Saturday 17 August 2019

'I have this wonderful patchwork life - and now there's a new page'

After a decade of profound trauma - including cancer, the death of her husband and the murder of her sister - Brighid McLaughlin has produced a wonderful new cookbook

'Behind the Half Door, stories of food and folk' by Brighid McLaughlin (pictured) and Kady O'Connell is in good bookshops everywhere. Photo: Gerry Mooney
'Behind the Half Door, stories of food and folk' by Brighid McLaughlin (pictured) and Kady O'Connell is in good bookshops everywhere. Photo: Gerry Mooney
'Behind the Half Door, stories of food and folk' by Brighid McLaughlin and Kady O'Connell
Kady O'Connell

Emily Hourican

'It took me 11 years to cook properly again. And it took meeting Kady to get me to completely move on, with Siobhan always there." So says Brighid (Biddy) McLaughlin, journalist, storyteller, cook, of her wonderful new book, Behind the Half Door, stories of food and folk, and what feels like a new life, at last.

Of course life is never really 'new', but it can be improved, and for Biddy, who went through almost a decade of terrible trauma, starting with being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, followed by the death of her husband Michael Shanahan when he was out swimming, and then the murder in 2008 of Brighid's beautiful younger sister Siobhan, by her husband Brian Kearney, this book is a sure sign that finally, better things are about.

Behind the Half Door is a collection of recipes and recollections around food, written by Brighid with Kady O'Connell, food stylist, blogger and creative. There are instructions for delicious-sounding dishes - half-traditional, half-modern - such as baked turnip with gruyere and prunes, boxty loaf, sweet potato fritters with cashew cream, along with Brighid's accounts of her meetings with a series of remarkable people; world heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman, poet Michael Hartnett and Lord Oranmore and Browne, who Brighid called 'Dom' and who was a close friend until he died aged 100. There are beautiful photos of food and faces, and bits of Irish folklore.

It is a book for the kitchen, the coffee table and the bedside, something to be read and savoured and referenced. It is also, as becomes very clear when I talk to Brighid over coffee in Dalkey, a book that has marked out the start of a new chapter in her life.

The half-door of the title is a reference to where Brighid lives with her 10-year-old son Johnny, in a traditional Dalkey fisherman's cottage that she has modernised just enough for it to be perfectly cosy and practical, not enough to detract in any way from the vivid authenticity of the whitewashed walls, timber beams and bright red half-door. This door is very symbolic for Brighid; it means many things about her relationship with the world, depending on whether it is open, closed, or half-open, and features much in her conversation.

So how did the book come about? "It was one of those incredible timing things, destiny things," says Brighid. "I was at a barbecue with friends and this young woman came in, the daughter of someone who was there. She was over from Australia, where she lives, and only came to get keys and was in a rush to go somewhere else, but she sat down for one glass of wine. We started talking, and literally two days later we were working full-time together, testing five recipes a day."

The book is self-published - "women can do that now", Biddy says - and can be bought online or in bookshops. Kady is the photographer and designer, as well as co-author, and for her too, the timing was remarkable.

"Brighid and I were supposed to be on opposite sides of the world," she tells me, "but I received a letter in the post out of the blue notifying me I had one week to leave Australia, my home for the past four years. My partner and I were between visas and waiting for Permanent Residency to come through, and suddenly we had one week to pack up our belongings, quit our jobs, rent our apartment and figure out where to go, with no guarantees of ever returning. What we thought at the time was the worst news we could have ever received, turned out to be the best seven months of our lives.

"We spent three months travelling around Asia, before landing back to the small seaside village of Dalkey. On one of my first nights home, I went to visit my dad, and Biddy was there too. We clicked instantly. It had always been a dream of mine to write a cookbook. It was also a lifelong goal of Biddy's. It seemed only natural to team up and do it together. After being completely uprooted in a week, it felt like heaven to be in the cosiest cottage in Ireland."

This isn't the first time Brighid has approached the idea of a cookbook. She is self-taught - "a home cook, not a chef" - and as passionate as she is instinctive. "I'd always been interested in food. I was making rum truffles when I was 10. I got quite drunk! I was always cooking and painting."

But it was Siobhan, her sister, who was the professional chef, and so clearly an inspiration for Biddy.

"We'd have bake-offs. We'd taste and compare. I learned so much from her. We were competitive cooks, really competitive, we would criticise each other's food, taste it, make new recipes together."

And even though Biddy doesn't want to talk about Siobhan, inevitably we do. Because her sister's death is a central fact of Brighid's story. "She was the most precious person in my life. There was five years between us. We were all close as children, but herself and myself were particularly close because of the cooking."

Siobhan had a boutique hotel in Majorca, where she and Biddy would cook and eat and talk about food. "At the end of an evening serving dishes, we'd go up to the turret of the hotel, under the moonlight and stars, and have a bottle of Prosecco and go on about each detail - every herb, every wine, and laughing the whole time."

And so they decided to do a book together, before Siobhan died. "We had just started our first recipe - partridges with big peaches and rosemary and a drizzle of honey, roasted in the oven."

That recipe isn't in the book. "There's nothing about Siobhan in the book," says Brighid, "I didn't want the book to be about Siobhan. Maybe another day I'll write a book about her, but not now. I'll probably never get away from the tragedy, but I wanted not to be a victim."

In the years since Siobhan's death, cooking hasn't been the same for Brighid. "It was so bound up... I can see her in the kitchen with the white apron, the hair tied back in a chignon, saying 'taste this'.

"All my memories of Siobhan are food-based. Even tinfoil reminds me of her. Whenever she finished work, when she was at the Granary in Temple Bar, she'd have leftovers. She'd put tin foil over them and bring them off to the Iveagh Hostel, helping the homeless."

