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'I'd pretend it was all fine at work, then go home and start sobbing with stress'

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Mary Ann O'Brien with Andrea Smith. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Mary Ann O'Brien with Andrea Smith. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Mary Ann O'Brien with Andrea Smith. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

SHE is unfailingly positive, warm and successful, but Tipperary-born Mary Ann O'Brien has had more than her fair share of difficult experiences in life.

We're having tea at the Merrion Hotel, and the engaging senator, founder of Lily O'Brien's Chocolates and co-founder of the Jack and Jill Foundation, is recalling the trauma of 2008, when she was struggling to keep her successful premium chocolate company afloat. With 120 full-time employees and another 120 seasonal ones, she was conscious that the responsibility for their livelihoods rested on her slim shoulders.

"I used to come home every Friday and sit by the Aga and start sobbing from stress, because I thought I might lose the business and my house," she says.

"The kids were really fed up with me. The banks had stopped lending, and I always needed funding in the middle of the year for stock, but they wouldn't give it to me. I used to pretend that everything was fine all week at work, but I would be as sick as a dog over making the wages bill and wondering if the bank would take the keys."

Tender

However, Mary Ann is nothing but resourceful and innovative, so through sheer hard work and determination, she steered the company through the choppy waters to make a €1.7m profit in 2011. "The recession was actually good for us, because it made us into a great business," she says. "You really have to roll up your sleeves and discipline yourself to survive, and become a lean, mean machine."

Describing herself as emotional and tender by nature, 52-year-old Mary Ann says she can't abide jealousy or anger.

"I don't allow sulking or holding grudges," she says. "That's for complete idiots." It's hard to imagine her any other way than fizzing with energy, but things were very different 20 years ago.

Lily O'Brien's came about by chance, when she was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome, triggered by the Epstein-Barr virus. She had just given birth to her first child, Lily, and was co-owner of an event management company, but started experiencing tummy upsets and flu-like symptoms.

"Up to then I was as mad as a hatter and healthy as a hare, and I had so much energy to burn that I never went to bed," she says. "My brain closed down, I had bloated limbs, nausea all day long and a permanent headache. I looked like a skeleton. I signed over the business to my partner and lay at home for a year, unable to do anything else." While recuperating in South Africa, Mary Ann became entranced at the chocolates that the daughter of the owner of her guesthouse was making, and spent the rest of the holiday in the kitchen learning from her. She bought some wooden bowls, and came back to her apartment in Maynooth and started making chocolates, which were very well-received. Thus Lily O'Brien's was born, named after her baby daughter.

Always ambitious, Mary Ann quickly went from selling her chocolates at farmers' markets to getting into Superquinn. She made the products, and did the selling, delivery and accounts by herself, but in 1995 she took on partner Peter Queally, and the business moved to Naas.

"I would have no great business acumen, so I learned the hard way through making mistakes," she says. "I had a huge work ethic and was making a superlative product, so there was nowhere for me to go but the successful way. I was terribly ambitious from the beginning, and 80pc of our business comes from export. We started making desserts two years ago, along with the chocolates, and they account for 20pc of the business now."

Now 23, Mary Ann's daughter Lily is in the UK studying English literature, and is not involved in the business. Nonetheless, she must be flattered to have such a successful company named after her?

"She's quite embarrassed by it," says her mum. "I think she has a craving to achieve her own success."

Growing up at the foot of the Slievenamon mountains, Mary Ann had an idyllic childhood surrounded by horses – her dad is racehorse trainer Phonsie O'Brien. She did her Leaving Cert when she was 16, and travelled and worked in Paris, Pennsylvania, the Bahamas, Fort Lauderdale, Hawaii, California and New Zealand, until her dad called her home at age 23. Travelling gave her resilience and people skills, she says, and broadened her outlook on the world.

Sleep

She worked as the marketing manager at the Phoenix Park Racecourse for 10 years, organising all kinds of events and concerts, and learning a huge amount about good food, which would stand to her later. She met her future husband, Jonathan Irwin, there in 1983 – he was her boss and 20 years older than her.

They were married in 1991, and have three children, Lily (23), Phonsie (19), and Molly (13). They also had two sons, John and Jack, who both sadly passed away. John was Phonsie's identical twin and he died at birth, while Jack was born a healthy 12lb baby in 1996.

"When he was a day old, Jack had a near-miss cot death experience when he choked on his own mucus," says Mary Ann. "He was resuscitated, but ended up being a very brain-damaged little person who couldn't see or swallow or hear, and had total cerebral palsy.

"We took him home after two months in intensive care, but it was extremely difficult. We had no sleep, it took 20 hours per day to feed him, and after a month, Jonathan and I were on the verge of getting divorced.

"Try feeding someone that you love, who's having an epileptic fit so the tube is coming out of his nose, and you're afraid you'll put it back in his lungs by mistake and kill him. We were in real trouble and weren't coping at all."

Aghast that there was no help available to get them through the traumatic situation, Mary Ann and Jonathan accepted the offer of help from a neonatal nurse friend. She turned the baby's room into a little hospital room, and taught them how to cope, with the help of a couple of other nurses.

Once his parents began to relax, the baby began to relax, and his little environment turned into a beautiful, nurturing and calm sanctuary.

Jack died at 18 months old, but even through her grief, Mary Ann accepted that his injuries were so devastating that he would never even have managed to achieve a meaningful quality of life.

"Those little people take a piece of your heart with them when they go," she admits.

"We had Molly a few years later, and while she was not a replacement for my other babies, she came with little band-aids and patched up our wounds and our hearts.

"She's a magical little person. She has the riding bug and competed for Ireland at Fontainebleau in Paris recently on her Connemara pony.

"She has two ponies and they're money incinerators, but we love them. Phonsie is at college studying arts, and he may gravitate towards the theatre. We have such fun as a family, and have five dogs, a cat, a hamster, 32 hens, nine guinea fowl and some Orpingtons."

As if all of that wasn't enough to be getting on with, Mary Ann and Jonathan founded the Jack and Jill Foundation as a direct response to their own experience.

With Jonathan (72) at its helm as CEO, it has so far raised €36m, thanks to his tireless work, and has looked after over 1,600 families who need help or respite because of their sick child. "Jonathan is a fairly excellent human," she says. "He is very high-energy, great fun, very eccentric, and a really good person. He is no good at DIY, so I am the handyman, but I have trained him to do a few jobs, like a bit of cooking, making beds and folding towels. For an older guy, he's come around well to my training."

While the energetic Mary Ann is planning to breed Orpington chickens and grows her own vegetables, she also finds time to fit in a political career, and spends three days a week in Dublin at the Seanad. She recalls taking a call from Enda Kenny two years ago, asking if she would accept his nomination to the Seanad, and not quite believing what she was hearing. "We were developing our new desserts, so I was covered in chocolate mousse, and was convinced it was a friend messing," she laughs.

"I didn't believe it until I heard it on the news. I was like a Martian parachuted into Pluto, but I'm really enjoying it, and my areas are business, job creation, charity, disability and agriculture. Politicians are very unpopular people, but I've come across a lot of very committed people in there.

"So many people are in distress at the moment, and it's so hard for them, and they must talk about it to friends and family and maybe try to consolidate their debts. It's easy for me to say as I have two jobs and am very fortunate, but I understand how they're feeling as I do know what it's like to be on the edge of losing your home."

www.lilyobriens.ie, www.maryannobrien.ie


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