Loving family on the same wavelength
Radio station boss Margaret Nelson has a very close bond with her horse-mad teenage daughter, Isabelle Nally, who is also making a name for herself, writes Andrea Smith
HAVING her daughter Isabelle almost four years after her son Jonathan was born, was “the icing on the cake” for radio boss, Margaret Nelson. “Becoming a mum was huge for me as I never actually believed that I could have it all,” she says. “Not that gender matters, but the minute Isabelle was born, I said, ‘I can breathe now’. The two happiest moments of my life were when my children were born. I was a little bit older when I met Joe, and while we were blessed to have Jonathan fairly quickly, Isabelle took a bit of work to get her along. I would have loved to have more children, but I’m so grateful for my two fantastic, beautiful kids.”
The ever-stylish Margaret took the admissions staff by surprise when she rocked up to Mount Carmel wearing thigh-high boots to have Jonathan. Now 21, he’s studying commerce at UCD, but Margaret (58) found it a big wrench when her “gorgeous, giving” son went to board at Clongowes for six years.
Margaret’s radio career began in sales and marketing, and she rose to become CEO of FM104 in 2008. Last year, when Newscorp took the station over, she also became head of Q102. “At my age, I must be flippin’ mad,” she laughs. Isabelle’s memories of her mum include that she was always very glamorous, and her extensive wardrobe took up a lot of space in her own closet.
“Mum has always worked very hard but if you ask her to do something, she always makes time for it,” she says. “She gives good advice, although sometimes I’m reluctant to take it — I am a teenager, after all.”
Everything around Isabelle was pink when she was a child — not my decision, laughs the pretty teenager. “I always say that the fact that Isabelle is naturally blonde gives a degree of authenticity to my own hair and she winds me up about that,” laughs Margaret. “I turned blonde aged 18 when I came to Dublin.”
As CEO of FM104 and Q102, Margaret has risen to the top of the radio industry in Ireland, thanks to her effervescent, warm personality and sheer hard work. However, when she married six-foot-five stockbroker, Joe Nally, 23 years ago, the plan was that she would move to London. They met at a party in London, and Margaret was surprised when he arrived to meet her for a date in the Westbury. “He walked up the stairs and I thought, ‘Holy God, I didn’t think he looked as gorgeous as that’,” she laughs. “Joe is really handsome and he’s so good to me.”
They got engaged, and just as she was on the brink of moving to London, Margaret’s own “desperately glamorous” mum was diagnosed with dementia. She was very close to her late parents and Margaret felt she couldn’t go off and leave her mum, also called Margaret, when she needed her. Her parents were an amazing couple who instilled in her a very strong work ethic, she says.
Margaret left the family home in Ennis at 17 to come to Dublin, and her dad Des took her aside before she left. “He said, ‘This will always be your bedroom if you ever want to come back’, which gave me a great sense of belonging and security,” she says. “He told me to work hard and make a name for myself, and not to hide my light behind a bushel. ‘Salute anything that moves and polish anything that doesn’t’, he said.”
So she and Joe made the decision that he would live in London during the week as he’s a partner at city stockbrokers, Cenkos. Margaret’s mum moved in with her for eight years, and her older sisters, Patricia and Aideen, helped greatly with her care too. When the time came for her to have full-time care, she was looked after “magnificently” at the Sonas nursing home in Ballina.
Joe still works in London and he flies home every Friday evening and returns on Monday morning. As a very sociable couple, they love hosting dinner parties, and Isabelle’s burning passion for horses also keeps them busy. Riding her horse Benny Liath, known as Ted, she was awarded first place in the Working Hunter 153 category at the Dublin Horse Show in the RDS in September, and was reserve champion in the highly-competitive Connemara Performance category. Ted is stabled at Hartwell Stud in Kildare.
“The amazing Mary Mccann took Isabelle on aged 10,” says Margaret. “And I will do anything I can to encourage the fact that my 17-year-old daughter is in love with a four-legged Ted, rather than a two-legged one. I honestly expected that having a teenage daughter was going to be a lot more difficult than it is, but she’s a dream. Her love of horses gives her a focus and makes her bounce out of bed. Same as Jonathan really, as he was passionate about rugby. I think you need to step back a bit and instil an inner self-belief in your kids, rather than being constantly down on them and giving out. They all make mistakes and if they learn from it, that’s the main thing.”
