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'Your soul is torn out when your child is taken away .. . my heart was broken'

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Ambitious: Kevin with Andrea

Ambitious: Kevin with Andrea

Ambitious: Kevin with Andrea

'TO me, life is magical. It's mind-blowing. We could all look back on our lives and pick holes in things that happened, but for me, it's all about dwelling on positive energy and getting on with things.

"There's always somebody 10 times worse off than you are, and we all experience crises in our lives, but you almost need that to appreciate the good stuff. We have to get over things, because if we don't, they will swallow us up."

I'm having a fruit tea with celebrated chef Kevin Thornton (54) in his Michelin-starred restaurant, Thornton's, overlooking St Stephen's Green.

While he's a guy who's regularly featured in the media due to his penchant for giving a juicy, honest quote (he has no filter, his lovely wife Muriel tells me afterwards, half-despairingly), he rarely gives personal interviews. Fizzing with passion, he exudes a hugely positive energy, scattering insightful nuggets of wisdom into the conversation without even trying.

His life story is fascinating, with some events in it that would floor the rest of us for life, such as the fateful day in 1981 when the then 21-year-old Tipperary man rocked up to Muriel's house in Howth to collect her for a cinema date.

He realised by the atmosphere in the house that something was wrong, but nearly passed out when her dad told him that 18-year-old Muriel was in hospital.

"He said, 'She's having a baby and I presume it's yours'," says Kevin. "I couldn't believe it as neither of us had a clue that she was pregnant. Muriel's dad was nice about it, but in a way I would have almost preferred if he'd hit me. I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up."

BEWILDERED

The dazed young chef hopped on a bus to the Rotunda, where an equally bewildered Muriel gave birth to their son, Edward, later that day. Her mum, a very strong character, took charge of the situation and announced that the baby would be put up for adoption, as it would be the best thing for him.

"I was in a state of shock and just said 'yes'," recalls Kevin. "I suppose that what gets to me is that I wasn't really man enough at the time to say 'no', and if I stood up for myself, how would I support the child? I needed help and to talk it over with somebody, but Muriel's mum said I wasn't to tell anyone."

Ireland was a very conservative place at that time, ruled by the Catholic Church. A teenager having a baby outside marriage was very much frowned upon in society. Kevin didn't even tell his own parents until years later, as his dad was a very orthodox Catholic, and they had fallen out in the past over their differing religious beliefs.

The following day, Muriel and Kevin found themselves in a church, where their baby son was taken from them and taken to a place in Dun Laoghaire. Kevin went out to see him every day, and he and Muriel ultimately looked through the files of the prospective adoptive parents and chose a couple for their little boy, who went on to be raised in England.

"It was crazy," says Kevin. "You didn't realise that you were pregnant in the first place, and then suddenly there's this baby and he's gone. Your soul is torn out when your child is taken away, but we didn't have time to work out what to do. I'd think about him every day and my heart was broken. I always knew I'd meet him when he was 18, and I used to pray for him every day, because while I'm not religious, I'd be spiritual in the sense of life and death and the Buddha and all that."

While such a traumatic event could end a young couple's relationship, the heartbreak drew Muriel and Kevin closer together. They were thrilled to make contact with Edward, a musician, when he turned 18 – he's now 33.

It wasn't easy for any of them, he says, but they're so delighted to have been given the opportunity to get to know their son (who now has three children of his own Isaac, Esmee and Oscar). They love him very much and are very proud of him, and delighted to have formed such a great relationship.

Kevin and Muriel were married and had another son, Conor, now 19 and studying at Trinity College. As a child of the 60s, Kevin was determined to have an openly affectionate and loving relationship with his son.

"My dad was a very nice, genuine man, but he was old-school and a product of his own upbringing and environment," he says.

"I remember Muriel once saying to him, 'Kevin just wants you to tell him that you love him'. He said, 'We are all proud of you in Cashel', and that was as far as I got. I remember saying, 'Let's go, honey' later to my son and hugging him, and my dad wondering what I was doing."

Kevin and Muriel had a difficult situation with Conor too, as they nearly lost him to meningococcal septicaemia when he was almost two.

