The O'Connell Family from Cullahill in County Laois is no ordinary family and in this exclusive interview, we chat with all nine siblings to tell their story so you can see why. For the first time, they recount life growing up together under one roof, school, food, community, and their parents, in particular, the woman who set their world alight.
The O'Connell family home is located not far from their family business, The Sportsman's Inn, which still sits on the crossroads in Cullahill today. A landmark in the countryside, this was a one-stop-shop for the needs of the community for decades, from a grocer to undertakers to petrol station, not to mention a stop-off for travellers for pub grub on the main road from Dublin to Cork.
Mrs O'Connell, who ran the business successfully for many years, was not a natural-born businesswoman, growing up in a time when her skills were used to bring up her children and keep a family home. Devastatingly, her husband passed away aged 47 from lung cancer and, while coming to terms with her loss, found herself having to take over the family business while pregnant with their ninth child, and only 37 years old at the time. The term 'digging deep' doesn't even seem to scratch the surface of the incredible feat ahead of her and yet she triumphed in more ways than one.
This amazing story of Mrs O'Connell, bringing up nine children, her love of food, cooking and self-sufficiency, her concern for feeding her children for the good of their health, and learning and running a multi-faceted business, is one that is almost too much to fathom, but it is one that is both inspiring and empowering.
It's true that we are all products of our upbringing, in some way, shape or form, but habits we form when we are children, habits learned from our parents and siblings, are those that form who we are. The O'Connell siblings, who are Darina Allen, Blathnaid Bergin, William, David, Aidan, Tom, Richard, Rory and Elizabeth O'Connell, their lives and careers, are true reflections of their mother's influence and upbringing; her passion for food has seen six siblings ending up working in the food industry.
And this story, a behind-the-curtains look into their family, was recounted to us in the very place where it all happened.
Where did your mum grow up?
DARINA: Mummy’s family had a farm just outside Johnstown and they were virtually self-sufficient. They had chickens, ducks, pigs… they grew their own vegetables and they always had marvellous smoked bacon hanging out of the ceiling, whether they bought that or not I’m not sure, and then there was an orchard. I mean, our health is definitely founded on the food that they produced... you know because we are all living on inherited good health to a great extent, so the food that our grandparents and great grandparents ate actually.
Then Mummy went to boarding school in Kilkenny, and that would have been unusual enough at the time, and then was sent to what would have been the equivalent of a finishing school in Ireland, which was a year-long course at the Ursuline in Waterford.
RORY: To train you how to be a good wife. [They laugh]
DARINA: Exactly that. You learned how to cook and embroider, knit and tapestry. Mummy could do everything. She was incredible.
BLATHNAID: Remember she used to make our clothes?
DARINA: Yes, she made a lot of clothes. She made dungarees to change into after school because you had clothes you wore to school and then you’d change.
AIDAN: She would sit by the fire at night with a basket of socks and darn the socks.
ELIZABETH: That was in November, for the holy souls. She used to do it and then offer it up for the holy souls! [They laugh]
BLATHNAID: I remember she used to tell us about sending turkeys, chickens and geese to Dublin.
DARINA: I remember that. We had a post office here [Cullahill] and people would just get a turkey or a goose or something when they were sending it to their relatives in Dublin, and they would just put a label on it! I mean it was still in its feathers and they just bring it into the post office and put a label around its neck and it would go into the post and that would be it, it would be delivered!
What was it like growing up together with nine children in the house?
TOM: Bedlam. First up, best dressed...
BLATHNAID: … and fed!
Did you each have chores?
BLATHNAID: Mum used to have a list of chores for us, from the eldest one to the littlest one, Elizabeth. Even when she was only two or three years old, would have to feed the kitten and give it milk, so we grew up with an ethos of everyone pitching in and doing their bit.
DARINA: It used to be called ‘jobs’, not chores, do you remember? Everybody had a job before school and after school.
AIDAN: Every week there was a written schedule of jobs put up on the wall.
DARINA: But it was totally taken for granted, you know, you just fed the hens or whatever. Maybe you guys don’t remember, I’m not sure, but, we had of course water in the house and the water for the loos and for baths was all rainwater. But we would have to get spring water for tea and cooking and everything else, so that would always be somebody’s job to go down to the pump at the end of the road there to bring up the ‘spring water’ as we called it.
What was the community like?
DARINA: At that time you could just run around, we were sort of ‘children of the village’. I used to spend a lot of my time in a house across the street because they had four girls and Mummy kept bringing boys back from the nursery every time, so I thought she’d never deliver a girl! But eventually, Blathnaid came along of course. But, I would just sit up at their table and expect to be fed and that would happen quite a bit, and I think we all experienced that.
AIDAN: You just wandered into people’s houses. It wasn’t a case of sharing food with neighbours, you just sat and ate with them. You were sort of thrown something when you walked in!
RORY: I did have a fear of going to Mrs Walsh’s and her offering a glass of hot milk. I hated hot milk. Maybe it was a personal preference, I didn’t drink milk a lot anyway, so hot milk? [shudders] ... and at Mrs Walsh’s you had to drink it! [They all laugh]
TOM: Hot milk out of the cow or because she heated it?
RORY: She heated the milk.
DARINA: Because hot milk was good for you.
RORY: I’m sure it was. [He laughs] Although it didn’t taste like it to me!
