Latest Posts

Christy Toye reflects on a career of success and defiance

 This article was originally published in The Irish Times.

The very last person who wants to talk about Christy Toye is Christy Toye. The recent news that the Donegal senior GAA footballer was to pack away his county jersey after 15 years saw an outpouring of admiration and appreciation in Donegal and beyond. A career that spanned All-Ireland wins and a chronic facial pain condition had come to an end.

The huge reaction to his retirement has bewildered Toye though. He was never in it for the glory – just to make his parish and his county proud.

“It was brilliant,” he said of the response.

“I don’t know why. Maybe they see somebody who is injured and kept going and came back? Maybe they recognise the effort you put into going back on the pitch?”

No other player has scored more Championship goals for Donegal in Croke Park than the Creeslough man. He also holds three Ulster titles, one All-Ireland, a National League and has captained the team.

But it isn’t only his ability that made supporters cherish the crafty half forward. Toye’s humble nature and absence of ego also helped – as well as that ability to come back, time after time, from injury.

There have been a spate of departures from the Donegal panel of late including Colm McFadden, Rory Kavanagh, David Walsh, Eamon McGee, Leo McLoone and Odhrán Mac Niallais. But Toye’s retirement seemed to hit a particularly raw nerve.

As Toye reflects on his county career, it isn’t one of the many game-changing moments he created that he holds proudest. It was a freezing winter league game in Laois in 2014 as fans rose to their feet to applaud his comeback from a year out with trigeminal neuralgia – a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal nerve in the face.

“I had to come off with a blood injury,” Toye recalls. “I remember the crowd standing up and starting to clap. I honestly thought a Laois player was coming on, then I realised it was Donegal supporters. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.

“I was so pumped up because of it. The doctor was stitching staples into my face and I kept saying ‘I want to get back on.’ I’m never emotional in the changing room, ever, but I was kicking stuff and Donal Reid was telling me to calm down. It was the connection with the supporters that day – it was very emotional.”

The threads of Toye’s tapestry in GAA were first woven when his father Noel and Colm McFadden’s father took over the St Michael’s under-10s. His mother Rose, from a Termon GAA background, was also heavily involved in the local club. Two future Donegal stars, Toye and McFadden, rose through the ranks together.

“I’d be out to the garden every evening after school playing football or soccer until night time and every morning before school kicking a football against the wall from about 8am. Anywhere I’d go I’d have a football with me.”

Donegal’s first All-Ireland win in 1992 had a huge impact on him and when he played he mimicked his favourite players Joyce McMullan and Martin McHugh.

After secondary school in Falcarragh he went on to study Business Studies with Sports and Recreation in Sligo I.T, with whom he won the Sigerson Cup three times.

Toye was just 18 when he made his Donegal debut in 2001. Alongside some of the 2012 All-Ireland county heroes like McFadden, Kavanagh, Karl Lacey, Paul Durcan and Eamon McGee, he was from a generation that bridged two different eras of Donegal football – from their less than angelic reputation to the discipline and success that manager Jim McGuinness brought.

“Nowadays, the GAA is amateur really in name only isn’t it? The professional era was when McGuinness came in but we obviously saw the other side of it. The way it is now, there’s an athletic discipline to it. Everything you do has to be built around football, it can be a lot of sacrifice.”

“Back in the early 2000s it was more you did your best and trained hard, but there was a bit more social flexibility, let’s say.”

Toye played alongside McGuinness from 2001 to 2004 and even then, he says, his future manager had a presence.

“When he spoke everybody listened. He had a four year plan (as manager). I remember he said ‘two Ulster titles and one All-Ireland, that’s the aim.’ We had been hammered by Armagh the year before by 20 points and there’s Jim chatting about winning the All-Ireland.

“We actually won two Ulster titles and the All-Ireland in the first two seasons, and won three Ulster titles and came close to winning a second All-Ireland so he, and we, exceeded expectations.”

The latter part of Toye’s career was plagued by injury. In 2009 he ruptured his Achilles and was out for 10 months. On his return he broke a bone in his ankle and another setback of tendonitis in his knees meant they both had to be operated on too. From 2009 to 2013 he was injured for three of the five seasons.

One of Toye’s stand out moments was when he drilled home a beautiful goal in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh. But in later years he became known as a super sub, such was his impact on games coming off the bench.

He was barely on the pitch before he scored a goal against Kildare in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final, and his impact on the team’s spirit and the scoreboard in the lead up to Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland win was key. He also turned the game around against Dublin after coming off the bench in the 2014 semi-final victory in Croke Park.

