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.

Moya Doherty

In the heart of Dublin’s city centre lies one of the most diverse streets. It is home to both the best sushi and coffee in the capital whilst simultaneously housing multiple charity shops and a drag queen who moonlights as a national treasure. Whilst each of these business may be keenly observed, nestled between miscellaneous hardware and tailoring outlets on the same street is the home of Riverdance.

A cultural phenomena that has inspired generations across the globe to appreciate the technicality and beauty that exists in Irish dance. Furthermore, it has ignited a palpable feeling of ‘home’ among our diaspora across the five continents.

It was a genuine honour to bask in the memories, advice and wisdom of Riverdance producer and co-founder, Moya Doherty.


How would you describe both personally and professionally?

Ooh. That’s very hard. I wouldn’t be the best judge of myself but the words that I would use would be the qualities that I admire in other people, that were given to me as a child growing up and I hope I still have them. They would be: being on time, working hard, treating people around you well and ensuring people are heard, not in a fanciful manner but one that is meaningful and true.

When you first began your career, you sought to be an actor but quite soon after you changed direction slightly to work within a production capacity. What brought about this change?

All of the things that I wanted to do and really loved required being front of camera or on stage and I just wasn’t comfortable with it. I loved acting and I still miss it but I haven’t got the make-up to handle the rejection that actors have to face all of the time along with the struggle that you are not in control of your own work, you’re constantly waiting on people to say ‘you have the right look’ etc., unless of course you set up your own acting company but that too is tough. I think again with television presenting, I loved it but as a woman, I hated all of the nonsense that went with it. What am I going to wear? What way will I style my hair? That’s all people commented on, so I gravitated to producing and working behind the camera.

I thought it was where you could manage your own idea and you were more, and I use the words ‘in control’ advisedly but you could guide your interests and the things that you could do with greater ease than if you were a presenter or an actor.

It’s interesting that you mention that notion of ‘image’, at the Women on Air conference earlier this year, TV3’s Ursula Halligan said that the two biggest hindrances for increasing the representation of women on air is childcare and image. Whilst many at the conference were in agreement with Ursula others felt that their image was important to them, it gave them confidence and the courage to be in front of the camera. What are your thoughts on this ‘debate’?

I think if you can just be you and be comfortable with that and if we were allowed to be that – I think the piece is that we’re not. I don’t really believe in building an image, I think that’s too false and things change, you get tired of a look, you grow, you age – I mean, we’re not static, we’re moving all of the time – it’s organic. I think it has to come from inside, from the soul, the heart and the intellect. I think if you can find the place where you’re happy with that, then everything else will fall in the right place. Unfortunately though, I think women try too hard and maybe we have to which is even more upsetting.

That notion of ‘being yourself’ reminds me of ‘Advanced Style’; a documentary of older ladies from New York, many of whom said that they only felt like themselves in their seventies and eighties as previously they felt conditioned by society on what to wear, what to think and how to be and in these later years felt so empowered to just be themselves.

Very much so and I imagine part of that is their age and the culture which they grew up in; a very different era to the one which you are growing up in and slightly different to the one which I was born into. However, I could absolutely say that I am only beginning to get closer to the ‘me’ that I am most comfortable with, now that I am in my fifties. It’s hard to believe that it has taken over half a century but it’s true.

Why do you think that is, Moya?

Confidence, I think women lack confidence. You go through so many phases; as a young woman, you’re in a meat market almost, you’re then into shaping your career, you’re a girlfriend, you’re a wife, you’re a mother, you’re a carer. It takes such a long time for you to just be you. I think that you’re trapped in a vortex, which is this female world, and no sooner are you almost finished your own maturation or that of your children, if you choose a maternal path, you find yourself caring for your own elderly parents and are sandwiched.

For me, this sense of feeling like myself was most definitely impacted upon by the passing of my own parents, even though they were wonderful people and didn’t stop me being me, you are always a child with your parents – regardless of what age you are and I think the lifting of that, in time when grief passed, gave me a sense of liberation.

On your initial migration from presenting to producing, did you find it a huge learning curve or was the transition an easy one?