DARINA: We had a Kerry cow, so we actually had our own milk. We all drank raw milk of course, so Mummy, like indeed Myrtle for that matter – they also had a Kerry cow – really valued it at that time. However the cow, or the Kerry breed, they were always cranky cows, but a lovely breed and fantastic quality milk. The cow was milked in the field by Joe, who was one of the men who worked in the yard, and he would go around the field to try and catch the cow to milk it. He had a three-legged stool for milking and the cow would regularly kick either him or the bucket!
I remember one day, him [Joe] coming into my father – and people didn’t really curse that much then – and a litany of stuff came out of him and that is was either him or the cow... So they got rid of the cow. After that, we used to go down to Walsh’s, beyond the pump down the road, and I remember David always timing to go down to collect the milk on a Sunday to coincide with Mrs Walsh taking the currant bread out of the oven. [She laughs]
DAVID: Currant bread, and sausages!
Did your mum love to cook?
DARINA: There was always cooking going on in the house. Mummy loved to cook. She was a really good cook. There was a kitchen garden and we had hens, of course, so our own eggs.
RORY: Our upbringing wasn’t unusual I don’t think, but what was at the time was the conflux of the two facts that my mother was a good cook and she liked to cook. For some people, those two things don’t always necessarily go together.
And then she was genuinely interested in the combination of food and the pleasure it gave us, and also the health thing.
DARINA: She was absolutely convinced of the idea of feeding us well. I remember when I went to Ballymaloe, Myrtle was the very same. That generation really knew how important it was to feed the children properly to keep them healthy for the winter because it was not quite pre-antibiotics, but almost.
Are there any dishes of hers that stand out for you?
TOM: My mother did, what I saw the chef in Michael’s in Mount Merrion doing recently, which was celebrating ox heart. It was not unusual for us to get braised ox heart. It was just amazing. She used to stuff it. She would stuff lambs’ hearts, and sheep's’ kidneys we were eating all the time.
DARINA: She used to do this dish called Scallop Potatoes.
AIDAN: Yes! That was her stand out dish.
DARINA: This was particularly when coming back from Dublin when we were away at school away. Mummy would say, ‘would what would you like me to cook?’ and she’d have them ready for us. For the scallop potatoes, she would take a Le Creuset casserole dish and put layers and layers of sliced potato, but always with kidney, beef kidneys, and onions, and skirt beef.
BLATHNAID: And lashings of butter!
TOM: You’d come home from school and you could smell lunch from the gate at the house. You’d know coming in that’d she’d have made scallop potato, or whatever.
DARINA: Another important thing that I think you may not have realised that it was unusual at the time… the little national school that was down where the community centre is now in Cullahill… Mummy and Dad had gotten permission from the headmaster that we could come home for our lunch every day. Everybody else would have brought a little lunch with them. That made a huge difference I think, especially to our health.
RORY: I have a memory of all the crusts that were leftover after lunch from people who had brought a sandwich to school in the school playground, and then the crows would descend.
What was the family business like?
WILLIAM: It was just about work for me, but we had a great upbringing and great lifestyle too.
RICHARD: We had a grocery shop, which was a great help with regards to food.
RORY: Do you remember the grapes? The grapes used to come in barrels and they were packed in chopped up cork to protect them. I remember when our mother would give us a little brown bag of grapes to take back with us to school. It was a super treat! She loved grapes. In fact, I think she was buying them for us almost more than for the grocery.
BLATHNAID: The tea would come in tea chests and the sugar would come in chests too and you would have to put it into bags. I am sure you all remember the movement you had to do to when you filled the bags and then tip it upside down a few times to make sure it was all mixed.
AIDAN: We actually had our own brand of tea. It had a poem on the front of it. 'People who buy tea by chance, may by chance get good tea, but people who take no chances, buy O’Connell’s Tea'.
[Applause and cheers from everyone]
DARINA: It’s a little small village here and my father, and his father before him, they supplied all the needs to the village. In this building, there was a grocer, a post office, a pub, an undertaker, an auctioneer, they sold seeds, they bought wool, they sold petrol, hardware and there was even a little bit of drapery for a while too.
BLATHNAID: It was a general merchant. Every little village in Ireland would have had one at that time.
TOM: And then William became the undertaker. How old were you when you did your first funeral?
WILLIAM: Not old enough anyway! [They laugh]
DARINA: When our father died, William was at a boarding school in Roscrea called the Cistercian College. About a year after he came home to take over the business.
WILLIAM: I came home in 1966, when I was 16 years old, to work.
ELIZABETH: William and David ran the business while we got educated. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to them.
BLATHNAID: Without them doing that we wouldn’t have been able to.
DARINA: Yes, we all owe a huge debt of guilt and gratitude to them.
The O'Connell family story continues with the next generation. William's son Paddy has a very successful food business, Paddy O's Cereals, an artisan granola product that is available in most supermarkets nationwide and he sells wholesale into some of the finest hotels and through foodservice in companies across the country. Paddy began making the granola upstairs above his family pub in Cullahill and began selling it at farmers' markets.
Paddy's story, along with the stories of the six individual siblings who are in the food industry – Darina, Tom, Blathnaid, Richard, Rory and Elizabeth – will follow on the site soon in a series of interviews and favourite family recipes. Stay tuned for more!
Try Mrs O'Connell's famous Apple Tart with Cullahill Pastry for yourself... click here for the recipe.
If you have questions for the O'Connell's or share a similar family story, please comment below.
Photography: Harry Weir