However, Toye admits that it was frustrating at times.

“When I came back from injury I was in the subs a lot. When you put in the exact same effort as everybody else and then you’re not getting on, it’s human nature to think ‘why am I doing this?’

“But then you refocus and think well ‘I’m going to show him, I want to get on the next day’ so you put in that effort again. You realise too, it’s all really about the whole squad. The subs are as important as the players nowadays.”

Toye was sent on for the last 20 minutes of the 2012 final against Mayo and helped secure Donegal’s second All-Ireland title.

“That whole McGuinness era was a unique time because Donegal was just coming out of the guts of a recession and it gave people – football or non-football people – hope that they could do something.

“That whole week afterwards, it was unbelievable. If only you could bottle that atmosphere that was around the whole county.”

Injury soon struck again though. About a month after the All-Ireland victory, Toye started getting a throbbing in his ear, then his cheek, behind his teeth and his eye. It became constant. He was eventually diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, known as “the suicide virus” because of the excruciating pain it can cause, which typically affects women more than men and is more likely to occur in people over 50.

“I was on heavy medication for about six months which didn’t really help the pain. There is no relief. It’s constant pain and you wouldn’t know whether to sit down or stand up or lie down.”

Toye had to take sick leave from his job and seldom left his room or his house for long. The medication wasn’t working and although he admits it was a very dark time in his life, his stoicism and mental resilience prevailed.

“You think ‘how is this ever going to end?’ The doctors weren’t giving me much hope – there was no real path to recovery.”

But, miraculously, Toye slowly started to feel better and after about six months he weaned himself off medication.

“I can still get bouts of it here and there but it’s something you can easily live with like that.”

There was one silver lining to his debilitating condition. He met his now fiancée Victoria Massey in the summer of 2013 and the couple are expecting their first child in June.

“I suppose everything happens for a reason because I wasn’t really playing football because of the illness and I was out and about a bit more and met Vicky.

“For 15 years I had football at the forefront, everything else was secondary. I am very lucky to have met her. She always encouraged me to keep playing and supported me.”

Then came the moment last August when Toye hung his head after Donegal’s defeat to Dublin, and he knew his county days were over.

“I remember standing in Croke Park thinking that was probably going to be the last stand,” he said.

Toye cites the baby on the way and his Hibernia Masters course where he is studying to become a primary school teacher among the “four or five reasons” he felt the time was right to walk away. The rash of recent retirements has seen speculation on a major transition ahead for Donegal but he shares no concerns about the county going into the doldrums.

“That era had to come to an end sometime but the boys won’t be up at training thinking ‘where’s Leo McLoone or Eamon McGee?’ They’ll just be thinking of their own training and trying to win. Donegal are going to be very hard to beat for any team.”

“You always hope that you’ve added to something, that you had an impact on the team, that you weren’t just a passenger. I think one of the most important things is that you are respecting the jersey and putting in 100 per cent,” he said.

“It is a very privileged position to get a (county) jersey, there’s only 30 players in any one year in that Donegal team and there’s probably 300 that would like to get it. When you’re up there, you know you’re representing yourself and your family and your community. I would hope people would look back and thought I’d done that to the best of my ability, I’d be happy enough with that.”

Interview with Donegal Chef Brian McDermott

Donegal chef Brian McDermott from Donegal has recently published his fantastic cookbook “Donegal Table,” we caught up for a chat all about Brian and why this book, and his home county, are so important to him.

1. Tell me about yourself and your background in food?

I have been a chef for 25 years and went to college Killybegs Catering College. I’m passionate about good, honest food cooked simply and sourced locally. I’m from a family of 12, my Mum was a cook on her Dad’s potato farm so she taught me a lot about cooking and eating what could be grown on the farm.

2. Who inspired you to get into food?

“Harrys” Restaurant in Bridgend , Co. Donegal. I was an early school leaver and got a job as a kitchen porter in “Harrys” and within a year they talked me into going to catering college. I’m forever grateful to Mr Harry Leo Doherty.