I loved it. I was ‘home’. I think the parts that I like most about presenting are interviewing and if I was re-starting my career perhaps I would choose radio presenting as how you look is not relevant – unless of course they put those awful web cameras in the studio. However, interviewing is still extremely relevant within a producing capacity, I did a series called ‘Turning Point ‘ with Tish Barry years and years ago and I loved it. I love to follow a good interviewer, they ways in which they weave questions and in particular, how they listen. I think we have lost the art of listening which upsets me greatly but I found the adjustment somewhat tough.

I underwent a very intensive training course in RTÉ with Michael Healy at the helm. It was very demanding and Michael was pretty ruthless. I came out of the course not feeling too great about myself, I wasn’t even confident that I would be able to do the job at all. Then after a year or two, I felt really comfortable with it, I love it and have loved it for so many years but I would like a change.

If you could envision any change, what would you choose?

There are a number of things that I would really like to do. I would like to teach ‘the business’; elements of the industry which I have learned which could benefit others. Both of my parents were primary school teachers and it’s probably in the blood. Then in our last show ‘Heartbeat of Home’, I love working with young energy, I find it so empowering. I would like to be a yoga teacher too, believe it or not. When I’m an octogenarian, I want to sit on a beach in the lotus position, with my grey hair blowing in the wind. I would also like to write.

When I’m an octogenarian, I want to sit on a beach in the lotus position, with my grey hair blowing in the wind.

Is there any specific genre which you would like to write?

Em, fiction, short stories… Previously, I’ve done some journalistic work and reporting but I’m currently working on writing within a different capacity and am very much enjoying it. I love playing with words and story-telling.

In relation to teaching, is it lecturing you wish to pursue and would you prefer to do it at home or abroad?

It would most definitely be at home but it doesn’t have to be lecturing. Something which I love to do is speak to Transition Year students and whenever I am invited to a school, I go. I think it’s a really critical time for those students.

Not so long ago, I visited the pupils of Adamstown and some teachers seemed surprised that I actually came but my response was ‘well, you asked’. People sometimes don’t ask but it was a fantastic big community school with an eclectic mix of pupils, it was a wonderful opportunity for me, personally. The world that we are involved in, you too Sinéad, it spans a huge spectrum from producing, directing, writing, creating, lighting, sound, designing, costume, staging, production managers, runners, television presenting, radio, it’s vast and I’ve been really fortunate to have worked across it all. The students were just so genuinely curious about the variety of roles that could be a possibility for them, many of them previously had not even considered it as an option for them, for a variety of reasons.

I had a similar experience of that situation when I was teaching 5th class girls. In Geography we were studying the city of London and we researched designers such as Stella McCartney , Alexander McQueen and Burberry,  which meaningfully correlated to our art lessons. I brought in three mannequins and the children themselves constructed outfits using various fabrics and textures, inspired by those on the catwalks and in their wardrobes. The most interesting element of the lessons was the talking points and questions which arose afterwards. They couldn’t believe that fashion design or styling were genuine careers which they could gain entry to. It was extremely fulfilling for me, as their teacher that I could introduce to something new.

Absolutely and it’s so vast. Speaking to young people and hopefully offering them some insight into my career and experiences has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my role in recent years.

You have previously worked in London, the United States, Canada and of course, here at home but do you notice many differences in the professional landscapes between Ireland and abroad?

It is almost twenty five years since I worked in the UK, it was in the middle of the eighties and a very interesting time to be there. Margaret Thatcher was at the helm, the miners’ strike was on and the IRA were bombing Harrods, among other places. It was a very interesting time to be there. At the time, it was the best educational experience that I could have gained and even though the professional landscape of London today is very different, I would absolutely recommend that young people travel to and work in a different city. I just think that it opens up your mind and had I of not had that experience in London, I know that I wouldn’t have gained a place on RTÉ’s producer course and secondly, I don’t think Riverdance would have happened had I not of been away and been trying to find my own sense of Irishness, in a different landscape.

Ideas are curious things and they come from the strangest places. Everything that you do in life should be done to the best of your ability and you never know when you are going to use that skill in the future.

You mentioned Riverdance, can you recall what was going through your mind, or even your heart, when you came in contact with it, for the first time?

