festive season, the pantomime in the Gaiety is all encompassing. During that time too, the Childline concert is on and that takes up a considerable amount of my time but I have a tendency that when a project is finished, I move on almost immediately. I don’t dwell on it, I don’t live in the past and sometimes people who work with me can find that quiet difficult but I have to.

With a schedule so demanding, that’s very understanding. You started your career as a model…

Well, I was a waitress from the time I was about fourteen but I’ve worked at almost everything – from the factory, to supermarkets, you name it. I was raised between Australia and South Africa and didn’t go to school in Ireland for quite a while.

Growing up on the other side of the world, did that have much impact on you in later life and in your current line of work?

Not really but what it did make me want to do was to make sure that my children stayed in the one school and grew up with the same friends. That was a definite as when I was growing up, I had been to eight different schools, it’s not the best…

I moved schools after first year in secondary school and found the one change of school particularly difficult. I can’t imagine what eight changes were like.

It was a challenge but particularly because later in life it transpired that I was dyslexic. At the time, I put it down to just being stupid but every time that you moved country, which we did every two to four years, it means learning new history, new geography – one country did French, another did Africans.

Were the different cultures a challenge to embrace?

No, that you can live with. As a teacher yourself, you know that there is not a global curriculum apart from maths and maybe science. External to that, the content is pretty relevant to the effects of a country itself. Then imagine adding all of that onto being dyslexic, it wasn’t pleasant but I was quite sporty – sport was my saviour. I played hockey and water-polo but sport was great in terms of integrating as it didn’t matter what your language barrier was or the country’s culture, sport was sport – you just had to be good at it!

Earlier you mentioned waitressing and working in a factory, did those jobs provide you with the skills you needed for your current roles or did you learn on the job?

When it came to work, I knew what I didn’t want to do (laughs).

And what was that?

I knew that I didn’t want to work in the Supermarket or waitress again. Actually, I enjoyed waitressing and I think it’s something that everyone should do. Storm, my daughter, is doing that at the moment – she’s in the middle of a gap year before she undertakes her Masters. I think it’s a great way of making money, it’s a great way of meeting new people. I didn’t much like the other part-time jobs that I had when I was younger but yes, I knew what I didn’t want to do.

In the early days of founding MCD, were they challenging?

No, not at all because when we started out, we had nothing – we didn’t know any better. I worked the door, we drove to all of the gigs and mostly, it was fun!

Looking at your role as a producer, is there much difference for you in producing a concert like Childline, in comparison to producing a pantomime?

The concept is the very same – except actually, everyone gets paid at the pantomime! At Childline, they all work for free. It’s the same formula though; you need lots of great talent! For pantomime, you have to find a good script – for Childline, that’s the songs. For both projects a great director and set designer are required.  It’s almost identical in one way, much like producing theatrical pieces for the stage like Moll which is currently on in the Gaiety but it’s the same recipe as when I produced the Meteor Awards or Barack Obama at College Green – fundamentally, it’s about your team. You can produce as much as you want but if you don’t have the support system around you, then it’s not going to work.

What makes a great team?

Efficiency and a willingness to listen to me (laughs)! I have an amazing team, in all areas. Interestingly, with Childline the team is predominantly female.

Does that make much of a difference?

No, they weren’t hired based on their gender but because they were the most efficient team for that project. Actually, the lighting designer for Childline is male but then in the pantomime, Daryn Crosbie, Ronan and Matt McCluskey are each male but they were the best in their field. For my team, I choose the best; it’s irrespective whether they’re male or female.

You’ve mentioned your involvement with Childline but why do you think the work of the ISPCC is so important, particularly in 2014?

Because abuse is ongoing, it’s possibly just more out in the open today than it was thirty years ago when I first started working with the ISPCC. I first got involved because of Ann Lovett but now we have bigger problems with the issue of bullying and in particular, cyber bullying. With all of the great things that the Internet has brought to society such as Twitter and social media, it also has huge downfalls.