3. How did the diagnosis of your heart condition affect you, and your career choices?

When I was diagnosed I thought it was the end of my life but in fact it was only the beginning. It was the end of my much loved days in the industry kitchens as that was the doctor’s orders. But as I began to recover and engage in rehab I started to advise others and teach myself how to simply cook and eat cleanly to improve my health. I volunteered in my community in Moville and I sourced funding to start a community garden locally. I ended up becoming chairperson of the resource centre and we built a community garden with 24 raised beds. I gave numerous demonstrations in cooking the produce and it was then I realised I had a skill for teaching and communicating. We rolled out this unique model of gardens across six areas of Donegal with the support of the HSE. I began questioning why this cardiac disease came my way and at times I got angry and very emotional in a uncontrolled way. That was a tough period. I think it was the frustration and the insecurity of it all including the worry of providing for my family. I didn’t do any paid work for over a year. Then I researched, and possibly accepted, that life was going to be different and I began to learn how to accept my current situation and disease. The word I now refer to is resilience as I am now very much a believer of living in the present and I have practiced mindfulness for eight years.

4. Tell me about your cooking school?

My classes are very personal and I deliver them in a relaxed and informative way. I love the class where we go to the nearby pier in Greencastle, pick up freshly landed catch and bring it back and teach people how to fillet and cook local seafood. I love showcasing Donegal food to our visitors.

5. Tell me about your new book, what was the inspiration?

My inspiration is the land and sea that I grew up around and I wanted to return to it for inspiration. We have superb ingredients in Donegal and I wanted to showcase them. “Donegal Table” is a book filled with easy, everyday recipes. It is a journey through my career and all I’ve learned over the years. I want to inspire readers to cook more at home. The book is is about my “triple A” approach: A – accessibility of ingredients that are easy to get anywhere in the country, A – affordability of ingredients and A – achievability of recipes with simple cooking steps.

6. How do you feel Donegal is perceived for its cuisine?

Modest, trustworthy and honest. This is how we are as individuals, but as a voice I want to promote this county, its food producers, ingredients and unique hospitality. We have gained a great reputation recently and we have some of the best ingredients in Ireland due to our heavy rainfall and fertile soil. It’s our time now.

7. What are some of the champion products and produce Donegal has to offer?

Rapeseed Oil, native potatoes, seafood, grass-fed beef, Hill lamb and dairy.

8. Who do you think will enjoy this book?

Keen home cooks who want to improve the way they cook and eat. Anyone who is away from Donegal and missing home will love the book as it will remind them of a Donegal Mammie’s cooking around the Donegal Table.

9. What does Donegal mean to you?

Everything. I love Donegal and make no apologies for promoting it as much as I can on TV, radio, print media and now in my book. I even built my house using Donegal stone. It has been my parents’ home, my homeland I want it to be my daughter’s home.

10. Describe your ultimate “Donegal” meal.

Sitting in Malin Head on the coast with a barbecue, cooking and eating prawns that have just landed by the local fishermen.

A guide to Belfast, bite by bite

This article was originally published in The Irish Times.
Caroline Wilson of Belfast Food Tours with a group on tour.

Imagine a meal that begins with the snap of crusty sourdough spread generously with Co Down’s golden Abernethy butter. Then move on to a plate of just-out-of-the-water Carlingford oysters, before a main of Mourne mountain lamb with buttery local potatoes. Round it off with a chocolate and salted caramel ice-cream from Glastry Farm from the Ards Peninsula or, for cheese lovers, Northern Ireland’s only raw milk blue cheese, Young Buck. This is just a tiny example of the endless bounty of Northern Ireland’s food produce you will find on menus these days in Belfast. Its restaurant scene has never shone brighter, making it the perfect time to visit.

OX restaurant in Belfast.
OX restaurant in Belfast.

The past decade has seen the growth of the relationship between Northern Ireland’s producers, suppliers and restaurants. As the political situation stabilised, Belfast saw a surge in tourism with visitors taking in tourist attractions such as the Titanic visitor centre or stopping off in the city before a trip to the Giant’s Causeway or the Game of Thrones filming locations along the north coast. Hotels and restaurants are in demand, and restaurants and food producers have harnessed this opportunity to show off their local produce to these new visitors.

“I think anybody who comes to Belfast who hasn’t been here before will be surprised at the level of food, service and hospitality that Belfast delivers,” says chef Andy Rea. In partnership with Bob and Joanne McCoubrey, chef Andy Rea has established Mourne Seafood Bar as a Belfast institution. Rea cut his teeth in catering at the Belfast Institute before going to work in the US. He returned and was appointed head chef at Paul Rankin’s Michelin star restaurant Roscoff and later, his other eatery, Cayenne.

On the menu at OX in Belfast.