And so, without Siobhan, Biddy lost her connection to cooking, until now. "Kady enabled me to cook again, bless her. She filled an enormous empty space for me. I knew it was there. I was getting up every day, going through my life, trying to live around it."

The book, which will be launched in the Grapevine in Dalkey, has been over a year in the making, and in that time, Biddy even went a step towards a more professional immersion.

"I went to Cathal Brugha Street, for the diploma in Culinary Arts, which is where Siobhan went. I was retracing her steps. There was a book we needed, Practical Cookery. I bought it and went home, and what did I find? Siobhan's old copy of Practical Cookery."

It was Siobhan's best friend, Margaret O'Callaghan who persuaded Biddy. "She was Siobhan's best friend, I call her 'Magsieboo.' When Siobhan died, she took me under her wing and she has never left me since. She pushed me, she said 'Biddy you have to do this, she'd be so proud of you,' and she got me back into it."

Although Biddy has postponed the diploma for now, she definitely plans on going back. "I was so impressed. The lecturers, Diarmuid Murphy and Frank Jacoby, were amazing, and fascinating."

This, too, is a sign of something new in her life. "I'm in a really good place," she says, "where I'm open to more things. I'm open to everything now. This is my life now, a new start. You can't be defined by tragedy. I had years of horror, one thing after another, and it's ongoing, it doesn't just stop, but I have great faith, great family, and you just keep going.

"I have a lovely son, Johnny, he's 10; I have this wonderful patchwork life. It's been a patchwork whether I like it or not, but it's a wonderful patchwork, and now it's a new page."

She is, she says, "getting more confidence. I lost my confidence. I was battered. I don't want to be constantly marked by that. It's probably inevitable, but I have to try, for myself, my own happiness, to detach myself, by distraction".

She is a great believer in distraction: "I want to keep distracted from it all. The only key to grief is distraction. You move on, you don't move away."

She is also a great believer in the healing power of children. "Hold a child's hand and everything's right with the world," she says, rightly, adding, "we have a niece now, Kate, born after Siobhan died, and she has kept the whole family together. She's eight, and she and Johnny and the other nephews and nieces have kept the family alive". Of Johnny, the son who has been the light of her life for eight years, she says, "He is flying. He's delighted to be in the book".

These days, Biddy is "all into relaxing", as she puts it. Key to this relaxation are three things - "the places where I am totally calm", as she puts it. "In the kitchen cooking, swimming, and painting. Those are my survival mechanisms. I swim in the Forty-Foot every day. It took a long time after Michael drowned, but now I feel it's a great place to be."

When Michael died, "I locked myself in the cottage for nearly two years. I was traumatised and in shock. The pain in my heart was so bad that I froze for two years. Everything reminded me of him."

Perhaps almost as sad as his death is the fact that they had so little time together, just three years, and cancer was too big a part of that.

"We were married in December 1999 and I was diagnosed in 2000. I was absolutely devastated. I remember going into the hospital - I'm a strong person - going in like a lion and I came out like a mouse. I was newly married with my handsome husband and they said I wouldn't be able to have children. I had no choice with that.

"I dealt with the cancer well, because I'm a very philosophical person, but I was terrified of losing Michael, that was my biggest thing. I was so in love with him, and the fear was that I wouldn't make it to share my life with him and have a family. All the things I wanted were gone."

There isn't a bit of Brighid that accepts the victim role, but there is no hiding her sorrow at that.

Somehow, they came through the cancer - "because of Michael's calmness and presence and strength and humour, he got me through everything" - only for fate to play it's cruellest trick, and take him from her. "Grief is the hardest, the worst pain in the world, it beats anything physical," she says.

There is, she says, "no romance" in her life right now, but perhaps that may change. "I still miss him," she says of Michael. "I miss the calm presence, someone ringing up and saying 'how was your day?' I miss the companionship definitely. The men I love are big, solid, kind, calm people. He doesn't have to say much; I'm busy enough. I've no romance in my life, I just cut that off, but now I've opened myself up more, to life, to meeting somebody maybe. Who knows? I wouldn't live with anybody again - I'm too independent - and I'm not searching, I just know, some day it would be nice".

It is, she says, "a beginning. I've opened the half door, I'm ready for anything".


Kady O'Connell

Kady O'Connell is a brand specialist and food blogger who grew up in Limerick then moved to Dublin after she finished art college. Having spent many summers abroad, she always loved travel and soon she and her boyfriend (now fiance) decided they were ready for a change.

Sydney seemed to offer opportunity for Kady's design career, along with beach and sunshine. They left, swearing they would never end up as typical Irish backpackers living in Bondi - but once they laid eyes on the beach, that was it! They fell in love and are there to this day.

Inspired by the Bondi lifestyle of sand, sun, sea and amazing food and restaurants, Kady started a food blog, Kady's Kitchen, to document the many new dishes she was trying. Through this she got to know some of the top food bloggers and authors in Sydney and immersed herself in the food scene, helping with photography, recipe creation and design.

Kady returns to Ireland at least once a year and is very involved in Irish-Australian business groups. She is on the board of the Lansdowne Club, involved with the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce's Emerald Influence group and also on the committee of the Light Ball in aid of Pieta House.

"Food is a way of bringing people together and building connections," says Kady. "Growing up, I would always go to my grandmother Carrie Clancy's house for a Sunday roast. It is one of my absolute favourite memories and moving to Sydney, I found cooking so therapeutic and making some of my favourite home comforts is the closest cure I've found for home-sickness."

Of Behind the Half Door, she says "this is for all of the Irish ex-pats who want to re-connect with their heritage. Most of my work is online, using the latest technology. On the other hand, Biddy is not such a tech lover! She once tried to crush garlic on my Macbook, mistaking it for a chopping board! There've been some hilarious scenarios of us working together for this book".

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