In the past, if you were being bullied in school, it finished at the school gates at 3 o’clock and commenced again the following morning but that doesn’t happen any longer, through the medium of the internet, it continues.  Also, children are still being beaten, they’re still being sexually abused, they’re still living below the poverty line, there are still parents who aren’t caring for their children and that has not altered, not one little bit.

The ISPCC has been in existence for almost 110 years and wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need the ISPCC – along with Barnardos and all of the other brilliant charities that are doing incredible work for children in this country.

Earlier, we were speaking about gender-roles in the workplace, do you think there are any further challenges for women in employment versus men in the same roles?

No and I’ve asked my girlfriends this question too and their response is that they are successful because they work very hard. Recently, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ and for all of the hype that surrounded it, she spoke frequently that there wasn’t enough women but I think a lot of women prefer, by choice, to stay at home and raise their families and it seems to be because there aren’t enough women in high executive positions that it’s frowned upon. I think that if a woman wants to do it all, can do it all but then, I’m not in the corporate world and perhaps I haven’t hit the glass ceiling. In our industry, it’s irrespective whether you’re male or female; you have to be good at what you do.

Also, I know many won’t agree with me on this but I also don’t believe that a woman should sit on a board just because she’s a woman, your position should be granted because you deserve to be there –irrespective of your gender. I sit on a variety of boards, the work is slow and tedious but it has to be done. Me, I want everything done tomorrow and at meetings I often find myself asking ‘What do you mean we have to wait a month?’ but sitting around the table, I don’t count the men and the women I just think that they’re all there because they have a specific reason to be present. 

 To the young women of this country, who perhaps are still in school, what advice would you give them?

Try everything and that goes back to what I was saying at the beginning; through new experiences you may not find exactly what you want to do but you will discover what you don’t want to do. When Zac (Caroline’s son) was in Transition Year, he did some of his work experience in radio. He worked in Today FM and Setanta – he spent much of his time there logging information. He came away from the experience totally confident knowing that field wasn’t what he wanted to work in. Jeff (Caroline’s son), I’m not certain where he worked, perhaps it was in MCD.

When transition year students come for work experience in MCD, they have this image of it being a very glamorous job but it’s really not.

Filled with lots of paperwork, I imagine.

If you’re lucky! If you’re working on festivals, Croke Park for example, you’re stuck in window-less concrete obvious and you’re completely oblivious to the show that’s happening outside.

Prior to last year, people knew of your work but perhaps they were unable to put a face to a name. What was it like being involved in Celebrity Apprentice?

I found it very difficult; it was naïve of me almost. I hadn’t allowed that I would have known so many of the celebrities that had taken part – of the ten, I knew four very well. It’s very hard to fire someone who you know so well, someone who has been so supportive of you, particularly in the case of Mikey Graham. He’s an ambassador for my charity, so that was very hard.

At the same time, you can’t show favouritism to him in the boardroom.

No, you can’t because each of the celebrities were raising money for phenomenal charities. If I had to think of the charity first, they all could have won so I had to take it challenge-by-challenge and the women buried the men!

Was the outcome what you expected when it initially began?

Initially, I didn’t think that Edele (Lynch) would have won but that was because of pre-conceived notions. I thought Amanda (Brunker) might have been in the running and as the series progressed I thought that Daniella (Moyles) would do very well but the efficiency of Edele – you would give her a job tomorrow morning. Daniella was pretty efficient too but her career and star is rising already on the rise – she doesn’t need us!

Were you glad that you did it in the end?

I was, at the time I wasn’t and shortly afterwards when I was publicising it I wasn’t but looking back on it, I’m glad I did. We raised a lot of money, almost €135,000 and when that much good comes from a project, it’s difficult to look back on it negatively.

You’ve worked on a gargantuan number of projects, programmes and performances but is there anything remaining which you wish to do in your career?