“In my mind, what I wanted [with Mourne Seafood Bar] was to create a restaurant where, if you closed your eyes and ate the food, you were eating one star Michelin food, but it might not look like it. It was very rustic.”

Rea’s philosophy is to use the best of what’s fresh and what has landed. “We keep everything as local as we possibly can, weather permitting,” he says. “Tourists come to us because they want to know that the lobsters are local, where the mussels are from, if we are using oysters from Donegal or Carlingford; they want to know the story.”

Michele Shirlow, chief executive of Food NI – an organisation with some 450 members, dedicated to enhancing the reputation of food and drink from Northern Ireland – says the Troubles and political uncertainty did impact on tourism and the food scene.

“Northern Ireland has always been a large food-producing region but because of the political unrest you couldn’t really brand Northern Ireland as a food region. Therefore, it’s only in the past five years that we have had ice-cream makers, cider makers, charcuterie makers, gin makers all appear from the woodwork,” she says. “I think also there is new-found confidence here and people are happy to be themselves as opposed to trying to pretend to be French or Spanish cuisine.”

Caroline Wilson is founder of Belfast Food Tours, and founding director of Taste & Tour NI. A former solicitor, Wilson turned her hobby into a business and founded the award-winning food tours, based entirely on local produce, in March 2014.

A traditional tasting on Caroline Wilson’s Belfast Food Tours.

“I was always really into finding out about local produce. I remember chatting to Alison Abernethy [Alison and Will Abernethy make traditionally churned, multi award-winning butter in Co Down] in the early days and she was telling me something along the lines that she was dairy intolerant and I thought, ‘You’re a dairy intolerant butter maker? One of the best in the world, and you are dairy intolerant?’ There were stories behind the people so it was more about me telling that story rather than just going, ‘Here’s some really nice butter.’ I wanted people to know what local food was rather than an Irish stew or an Ulster fry.

“The tours are telling a very positive story in Belfast of Northern Ireland food and drink. I think it’s also learning about the people who follow their passions and who are trying to make this place unique for its food and drink,” she says.

Belfast is conveniently located for a weekend or as a stop along a tour of the rugged north coast. “We offer so many flights in and out [of Belfast] and it’s an hour away from so many places. The mountains are 40 minutes away, the sea is 20 minutes away, the Causeway coast is 40 minutes away, so it is perfect,” Wilson says.

“We had not very much to be proud about here for such a long time and I think food and drink is something we can really hang our hats on. We’re really good at showing people a good time because we are so delighted that people come here. We don’t have tourist fatigue.”

It was during some “accidental market research” while he worked in the renowned fine food delicatessen, Arcadia on the Lisburn Road, that Mike Thomson began hatching a plan to make local cheese.

Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese, which makes Young Buck cheese.
Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese, which makes Young Buck cheese.

“Everyone was always asking for local cheese and you’d either give them something from down south or from England. There was no one making small scale cheese in Northern Ireland. I thought I’d go away, learn about it, and see if one day I could live out my dream,” he says.

He went to study cheese making at the School of Artisan Food near Sheffield before honing his craft with some of the finest British artisan cheese makers, eventually becoming head cheese maker at Sparkenhoe farm.

Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese, which makes Young Buck cheese.

He returned to Northern Ireland and used crowdfunding platform Seedrs to get his business off the ground. He started operating out of Newtownards making Northern Ireland’s first raw milk cheese called Young Buck and, in 2014, he had sold his first cheese to his former employer Arcadia.

Thomson says one of his joys working in Northern Ireland, as well as making the cheese, is the small amount of food miles taken to create it. “We make the cheese eight miles away, we drive two miles to collect the milk, we hardly do anything to it and it becomes cheese. I think the simplicity of that is just pure love.”

There are two Michelin star restaurants in Belfast, one is EIPIC where Alex Greene is head chef. It is owned by Michael Deane, renowned chef and owner of dining spots throughout Belfast. The other Michelin starred restaurant is Ox, whose head chef Stephen Toman believes there’s “a new breath of fresh air in the Belfast food scene”.

“It is a small community in Northern Ireland. It’s a close network so nobody wants to be left out because their stuff isn’t as good as the other person; be it cream or butter or meat or fish, everyone wants to get their produce on restaurant menus and selected by chefs. That reflects then into the restaurants themselves.”

