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'It was unrequited love for a while'

Entrepreneurs Karen O'Neill and Helen Kennedy tell Barry Egan about their complicated love story, and why we should all be more like bees

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Karen O’Neill and Helen Kennedy. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Karen O’Neill and Helen Kennedy. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Karen O’Neill and Helen Kennedy. Photo: Gerry Mooney

They say the dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them. And Karen O'Neill will never forget her mother Hilda, who died 14 years ago of a heart attack at the age of 56. "Nothing I could say could express how powerful an impact she had in my life. She was funny, brave, opinionated, strong, wise beyond her years. She had a level of ingenuity that knew no bounds. She gave me a strong sense of self. She believed there were no limits to what I could achieve. She didn't believe I was put on this earth to pass through, that I was going to do something that would change the world somehow." Karen adds that Beekon - "a 5 per cent alcohol natural honey refresher" she launched in 2017 with her wife Helen Kennedy - "is in part a legacy play in honour of her. Something I can say I created. That has her DNA written all over it. If she was given the love, encouragement and opportunities that I was afforded thanks to her, she too would have changed the world somehow."

"Beekon is not another beer, cider, wine or gin. It's a honey refresher, a new category of drink - it doesn't exist anywhere in the world. Perfect for the conscientious consumers who seek better in their world," gushes Helen.

Meeting Helen and Karen in Bar 1661 on Green Street last week, you realise they are not two people you will encounter every day of the week.

They are as entertaining as their story. They describe themselves as "two Nanny McPhees" when it come to their respective nieces and nephews. They have two dogs, Buffy and Lola; they live with in Churchtown, and they also have a weekend retreat in Duncannon, Co Wexford. When they met in March 2008 at a business lunch in Dax - quickly followed by a first date at the Ireland v Italy Six Nations game - Helen had just come out of a seven-year relationship with another woman. Karen "had been straight. I was closeted gay, clearly." Karen continues: "I genuinely believe that when I met Helen it was love at first sight. I believe that you can meet somebody irrespective of gender and fall in love with them."

Prior to meeting Helen, Karen had "been dating guys but it was never something that I got into my flow."

And the flow started upon meeting Helen? "For me, but it didn't flow for Helen!" laughs Karen. "It was unrequited for a while. But I held on!"

"It was persistence against resistance!" laughs Helen.

"Helen was having none of it!" laughs Karen. After the break-up of her previous relationship Helen needed some space, but, she says, "Karen was not going to let that happen!"

Karen expressed her feelings to Helen, and within a few months, it grew into "something". In 2009, they went travelling to South America for three months. Karen returned to a big promotion as the global head of cider for Heineken, based in Amsterdam; Helen left her job in sales in Dublin and they moved to the Netherlands.

(So much for resistance, Helen!) On January 23, 2010, Karen asked Helen to marry her on Dun Laoghaire pier. Karen got the engagement ring specially made in New York. On September 15, 2012, they were married in Amsterdam, with 90 family and friends at the wedding. Helen spent her redundancy package money on a wedding ring, also bought in New York.

Asked to describe Helen, Karen says: "Helen has an unbelievable ability to make everyone in her company feel like they are the only people who matter. She has a gentle nature that only wants to do good by people and the planet. She cares more than most about the stuff that matters most." Helen is not, however, a secular saint. When I asked Karen what Helen is like to live with, she laughed:

"Grumpy and non-communicative in the morning. I bring her coffee and let the sun shine in and she's always grateful. She doesn't like to be rushed. And I'm always in a rush." They learned to meet half-way. Helen's the homemaker. She's learning to play the piano. She makes her own clothes. "She's great at being in the moment, which centres me and my monkey mind," confides Karen.

Asked what Karen - a gargantuan bundle of personality - is like to live with, Helen laughs and says: "Because she has so much energy she does a lot more than me around the house, which is great! Karen is a bit of a Monica [from Friends] so the house is always spotless; besides the bleach she tries to sneak into the toilets it's a win-win for me!

"Luckily she's also a great cook; if she wasn't we'd be living on beans on toast, which I love! I try to help her to be in the moment. I'm bringing her to a one-day retreat in the Rainforest spa in Wicklow at the end of March - if I don't press pause she wouldn't stop. It's so important to enjoy the moment, enjoy the journey as much as we can."

"Helen is a hippie at heart," says Karen. "If she could roam bare-foot in a commune for the rest of her time, growing her own veg, she would. Helen cares more about our community and planet than anyone I know - 11 years ago when I first met her she used to try to educate me about single-use plastics and fast fashion when no one understood the concepts.

"I thought she was nuts. Our only tiff was over my compulsion to use bleach. I've even been caught concealing it in our home behind her back. I'm over bleach now.

"She abstained from buying clothes in 2019. She can't listen to mainstream radio any more - it just pains her too much to hear all the damage that is being done to the world. She has signed herself and our little dog Lola up to be a therapy dog, visiting an old folks' home weekly to bring them some love and affection. That's Helen - full of compassion and care."

Helen (from Bray, went to St David's in Greystones, then UCD) says of the love of her life Karen (from Waterford, went to the Mercy in Waterford, then WIT and Smurfit Business School): "She thinks the word NO means Negotiable Opportunity. I love that about her. She sets herself quarterly challenges that scare the bejaysus out of her - it prepares her for the challenges in business.

"A few years back she signed up to do a triathlon and only had eight weeks to train for it. She didn't know how to swim at the time, so in those eight weeks she trained hard and learned how to swim, which is an incredible feat!

"When she got out of the Shannon, it was like she'd won gold at the Olympics, I was so proud of her as I'd taught her to swim!"

They run Beekon together, which they are almost as excited about as they are about each other. "To cope with the always-on Beekon pressure," says Karen, "we manage our energy, not our time. There are times when we need to take the foot off the pedal, take a morning off or just take time out to recharge, and being entrepreneurs we've given ourselves the freedom to do just that."

"Beekon moved from being a project of interest to a business with intent, that I was going to devote myself to, in October 2018. It was at this point I knew that I had a liquid that was good and a brand that was compelling."

For two years prior to this, Karen worked with the master brewer Joe Kearns, "who is a genius. We collaborated with about 12 different types of honey and yeasts to create the taste that is Beekon."

Karen left the corporate world as she was "done creating superficial campaigns that lacked meaning and purpose".

Her love of "all things bees was ignited in my global cider role. Bees are essential to the pollination of the orchards - it's the start of the production process as such. I ask myself daily one question, indeed my entire brand strategy is one question: 'How would a bee do it?'"

Karen tries to approach all things Beekon "like a bee. We have so much to learn from bees. The more I learn, the more I am in awe. If we showed up in life a little more like bees and how they selflessly work for the good of their hive or community, I genuinely believe life would be so much more fulfilling and happier."

Karen became "obsessed with making a product that was 100 per cent natural, free from any additives, sulphites, preservatives or colourants, something that large organisations are reluctant to do due to recipe and cost controls."

Karen has a dream - "that everywhere Beekon is sold, something is happening to help the bees".

beekonbatches.com

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