My Funny Valentine

18 Feb 2011

I know this is a little late for Valentine’s Day, but I have a perfectly good excuse. I planned on making these sweet heart-shaped deep chocolate Guinness cakes for my special ♥ post, but as luck would have it, I came down with a terrible, knockdown cold this week and was quarantined to the bedroom until today. This illness came shortly after I finally recovered from the worst jet lag I had ever experienced coming back from America on the 6th.  Note to self: don’t forget sleep tabs for flight next time!

The good news is even though I was under the weather, I still managed to have a pretty good week. We’ve welcomed at least 15 new calves since the weekend, which always makes my heart smile and when I checked emails on Valentine’s morning, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this blog has been nominated in four categories for the Irish Blog Award this year! The categories are Food, Photo, Personal and Specialist. Am deeply flattered by this although I have to admit that I am not quite clear on what exactly I “specialize” in just yet! Check out all of the great Irish blog nominees here.

Despite the fact that I was bed-bound, I was able to have a little fun as evidenced by the #foodiefridgeflash that I jumpstarted in the Twitterverse on Wednesday. I like to call it an international flash mob of fridge innards. It was loads of fun watching the twitpics stream in all day on my laptop from the comfort of my bed. Have a peek at some of the photos here.

I also received my long awaited new P. Allen Smith, “Seasonal Recipes From The Garden” cookbook. If you have not heard of this gardener extraordinaire who has been deemed the “Martha Stewart of the South” by the New York Times, I highly recommend adding this book or any of his previous gardening books to your library. I turned on the kettle, lit my  favorite candle, slathered on some happy hand cream (I truly believe that aromatherapy heals) and proceeded to turn page after gorgeous page of inspiring seasonal recipes. I put the beautiful book down with fresh anticipation for the spirit of spring and getting into our garden again. I mean, poached egg & spring spinach salad? Delicious!

To top the week off, I was invited by Donal Doherty and the Irish Food Bloggers Association to share some of my butter-making love for their “foodies on tour” event next month at Harry’s Restaurant in Donegal. I will be presenting in the esteemed company of Ed Hick and TJ Crowe who will also be sharing their skills on the day. Donal says he has even more surprises planned….Burren Salmon? Artisan Chutney? You never know, as he’s always got something exciting up his sleeve! I am really excited to meet Donal, whom has really made a name for himself here in Ireland for his unwavering support and use of local (sometimes unsual) ingredients at Harry’s. If you are foodie, we welcome you to attend. You can find all the details on the IFBA website here.

So, the moral of this story is that sometimes being sick and in bed isn’t the worst. Except for physically feeling quite awful, I had a fantastic week. And, it’s all really because of this blog and those who follow along, so big thanks to you!

Happy {belated} Valentine’s Day.

Here’s that little Irish chocolate cake recipe I wanted to share with you…


Slan Abhaile,


Photo by Imen McDonnell. Photographs in P.Allen Smith’s book by Ben Fink.

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Without even knowing, I first met Helen some years ago when we both happened to be living in NYC.  At the time, I worked for a television series that was filmed at NBC Studios in 30 Rockefeller Center.  After a long day of shooting, some of the crew + many other tv/film/casting people would head downtown to The Scratcher, the tiniest, yet most charming Irish pub in Manhattan. Helen would often be there with her rocker beau, (now husband) Mark Geary. The place was always abuzz; flowing equally with creative conversation and the Black Stuff.

Fast forward, Helen leaves behind the big fashion houses of New York and returns home to Ireland to design her own line of stunning clothing & accessories {her headpieces are absolutely priceless} and to start a family.  Later, I inadvertently reconnect with her via the extraordinary Eilis Boyle, whom I had met through the blogosphere. Turns out they are the best of friends. {For the record, I find this fantastically uncanny and delightful at once}

Very quickly I discovered that Helen is one of the most talented designers in Ireland. Not only is she a talented designer, but she has been a shepherd and mentor to young creatives and an avid supporter of local artistic enterprises as well as the Slow Food Movement. She has made remarkable contributions to the Irish creative community at large and her work has been nationally recognized by top Irish newpapers and magazines on a regular basis.

Helen recently made the decision to move back to New York and is currently designing for Donna Karan Home, utilizing yet another dimension of her imaginative and romantic eye. As is clear through the breadth of her work as well as the trappings of her blog­­­­­­, Helen has vision that reaches great lengths. In an interview for the Irish Sunday Business Post, she exclaimed,  “As long as my eyes are open, I’m working”. Clearly this statement applies to wherever she may find herself, from Ireland to just about anywhere in the world.

I asked Helen if she would share a little about herself and life back in the Big Apple to which she very politely and generously obliged.

So, with great pleasure, I give you, Helen James.

Hi Helen, can you please tell us where you are from originally….as in where/how did you spend your childhood days? And where do you reside now? Many Irish people who emigrate imagine themselves back in Ireland in later years, will you come back “home” to live here again?