Stephen Toman, from OX restaurant in Belfast.
Stephen Toman, from OX restaurant in Belfast.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a trip to Belfast is the city’s hospitality. It is perhaps unexpectedly warm, polite and charming, with a wry, local wit from taxi drivers to train inspectors to waiters.

“If Belfast people see anybody who looks bewildered or lost, they’re over trying to help them out. The people are natural, they have that bit of craic and banter,” says Rea.

Ask the locals: where are your favourite food and drink spots in Belfast?

Caroline Wilson – founder of Belfast Food Tours:

“You have got to go to Saint George’s market, it is the historical hub of Belfast food with food from all over Northern Ireland. Ox, to me, has got to be one of the best food experiences you can have in Belfast. The Muddlers Club and Mourne Seafood Bar are great in the city centre. In east Belfast, Il Pirata is a kind of home from home. Our Cathedral Quarter is definitely the place to go for a drink; places like The Spaniard. You can have incredible cocktails in The Merchant Hotel and Bert’s.”

Andy Rea – chef at Mourne Seafood Bar:

For breakfast it would be General Merchants where my favourite is sourdough, avocado, Vegemite and bacon on the side. For dinner in the city I love Coppi in St Anne’s Square and its sister restaurant, Buba. There is fantastic coffee in Root and Branch, who roast their own coffee. I love Kelly’s Cellars for a pint.”

Mike Thomson – produces Young Buck, raw milk blue cheese:

“I love Bistro Este and The Curated Kitchen, where the menu is from cookbooks and changes every week. Established Coffee and Buba are great. A friend of mine has a couple of brilliant coffee shops called Root and Branch. I love Laverys for a pint. They also run Woodworkers which is great for local craft beers and they feature our cheese, so it is great for a platter.”

Michele Shirlow – chief executive of Food NI:

“You can’t go wrong with Deane’s or James Street South or Ox. I like The Muddler’s Club as well. All around St Anne’s Square is fantastic with places like Coppi. I also like Graze in east Belfast. I think the thing about Belfast is that the standard is really high and even if you just go to a coffee shop you do get good grub.”

Stephen Toman – head chef of Michelin star restaurant Ox:

“I love Howard Street and The Muddler’s Club in the city if I was going out for dinner. For breakfast, General Merchants on the Ormeau Road is great. I also go to Graze in east Belfast. There is always a buzzy atmosphere in the Cathedral Quarter so pubs like The Duke of York, The Thirsty Goat and The Dirty Onion are fantastic.”

Breac House, Donegal

This article was originally published in The Irish Times.

There is often a gorgeous moment on holiday when you open the curtains to reveal a view that rushes into your soul like a restorative tonic; you then sigh and wish you were waking up to it every day. Two former accountants from Dublin have made that dream come true with their modern retreat, Breac. House, which they recently opened on Horn Head, the dramatic northwestern headland in Donegal.

Starting with a dramatic site, the last thing Cathrine Burke and Niall Campbell wanted to build was “big hexagon of glass”. The primary aim for its design was a balance of modern and traditional, connection to local craftsmanship, and showcasing the beauty of its surrounds.

“You see a lot of the modern design hotels and they look like the spaceship that has landed on the side of the hill,” says Burke. “While they have their place, we never wanted to do that. We wanted something that was very contemporary but very in keeping with the locality, so it is designed along the lines of the old long houses that you would have seen in Donegal and Scotland in the 1900s. We took that as a launch to do something very contemporary. After that, it was all about materials.”

The property is bedecked with as much local influence, material, craftsmanship and products as possible. Everything from the cup you drink your coffee in to the smoked salmon and the breakfast tray it sits upon has either been made or produced locally.

Stunning oak, made by local joiners in Letterkenny, features throughout the house.
Stunning oak, made by local joiners in Letterkenny, features throughout the house.

Letterkenny-based MacGabhann Architects designed Breac.House. As many local builders and tradesmen as possible were employed in its construction. The brief was to allow the backdrop of the achingly beautiful Horn Head and the richness of the Donegal landscape and surrounding views of beach, bay, mountain and forest be as visible as possible.

Where it might have been easy to put up a wall, the couple wanted to ensure that at every point in the house you could appreciate the landscape around you. So light, glass and windows show off the views at every turn.

When it came to the finishes and furniture, the aim was to highlight local and Irish design. “It was about oak, it was Ardara stone, it was about Fanad granite,” says Burke. “It was about somebody coming into a room and feeling connected to what they were looking at outside; that was it for us.”