At one point it seemed like Conor would die, and he was battling for his life in intensive care, so Kevin and Muriel were brought in to say goodbye to him.

"We thought someone was punishing us," Kevin admits. "It was like, 'Here's what it's like to have a child, but you gave your other child away, so hard luck, this is your punishment'."

Conor was moved to Temple Street Hospital where he was given Protein C, a treatment just in development that made him better. They will never be able to thank their consultant, Owen Smith, enough for saving their son's life.

"We call him God," says Kevin. "What they do is so amazing that you could never do anything to pay them back. Something like that happening is why I'm never that interested in money – it's what you do with your life that's important."

ABATTOIR

A year after Conor was born, Kevin opened his first restaurant. As a youngster, he worked in a vegetable garden, on a farm and in an abattoir, and now realises that he was unconsciously preparing himself for a career in food. He grew up in Cashel, Co Tipperary, as one of nine children and reckons his creative side comes from his mother, Rita, who was a dressmaker.

He learned discipline from his father, Ned, who was a truck driver and passed away four years ago. His sister, Evelyn, died three years ago.

Kevin studied catering in Galway, and went to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant in London. He then went off travelling around Europe and worked in vineyards in Switzerland and made and sold jewellery on the streets of Paris.

On his return to Dublin he lived in Rathmines and worked in places such as the Shelbourne, and met Muriel when she worked part-time in a cafe he frequented. A year later, Edward was born, and after they got their heads in order he and Muriel travelled around Europe and Africa and lived in Canada for a while.

Kevin always wanted to learn new things and has a huge spirit of adventure about him. It was in Canada that his love of photography developed.

He and Muriel opened their first restaurant in 1989, and it has been in its present location in the Fitzwilliam Hotel since 2002. With the passion he exudes, and his drive for excellence, it's no surprise that Kevin became the first Irish chef to achieve two Michelin stars.

He is always inventive, creative and striving to move forward and has a great attitude.

Kevin was always keen to learn all about where his produce was coming from, and his teenage job in the abattoir gave him total respect for the animals.

He nowbreeds his own cattle, called Eireyu, which have Japanese fathers and Irish mothers. They drink Guinness every day and are massaged with poitin daily – I thought he was winding me up when he told me this, but it's true, it keeps flies from landing on the cows and gives them a great coat. They are raised in lovely, stress-free conditions, which is very important to Kevin.

He also learned to dive in order to understand more about fish, but had a dreadful experience 19 years ago. He was diving with his friend Struan in the Forty-Foot in Dun Laoghaire when he became entangled in a drifting net.

As he tried not to panic and slashed with his knife at the net, he thought Struan had gone to the surface for help. Having ditched some of his equipment, Kevin finally broke clear and went to the surface, where he feared his lungs would burst.

The other divers pulled him in and as he came around, he realised to his horror that Struan wasn't there. He tried to dive back down, but was held back. Struan's body wasn't found until three days later. Kevin was devastated.

STARVING

"I felt total guilt at being alive when he was gone," he says. "I'd look in the mirror and think, 'Why am I still here?' But when I'd go snorkelling and diving after that, I'd see him in the water and he'd say to me, 'It's not your fault'."

Kevin is a very deep and philosophical thinker and says that he appreciates that at the high end of the business that he's in, they get to "play with food" while half the world is starving. However, everything is done with respect and no waste.

He puts his money where his mouth is and travels twice-yearly to Ethiopia where he works with a charity called Connect Ethiopia (www.connectethiopia.ie). He teaches the people there to grow their own vegetables, educates them on food hygiene and has opened two cookery schools. He's very committed to it. He loves his students, who were hassling him for Irish football jerseys recently.

"Leo Cullen got me some Leinster ones, and I'm now on the case of the Munster jerseys," he says.

"It'll be a great laugh out there with my two Leinster and Munster teams playing against each other."

Thornton's Restaurant, 1st Floor, The Fitzwilliam Hotel, 128 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2. Reservations: 01 478 7008, www.thorntonsrestaurant.com


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