Tuesday 23 April 2019

‘Every time we have a tough patch, I know it will get better’

In their most revealing interview ever, Amelda and Neven Maguire tell Barry Egan about the ups-and-downs of life and of running a global cooking empire in west Cavan

Neven Maguire and his wife Amelda at Lough MacNean in Blacklion, Co Cavan. All photos: David Conachy
Neven Maguire and his wife Amelda at Lough MacNean in Blacklion, Co Cavan. All photos: David Conachy

Salvador Dali said at the age of six he wanted to be a cook; at seven he wanted to be Napoleon. As a young child, Neven Maguire wanted to be a great cook. He slept with cook books and dreamt of recipes that he would cook one day in his own restaurant. And his ambition grew steadily from there. Napoleon Bonaparte notwithstanding, ambitious young Neven Maguire was the first boy in his secondary school to enrol for home economics classes. He was called a sissy and worse for wanting to do this.

The young boy from a little village in west Cavan was, in fact, already a genius in the making, someone who would be heralded internationally and whose cherubic smiling face would be rarely off our television screens or our book shelves. Out on the nation’s book shelves next week, his latest book has the title that might resonate with some of those who  called him a sissy in school — Neven Maguire’s Home Economics for Life. 

When I ask Amelda how she would describe her famous husband, his face turns the hue of one of his medium rare steaks.

“Will I leave?” Neven Maguire asks.

“How would I describe him?” asks Amelda. “As a father? In general?”

I was going to ask as a lover, I say, but I won’t! “Marks out of 10?” I joke.

“Oh My God,” laughs Neven. “Marks out of 10! Jesus!”

Amelda: “He is very energetic.”

As a lover?

Neven and Amelda both erupt in laughter. “Oh Jesus!” roars Neven.  “Jesus!”

Amelda: “He is very generous.”

As a lover?

Neven and Amelda are now practically rolling with laughter on the floor of their award-winning restaurant and guest house in Co Cavan.

Neven: “Don’t print that!”

Amelda: “Now you’re putting me off-track about all the things I was going to say because of how you are going to interpret them. He is just full of life. Passionate about everything. The kids. His work. Life. He certainly has twice the energy that I have. He is thoughtful. He is definitely a people person. He loves people.” (That much was obvious from when he first appeared on television. The permanently bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Maguire hasn’t looked back since he got his big break through John Masterson in Open House in 1989 with Marty Whelan and Mary Kennedy, every Tuesday afternoon for five years on RTE. “My dad used to drive me up and down to RTE. I was just 21. I loved it.” It showed.

“She is a very special lady,” says Neven of his muse, Amelda. “We love our time together.” Evidently. They train together in the gym in their home down the road. “I might fast-track it but she does it right.”  Having known each other to see,  Amelda (also Maguire) from Boho,  Co Fermanagh and Neven, from just across the border in Blacklion in west Cavan, met in CP’s nightclub in Galway when Neven was visiting his sister Sharon in January, 2001. They hit it off sufficiently for Neven to ask her out on their first date.

Amelda: “We went to the Cliffs of Moher.”

Neven: “It was a bit windy. Amelda kept falling down the steps.”

Amelda: “You don’t need to tell him that!”

Neven: “Sorry! And then we went up to Dublin and ate in Bang Cafe.”

Amelda: “That was where we had our first meal.”

Neven: “Scallops, pancetta, garlic butter, puree, and chocolate brownie for dessert.”

How long after that date did she and Neven realise this was serious?

Amelda: “A couple of months. I remember meeting his family. It was on a Friday night in December and you said, ‘Come in. It is just my mum. Come in and meet her’. And even at that, it took me a while to be convinced, and there was about three sisters and your mum.”

Did she pass the test, I ask Neven.

“With flying colours,” he replies. “My mum loved Amelda. Immediately they clicked. There was a great warmth between them.”

Amelda adds that she had come home from America that September, after having a babysitter job in Boston for five years. “I remember his mum telling me, ‘Just don’t take him to America’. I think she was afraid that I wanted to go back.”

Mrs Maguire needn’t have worried. The couple got married on December 23, 2006, at the Nuremore Hotel in Monaghan, before going on honeymoon to Bali, New Zealand and Australia, having set up home in Blacklion. Upon their return from Down Under, everything was upside down. It was anything but the newlywed bliss they had hoped for. Times were tough because the renovation they had started on MacNean House at Blacklion had taken on a terrible life of its own. 

“We had done a big renovation job,” explains Amelda, “which I thought wasn’t a big deal and so we went on our honeymoon. Then Neven said to me, ‘We are going back to a new business’. And it really changed things.”

Neven: “It was a nightmare. We were staying up in the spare room and the phone kept ringing and we had to take reservations.”

Amelda: “We couldn’t get staff.  That was the hardest bit. I remember your auntie Kate knew a Polish priest who got us two chefs in Longford. They stayed for two years.

“It was a real nightmare,” continues Amelda, of the period when they returned from honeymoon.

“I was locking up the bar every night and I was getting up the next morning and answering the phone all day; because of the renovations, I think we closed an extra couple of weeks’ more than we should have. So we had to re-book all those bookings in for the next few weeks, understaffed.”

And by the sounds of it, under slept...

“We lived in a tiny bedroom!” Amelda agrees. “I lived out of my bag at the bottom of the bed for six months. When you were gone, doing your demonstrations on Mondays and Tuesdays, I stayed here and answered the phones morning, noon and night, and had people give out to me that they couldn’t get a booking at the weekend. At that time, I thought, ‘This is my life forever’. I didn’t see a way out. Then we got through that. And I realise, now, that every time we have a tough patch, that it will get better.”