Isabelle can be hard on herself, but she has a very balanced attitude towards winning. Her poor mum can’t bear to watch her compete and hides behind Joe’s back until it’s over, praying she won’t have a fall.
The adorable Isabelle says that Margaret can be strict on “weird things”, and only let her get her ears pierced at 17, for example, but she also lets her have freedom too. Having attended the Teresian School until Junior Cert, she now attends the Institute of Education, which is just down the road from their city centre home. Now in fifth year, she is mad about all animals and is considering a career in animal physiotherapy, at present.
When Margaret was Isabelle’s age, she had moved from Ennis to a tiny bedsit in Ranelagh, which she nicknamed ‘Cosy Cot’. One single wardrobe housed a tiny fridge and two hot plates, and the bathroom was three floors below. She worked in admin at Trinity College, initially, and then switched to the travel business and then media. Her career included five years living in Cork working for The Examiner newspaper, and while there, her weight crept up by five stone. This is a surprising revelation as she’s so slender and trim now.
“I got into an unhealthy lifestyle and it caught up with me,” she admits. “I was completely lacking in confidence, and when people congratulated me on being pregnant, I didn’t tell them I wasn’t. I lost the weight through diet and exercise, but I’m still challenged around weight and desperately conscious about it. I go to the gym three times per week and I don’t do carbs, because if I allowed myself to do what I want to do, I could be a lot heavier. I always say that inside me, there’s a fat person trying to get out. Or that I’m like a salad — better dressed!”
Food, health and nutrition is really important to Margaret, and she’s happiest standing in her kitchen making dinner while watching cookery programmes. She’s also conscious of not passing her challenges around weight on, and wouldn’t dream of stopping Isabelle eating sweet things if she wants them. As it happens, her daughter eats a very healthy, balanced diet and is very active. Despite their busy schedules, they’re a very close-knit family who love catching up at weekends. They also enjoy going to Baltimore, where they have a house. Joe and Jonathan love it there as they both sail.
Margaret was thrilled to be inducted into the IMRO Radio Awards’ prestigious Hall of Fame last month, along with Pat Kenny, Willie O’reilly and Ian Wilson. Her award citation referenced FM104 having a current prime time market share of 17pc, and that Margaret has driven it to be the most financially successful local radio station in the country.
“The fact that it was voted by my peers is even sweeter,” says Margaret. “I was so happy, delighted and proud that the people I work with think that I have done a lot to preserve the industry. What I have tried to do is develop a relationship and ambience in the office where people want to come to work, roll up their sleeves and give it 1,000pc. I want passionate people at the stations, not those who simply check in at 9am and are off again at 5pm.”
When it comes to glass ceilings and women in business, Margaret doesn’t believe in standing behind gender quotas and thinks the best people should get the job, regardless of gender. Issues like the gender pay gap exasperate her and need to be addressed. “I think women are different in their work ethic than men, and I believe we need to stand up and be counted and know our worth,” she says
Isabelle says that she’s very proud of her inspirational mum, and when asked if there are any challenges to having such a dynamic, glamorous mammy, she says that there can be, at times. “My friends are always saying, ‘Your mum is so pretty’,” she says. “You can’t take her anywhere either, because she knows everyone and they know her. Jonathan and I have two very hard-working parents to look up to, and we’re always encouraged to do our best, but they don’t place any expectations on us.”
Being a busy, working mum has its challenges for Margaret, particularly with Joe being in London during the week. “While all these books say you can have it all, you can’t if you work and you have two children who need feeding and nurturing and direction,” she says. “I’ve probably lost a bit of the interaction with my lovely, closest friends, even though they’ve been really patient and understanding. Something has to give when you’re up at 6.30am and your day is about work and kids and emails and homework.”
While she has achieved great heights in business, Margaret says that being a mum is the true highlight of her life. “I am beyond bursting with pride over my two children,” she says. “When I was accepting the lifetime achievement award at the BAI offices, the most important thing for me was looking down and seeing their beautiful, beaming smiles.”
‘I want passionate people at the stations, not those who simply check in at 9am and are off again at 5pm’
Radio boss Margaret Nelson with her 17-year-old daughter, Isabelle Nally. Photo: Colin O’riordan
Isabelle Nally on Benny Liath in the Irish team that won the International Connemara Performance class in the Dublin Horse Show last summer