Saturday 7 December 2019

How to brew up a fine romance... and mix business and pleasure

Wicklow's Riva O'Malley and John McGee got married and started up a soft drinks company the same year

Riva O'Malley and John McGee have started Black Castle Drinks. Photo: Tony Gavin
Riva O'Malley and John McGee have started Black Castle Drinks. Photo: Tony Gavin

Andrea Smith

Riva O'Malley first met John McGee in 2004 when he worked weekends at a local petrol station, and always smiled at him when she filled up her car every Saturday morning. He was 21 and she was 18, and at the time she was doing promotional work for the summer, so was all glammed up.

By his own admission, John fell for her immediately. "I would trip over myself when she walked in trying to get things for her," he recalls. "We were attracted to each other straight away but never really spoke."

Later that summer, they spotted each other at a bank holiday fireworks display in Wicklow town. "John was a gentleman and really nice," says Riva, "He was on his way for a Chinese meal so I took his phone and put my number in it, which was very cheeky, and asked him to bring me back a prawn cracker. He actually did and I kept it for years afterwards, and we sat and watched the fireworks together."

After that, Riva and John hung out all the time, and she thought he was interesting because he was bright and the conversations would last for hours. "John was kind and genuine, and I also thought he was really good-looking," she says. "He has lovely eyes and there's a great twinkle to them. We were pretty inseparable from the beginning. John had a two-year-old daughter, Holly, from a previous relationship when we met - she's now 13, and we get on really well.".

When she was a baby and her brother Shane was five, Riva's parents Belinda Walsh and Jay O'Malley moved the family to Marbella in Spain. Sadly, their marriage ended when Riva was five, and she moved back with her mum and brother to Wicklow aged 13. Her dad is an entrepreneur and still lives in Spain, while her mum is an artist and writer.

"I always considered myself Irish even though I lived in Spain, but it was a culture shock coming back here initially," she says. "Even though we kept our Irish roots, I was a little bit out of the loop with colloquialisms and the way of life in Ireland."

Riva, now 30, boarded at St Columba's College in Dublin, and then spent the final two years as a weekly boarder at Our Lady's School in Wicklow. She embarked on an arts degree in Spanish and Classics at UCD, but sadly when she was in second year, six months after herself and John got together, her beloved brother Shane died aged 24, having battled alcohol and drug addiction.

"I was 19 when I had Holly and Riva was 19 when Shane died, so we had both gone through a life-changing experience at that age," says John. "I feel that we can get through anything now. Riva's looks were obviously the initial attraction, but she was a lot more confident than the girls I grew up around, and had a real energy about her. I liked that she was really fun and a bit different. I also love her freckles, and like when she doesn't wear make up as you can see them."

John, now 33, always lived in Wicklow town and has an older sister Helen. His parents are Tom and Tina, and while his dad was a technician for what is now Eir, his mum and aunt formerly owned the shoe shop, Heels, in the town. He went to DIT, Bolton Street, to study structural engineering, and then got a job as a highway engineer with Grontmij, a Dutch multinational. He was let go during the recession, and he and Riva moved to the UK for three years.

They came back and forth to see Holly, and she also visited with her mum and with John's parents; After college, Riva completed a fashion retail course followed by a post-grad diploma in digital marketing and advertising, so she worked at digital marketing while John managed a pub in London. When they returned and settled in Wickow, the idea for their soft drinks company was already brewing.

They launched their business in February, 2015, as they had seen a trend emerging in England for old-traditional English drinks made in a modern way, and decided to do an Irish version. They got married last August at Ballybeg House in Wicklow, and the ska band John was in for nine years, Bocs Social, played a few numbers at the reception.

Riva did a 'start your own business' course with Enterprise Ireland, and got some funding from them to work with a food technician to help develop the business, which they called Black Castle Drinks. They now have three lovely craft soft drinks, a spiced red lemonade, a ginger beer and a blackberry and nettle bramble. Made from natural ingredients, the idea is that if you're not drinking, you have something interesting to drink.

Riva works in the business full-time while John also manages Phil Healy's pub in Wicklow. They have built up a great client base of smaller businesses, and were thrilled to win a stand at the food and drink festival, Taste of Dublin, through a Bank of Ireland competition, and feel it's a wonderful platform to promote the business. They have also completed SuperValu's Food Academy programme and will be listed in six stores from September.

"Our skills really complement each other," says Riva. "I don't know how anyone could do a food business alone, as we have each other for motivation and to share ideas." Black Castle Drinks is part of this year's Taste of Dublin festival at the Iveagh Gardens from Thursday to Sunday, Tickets, from €15, available now, see

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