“I remember once you crying on the phone to me and that was heartbreaking,” says Neven.

“Then one time,” adds Amelda, “we tried to put on one extra course for Valentine’s Night in 2007 and it left the second sitting far too late and there was one lady who got a bit upset.”

Life was to get even tougher for Neven and his beautiful wife, after she gave birth to the couple’s first children, Connor and Lucia, on February 8, 2012, in Sligo General Hospital, and almost died in the process. She had heart failure after she gave birth to their twins and developed cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal condition.

Neven, a twin himself (“I was born an hour before my brother David”), says: “Amelda is an amazing woman. She was very ill. I think her heart was maybe at 10 or 12pc of its working function. So she was very weak. She had to be on a lot of medication for a while. You can die from this. Let’s be absolutely, brutally honest. Thank God, she’s here and she is absolutely fighting fit and going to the gym.”

Did Amelda know, in advance of giving birth, that there were going to be problems? “No,” she replies. “It was five days after. The children were fine. I think in the hospital they knew there was something wrong and they weren’t letting me home, but I had no idea at that stage. It was my heart. Heart failure.”

How quickly did she recover?

“I would say, within the year. I wasn’t very sick. I just had no energy. They tell you rest is how you get better, but you have new twins. My mum was a great help. We got through it. The sleepless nights were very tough.

“You would put one down and then the other one would wake up,” says Amelda of the twins. “Most of the time, there is four in the bed at some stage.”

Two hours earlier, when Neven and Amelda are being photographed at Lough MacNean, we see the twins out playing with their granny, Eileen. Their other granny, Vera, sadly died of lung cancer on October 21, 2012.  Neven (who is an ambassador for Target Lung Cancer in St James Hospital in Dublin) says that his mother was having chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment when Amelda was pregnant.

“We saw her suffer a lot for a couple of years, poor mum. Amelda was like a daughter to her,” Neven says, adding that his mother, who was 71 years of age when she died,  was “a great influence on me. That’s where the love of food came from. She worked hard. She had a tough life, but a good life, reared a family of nine.

“You know what I loved about her?” he muses. “If there was a bereavement in the area, she would bring roast chicken or soup. She had that community spirit.

“She taught me how to roast beef. She was ahead of her time. She grew a lot of her own vegetables for the restaurant. As a family, we ate very well because she was a fantastic cook. It was very basic, it was stews and soups and roasted lunches. She taught me the basics, using the best produce.”

In October, 2001, Neven’s father Joe was involved in a car crash and later died at St James’s Hospital. He recalls standing outside the hospital, and crying. “My mum was heartbroken. My dad was killed on the road going into Sligo. Someone fell asleep and ran into him in a car accident. That was tough. We were absolutely shattered. It affected the whole family,” he says.

“It was a real shock to the system, because the business was struggling and, after that, I said, I am going to focus on Blacklion and we kind of gave up Sligo to be truthful with you,” Neven says of the cafe in Sligo that his parents had opened up, to make ends meet, because “the business was struggling all along in Blacklion”.

 There were good reasons why the family business in Blacklion was struggling,  not least Loyalist paramilitaries in 1973 parking a car with a bomb in it outside the restaurant, in front of the Garda station, and blowing up the whole front of the restaurant.  “Our business was badly damaged by bombs,” says Neven. “With the Troubles, no one wanted to come near the border.”

From a family of nine — Kenneth, the eldest is followed by Sharon, Sonia, twins Neven and David, Naomi, Suzanne, Alan and Carl — Neven was born on November 25, 1973. That period of Irish history, the 1970s and 1980s, in that border region of Ireland, in particular, was not an easy time in which to grow up. “It was really hard. The whole front of our restaurant was bombed twice during the Troubles by the UVF. Mum and dad closed from 1973 to 1989.

“It was tough. I was very young, so I can’t remember, but I just knew that they struggled. There was 59 guards in Blacklion at the height of the Troubles,” says Neven. “That was in the early 1970s. Mum and dad bought the building in 1965. I remember mum and dad telling me stories.”

Was he ever worried about walking home as a kid?

“No, no. There were times over the years, sure, on the 12th when things were a bit iffy in the North, and if you went into Enniskillen or up the North and you’d say, ‘Wow’. It was tricky, but I think those days are well behind us.”

“That was normal for us,” recalls Amelda, of her own past in Northern Ireland. “You just got stopped. There were police checkpoints everywhere.”

“I just remember my mum and dad being constantly worried about the business, struggling,” continues Neven, “and I mean struggling. Never did we think it would be the business that it is now, to be honest with you,” Nevin adds. “We have over 60 people employed, and the success of the business is a credit to each and every one of them, and to my mum and dad. Our business is probably 95pc Irish. So people travel from all different parts of the country. When you have a profile like you do — the television shows are fantastic exposure for me — but if you don’t have a good product and a good team, you really have nothing. We get a lot of repeat business. The food is one part of it, but it is also about the service and the ambience and the welcome and the decor...”

The latter comes from his beloved wife. “Amelda does all the interior. She is a huge part of the success here. I am very proud of her,” says Neven, adding that “having time for each other is something I constantly strive for. Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I don’t. Monday and Tuesday is time with the twins. That time is precious.”

Amelda, an only child, says that she and Neven, “have a lot in common. We enjoy the same things. Travel. Food. Simple stuff with the kids”. Her husband is beaming. Up here in Cavan with loved-up Neven, it is ‘The Ideal Homme Show’.

Neven Maguire’s Home Economics for Life: The 50 Recipes You Need to Know, published by Gill, is available from September 21 nationwide, priced €22.99/ £19.99.

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