That old devil called love
Let people laugh if they want to, says Paddy O'Keeffe, 89, as he prepares to marry Jane O'Callaghan, 73, after a civilised courtship of barely six months. The snortingly funny founder of the 'Farmer's Journal' and the Queen Bee of Longueville House hotel tell Barry Egan how they fell for each other -- and how they couldn't possibly upset their 19 grandchildren by 'living in sin'
Published 30/07/2012 | 06:00
On January 10 this year, Jane O'Callaghan, Queen Bee of Longueville House in Co Cork, received a phone-call out of the blue from Paddy O'Keeffe.
"I thought," she says, "he was ringing to complain about a meal: 'The beef was tough'." Little did she know ... The well-known founding editor of the Farmer's Journal wasn't, it transpired, ringing to give out about the beef. He was, in fact, ringing to ask her out to dinner. She was delighted to accept his invitation. "He and his wife used to come into the restaurant for many years," Jane recalls.
He took her to Patrick Guilbaud's restaurant in Dublin two days later. "Mr Guilbaud's! Slumming it!" Paddy laughs now of their first date in Ireland's only two-star Michelin restaurant. "I'm sitting having this wonderful lunch, thinking, 'How in the name of God do you return this?'" Jane says.
So she asked him would he like to go to the pictures. Patrick replied that he hadn't been at the pictures for 60 years. "Laurel & Hardy or something like that," he laughs.
She took him to see The Iron Lady at the Gate cinema in Mallow. "I had to explain before we went in," Jane laughs, "that long ago you used to go up to the back for a court."
"And so here we are," smiles Jane who is engaged to be married to Paddy at the Register Office in Cork on October 18. They both give the lie to F Scott Fitzgerald's claim about there being no second acts in life. You could possibly even call this Jane O'Callaghan and Paddy O'Keeffe's third and doubtless final act.
My expectations of a quiet, even draining, supper last Friday evening with two old darlings in Longueville House -- the grand country house that Jane has called home for 50 years -- were quickly and irrevocably dashed upon meeting them. He is a snortingly funny 89-year-old -- whose eyes never stop smiling -- while she is a 73-year-old with a ferocious line in country wit that is straight out of Edna O'Brien.
I met them at 7.30pm when the sun was starting to dip in the Mallow sky -- at 11.30pm they were still talking and drinking and enjoying the food. It is a night of entertainment cut with mad stories, pain, joy, existential emotion and the craic. You could never accuse either Paddy or Jane of the sin of being dull.
"I hope people are not laughing at us, are they?" Jane asks suddenly all serious about getting married at their age. "I hope we're not a freak show, are we?"
"If they want to behave like that, let them do so, darling," Paddy soothes.
Paddy's friend, the economist Colm McCarthy, rang him recently to say he was in Croatia and that the Irish gossip machine was clearly working because he heard all about him and Jane getting married. Asked by McCarthy what month the wedding was, Paddy said October before quipping: "And it's not shotgun!"
"He is very funny," says Jane drying the tears of laughter in her eyes. "He makes me laugh a lot. He has a great sense of humour."
I ask her for an example of Paddy's sense of humour.
"He pinches her bottom!" Paddy answers for her, before I can barely get the question out. "Oh, stop it, Paddy!" Jane chides coquettishly.
Asked about their secret, Jane looks out the window of Longueville House for a second at the sheep and horses in the fields before answering: "Years ago, when you met someone in a dance down in Kilkee, where I used to go from Limerick, they'd say to you in the morning: 'Did you click?' If you clicked, it meant you got on with somebody . I think Paddy and I just clicked."
"Do you think there was a chemical reaction?" Paddy teases. "We're very happy, aren't we?" says Jane. "And we are old. I suppose a lot of people would think we're mad, you know. Daft that we should be doing this."
"We haven't been looking at them, have we?" says Paddy ever the voice of sense."
"Oh, I don't care what they think!" says Jane. Paddy roars with approving laughter.
"I'd say we're both mad for road," Jane muses. "Out and about. Paddy likes to meet people. He loves the clash of minds. You'd get bored, wouldn't you, if you were at home all the time? He thinks the food is about the chat."
"We had lunch in Patrick Guilbaud's yesterday again," Paddy says. "And we never stopped talking."