For example, crisp white organic bed linens are topped with hand-loomed tweed blankets by Eddie Doherty in Ardara, Co Donegal. “He’s the only one in the country, as far as I know, still doing everything by hand,” says Campbell.

The bedrooms aim to reflect the morning colours of the view outside; sand in the oak, white in the dazzling white bed linen, and the sparkling turquoise blue of the sky and sea in Doherty’s blankets.

Stunning oak made by local joiners features throughout the house. Dublin-based Simon O’Driscoll built the frame for the sofa, which is upholstered with another specially made tweed by Doherty, inspired by the views, with greens and little flecks of pink, yellow and blue. The outdoor terrace features Ardara quartz. The coffee served in your room from The Shack in nearby Marble Hill and the crockery was specially commissioned from Dunfanaghy’s Muck ’n’ Muffins.

“Anything we could source in Donegal, we did, and if we couldn’t it was the best of the northwest and Irish after that,” says Burke.

“There have been times where we thought, are we mad? because there were easier ways to do some of this,” Burke says. “But it has already shown to be the right answer because people come in and say, ‘Oh my God, who did your joinery?’ And we tell them he’s from down the road and they think that is fantastic and you start that whole conversation.”

Organic bed linen is topped with hand-loomed tweed blankets.
Organic bed linen is topped with hand-loomed tweed blankets.

The couple met in university and Burke fell in love with Donegal after Campbell introduced her to the county. He had been coming to the Rosses area since he was a child but the couple often drove to Muck ’n’ Muffins for a coffee stop. “Little by little we found ourselves over on this side of Donegal,” she says.

“We decided a long time ago that we wanted to do something businesswise here that was a little bit special,” Burke adds. “It needed to be close to a good town with activities and facilities, and Dunfanaghy has everything from surfing, cycling, hiking to good restaurants and incredible beaches.”

After deciding the time was right to move and after some stopping and starting in the search for the right site, the couple found the property in 2014.

Breac.House is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking, surfing and cycling (they provide bikes on site). Or guests can indulge in one a complimentary seaweed bath (big enough for two) and settle in by the fire for the day in robe and slippers.

‘Very niche’

Eighty per cent of our guests have never been to Donegal before and we have also had a really positive response from the German market,” Burke reports. “We are very niche, but that’s okay because we are small and there are different elements in the house that appeal to different people. We have been accepted onto a website called, which features architecturally interesting places to go on holidays.”

Breac means “trout” in Irish, and their showstopper bathroom with sparkling shimmer and light is a nice nod to the bright, shiny trout.

Sustainability is also a natural part of Breac.House, which is highly insulated, has a rainwater harvesting system and all heating and water heated with a renewable air source pump. The fuel source is “Donegal air”, says Campbell.

One of the really special elements of this stay is the breakfast and the picnic. After waking to the heavenly views, a clever silent hatch opens with a breakfast tray. The delectable meal varies with the seasons but features treats such as The Haven’s locally smoked salmon from Carrigart, homemade granola, jams, compotes and pastries, mini chocolate loaves, local eggs and honey. The couple also make their own butter and yoghurt from Donegal Creameries’ organic milk.

Lunch is a small satchel with a delicious picnic, including homemade soup and bread, cheese, crackers and cake.

Although it has all the luxury touches of high-end, modern accommodation in its stunning surrounds, Breac.House is very much down to earth. The entire ethos is to make you feel at home and relaxed with a bit of “Donegal therapy”.

“There is an authentic experience to be had here,” enthuses Campbell. “You have the best of scenery, activities, the best of everything here and we want to provide guests with the best of accommodation in a relatively contemporary fashion.”

Wild Garlic Table Cookery School, Ramelton, Co. Donegal

This article was origianlly published in The Irish Times on August 05 2017.


Imagine learning to cook in an Edwardian bank building where the kitchen is the original banking hall and the old safe cleverly doubles as the cool spot to store potatoes. “Wild Garlic Table” is a new cookery school and catering company run by Ballymaloe-trained Pauline Sugrue in her family home in Ramelton, Co Donegal. Home happens to be an early 1900s bank, which she and her husband Michael renovated some years ago keeping as many of its original features intact as possible.

From the first weighty, solid knock of the original front door handle there is a unique feeling as you pass through the entrance hall with original tiling and stained glass into this five-bedroom listed house. Sitting proudly by the river Lennon which runs into Lough Swilly, it has been restored with remarkable love and attention to fine detail by the Sugrues that ensures you feel the reverence of the building.

