When Veron­ica O’Reilly saw peo­ple around her fall­ing ill as a re­sult of rich di­ets, she set out on a culi­nary jour­ney that awak­ened a pas­sion for ‘liv­ing food’. From her Healthy Habits base in Wick­low Town she tells Belinda Walsh about her life and the be


NEVER IN A MIL­LION YEARS would a gauche but very pretty blonde-haired lit­tle girl who ran amok with her si­b­lings in the back lanes of Dublin's in­ner city, have imag­ined that one day she would be a gourmet raw chef, have her own book of recipes pub­lished and travel all over Amer­ica learn­ing about what the Amer­i­can's call ‘Soul Food’.

‘I re­mem­ber my mother cook­ing real Dublin dishes like tripe and onions and cod­dle,’ Veron­ica tells us, ‘ but I had no in­ter­est in food then. I was very clumsy as a girl and use­less at house­work and cook­ing. I was never let do any­thing at home ex­cept wash and peel pota­toes.’

Veron­ica O'Reilly grew up in Eden Quay, be­side O'Con­nell Bridge, Dublin, where she shared a flat with her par­ents, her sis­ter, three brothers and her grand­mother who sold se­cond­hand clothes in the Daisy mar­ket. The O'Reillys were the only fam­ily liv­ing on a road sur­rounded by of­fices and right over the As­tor and Corinthian Cin­e­mas which could be prob­lem­atic on oc­ca­sion for the lively young fam­ily. ‘We were very wild re­ally. Peo­ple from the cin­ema would of­ten come up to tell my mother to keep us quiet. It was very dif­fi­cult for her try­ing to man­age five kids, three of them boys, who could be very bois­ter­ous at times and al­ways get­ting into trou­ble. Our Quay wasn't re­ally a safe place for kids to play ei­ther and I re­mem­ber the taxi men in the ranks were very good and would of­ten keep and eye on us.’

Veron­ica's mother, Mar­ion, also helped her grand­mother with her mar­ket stall and trav­elled around the city col­lect­ing clothes from jum­ble sales while her fa­ther, John, worked as a ship­wright for Dublin Port and Docks and was one of the first men in the ’40s to learn to drive. A brave move con­sid­er­ing the lack of safety pre­cau­tions they had in those early days. He also en­joyed tak­ing the fam­ily out to parks and for trips to the coun­try when­ever he could.

‘We all loved vis­its to the coun­try. At that time in the mid-’50s I thought Balls­bridge was ma­jor coun­try­side. It was so quiet and I could hear birds, some­thing I wasn't used to in the city. I sup­pose it was a dif­fer­ent kind of child­hood to most but it was a happy one.’

In the late ’60s Veron­ica worked in a cou­ple of city cen­tre shops and went back to night school for over two years to do her Leav­ing Cert. This qual­i­fi­ca­tion even­tu­ally got her into the Civil Ser­vice work­ing for the Depart­ment of De­fence look­ing af­ter the ac­counts where iron­i­cally she made friends with a group of young women in­ter­ested in re­li­gion. Al­though, she was brought up a Catholic and at­tended Mass ev­ery Sun­day it was at this time of her life that her in­ter­est in spir­i­tu­al­ity and the re­li­gious life was awak­ened. She grew cu­ri­ous about the re­li­gious or­ders and for a time con­sid­ered join­ing the en­closed or­der of nuns, the Poor Clares.

‘ The girls I mixed with in work were very re­li­gious and when I was about 19, I went along with a cou­ple of them to a Le­gion of Mary meet­ing and liked it. At one stage I thought se­ri­ously about be­com­ing a ‘Poor Clare' but that didn't worth out and prob­a­bly just as well, as they were not only an en­closed or­der but also a silent or­der and that wouldn't have suited me as I'm far too chatty.’

Soon af­ter, how­ever, Veron­ica did find her true vo­ca­tion in life when she joined a Catholic com­mu­nity called ‘ The Ser­vants of Love' started in 1970 by the Dutch vi­sion­ary the late Kevin Ja­cob­sen. This is a com­mu­nity of men and women who prom­ise poverty, chastity and obe­di­ence and to pro­claim the good­ness of God through health of mind, body and spirit.

Veron­ica lived with the com­mu­nity in Den­mark for al­most three years be­fore they moved to Wick­low. There she learned to speak Dan­ish, as part of her vo­ca­tion was to go out into the streets and talk about God. No prob­lem, to the soft spo­ken very friendly and out­go­ing young woman who has al­ways en­joyed com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple.

In her twen­ties, Veron­ica stud­ied acting in the Le­in­ster school of Mu­sic and Drama in Grif­fith Col­lege and over the years has per­formed in varies stage pro­duc­tions, movie ex­tra work, Blooms­day events and taken part in her com­mu­nity's own films and dra­mas. ‘My mother did some ama­teur dra­mat­ics and worked in PR for Warner Bros. in Dublin be­fore she got mar­ried so it must be in the blood. We started acting in the com­mu­nity as a way to reach peo­ple through our sto­ries. We've made a num­ber of our own 90-minute dra­mas that have a good moral mes­sage and some of our films have been taken up by Euro­pean T.V. sta­tions.’ Al­though none of their dra­mas have as yet ap­peared on Ir­ish T.V. sta­tions, RTE's pop­u­lar pro­gramme Na­tion­wide has re­cently filmed Veron­ica for a fu­ture date do­ing her in­no­va­tive raw food prepa­ra­tion in a pro­gramme about the Monas­tic life.

Re­cently, the Ital­ian chef, Paulo Tul­lio, from TV3's The Restau­rant vis­ited Healthy Habits café along with his old friend Chris de Burgh. In his Satur­day In­de­pen­dent Week­end re­view, he said of the food, ‘It's sur­pris­ingly tasty given the in­gre­di­ents. If healthy eat­ing is your thing, a trip here for lunch will please you. You'll find an oa­sis of calm, sim­ple and nour­ish­ing food.” High praise in­deed from the well-known king of pasta dishes.

Veron­ica be­came the com­mu­nity's some­what am­biva­lent cook when they bought a house in Round­wood in 1980. ‘When we moved to Ire­land I sort of fell into the job of cook as I was cold work­ing out­side and wanted warmer, in­door work to do. I had to learn quickly, mainly through trial and er­ror but even­tu­ally I be­gan to en­joy cook­ing.’

Her in­ter­est in ‘ liv­ing food' came about when their founder Brother Kevin be­came ill with angina and suf­fered a se­ries of heart at­tacks and when an­other mem­ber Gabrielle Kirby be­came ill, they re­alised as a com­mu­nity that they had to change their diet of rich food.

‘We were eat­ing more dairy than most peo­ple be­cause we had our own cows. We ate a lot of cheese, but­ter, ice cream and would eas­ily con­sume two din­ners a day with big desserts. We had our own boat too so we were eat­ing plenty of fish. Things had to change. I be­gan read­ing ev­ery­thing I could get hold of on healthy eat­ing, I watched and lis­tened to ev­ery health pro­gramme and trav­elled the lands to get all the in­for­ma­tion I could.

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