Refinding your happy place: Limerick Councillor finds solace and nourishment in the breaking of bread

Limerick Post reporter Alan Jacques spent a day with Fine Gael councillor Sarah Kiely talking about life, lost love, politics, and football. Photos: Alan Jacques.

SPANISH writer Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that “all sorrows are less with bread”. And, you know, he may have been onto something.

Fine Gael councillor Sarah Kiely told the Limerick Post about how the practice of baking helped her through some dark times.

I visited her at her beautiful Janesboro home to talk loss, life, politics, and football as she cooked up a batch of hearty scones.

Sarah, a former chef, lost her husband Damien O’Shaughnessy to a rare form of liver cancer in October 2018, only nine months after his diagnosis, leaving her and their two children, Emily and Tiernan, devastated.

Six months after the passing of her beloved partner of 21 years, she was elected as a Fine Gael councillor for Limerick City East. Since then she has used her platform to eloquently speak out about her own loss to help those struggling with bereavement.

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“He is still part of our lives and our home”

Damien, like Sarah, was also community driven. A popular and well-known chef who worked in Flanagan’s on the Lake in Killaloe, he was heavily involved in the Team Limerick Clean-Up initiative.

The pair were inseparable, and while Sarah has local politics and her children to occupy her time since Damien’s untimely death, the last four years have not always been easy.

Damien is very much a constant presence and part of the everyday lives of Sarah and their two children. Photos filled with smiling faces, wonderful memories, and a life together, brimming over with love decorate their Janesboro home.

“Every day he is there”: Sarah Kiely with her late husband Damien.

“Looking back, it’s so hard when you are in a routine and you are used to seeing someone every day, everything about that changes – the way you eat, the way you sleep, the way you watch TV, the way you go back to your daily life changes,” Sarah shares with me.

“It doesn’t matter whether that person was your mother, your father, or your brother, your sister, everything changes because that person isn’t there. The trick is to find a new way, to navigate every day, one day at a time.”

“We will be five years in October without Damien, and every day he is there. Damien’s urn is on the mantlepiece. That’s where he wanted to be. His photos are everywhere. He is still part of our lives and our home.

The joy was gone out of cooking

Sarah’s advice for anyone who has lost someone is to try to find a new routine.“It is the most difficult, but it is the best way to get through it,” she says. “You will get through it, no matter how dark it is.”

“If it’s in the morning getting up and you don’t feel like doing anything, ask yourself, ‘Can I have a shower?’, ‘Can I have a cup of tea?’, that’s fine then, you’ve done that.”

Sarah and Damien not only studied to become chefs together, they also worked in the same busy restaurant kitchens during their careers. In their home the kitchen was their ‘happy place’. Though for a long time after his passing, the kitchen was not a place Sarah could even face, she reveals.

“This is where we spent a lot of time when Damien was sick because when someone has an illness, food is very important, and you are trying to put calories in if you are trying to put on weight. It became like a military operation at times to try and get enough calories in for Damien.

“It was still fun, because when I look back now that time was very valuable that we were kind of going ‘right now, here’s the plan’ and how many calories do you need to get in today.

“That’s probably why after Damien died that I didn’t want to be cooking anymore. The joy was gone out of it.

“I didn’t like cooking for a long time after Damien died. It was hard for me to do as it reminded me of him. We used to do wedding cakes, everything was done together. So for a long time I didn’t like cooking anymore, I was just really not bothered,” Sarah admits.

Then, to help ward off cabin fever during the Covid-19 lockdowns, Cllr Kiely came up with an appetising way for families to spend some sweet quality time together.

A winning recipe

She hit on a winning recipe when she went live on Facebook every day to bring her cookery skills into her followers’ homes. The new venture also helped her rediscover a love of baking and was a lifeline in her own time of grief.

“I love baking and I find it very therapeutic. So during lockdown that was the start of it. That kind of reignited my love of baking again. I just thought everyone wanted to do something and obviously we only thought we would be in lockdown for two weeks and then two months later I was still doing live cook-a-longs.

“I love baking … I find it very therapeutic”: Cllr Kiely cooking up a storm in her Janesboro home.

“I kind of said, ‘right, try this’ and it was great cráic. It was lovely to be able to connect with people. During the first lockdown it became very apparent that everyone was in the same situation and they were longing for company and a new routine. So for me, it was very helpful to have that new routine and this was it.

“I was up every morning, up to the supermarket, buying whatever I needed to buy to make whatever it was. If it was lemon drizzle, I’d come down and bake the lemon drizzle cake and then I would have it out of the oven, over there cooling, and then at 5pm every day I would do the Facebook live and show everyone how to weigh out the ingredients, make it, and then pop it in the oven and go ‘here’s one I made earlier’.”

Energy can’t be made or destroyed

While we talk, Sarah moves around her kitchen like a tornado.