Jane recounts a trip to Washington in May with Paddy and some fellow bons viveurs mad for road presumably. She recalls how the officers are so serious when you're going through emigration. "Of course, they have these hatchet faces on them when they ask you: 'What's your business in America?' Paddy went up to them and said: 'A party!'"
"And then she went up to them and when they asked what was her business in America, she said 'A party!'" laughs Paddy.
"And then Dan Brown of Don Meats," continues Paddy, "was with us, and he said; 'A party!' We actually made them laugh."
They both laugh at it all. There was a lot of laughter, and even some sad misty eyes, tonight in Co Cork. They certainly have plenty of energy.
Jane has five children (and seven grandchildren): William runs Longueville House with his wife Aishling; Cliodhna is a doctor, married to a farmer, Tom, working in Roscrea; Donogh works in Dublin in computers and is married to Catriona; Elena is a teacher; Diarmuid lives at home".
Paddy has four children (and has 12 grand- children): Patrick, a farmer, lives in England with wife Emma; Elizabeth lives in Melbourne -- married to Rob; Josephine, a tour operator, lives in Dublin, married to Jo; Margaret, married to Michael, is a horticulturist in Fermoy.
"You are probably wondering why we are getting married," Jane asks me at one point in the evening. "I felt we were a very bad influence to our grandchildren."
Living together in sin and all that, I say. She nods her head. "Somebody said wouldn't it be much easier with property and everything just to go away and live together. It would make it very simple. But in my day we couldn't do that. We got married for sex in my day, for God's sake. "
I hope you're still having sex.
"Jane," teases Paddy, "you're not allowed boast about it."
"We'll write a book. The Grey something?"
I ask have either of them read the erotic bestseller Fifty Shades Of Grey.
"No, not yet," answers Jane. "It's all about bondage, isn't it?"
"I was never tied up," smiles Paddy.
"Yet!" laughs Jane with a mischievous cackle in her voice.
"I love bondage!" jokes (I think) Paddy.
"I'd say we'd forget to untie each other!" theorises Jane.
I say I promise to get them some leather and whips as a wedding present.
"But you know there's a huge thing out there for people of Paddy's and my age," Jane says. "I have friends -- their husbands are dead. They are looking for company. They want to meet people. There is nowhere to go. It is very hard to meet people when you're older. Where do you go? Go cruising in Guilbaud's? Table for one please? It is a couples' world. It is difficult to break in there. And then you're a predator if you're a widow."
"I haven't heard you say that before," Paddy says, "that if you're a widow you're almost looked on as a predator?"
"A predator. Which I am," Jane roars.
"I haven't seen you picking my pockets," Paddy roars back.
Jane is a scream. She just can't stop herself. She says that Paddy is a great pal of Ballymaloe's grand dame Myrtle Allen and they have traveled together for years; They're such pals that Jane said to him earlier this year: "You should have married Myrtle."
Myrtle will be at the wedding in a capacity other than bride, of course "She is coming along with son Rory and Hazel," Paddy says.
Jane says that the reason she and Paddy are getting married in the registry office in Cork and not Longueville House is because "this was not my home. This was my husband's home. I thought it wouldn't be a very courteous thing to do. So that's why we're going into Cork. It might be hurtful for my children and my sisters in law and that. So we decided we'd go to Cork. We could have brought the registry out here."
Jane lives in the old school house -- it was built in 1890 to educate the children of the workmen -- at the back of the land on the estate. Once they marry, she and Paddy will live together at Paddy's house in Killavullen, down the road. "It's 10 miles up river. I could swim home," he laughs.
Paddy was the founding chairman of Farmer Business Developments plc, which he set up in 1967 -- the same year as Jane and her late husband Michael O'Callaghan opened Longueville House to guests. Jane married Michael in Holy Rosary Church on the Ennis Road in Limerick on June 26, 1963 -- "the day JFK came to Ireland," she remembers. She met him through a blind date in 1961. Michael's brother-in-law, Leo Leader, set them up to go to the Ward Union Hunt Ball in Dunboyne. Paddy married his wife Ann at University Church on Stephen's Green in Dublin on September 22, 1951.
Ann, he says, died last January 12 months ago. "She had been declining for quite some time before that. For about 12 months before that her mind was beginning to slip into ... call it.. Alzheimer's. We had lost each other ... for quite some time before that. For that reason, it wasn't an immense shock. Very sad. We lived together and got on together and never fought."
