Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Carmel Kennedy, an Appreciation

When I heard that Carmel Kennedy had died, the news brought back a flood of memories. All of them relating to Carmel and the Hideout. For many people Carmel was the Hideout. At the very least, an integral part of it in its heyday.

For me growing up as the eldest son of the Byrne house in my early teens, it seemed that she had been there forever. While a day student in Newbridge College, I'd cycle home after class and get a quick mid-afternoon lunch before pedalling the five miles back to early study -- a matter that reflected both my antipathy to playing sports and to the quality of the food in the college itself.

Carmel was most of the time the person who cooked that food. Looking back, I realised I was a very fortunate person indeed to be raised on Nolans steaks, but even more fortunate that there was somebody to cook them for me!

For many years beyond those days, Carmel was the person in charge of the kitchen in the Hideout. She was the one to whom regulars would make their case if they arrived in after the food service was ended. Mostly they were from the racing fraternity, because that was an era when the Hideout was Mecca for that group, a place to unwind after a long day at the horses, whether as owner, trainer or punter.

It helped their cause that Carmel had an interest in the horses herself, and even if the griddle and deep fryer had been turned off, she could be persuaded to switch them on again if she was in good form. Though that form might well be dependent on whether the pre-races advice from those same people had been productive ...

For years the cooking area in the Hideout was wide open in the front bar, and there were many who liked to sit at the counter and chat with Carmel, some even preferring to eat there instead of the restaurant on the other side of the wall. The food itself was an attraction, but equally so was Carmel's banter and chat about ... well, mostly horses.

The front bar wasn't always the easiest place for a woman to be. Language could be robust, and tempers might not always be held in check. But my recollections of Carmel, quite apart from the obvious soft spot she'd had for me since I was a youngster, include her ability to absorb uncouthness with unfailing good humour, and to calm the obstreperous with a skill equalled only later by Ireland's UN peacekeepers.

She wasn't just a passive member of staff -- Carmel got involved in everything that was going on at the edges. Such as playing darts with the lads in the front bar when things quietened down, and even being a member of the bar team when it travelled to other pubs around the county like Nolans of Kilteel. She threw a mean dart, and when she was on form the only one to equal her was horse trainer Con Collins.

Con was one of her favourites in the racing game. More, he was one of her best buddies. There were others, like the late Tom McCallion, who was a perpetual punter and the only one for whom we kept Johnnie Walker Black Label. Neither of those gentlemen ever had to plead for a late meal.

In matters of who might be accommodated with late food, my father was the owner of the Hideout but never the boss. He could suggest, but Carmel decided. On nights that she wasn't on duty he had a better chance to go beyond the boundaries, usually by getting myself to do the cooking.

Carmel didn't marry, but she had her admirers and she had her admired. The confluence of both didn't happen, but that's life. In her own life in the Hideout she touched very many people, in formative ways to some, and she was never less than a lovely person.

When I left the family business I had known Carmel for two decades. It is probably true to say that she knew me better than I knew myself, and her wisdom as somebody a decade older was on a number of occasions something that put me back on track when I might have been in danger of slipping off. As far as I know she had never worked anywhere else than the Hideout, but I was no longer involved when she finally retired.

I went in my own directions when I left. And it is only my own fault that I didn't keep in touch. That she had been ill and I didn't know it is a reflection of the gap that I allowed to happen.

It is a strange thing that on the day before I heard Carmel had died, she came into my mind for no reason, and made me wonder how she was?

How she was, over the years that I did know her, was a warm and caring woman of great humour and humanity.

May she rest in peace.

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