RAW AND THE COOK
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.