Having inherited a vast family fortune, a generous slice of between 150 and 200 million euro, Danielle Ryan can pretty much do as she pleases – and that’s exactly what she has done: developing Roads, a Dublin-based company focusing on perfumes, publishing and movie-making.
Faced with the prospect of spending a typically cold, damp Irish November afternoon talking to her about her latest perfume collection entitled ‘Africa,’ I half-expect a haughty, bejeweled spoiled princess going through the motions, striving to avoid looking jaded by the same old tiresome media questions.
Instead, the slim, black-haired, elfin-like millionairess displays a modest, almost self-deprecating, multi-faceted nature – self-possessed but easily brought to laughter with a quirky sense of earthy humor to match.
Interestingly, Danielle’s office is not clearly marked. There is no sign outside, nor inside the doorway either, only a number on Dame Street, a short stroll from Trinity College, erstwhile home to a cadre of famous writers including Anne Enright, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Eavan Boland, Bram Stoker and Samuel Beckett.
A plainclothes security man motions me upstairs with a smile and I enter an expansive lobby with a reception desk on one side and a low couch along the middle. An impressive – though rather gruesome – print decorates one wall depicting fibrous tissue and blood vessels under an eye socket. “It’s by Fernando Vicente,” a soft voice beside me says. I turn and there she is poised, smiling. “He’s based in Spain. We really like what he does. That’s why we published a collection of his work.” Stepping to one side, Danielle returns with a copy of the ‘Spring 2016’ Roads catalogue and presents it to me, open at page 29. Then she asks if I’d like coffee and guides me straight ahead into her broad office-cum-atelier.
Rather than focus on her family background – details about her grandfather and father, Tony and Cathal respectively, and their aviation company have been repeated ad finitum in the Irish media – and avoiding PR automatism over products, I start by asking her views on the recent historic ‘Waking The Feminists’ protest by hundreds of women at Ireland’s iconic national Abbey Theatre following its decision to include only one play by a woman to commemorate the 1916 revolution next year. I’m curious if she’s brave enough to weigh in with strong opinion or simply play passive diplomat. I’m not disappointed.
“A momentous event,” she says, unhesitatingly. “I would loved to have been there but I was not in Ireland at the time. It was long overdue and it was organized in a powerful way with incredible voices. The arts in Ireland is often presumed – simply because it is the arts – to be liberal but there is a major divide between men and women. As someone with a background in theater and film, I know there is a severe shortage of key roles for women, as well as in upper management. The playing ground should be equal, but it’s not. However, there are many reasons to feel confident about a favorable outcome to the Abbey protest. We’ll wait to see what happens next. It should be interesting.”
To Danielle, the theater protest is part of a positive trend. “Ireland is getting into a healthy habit of calling things as they see it,” she says, obviously pleased with the trend. “Such breakthroughs as the recent same-sex marriage referendum have given people strength, a fuller belief that their voices can be heard if they shout loud enough. Greater internationalism in Ireland is also widening peoples’ horizons, making them more questioning of decisions taken by hierarchies supposedly on their behalf.”
Now that the Abbey faces an unforeseen financial challenge – analysts say it must find scarce money quickly to fund plays written by women to deflect its perceived gender bias – would Danielle think of bailing the national theater out? Her eyes brighten, a hint of cheekiness in them. “If I did that perhaps it wouldn’t learn the lesson properly,” she says.
I still feel her being the heroine of the hour at such an historic moment would be a great honor, and much appreciated, and say so. She seems to be listening. Time will tell if my words fell on deaf ears.
As it is, Danielle already contributes generously to the development of Irish theatre. She has poured much money into the Lir, the National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin, which she established in 2011 with the guiding expertise of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, where she herself studied acting. Courses are three years long and 15 students are accepted annually for training in acting, stage management, technics, playwriting, stage, lighting and costume design and directing.
“I hosted an open discussion meeting at the Project Arts Centre with industry representatives, listened carefully, notepad in hand,” she recalls. “Then, with advice based on a hundred years of experience from RADA, designed the course, around which I designed the building. Through the project, we’re hoping talented actors and actresses can stay in Ireland rather than be forced to leave as they have had to do.”
So convinced is Danielle of theater’s importance as a vital form of communication, she has even brought trainers to her company to teach her staff how to master, transmit and translate vocal resonance and body movement.
Seated at a low-slung coffee table in her modern, minimalist second-floor office, its windows facing the trendy Temple Bar district, I ask the 32-year-old (whose birthday falls interestingly on the Celtic calendar’s most intriguing day, Samhain – November 1) what she, or others who know her, think of her.
“I’m curious, decisive, very determined to the point of being dangerous,” says the mother-of-two with a beguiling smile. “But I always keep in mind the words of Socrates – ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.’ While I often work on gut instinct, I’m also very analytical, always watching, observing, a combination of investigative journalist and curator. I see my role in the company as that of a producer on a movie. I bring parts of a project together, whether that be people or products, and try to bring organization out of chaos. I tend to be brave about projects, willing to take risks, but calculated ones. I’m optimistic by nature but believe in the rule of performance-related criteria.”
The Kildare-born woman whose husband, Richard Bourke, is a barrister, says she is keen not to encourage any overt sense of hierarchy in her company. “I lean on my staff for their intelligence, insight and expertise. We all meet on a Monday and decide the week’s priorities, delegate, roll up our sleeves and get on with the work. Then, come Friday, we sign off the week with a wrap-up of what we’ve accomplished and what’s still to be done.”
Asked how she rates her achievements in what I term the 3 Ps – prestige, philanthropy and profit – she seems surprised by the question, smiles, then answers after a few minutes of silence.
“Roads is too young a company to expect strong income so quickly, so that would be a one,” she said. “As for philanthropy, I’d say seven is fair – not only in supporting Irish culture through Lir but also the development work we’ve done in Sri Lanka. As for prestige, I don’t see that as terribly important, so I think a three.” We argue playfully over the numbers, particularly the last. I’m left with the distinct impression she enjoys a hearty intellectual rumble.
Obviously proud of the work supported by the Cathal Ryan Trust in Sri Lanka, Danielle relates how she spent four months there – the native home of her mother, Tess de Kretser – describing a ‘mopeds for midwives’ as just one project in a comprehensive, multi-million euro program with UNICEF. Targeting four of the worst affected towns in the main post-conflict area in northern Sri Lanka, the trust built maternity and pediatric wards, medical outreach programs and small clinics. It also helped fund local sports groups for children and promoted employment through small business loans.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” she said. “We achieved a lot. But we didn’t just throw money at projects. We told the government, ‘You do the roads, we’ll do the schools.’ ”
Aside from movies-in-the-making (next one is ‘The Shee,’ set in early 1960’s Ireland), publication of old classics and quality coffee-table books on subjects as diverse as fashion, museums and perfumes just released on the theme of Africa, Danielle – investigative journalist-cum-curator – no doubt has an eye open for other projects for the artistic pipeline.