Having lived and worked for six decades in south west Ireland, chef Maura O’Connell Foley is passionate about Kenmare which has also impacted on her acclaimed culinary repertoire …
I have an incredible love of the sea. In particular, the wild coastline of the Atlantic, it is magical. As a child I loved to watch the waves for hours especially when I came back from London and we would visit Derrynane beach. To watch the sunset over the sea, I believe, makes one look outwards and beyond. With Ireland being an island, in my experience, its people, especially those on the west coast, have a wanderlust for travel – to see what is beyond the horizon.
I often think of my grandmother when I look out at the ocean – she crossed the Atlantic unaccompanied by boat twice from Cobh. First when she was just 15-years-old in the 1890s. This was a remarkable journey. On her second visit to the USA, she worked with a family in Boston where she trained as a cook. At the time, there was a cable link stretching across the Atlantic from Valentia Island to HeartsContent in NewFoundland. It was the first form of instant messaging – by Morse code, linking Europe to North America – this will give you a sense of the achievements at the time. Valentia Island in Co Kerry is exquisite and I love visiting it with my husband Tom.
Photograph by Lynda Kenny
My favourite place is Kenmare. It is situated on the mouth of the Roughty and Sheen rivers where they flow into the Atlantic sea. For fishing rights, it was designated as “Kenmare River” as referenced in old maps, however, it is known locally as Kenmare Bay. The origin of the name Kenmare comes from the Irish Ceann Mara meaning “Head of the Sea”. Our Irish name An Neidín means “the little nest” as the town and sea are nestled in between the mountains. I recall the famous songwriter Jimmy McCarthy was a regular at our music and arts festival in Kenmare, the Cibeal started by Joe Thoma in the 1980s. After a session in Crowley’s bar and on leaving Kenmare one June Bank Holiday weekend with his friends in the back of an open van, Jimmy was amazed by the purple splashed on green (rhododendrons). He wrote the song the following day As I leave Behind Neidín.
Kenmare is the perfect location to explore the magical Ring of Kerry and the breathtaking Ring of Beara as it nestles between the two, both rings showcasing the diversity of the Atlantic coasts. As a town it’s truly cosmopolitan and we have always had a colony of artists and musicians living on the Beara and Iveragh peninsulas. In addition, there is a huge enthusiasm for good quality food and our cafes, restaurants and bars reflect this ethos. All my businesses have been in Kenmare, commencing with The Purple Heather in 1961, which my sister Grainne continues to run. Tom and I then renovated and converted an old schoolhouse to The Lime Tree Restaurant, which we ran in the 1980s and sold in the early 1990s when my Uncle Packie passed away. At this time, we wanted a simpler restaurant and I converted his grocery store which my grandmother, who crossed the Atlantic twice, had built in the 1930s. It became Packie’s Food & Wine. Tom and I then opened Shelburne Lodge in Kenmare in the 1990s and we continue to operate it today. My new cookbook [My Wild Atlantic Kitchen] is a celebration of my food and life and also reflects the beauty of Kenmare town and our surrounding landscapes. The book was beautifully designed by Éamonn O’Sullivan of Anchor Studio and Natalie Moriarty. There are splendid illustrations and paintings by artists Christine Bowen and Pauline Bewick, as well as amazing landscape and food photography by Norman McCloskey, Maria Bell and Lynda Kenny which contributed to the overall mood of the book.
We are fortunate to have young people of many nationalities settled in Kenmare, full of ideas and exuberance, which makes our little place inviting and vibrant. Because of technological advances, the town is bustling with young couples who have returned to their hometown with their young families working remotely with some setting up their own businesses. It oozes diversity and friendliness. Over the years, I have seen my beautiful town of Kenmare grow and develop in a sensitive way respecting its beauty. It is the sort of place that when people visit on holiday, they decide they want to live in this little gem forever.
My Wild Atlantic Kitchen, Recipes & Recollections by Maura O’ Connell Foley is available in selected independent bookstores and online at www.mywildatlantickitchen.com
Main featured image: “The Sound of Kenmare” by Norman McCloskey, the view from near Maura’s home The Marshes on the Ring of Roughty in Kenmare
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