I kind of had the novel idea that I might help her do some baking, but once she gets started, everything is done like clockwork. Not a beat is missed as she mixes and kneads her dough and goes about her business like she could do it blindfolded.

My questions don’t put her off her game and it’s obvious she’s in her happy place once more, with Damien smiling down from his photograph on the fridge and the room filled with the sounds of whisking and whirring and the clattering of utensils.

I ask Sarah if she believes in the afterlife or if she ever feels Damien’s presence as she pre-heats the oven. It doesn’t knock a stir out of her. She’s in the zone.

“I don’t believe in an airy fairy way, but at the same time I think we are made of energy. That was one of the most helpful things someone said to me. We were sitting here one day, Damien was after getting really bad news that the treatment wasn’t working, and we were with a friend of ours and he said, ‘energy can’t be made or destroyed, that’s physics’.

“No one can dispute that. You have to go somewhere. Just because we can’t comprehend what or where, doesn’t mean it’s not there. I genuinely believe we are not evolved enough yet to understand it, but I do believe that people will go somewhere. Their energy is still around us. Some people are able to tap into that as well and some people aren’t.

“I do usually feel Damien’s energy when things are going wrong and I go, ‘I need a bit of help here now’. Sometimes you find yourself in a difficult situation and you find yourself asking ‘what should I do, here?’

“I think that’s what I miss a lot as well, having someone to bounce something off, because it is hard to confide in people who don’t understand your life. So that’s a huge loss as well, especially when you’re rearing children.

“Oftentimes what’s missing is that you just don’t know if you are doing a good job, and you probably won’t actually know until your children are old enough to say.

“Damien had a good hand in trying to tell them how valuable time is, how valuable life is, because, while money is important, it is not the most important.

“If you can manage and go on holiday or treat yourself every now and again, that’s it. You have to be able to have good headspace and look after yourself. Choosing a job or a career that you are happy in because you spend most of your life doing that. If you are not going to be happy in your job then you are not going to be happy in your life.”

Soccer teams are like political parties

Watching Sarah work the kitchen, it’s clear she is a grafter.

She goes about her business much like how she approaches the council chamber — she’s a no-nonsense woman who is absolutely fearless.

“I think being fearless is probably dangerous, but, to be honest, I don’t have any fear,” she confesses.

“Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, some of my colleagues think it is a really bad thing — I can be unpredictable. I think in a kitchen you have to be able to be resilient.

“No matter what is thrown at you, you have to try. It won’t always turn out. Sometimes it is exhausting to put one leg in front of the other but at the end of the day you will feel a level of accomplishment. Being a councillor can be exhausting, but it is very rewarding.”

Cllr Kiely has an interesting take when it comes to party politics.

“I kind of equate politics and parties to soccer because that’s another love of mine. I love watching soccer. I love playing soccer, although I am getting old. But just because you think Man United are great doesn’t mean they actually are. Just because you think Arsenal are rubbish, doesn’t mean they are.

“Soccer teams are like political parties — they offer different things to different people. You look at the members of the team and you look at the members of the party. But if you identify with them and you see something in them that you gravitate towards or you identify with, maybe that’s a good fit for you.”

Who do you follow? I ask.

“I keep going and going and going”

“I was at Old Trafford a few times and my father is a Leeds fan actually. Damien used to support Newcastle United. I was a Man United fan but I am a Match of the Day fan now. I play for Newtown Rovers and I am also involved with another few clubs.”

Sarah is a pair of safe hands between the posts herself, but as she will admit, she can be a small bit vocal – sometimes to her own detriment.

“I see things that are broken and sometimes I keep going and going and going. There’s a learning curve in it, but I don’t really know when to leave things alone. I have to know what my limits are. At the same time, if there is something wrong and we think we can affect change, we should.

“Around this area, the big thing is the park just down the road. There’s another new park over between Kennedy Park and Glasgow Park. We saw during lockdown how important people’s mental health became, and people started to use the amenities around them. We saw an opportunity in this community that there was a big space down there that was used for dumping. Now it’s an oasis in the middle of a housing estate. And we have two of them.

Maintaining a strong headspace is something that appears to be paramount for Sarah, who takes an active role in her own mental health journey.

Sarah Kiely with her homemade almond and cherry scones.

“Your headspace is very important and that’s something I had to struggle with. I went to counselling. I did an awful lot of work in that area and that’s a big message of mine. If you can control your breathing, you can control anything. But the only way you will control your breathing is by going to a professional and dealing with your issues.

“A lot of times making bread is the most therapeutic thing you could do. It’s the dough. You are kneading it, and, if there’s yeast in the bread, it’s alive, you are watching it. It starts to prove and get bigger, and then you pop it in the oven and have nourishment.”

With that, there’s a glorious aroma filling the kitchen and Sarah’s cherry and almond scones are done. As I take my leave, armed with some of here delicious home-cooked eats, I’m struck by a thought.

There’s equally great nourishment to be had in both good company and good conversation.

Bon appétit.