I was extremely fortunate to be in RTÉ at time and to be asked to produce this huge show – even though I didn’t really want to because I’m not a major fan of the Eurovision Song Contest –but I saw it as an opportunity for Ireland and felt strongly about employing Irish dance as a vehicle to illustrate our nationality. It all just fell together so beautifully but I never expected that phenomenal response to it and I think that it burst out at the same time that we as a people were finding our own identity. It was an iconic cultural moment, I suppose. It’s been an incredible journey but in some ways Sinéad, it has held me back.

Why would you say that, Moya?

I have been immersed in it and it’s a massive, big bubble and the question that is always asked is; ‘What will you do next?’ which is the reason why my next endeavour will be small, for example I might write a two-hander play, I might tend a small vegetable garden – something small and intimate, that’s what I crave having been on such a large-scale stage for so long.

We spoke briefly there about the projects that proceeded Riverdance, undoubtedly the critics would compare all future work to that of Riverdance but knowing that that would happen, did it ever influence which projects you became involved in?

I never really think about decisions in that way and I never thought about any direction of my career, at any point but I never managed myself in any specific way, I was always just driven by the creative desire to do or make something. The major project after Riverdance was The Pirate Queen, we got to work with some incredible talents – that experience was incredible but it didn’t work. I learned a huge amount from it, I think the music and the story could be re-worked and could find a different home, on a different stage, somewhere in the future.

Last year, it was extremely intense here in the run up to Heartbeat of Home, we knew what was being said out there ‘Oh, they’re mad!’ ‘What are they doing trying to top themselves?’ Actually, we’re not and that’s a very narrow view of creativity. We’re creating another piece of work that reflects us, twenty years on. It’s a new piece of work. Sometimes, we have a very narrow view here. The island of Ireland is a beautiful place, with exquisite horizons but we are all rattling around on a very small space and that can make us a little narrow.

Due to that comparison in the media, were you ever tempted to release a new piece of work anonymously?

I was and I might still do that. No matter what, people have perceptions of you, whether they’re right or wrong. We should never limit ourselves by perception or limit others my perceptions which we set for them. Sometimes, I just wish we were more open…

You’ve had an incredible career thus far and from this conversation alone, it appears that your next professional journey will be a more private one but what have been your career highlights to this point?

We work with an incredible team at Riverdance, we have been together for twenty years and we have had some brilliant experiences along the way. There have been beautiful moments, including the extraordinary opening of Riverdance in Radio City Music Hall in 1996. I think the other great moments were the opening of the Special Olympics, the Queen’s concert and of course, Michelle Obama’s visit to the Gaiety Theatre.

They’re the Riverdance highlights, then of course there are more intimate moments that have personal value. One day, I was feeling a little blue and I was out walking in Malahide, this man came over to us, it was at the height of the economic crash, a really awful period, he said to us ‘I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for Ireland with your music and your dance’. It’s really those beautiful and tender moments that mean an awful lot.

You also play a crucial role in evolving the arts in a more private way too, for example at the Abbey Theatre and the Irish Museum of Modern Art but how important is it for you to represent Ireland and the arts scene here on a continuous basis?

I am conflicted around it. I am not a great committee person – I find it tedious. I’m a bit of a Maverick, I want to cut through things and on a committee, that type of action just isn’t possible. I think what I can bring the most amount of value too, in terms of support, is mentoring. Being in a position to offer opinion, time and advice to some incredibly interesting businesses is a real privilege. It’s interesting, before you came into the office, I had a meeting with Junk Kouture – they are two fantastic Donegal people with a brilliant business idea and over the past year we have been fortunate enough to introduce them to people, to help them and guide them. They’re the kind of things that I love doing because I find it to be more rewarding and I can be of greater benefit than perhaps sitting on a committee.

This series of interviews arose from me questioning the women who have inspired me most, throughout my life. Who are the people whom you look to for inspiration?

There are many. Recently, I said to someone that I was in love with two septuagenarians. One was Seamus Heaney and the other was Leonard Cohan. I love poets, I love poetry, I adore the work of Carol Ann Duffy, I love the Irish women writers. A big style and career icon for me is Joan Bergin – I look at her and I think, I want to be her when I grow up. I quite like people who do things quietly, that they help and support people in a gentle way. I understand that we need those who are more outspoken to lead but I greatly admire those who offer support and encouragement in their own, more reserved way.

Thank you so much to both Moya and Paula for ensuring that this interview occurred. You can follow Moya on Twitter here.

Interview originally published Aug 3, 2014

Sinead Burke