Nothing that I’ve ever done is what I’ve wanted to do, does that make sense? I’ve fallen into a lot of things but I just like to have a new chapter. As we were saying earlier, women can have it all but I believe that perhaps they just can’t have it all at once. Sometimes it can be difficult juggling both your family and your career. In my case, I didn’t do as much when the children were smaller so fundraising became a big platform for me and I worked from home. As they grew older, I could take on more in terms of work but my new journey is managing Hozier, along with producing plays and pantomimes in the Gaiety.

I imagine it’s rather difficult to choose, but is there a moment in your career which you’re most proud of?

My greatest wish, and I don’t know if it will ever happen, I would like it to happen and I hope it will, is that the ISPCC Shield Campaign becomes international. I would love if people wore their shield for the month of March around the world for anti-bullying. If that happened, I would be extremely happy.

How could that happen? Is it about encouraging celebrities around the world to embrace the campaign?

I would like to think that at Childline we have a template which other nations can take example from. At the moment, we have a repertoire of twenty eight huge celebrities, each of their photos taken by Barry McCall but the celebrities themselves are so willing to be involved. After all, most of them too have been bullied. I think they can empathise with children. For other nations, they can bring their own celebrities forward and they can use our template – I want them to take it!

On behalf of Little People of Ireland, I travel to quite a few schools – both primary and secondary schools – and give talks about my experience of being a little person.

Were you bullied?

I wasn’t and I get asked that question quite a lot as part of the various talks but I really owe a huge amount to both of my parents. They instilled in me a confidence and a real sense of self that really helped me pave my way through education, employment, friendship and all that falls between. I think it was because I was so comfortable being me…

That they just left you alone, really.

Yes, exactly and even now, among my closest friends they often forget that I stand at 105.5 cm tall – until of course I can’t reach something or there’s an obstruction in my way.

That’s them seeing you, for you. It’s irrelevant what size, race, or age you are. 

This series, Extraordinary Women, began due to the reporting of L’Wren Scott’s death in the New York Times. She was a woman who I admired greatly for being both a fashion designer and a savy business women. On the announcement of her death though, the headline read ‘Mick Jagger’s girlfriend has died’ and whilst that may have equated to more website views due to Mick’s fame, I was deeply saddened because at the end of the day, L’Wren was someone’s daughter, someone’s niece, someone’s sister, she was a person in her own right.

Unfortunately, that’s how tabloids work. She did come to people’s attention thirteen years ago because of her relationship with Mick Jagger but she stood out on her own. I don’t know what it is, I’m always tagged with Denis. It happened only recently, ‘Manager of Hozier, Caroline Downey (wife of Denis Desmond)’ and you think to yourself ‘When do you become your own person? Why must you always be tagged with a man?’ They don’t write Denis Desmond (husband of Caroline Downey).

It’s also really common that journalists will report, ‘Caroline Downey, mother of three’ but they wouldn’t write ‘Denis Desmond, father of three’. Why is that relevant?

In those particularly cases, let’s be really honest here, the women do the bulk of the juggling when it comes to children. There are some extraordinary men in existence who do care for their children in the same way but perhaps it’s written that way to illustrate that women achieve all of these things along with being a mother of three.

I always find it interesting with Amy Huberman, when Brian (O’Driscoll) is interviewed he’s never asked about when he’s having his next child but it’s a question that she’s commonly asked. Equally with Dawn O’ Porter, Chris O’Dowd is never asked about having children but Dawn is continuously asked about being mother.

My final question for you Caroline, who are the people who inspire you most?

Christina Noble. Without a shadow of a doubt! When Storm was in Transition Year, she and I went to Vietnam to visit the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation. We visited the orphans – the foundation has built schools and a place where the feel safe, they even have Westlife posters plastered all over the walls. Within the Foundation, education is key – the belief is that you don’t give a hand out, you give a hand up. We also went to the blind school which affected Storm the most because the children can only identify you through touch – their injuries mostly from surgeries because of Agent Orange.

For me though, there’s just something about Christina. She’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. 

Thank you Caroline for taking the time to speak with me. You can find her on Twitter.

Interview originally published June 6, 2014

Sinead Burke