“The house was built in the 1903 in Edwardian style. It was built as a Northern bank, as far as we know, by an architect called William Ferguson from Belfast. It had just closed to the public when we purchased it in 2009,” said Sugrue.

The couple are originally from Galway and bought the house after living in Sydney, Australia for two decades. “Michael and myself left Ireland in 1989 with three of our children. It was an adventurous journey and we thoroughly embraced it. During our 20 years, I worked as a radiographer for the Southern Sydney Region. We had a wonderful life and our fourth son was born there.

“We moved to Donegal in 2009 and both Michael and myself have a particular passion for old houses. The bank at Ramelton seemed to fulfil all we desired in an old building. It took us two years to renovate and we moved in 2011 with our family, twins Conor and Alan and Gavin and Ryan. The excitement was, and still is, amazing [living here]. We kept the integrity of the old building while still making it into a family home, which we love dearly,” said Sugrue.


Taking on a project like this did not faze the couple, who had previously lived in Victorian houses in Australia. Sugrue says that they were blessed with their architect and builder. “I suppose we knew what we wanted and we had a very sympathetic builder, Thomas McNamee and architect, Gregg Smeaton of Masterson Architects. We were keen not to interfere with the house too much – what’s the point in having a modernised old house?”

Sugrue ran one of the most popular cafes in Letterkenny, Café Blend, for seven years. She took it over after they returned from Australia. In spite of the recession,her food and kind welcome made the cafe one of the most popular in the town. “I ran the cafe with lots of love; it was hard work, plenty of mistakes and the most loyal of customers.”

She wanted a new challenge and the time was right to move on. “I always had a desire to do the three month residential course at Ballymaloe cookery school and in January this year that opportunity came about.” At Ballymaloe, she perfected her skills and learned new ones under the watchful eye of Darina Allen, Rory O’Connell and Rachel Allen. Ballymaloe inspired Sugrue to start her cookery school and catering business, which she operates from the kitchen of the house .

It’s a big airy room warmed by a vast double Aga cooker. “I love the kitchen, everything happens here. The long kitchen table came from the rafters of a hospital in Queensland, Australia.”

They kept as many of the original fittings as possible, recycling all the old floorboards, restored the original tiles, fireplaces and light switches. They also restored the old radiators, kept the original panes of glass in all 32 sash windows which were restored, kept the safes and the original bank counter.

Majestic ceilings

“With successive [bank] managers the building had been modernised and we were keen to restore the Edwardian features as much as possible. Old light switches were sourced from around the globe; the switches from the Spanish embassy in London are our favourite. Light fittings came from France, door handles from England and Canada. There are majestically high ceilings and enormous original sash windows with slightly blurred old glass that lets you know they are not from this time.

“It is a listed building so we can’t change anything. Apart from the back doors, which are double glazed, and also, to make the most of the view of the back garden we put in a back door. That went through planning permission.”

It is not often that the toilet in a house is a show stopper, but the ground floor toilet which was originally an old pantry belonging to the kitchen, is one you will not forget.

“The toilet is not an original toilet, there was just an ordinary white ceramic toilet. We got that from the Gasworks in Clonmel. Apparently De Valera sat on that toilet.

“The sink is original, sure why would you throw them out?” said Sugrue. This sentiment echoes throughout the building. The original bank counter crops up in the toilet as a shelf.

On the staircase the gorgeously dense carpet is held in place by brass rods which the Sugrues sourced from an antique shop in Dublin’s Francis Street and “magically matched the 42 steps of the stairs,” said Sugrue.

Maze of weeds

The garden, which once had a lawn tennis court, has also been looked after. “When we came here first, it was a maze of weeds and briars. It now has seven levels and terraces, a small vegetable area, lawns, two woodland gardens and a hen house. We replaced some of the cemented patios with original cobbled stone we sourced from an excavation near Guinness in Dublin. Lichen-peppered lovely sandstone flagstones we got from the Burren and north Liscannor, where they had spent over 100 years on the roofs of outhouses. And then local stone supports the garden,” said Sugrue.

The house is remarkably toasty. They spent a lot of time researching how to heat the house and the insulation is a quirky feature that clearly works. “All the floorboards were taken up so we could put lamb’s wool down to insulate it. This is in wire netting stapled to the under surface of the two inch floorboards. It keeps the house lovely and warm.”

She says their home is a place she wants people to enjoy, and she has certainly created that feeling in this magnificent house.