Jane's husband was buried on her 70th birthday, March 20, 2010. "We did a strange thing here," she says adding -- "I'm a strange person actually." Jane remembers that she didn't want this big funeral with people coming and shaking her hand. So she did it quietly instead. (Some say too quietly. Paddy says he would have liked to have known so he could have paid his respects.) Jane brought Michael's body back to Longueville House on the Friday. He was laid out here in the library. They just had the family present. They then took him straight to the church the next morning and buried him. Jane put it in the papers on Monday.
"People said, 'Oh you had a private funeral. That was snobby'. It wasn't. I wasn't well enough to deal with it at the time. So then he died. And I had a total breakdown. I went -- bommph. Out."
Jane, like her fiance, has a formidable sense of humour. There is never a laugh very far from her lips. Yet she is honest enough -- brutally honest enough -- to admit that there has been a lot of darkness and pain in very dark days as well as the bright days and the laughter. She says the darkness fell on her very heavily a year or so before her husband passed away.
"I had two bad years. Very bad years," she says." I think people should know about things like this because I had a total breakdown. Would you think it now looking at me?" loved-up Jane says on the couch sitting beside her husband-to-be. "I think it might help people. First of all, Michael was very sick. He had had open-heart surgery and all the rest. He was very bad. Then to top it all, I went in for a routine check and I had to go and have a double heart bypass in the Mater in Dublin.
"So I got very depressed after that. Michael was at home sick. He was sick, I was sick, then he died in March 2010. I got very sick at the end of April. I got locked up, actually. They put me in St Pat's," she says referring to the well-respected hospital dealing with, and promoting, mental health in Dublin. "It's a terrible place. I wouldn't put anyone in there. Now it is a very good hospital, it's fine. But I was actually ... " she looks at her fiance. " ... I was under lock and key, Paddy." She lets loose a nervous laugh.
"You might be again, dear," doe-eyed Paddy replies almost coquettishly.
"I could say nothing about it to you," Jane says directly to me, "but I think I could help people. There are a lot of people out there who have got these problems and they don't talk about them."
Was it the grief that dragged you down?
"I'd say the grief. And also after the heart operation I got very depressed. They said a lot of women get depressed after the operation. It was a natural, normal thing. Then the grief. I just wasn't able to cope. This is a huge place," Jane (who grew up the daughter of a timber importer in Limerick city) says pointing to Longueville House.
"I was always able to cope. Suddenly, I was a farmer. I was never a farmer. I came in here in high heels and lipstick. I lived in a suburban area in Limerick. I was a city person."
What was going through your mind when you were in St Pat's?
"They were very good there," she smiles.
"I met a lot of people like myself there. They were talented, good people. They weren't all down and outs coming in off the road. You never talk about anyone you met in there. They could be quite famous But what you see in there, you leave in there."
What did you learn about yourself in there?
"That I'd never go back again. Never. Never. That I'd monitor myself. I have six very good women friends and they are all my monitors. And if I'm starting to go a bit funny, they'd tell me if I was gone a bit silly or doing stupid stuff. I was out after two weeks but I had to go back in and do a three month programme. Go up every week on the train. Kind of group therapy. That was great. Twelve people inside in a room. So I am fine.
"I'd like you to say that there were black days but there is hope out there for people.."
"The horizon does exist," Paddy says.
"That's true. You can go into depression but you can get well again.
"That was the first time in my life it happened. I don't think it would happen again because I would see the signs. But with Michael dying I didn't see the signs. But my daughter saw them."
She adds that her husband's niece, Ann Leader, a psychiatrist in Dublin, saw the signs too. "She gave Jane a lot of help. So there you are," Paddy says.
"I lost the laughter for a while, but I haven't stopped laughing since I met him."
"Now you've got someone to laugh at," he smiles.
"With," says Jane.
The next morning, Jane's dogs -- Jessie, Basil, Poppy, Mushy and Chopper -- run about on the grass in front of us as we sit on the front step of Longueville House and talk.
"It is a huge compliment to Michael and Ann that we are going forward again and getting married. You're supposed to be dead -- sitting at home eating bread and milk," she laughs.
"Life is about sharing."
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