Skincare guru shows us her Dublin 4 home - inspired by her travels in Asia
Kate O’Brien combines her studies both here and in Asia to come up with her fascinating books about health and skin. And Asia plays a big part in the creation of her lovely home in Dublin 4, too. Edited by Mary O’Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
There are good times to buy a house, and January is not considered one of them.
Usually dark, damp and dreary, January doesn’t have much to recommend it, and houses rarely look their best at that time of year. Yet it was the month author Kate O’Brien viewed her home, and January performed well that year. “The kitchen was a long, narrow, tiny galley space, with a massive conservatory area that was very cold. It was January, but you know what, the sun was shining, and I could see you get the sun everywhere here,” she says. “And I looked out to the garden and I saw the huge eucalyptus tree — Australia planted right in the middle of Dublin. I thought, ‘This is meant to be’.”
The eucalyptus was important because, to Kate, it was a symbol of Australia — most forms are native to the continent down under. Her husband, Mike, is Australian, and they were, after 18 years abroad, about to buy their first home together in Ireland. If the location — Dublin 4 — the massive garden, and the orientation hadn’t already sold it to Kate, who writes books on nutrition and health, there was another unusual feature that attracted her, something that evoked a wave of nostalgia. “At the bottom of the garden, there’s a tennis wall. We played a lot of tennis when I was young, and we had a tennis wall at home. I had never seen one anywhere else. I walked down, and I thought, ‘This is amazing’,” she recalls.
The tennis wall brought her right back to her home place, to Galway, where it all started for the health and wellness author, who has just published her eighth book, Glow, which is all about skincare. Skin is a popular subject for a book and there are dozens on the shelves, but Kate has an exceptional grounding in the subject, and in related matters like nutrition, thanks to her college education in Galway.
One of five siblings, Kate chose to study science at NUIG (then University College Galway). It was, in some ways, an odd choice of degree for her. “I hated physics and chemistry; I was particularly rubbish at physics,” she notes with a laugh, “but I loved biology.”
She got a degree in honours microbiology — that included a module in human nutrition in third year, and this in turn led to a postgrad in dietetics in Leeds where she qualified as a dietician.
After graduation, Kate worked first in the Mater hospital, and then she went into industry. Within a few years, she became the first in-house nutrition adviser for Superquinn, and worked there for two years in the mid 1990s.
Then fate intervened when she met her future husband, Mike Duncan, in Kielys pub in Donnybrook, after a rugby match — a fitting meeting place for the daughter of rugby player Liam O’Brien, who she says is the only player to have played for three of the four provinces, Leinster, Munster and Connacht — Liam’s work as an engineer brought him to different parts of the country.
“Mike was here for the match,” Kate says. “He’s Australian, and he was moving from London to Hong Kong. We had a real whirlwind; we got engaged after three months, and I followed him out to Hong Kong at the end of 1996. We went for two years, and stayed 18 years.”
During that time, she and Mike had three children, Liam (now 18), Maya (now 15) and Raif (now 10).
Mike works in the insurance business, and obviously when they went abroad first, Kate needed to forge a new career for herself. She had her health background, and she had also done some writing. “Some years before I went there, I had studied public relations, and I got into writing that way,” she says. “When I went to Asia, my first job was in medical publishing. And then I got into health writing.”
One of the first magazines she wrote for was Asia Spa, and she’s one of the founding judges of the annual Asia Spa awards. “I still write for them,” Kate says. “It’s not just about spas, but also about wellness and health. I’m writing an article for them about brain health at the moment.”
Her first book was about Chinese medicine. “I worked with a Chinese-medicine doctor in Hong Kong, it was all his expertise; I’m absolutely no expert. I tried to explain it in layman’s language,” Kate notes, adding, “Chinese medicine is fascinating. For example, it can predict an unborn baby’s gender by the age you are when you conceive and the month you conceive. It’s very simple and 99pc accurate,” she says. “This was the most difficult book I ever had to do, but it was very rewarding,” Kate notes.
Glow, which is subtitled, “Your Complete Four-Week Plan For Healthy, Radiant Skin With 60 Skin-Nourishing Recipes” is a beautifully produced book, using all the expertise she has garnered over the years — along the way, Kate also picked up a diploma in cosmetic science. Glow explains in simple terms the science and biology behind the skin, the roles played by the sun and the environment, the importance of sleep, the role of creams and moisturisers, and a guide to all the best ones.
Kate explains the relationship between the gut and the skin, and gives many practical tips on how to get good skin. The book is also full of beautifully photographed dishes that Kate is quick to say were not her own invention. Rather, they are mainly the work of her 15-year-old daughter, Maya.
“I’m no cook,” Kate says. “I do make my own kombucha, and the kids love it. As to the recipes, my daughter Maya did quite a few of them. She has her own blog, dancingfoody.com. She’s vegetarian, and she’s very creative, and she’s taught me so much. She uses berries, and grains like quinoa, which I always found tasteless — she has a way of doing it that is delicious.”
The recipes, many of which naturally have an Asian influence, were tested and photographed in Kate’s own kitchen, which is now a far cry from when she first saw it, back in 2013. The house, which is red brick and Victorian, was in need of a lot of work, including a new roof, so while they were at it, they renovated the whole house. Architect Caomhan Murphy drew up the plans and oversaw the project.
They opened up the attic and put a proper bedroom up there, bringing the total number of bedrooms to six.
The reception rooms were in good nick and only required redecoration, but major work was also done on the kitchen. They turned the old kitchen into a utility area, and demolished the conservatory, which bizarrely had a Jacuzzi at its centre.
Instead, they made that area into a fabulous light-filled, open-plan space, incorporating the kitchen, a sitting area, a dining area, and a little office space. “Caomhan insisted on putting in skylights, I didn’t think we needed them, but I’m glad he did,” she concedes.
Kate wanted natural elements, so there are hints of brick in the walls. She’s also thrilled with the tiled wall made up of aqua colours — blue, green, grey. “I got them from a Belgian website,” she says. “Every single tile is different.”
Kate got Newcastle Design to do the panelled units and the oak-topped island, which she loves. Above the island are glass globe-style light fittings, which have been deliberately chosen so as not to obstruct the view of the tiled wall.
It’s a warm, welcoming space, typical of many beautiful kitchens now in Ireland. But not many other houses have one particular feature which Kate cleverly had incorporated just outside her kitchen door — a shelving unit for the kids shoes when they enter the house. It’s an Asian tradition that Kate continues in her new home.
And throughout the house there are lovely artworks and artefacts, which she and her husband brought home from their travels in the Far East.
They have Ireland, they have Australia, and, of course, there has to be a bit of Asia, too.
‘Glow –—Your Complete Four-Week Plan For Healthy Radiant Skin With 60 Skin-Nourishing Recipes’ by Kate O’Brien, is published by Gill Books
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