Deirdre Heenan: Beautiful mind

Deirdre Heenan

She’s smart, stylish, sexy and juggles being a mother with a career as the first female provost of Magee College in Londonderry. So how does Deirdre Heenan manage to ‘have it all’? Audrey Watson finds out.

University of Ulster professor Deirdre Heenan could well be proof that sometimes women really can have it all. The Londonderry-based mum-of-three successfully juggles marriage, children, a passion for Manchester United and a career as a high-profile academic, broadcaster and author.

Earlier this year, she made history by becoming the first female provost since Derry's Magee College opened in 1865. And she was the joint winner of the Most Glamorous Professional category at the recent IN! magazine Glamour Awards.

Always immaculate, Deirdre makes Kate Reddy (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) in the recent movie, I Don't Know How She Does it, look like a sloth.

As well as provost, Deirdre is also dean of academic development at Magee and along with her long-time research partner, fellow professor Derek Birrell, recently published the book, Social Work in Northern Ireland: Conflict and Change. The two are currently writing on devolution and education in the province.

She is also one of five people appointed to the Health and Social Care Review Team, which is in the process of coming up with acceptable recommendations for a review of health and social care in Northern Ireland.

So how exactly does she do it?

“It is quite tough at times and I couldn't do it without my husband Rory's support,” she insists.” We don't have any outside help and have to sit down on a Sunday night, compare diaries and say things like ‘I'm going to be away or out on such and such a day or evening, so you need to be there,' and vice versa.

“Or, ‘You need to collect the children on this day', etc. It's all about being organised.

“I know it's quite sad, but we also have to plan what we are going to make for dinner each night,” she laughs. “So it's all about organisation and working together. I certainly couldn't do it without Rory's help. With a young family, there are a lot of commitments.

“I'm fortunate in that the University of Ulster is a very flexible and supportive employer and if I needed to take time off, it wouldn't be an issue.

“I can also work at home and I can work in the evenings — it all balances itself out.”

Deirdre met Rory, who also works in education, at a party in Derry. The couple have been married for 17 years and have three sons, Jack (15), Harry (13) and Matthew (12).

“Rory is a very hands-on dad and he is an expert cook, plus the boys are also very good and all have their things to do to help out,” she says. “We all pitch in.

“To be honest, I find that when I go home and have the vacuuming or ironing to do, I put the iPod on, forget about everything else and just do it. I actually find it quite therapeutic.

“However, it's not therapeutic if you've got ten basketfuls,” she laughs.

One of seven children, Deirdre grew up on a farm in the tiny hamlet of Annaghclone, in Co Down.

She had originally planned to go university in England and study law, but changed her mind at the last minute and instead opted to study social administration and housing policy at the University of Ulster in Coleraine.

The final year of her degree was held at the Magee campus and after graduation she remained in the city to study for a PhD in social policy. Derry has been her home ever since.

“At that time, I didn't really have any kind of career plan,” she says. “But social policy was something that really interested me.

“Who gets what and why? Who decides government policy and health policy and public policy?

“I've never regretted not studying law; I knew it wasn't for me.”

When she became Magee's first female provost in June, Deirdre created history and proved that women can reach the highest echelons of university teaching and management.

“I was absolutely delighted when I was appointed and felt very privileged to take it on as the first female to do so,” she says.

“Through my appointment, I hope people will see that the job is open to everyone, male and female — it's not necessarily a job that only men can have, or can do.

“I don't believe in barriers and if you want something badly enough you can achieve it. It's a hectic job, but it's extremely rewarding.”

The role of provost is the equivalent of a company CEO. A provost is also the most senior academic on a university campus and is responsible for the pastoral care of its students (in Magee's case, more than 4,000).

Deirdre is also spearheading the campaign to increase student numbers at Magee.

“Magee is a hidden gem,” she says. “And a lot of people are not aware of it. Students have a tremendous experience here. It's a city-centre campus and has a fantastic location, overlooking the River Foyle.”

Working mum's guilt is an emotion suffered by many women trying to strike the right balance between pursuing a career and raising young children, and Deirdre insists that she is no different.

“I did feel guilty at times when the boys were younger,” she admits. “But I think it's a natural way to feel.

“I think every mother deals with varying degrees of guilt when returning to the workplace and life is about constantly juggling priorities.

“There are times when you want to be in two places at once and you just can't do it. I think that in terms of being successful, it's all about achieving that work/life balance where you can be there for your family when it matters — school plays, prize night, etc.

“I'm in no doubt that it is much better for children to have a mother that is content and fulfilled rather than angry and resentful.

“It's about prioritising and ensuring that you are there for the days and times that really matter — the big events in their lives. You certainly would not want your children to look back and say, ‘But mum, you were never there'.

“I'm very lucky in that I live within walking distance from work and can go back and forth if necessary.

“The boys are very laid back and are constantly telling me to ‘chill-ax',” she laughs.

When it comes to relaxing, there's nothing Deirdre (and the whole family) loves more than watching a game of football — preferably live.

“I'm a real football fan, an armchair fanatic — the whole family is,” she reveals. “I'm a Manchester United supporter and my husband and middle son are Arsenal men.

“And yes, I do understand the offside rule!” she laughs.

“We go over to Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium a lot, but of course, Old Trafford is my favourite.

“I'm the one telling the kids that they have to behave themselves and not to shout and jump up and down and block people's view, but they tell me that I'm actually the worst.

“The darkest days in our house are when Arsenal and Manchester United meet, because someone in the family is bound to be very unhappy,” she laughs.

Despite her glamorous appearance, Deirdre has a very laid-back attitude to looking good and has her going-out routine ‘down to a tee'.

“One bonus of having such a busy life is that you don't need to be a member of a gym,” she laughs.

“Also, most evenings, I like to get out and have a walk. I love music (anything except Country & Western), so I put the iPod on and go. I have getting ready to go out down to a fine art and can apply make-up in five minutes flat.

“I have naturally curly hair, which is both a curse and a blessing. I hated it as a child, but large Velcro rollers have revolutionised my life. I have some in the office, at home, in the car and usually in my handbag in case of ‘frizz' emergencies.

“The nomination for the IN! award was totally unexpected and winning was an even bigger shock,” she says. “I was positive that I wouldn't win and when I did, for once, I was speechless.

“I think it's important to challenge the view that being interested in style is shallow and somehow beneath intelligent women.

“Being well groomed gives confidence, empowers, allows self-expression and most importantly, fashion is fun.”

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