Accomplished chef and front-of-house man at acclaimed Dunderry Lodge
NICK HEALY: IT WAS the type of story Gay Byrne loved, a “good news story” as he told a Late Late Show audience in 1986.
His guests were Nicholas (Nick) Healy, who died last week, and his wife Catherine, a couple who 10 years earlier had been “down on their uppers”, when he was made redundant and she was running a playgroup.
Byrne explained that by using every penny they had, and begging and borrowing a few more, they had bought an old farmhouse near Navan, Co Meath, and had transformed it into Dunderry Lodge, one of the country’s finest restaurants.
The shed had become a lounge, the barn had been converted into a dining room, and the customers had flocked from every corner of the country.
The pair were on the show after winning a Michelin star, one of just two Irish establishments to do so in 1986.
At the end of the interview Healy had remarked that if one of them became ill, “especially Catherine”, the business could not remain open.
Four years and three Michelin stars later, Catherine was diagnosed with a terminal illness and Dunderry Lodge was sold.
Nick Healy’s friends and family believe he never recovered from the loss of his soul mate and, despite a passion for French food and wine, after Catherine’s death in 1993 he lost his enthusiasm for the business.
The couple had been ahead of their time when they started in the 1970s.
When prawn cocktail and a mixed grill was all many restaurant clients expected, they grew their own herbs and vegetables and imported delicacies like good coffee and olive oil, always heavily influenced by Healy’s training abroad in establishments like Auberge du Pere Bise in the French Alps which in its heyday boasted three Michelin stars.
A native of Clonskeagh in Dublin, Healy was the second of five children born to William Skeffington Healy, a solicitor and native of Drogheda, and Hope (née Ferguson) whose father had been the Irish representative to the League of Nations.
As a young woman Hope had spent long periods in France and had passed on her love of French cooking to her eldest son.
Over several summers, William and Hope packed the five children into a Commer van and set off for long camping holidays around France, which was also to be a favourite holiday destination for Nick and Catherine.
Following his education at St Gerard’s in Bray and at Glenstal Abbey, Healy, described by his brother, Andrew, as “something of a free spirit”, opted not to go to university as his siblings did, and instead travelled widely, learning the hotel trade along the way.
After being laid off by a wine company in Dublin in the 1970s, he took on a number of jobs including petrol pump attendant before he and Catherine (née Strong) a native of Kells, Co Meath, opened Dunderry Lodge.
She was the chef and heartbeat of the restaurant while Healy, an accomplished chef himself, was the front-of-house man.
They were part of a set of restaurateurs who occasionally met up such as Aidan and Joan McManus from the King Sitric in Howth, John and Catherine Howard from Le Coq Hardi, Mary and Ray Bowe from Marlfield House, Co Wexford, Henry and Catherine O’Neill, Alexis Fitzgerald and Patrick and Sally Guilbaud.
“Lunch could go on for 10 hours and all the discussion would be about food and wine,” Aidan McManus recalled.
Healy’s other passion was for the sea. “When Catherine died, possibly the only place he found happiness was at sea,” said Mr McManus.
An adventurous spirit, Healy travelled to the Arctic with solicitor John Gore Grimes. He did professional yacht deliveries, completed a number of Fastnets and during his long battle with cancer, he found great solace among friends at Howth Yacht Club where he had worked for seven years until his retirement in 2009.
History was made there yesterday when Nick Healy’s secular funeral ceremony took place at the club.
Among those paying tribute were Fr Philip Tierney OSB who had taught Healy at Glenstal Abbey. His ashes will rest with his wife’s under a beech tree on the farm in Kells where she was raised.
He is survived by his sisters Sara Willmott (Bristol) and Jane Cunningham (Kilkenny) and by his brothers Simon (Belfast) and Andrew (Dublin).
Nicholas (Nick) Healy: born May 2nd, 1944; died June 1st, 2012