Wild Garlic Table is Pauline Sugrue’s new cookery school and catering business. You can also book “Wild Garlic Table on wheels” for demonstrations in your own home.




Red hot – perfecting the red lip

How to get the perfect red lip

I adore red lipstick. It never ceases to enhance my mood or transform my outfit, it’s a little bullet of instant glamour. Ever since that the sugary smear of red “M&Ms” or smushed raspberries as “lipstick” before you were allowed to wear it, then graduating to the trashy pound shop efforts that made you look more disturbing than Dietrich; red has always been the lipstick look I wanted to master. Throw in a few years of getting it spectacularly wrong; seeing yourself in a nightclub bathroom at 2am with a less than precise pout will compound efforts to try to learn a thing or two about investing in getting it right. It is sexy, defiant, bold and can transform how you feel when you apply that dramatic kiss of poppy colour. And it’s always in style.

Bernadette Mc Bride is an IFTA-nominated professional make-up artist and has worked on countless TV and film productions. She is also my Godmother and my go-to for any make-up advice or tips whenever I need them. She shares her expertise on how to get the perfect red lip and what shade is best for you.

Choosing the right red to suit your skin tone

Finding the perfect red lipstick to suit your skin complexion can be challenging; the red lipstick that made you look like Lauren Bacall when you were 22 can be severe and ageing at 52. Our skin tone changes as we get older and the secret to fabulous red lips is choosing the correct shade and texture to enhance your skin tone and not to go overboard with the rest of your make-up.

There are reds to suit both warm or cool skin tones. Have a look at the veins on the inside of your wrists; if your veins appear blue then you have a cool undertones in your complexion, if the veins appear greenish then you are more likely to have a warm undertones. When choosing a shade, be sure to step outside in the light. Bear in mind that a lipstick’s texture (cream, matte or gloss) might affect how the shade looks on your lips. You can always adjust it with a clear lip gloss or by applying it gradually.

For pale skin with cool/blue undertones

Look for a red lipstick with blueish-based red hues like crimson and cranberry colours.

Try: Tom Ford Cherry Lush, Mac Ruby Woo and Maybelline 510 and 540.

For olive skin with warm/yellowish undertones

Look for a lipstick that has a more orange-based red. Think Sienna Miller.

Try: MAC Lady Danger, Armani 401 Rouge, Nars’ Pop life and Chanel Rouge Allure 97.

For dark skin with cool/blue undertones

An intense red lipstick looks incredible with this skin tone so go for deep reds and reds with blue undertones. Think berry and brick hues.

Try: Rouge Armani 609.

For fair skin with red hair

Contrary to popular belief, redheads can look amazing in bold red lips.  Look for a lipstick with orange undertones and don’t forget to neutralise any redness in your skin. With fair skin and red lipstick, I prefer to keep eye make-up understated and natural.  Take extra care to even out the area around the lips and chin and use concealer, if necessary, to cover any red blemishes.

Try: NYX Butter Lipstick in Hot Tamale.

For darker skin with warm undertones

Choose a lipstick with an orange-based red.

Try: Tom Ford Wild Ginger


Avoid reds with too much of a brown base if you have anything other gleaming pearly whites as it can emphasise yellowness on your smile. Red shades with a blue undertone is much more flattering if this is a concern.

The graft

Before you even attempt a red lip you need super soft lips. Try exfoliating with a cotton bud and some moisturiser to get rid of any dead skin and this will help stop feathering or bleeding around the mouth, which is always a risk with red lip colour.


Applying a lip primer makes it easier to apply your red lipstick of choice, makes it last longer and prevents lipstick colour bleeding.

If you are using lipstick, try a lip brush and don’t be afraid to blend. If you think your lipstick is too dark don’t bin it, mix it with a lighter shade or a gloss for something you find flatters your skin tone.

Lip liner and pencils

Filling in your lips with liner helps stops any lipstick bleeding, particularly important if you have any fine lines around your mouth. It also keeps it in place. Avoid very deep colours if your lips are thin.

Use a lip liner the same shade as your lip colour or for a really vibrant and long-lasting look or just use the liner as your “lipstick.”

What about the rest of my make-up?

Less is more and the secret to carrying this look off lies with the rest of your face. A clear palette is always good for red lipstick and minimal eye make-up makes a bold red lip stand out. Go for groomed brows, soft or neutral eye-make shadow with a precise liner if using, and lashings of mascara.

Most importantly, embrace and enjoy this glamourous look.