I am from Dublin. I grew up on the grounds of the Chester Beatty Library when it was located at Shrewsbury Road. My Father was the Islamic Curator there. I remember, from a very young age, walking around the collection studying the Chinese wedding Robes and little carved snuff bottles. I am sure my love of textiles is born from this experience. My mother had (and still has ) impeccable taste. She was a flea market junkie long before it was fashionable. I can remember hiding in the car while she went through a skip, feeling absolutely mortified, but the scavenger gene rubbed off and now my kids are cowering while their mother rummages through other people’s detrius!  I lived in NY before for 10 yrs and returned to Ireland full of sentimental dreams…… now I am back in NY. Who knows where I will retire, I can’t really see myself growing old in NYC, but it depends on my family, wherever my 3 boys are I guess that’s where I’ll be too.

What do you see as the main differences between the Irish and American fashion industry?

I feel I do not have the authority to broadly compare the industry in Ireland and NY as my experiences were so different in the two places. In NY I worked for big fashion houses, I was mainly a freelancer, I devised textile works for them and then developed them into products, I also worked in the inspiration part of the business. I was involved purely in the creative area. When I returned to Ireland I had my own line……. anyone who owns their own business knows that this is a whole different scenario, so I cannot really compare my experience in one place with the other. I will say Ireland is an extremely difficult place to have your own fashion business! The market is small, and even though I sold internationally to places like Harvey Nichols you are relying on your local customer to keep the business ticking over. As far as I can see, there seems to be so much more support for designers in NY , through the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and other organisations.

You worked for Donna Karan before and now again. How is your experience different this time around? You certainly have an eye for interiors and garden, do you prefer homeware design to clothing?

This time I am more involved in the whole picture, the whole process from a spark of an idea scribbled on a napkin through to a finished bed with all the acoutrements, I am involved in every stitch, button and bead. I am loving working in home, as you know I have always been drawn to interiors and I am finally getting to express that. I have a lot to learn about the business but I work with a great team and they are helping me figure it all out.

Which Irish designers do you admire?

So many…

Tim Ryan knitwear.- such innovation, . I have known Tim for a long time and seen his work evolve. I believe he is only at the beginning of his journey.

Lucy Downes of Sphere One- Beautiful cashmere pieces that are classic but with a real edge. Lucy is a head down and get on with it girl and has a serious international business, but does not covet press and publicity. Her pieces are real investments

Peter O’Brien, Ireland should be so proud of this man and what he has achieved. I truly admire the work he has done with A-wear and now with Arnott-. It is easy (easier) to make an elegant collection with an unlimited budget but far more challenging when funds are finite

Eilis Boyle, simplicity, elegance and focus. I not only admire her work which is breathtaking but also very wearable, but she is one of my dearest friends and a constant inspiration

Who or what inspires you?

The truth is I am constantly inspired. Most creative people I know draw inspiration from everything around them. That is why we carry notebooks. Being in a city like NY is hugely inspiring, there is creativity all around you, the way people dress, shops, theatre. I realise that being around creative people is what truly inspires me.

Do you wear your own designs? How would you describe your personal style?

I do. My personal style?  I am very drawn to menswear for women, in my own style, I have always been a bit of a tomboy at heart, so, I will wear a little quilted silk bedjacket from my collection but with boy-cut suit pants and brogues.

Your clothing and accessory designs have been worn by many celebrities and models, do you design with a certain muse in mind?

No, I design mainly by draping and evolving the collection, so, last seasons top will evolve to next seasons dress, then there may be a new wrap the following season which has evolved from that. So each season begins where the last one left off. I constantly battled with the whole concept of “seasons” in Fashion.  For me creativity is a constant flow, it doesn’t stop and get thrown out and the slate wiped clean every 6 months.

What type of profession would you pursue if you weren’t a designer?

I am visual so if I wasn’t a designer I think I may have pursued photography or styling. Doing the shoots was always such a highlight for me I could have done one a week, had budget permitted

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?

If I could, I would divide my time between New York, Paris and Dublin, with a home in each!

What things do you miss about Ireland?

Family and Friends, Friends, Friends

What career advice would you give to young students currently studying fashion?

Work for someone else for at least 5 years before even considering setting up your own line. Believe in yourself, be prepared to work really really hard. Get involved because you love the work not the applause. If you are interested in making money become an investment banker.

Coffee or Tea?

coffee in the morning,
tea in the afternoon

You can keep up with Helen James here.

Slan Abhaile,


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Oysters & Guinness

24 Aug 2010

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter. “You’ve had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?” But answer came there none- And that was scarcely odd, because They’d eaten every one.’  –Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter.

The first time I had an oyster I wanted to try out the “aphrodisiac” quality. Not sure it worked on me, though I must say I did find the flavour and sense of gastronomic adventure very desirable. The native Irish oyster “Ostrea Edulis” can be found throughout the coastal regions of Ireland and would be considered traditional seafood fare dating back to the 13th Century. The best way to enjoy the full flavour of oysters is to eat them raw, served on the half shell to hold their succulent juices. Fresh lemon juice or a drop of Tabasco sauce are often used as condiments and a cold pint of Guinness served on the side makes for a wonderful Summer supper.

