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TV chef Rory O’Connell opens up for the first time about finally finding love in his 50s

He didn’t have his first kiss until his late 20s, but now Ballymaloe’s Rory O’Connell has found ‘someone special’

Rory O’Connell in his home in East Cork. Picture by Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Niamh Horan

Celebrity chef Rory O’Connell has opened up for the first time about finally finding love in his 50s . The 57-year-old youngest brother of Darina Allen, with whom he co-founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School, said he had resigned himself to a life without “someone special” when fate took a turn.

“I was sitting in Heathrow airport on my way back from a weekend in London and I was bored waiting for the flight to board. So I went on Tinder and I met this very nice man and it went from there,” he said.

After first meeting in London, the couple have now been dating for three years. “I am quite private because love is really a very private thing in many ways and I haven’t really spoken about it before,” he told the Sunday Independent this weekend.

The presenter, who has enjoyed success with his RTÉ TV series How to Cook Well with Rory O’Connell on RTÉ television, says he had “gotten to the stage where I thought I am never going to meet anybody”.

The second youngest of nine children, he had reached his late 20s before experiencing his first kiss. Recalling that “frantic snog” he says he remembers thinking, “‘Finally! I have kissed someone!’”

That encounter came a decade after he realised he was gay. All these years later, he finds it hard to articulate why it took him so long to act on his feelings. “I don’t really know what to say. I am kind of tongue-tied now. I don’t think it was fear, but then there must have been a bit of fear because otherwise… but also there were so few people who said they were gay at the time. I can’t remember having anyone to talk to about it.”

At the same time, he says, “I was happy. I was busy, having fun, and work was fulfilling, so it wasn’t eating away at me. I felt under no pressure. That may have been the main reason.”

Born and raised in Cullohill, Co Laois, he was just three years old when his father, Richard, died from cancer. His mother, Elizabeth, gave birth to his younger sister a month after the funeral. Rory says his father and mother adored one another and Richard’s death was “a ferocious blow” to her, but it was not something that was spoken about for many years.

“There was no conversation whatsoever about it in the house. Occasionally there would have been a reference, but virtually none at all. Funnily enough, I haven’t really spoken to my siblings about this ever but in a way I think it was my mother’s way of coping — not talking about it.”

The way Rory tells it, his father — who had lost his own mother as a child — “couldn’t believe his luck” at the domestic bliss his mother created. “Every evening he would come home to a beautiful dinner on the table and they used to sit down for their meal after we had all gone to bed. My mother would always run a comb through her hair, put on a small bit of lipstick and take off her apron [before sitting down], so he couldn’t believe the joy of a beautiful home and beautiful food and all that.”

It was years before Rory understood the full extent of his mother’s loss through speaking to his eldest sister. “I’ve heard Darina [who was 14 at the time] describe how Mummy was bereft and in shock. She went from having brown hair to white hair in the space of a year.”

His mother died almost 14 years ago. Even though he never suffered from “ridiculous Catholic guilt” about his sexuality, he was in his late 30s by the time he told her he was gay – whereupon she said she’d known for at least a decade.

“She said, ‘Well, I know you are – but were you scared to talk to me about it?’ I said, ‘No, it’s just taken me a bit of time.’”

His partner, Ruaidhrí, is a financier. He says their relationship has benefited from the Covid-enforced strictures around working from home. “Generally speaking his business is based in Dublin but, as we speak, he is here [in Cork] working – which is really wonderful.”

Their relationship has taught him how “wonderful and important” love is. “I knew it all along but it’s just glorious, isn’t it? You just find yourself staring in an adoring way and then you realise, ‘Oh God, I’m staring’.

“It’s the joy of someone you adore and the ease and familiarity you get being able to talk to them about your day, the good and the bad. It’s the utter joy of companionship and all of the clichés.”

He is very hopeful that a big day lies ahead, once the pandemic is over. “I am certainly hoping that yes, definitely, we will get married.” He doesn’t want a big fuss, just “an uncomplicated simple, joyful day”.

Before this new happiness came into his life, there was loneliness – “sometimes heart-wrenching loneliness. And the older I got ,the more stoic I became. But, I always felt I had been so fortunate in my life in so many ways that I didn’t really have a right to complain.”

His late mother, he likes to think, may have had a hand in sending love his way: “I was certainly banging on to her enough about it with my little prayers.”

‘How to Cook Well with Rory O’Connell’ airs Dec 21st, 8.30pm on RTÉ One

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