Don O’Neill relishing the chance to move home to his native Ballyheigue after 30 years in New York
After 30 years of living and working in what he described as “one of the most incredible cities on the planet”, Kerry’s Don O’Neill is homeward bound to his native Ballyheigue and speaking to The Kerryman this week, Don said that moving back home has always been the plan for he and husband, Pascal.
Don’s career to date has been nothing short of spectacular, one that included working with and dressing some of the world’s most famous women including Oprah, Taylor Swift, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Amy Poehler and Angela Bassett to name but a few.
He was the creative director of the Theia fashion brand that he named after the Greek goddess until June 2020, when he and his team lost their jobs as the brand was repositioned by its owners - something he described as “a crushing blow”.
To achieve this incredible level of success though comes at a price and it was only the onset of COVID and the subsequent lockdowns back in 2020 that Don was able to in his words “take a step back and breathe” and really evaluate whether the relentless hard work and pressure required to stay on top was worth it.
“Burnout was the primary reason behind it [the decision to move home to Kerry]. COVID, like for a lot of people, it gave me the chance to stop and step away from work for a period of time. It was only then I realised how hard I was working. Now, everyone in New York works really hard and to be successful there, you have to graft and put the work in. It’s harder to make it there than anywhere else in the world and in order to make it, you have to dedicate yourself,” he said.
“But then COVID came and I got the chance to step back and it gave me the distance that I needed to see hard I was working and it gave me some time to breathe and taking that breath was very important. I think I only learned how [to take that breath] after the momentum stopped. I didn’t know to do it during all the craziness of my hectic career,” he continued.
Going on, Don said that the pandemic gave him the chance to spend the summer of 2021 living back in Ballyheigue, which was by far the longest he had lived at home here in Kerry since he first moved away 30 years ago.
“That whole three months was epic. It was a revelation. The maximum that I used to home for was a week. I’d go back for a week in the summer and a week at Christmas and that was it basically for 30 years. The fact then that I got a whole three months in Ballyheigue, at home, it was just extraordinary. Then I got to go back again at Christmas for six weeks so I got to experience the winter there too,” he said.
For an outsider, the thought of swapping the Big Apple for Ballyheigue might seem like a ludicrous one, but for Don, the move home cannot come soon enough as he waxed lyrical about his native village and Kerry in general.
“When you appreciate the beauty [of Kerry] like I do, whether it’s pouring rain or whether the sun is shining, it’s always spectacular and it’s always appealing.”
“There is a connectedness to Ballyheigue that I have always had thanks to my family but I have always felt a deeper link and connection to Ballyheigue as a place and its people. I just can’t wait to spend my time there and in places like Dingle and in Killarney,” he said.
Don added that he had a “pinch me moment” during his summer living back home about how spectacular it [Ballyheigue] and Kerry really is as a place to live.
“We had always planned on moving back home to Ireland but COVID just sped up that process for us. It brought the horizon to us,” he said.
As for what’s next for the 56-year-old, he is soon to finish work on a book about his many adventures in the world of high fashion.
After that, he said he will see where the road takes him and Pascal, but one thing he does know for certain is that whatever he ends up doing, it will involve something very much in his wheelhouse, working and collaborating with fellow creatives like himself, as evidenced by his most recent work on a project that is he very passionate about.
Don is one of the artists that are taking part in this year’s Incognito art sale that will be in aid of the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation.
Thousands of postcard sized art works will be auctioned at €65 each, but the artist will only be revealed once the sale is over.
Viewing starts this coming Friday, March 31 on incognito.ie