Oyster culture is probably one of the most environmentally friendly types of farming as it doesn’t require any entrants to be added from the exterior (neither feed nor medication). It has also an extremely low and often negative carbon footprint. Oysters feed themselves on elements which are naturally found in the seas where they grow. The oyster farmer’s task is to simply accompany the natural growth of oysters by managing stocking densities and thereby naturally influencing shell shape and growth rates.  Irish oysters are coveted and are exported to a huge demand in France as well as the UK, Belgium, Germany and more distant markets such as the Ukraine, China and Japan.

The Galway International Oyster Festival takes place each September and has evolved from very modest beginnings. In September 1954, 34 guests attended the very first “Oyster Festival Banquet”. Now, thousands of people from around the world gather together to eat oysters and drink Guinness each year. The festival takes place this year the 22-26th of September and promises to be filled with loads of fun and frolic.

Perhaps we shall see you there?

Slan Abhaile,


Photo by Imen McDonnell. Assisted by Master Geoffrey McDonnell.

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Here we go….Mr. McDonnell: UNCOVERED. Well, not really uncovered…I wouldn’t go that far-at least not for the purposes of this blog anyway. Between cows calving and garden ploughing, I was able to corner R to sit down and answer a few questions that had been submitted by readers and a couple thrown in from me. {can you tell whose are whose?}

How on earth did you meet Mrs. McDonnell?

I met Imen when visiting my friend Aiden who is living in the States.  We got together a couple times for dinner and I was very intrigued. Let’s just say that there was a universal pull towards Imen and a very big WOW factor to say the least. She told me that her Dad was going to be her Valentine that year and so when I was leaving to go back to Ireland on the 12th of February, I arranged to have a large basket of flowers sent to her office for Valentine’s Day. The card with the flowers said, “Well, you’re my Valentine.”   I think that won her over a little bit.

What have been the challenges of marrying someone from another country/culture?

It has been a bit difficult for the Imen to settle in at times here and I can totally understand because her life is completely different from before and also because she lost her father in 2008 which was very hard on her. We are constantly working to strike the balance in bringing elements of both of our cultures into how we live our day-to-day lives here.  Her distinctiveness is also what I love about her. But honestly, the hardest thing would have to be accepting that fact that the word “awesome” is now frequently heard on the farm.

Tell us about the farm, what do you love about farming?

The farm is a family farm in which myself, brother and parents run the business. We specialize in dairy, free-range poultry and renewable energies. I have a great love for animals and the land. I‘m my own boss, which is brilliant. For me, there is a tremendous sense of pride that goes with farming and producing quality foods for the Irish marketplace.

What do you do for fun when you’re not working on the farm?

I work really long hours on the farm so when I have some time off I try to make the most of it. We have taken some brilliant holidays and there are many more to come… We all love the cinema so we try to go for a Sunday matinee and lunch on weekends. I play soccer on Tuesday evenings with a group of friends in the area and enjoy going sailing with my father when the weather conditions are good.  I am a big fan of gardening and we’ve just begun planting an organic kitchen garden which will be a family endeavour.

What is the best thing(s) about Ireland?

Guinness. Hurling. The relaxed pace of life. Irish pride. To put it simply, Ireland is my home.

What do you think of this blog?

I was pleasantly surprised when I first read the blog…. My wife has amazing talent for writing, a talent I’d love to have! It’s a funny yet fact-based blog that will inform you and keep a smile on your face. I am proud of her and really love it.

How is Ireland different from America?

The big thing that comes to mind is attitude. Bono once proclaimed that the main difference between Ireland and America is this: There is a huge, beautiful mansion on a hilltop. The American says “Someday I’m going to be that guy in that house.” The Irishman says, “Someday I’m gonna get that guy in that house”  Also, the weather is far nicer where Imen is from and the people seem to be more positive and are so open and friendly–especially when they realize you are Irish!

What is the biggest challenge facing farmers today?

Surviving poor costs for our products. For example, milk prices are the same now as they were in the 80’s, yet costs to produce have soared. Also, the more extreme weather conditions of late makes farming a constant challenge to be reckoned with.

What would you be doing if you weren’t farming?

That’s a hard question. I have a wide range of interests. I studied philosophy and history at University and am very interested in theories and universal laws. I’d love to write a screenplay. I’d like to learn more about economics and global business and get my MBA. When I was a boy, I wanted to become a zookeeper!

If Imen could persuade you to move to the USA what would you be doing?

Well, first she would have to promise to get VISA’s for all of my girls (cows) to go along.  But seriously, if that were ever the case (very doubtful), maybe I could farm or teach Irish history or open a real traditional Irish pub which would be Irish through and through from the turf in the fire to the Guinness in the glass…with poetry and politics and a regular named Paudy always sitting at the bar.

If you have any questions about R or the farm we would love to hear from you….

I am off for a long weekend in NYC….and next week is St. Patrick’s Day so fun times ahead. Have a great week!

Slan Abhaile,


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