Mike Hanrahan's 'beautiful affair' with creativity and cooking

Music, cooking and friendship collide in a new book from Stockton's Wing legend turned foodie Mike Hanrahan. Jenny Lee chats to the Ennis man about the highs and lows of his life

Songwriter, musician and cook Mike Hanrahan

FROM the early days of his music with Stockton’s Wing to training at Ballymaloe Cookery School, food and music have been the parallel lines that have kept Mike Hanrahan on track his entire life.

Through the creative highs, Hanrahan has also dealt with some personal struggles – including the heartache of failed IVF treatment with his wife Donna and the shame he felt over being abused by a Franciscan brother as a teenager.

Hanrahan has written about the experience in his moving and insightful book, Beautiful Affair: A Journey in Music, Food & Friendship. Much more than just a memoir of his colourful life as a musician, songwriter, cook and teacher, the clothbound hardback takes readers backstage and into the kitchens of a bohemian, international and surprisingly foodie group of Irish household names including Ronnie Drew, Finbar Furey, Maura O’Connell, Leslie Dowdall, Pat Shortt, Eleanor Shanley and Sharon Shannon.

In the book, he shares an eclectic mix of favourite recipes – from family favourites cooked on country hearths to vegetarian folk-club grub and tour-bus pressure-cooker stews.

"This is much more than my story," says Hanrahan, who is best known for penned hit singles Walk Away and Beautiful Affair (which the book is titled for) with Irish folk/rock band Stockton's Wing.

"In Beautiful Affair, I introduce you to my friends – who share memories, recipes and quite a few amusing anecdotes that add so much sparkle to my life."

Of his band's most popular track itself, he says: "When I wrote the song, it was about the imagery of Doolin, Co Clare. It's a song that connects with people and keeps on giving. I was taken aback recently when Amanda Grace, Brendan's daughter, put up a post on Facebook of how the song is helping her deal with her dad's death."

Hanrahan describes the publication of the new book as "the proudest moment of my creative career", admitting it began as a personal and cathartic journey before growing in scope to show the general connection between music and food on this island.

"I wanted to write to make sense of why, mid-life, I decided to take this crazy turn in my career, going down the food route when everyone around me was telling me I was a lunatic.

"I quickly realised that all the people I've lived with and worked with have all been connected with food. That's when you get to know people – around the dinner table."

One of the people he shared breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper with on the road was Dubliners musician Ronnie Drew: Hanrahan spent 10 years working with the late legend as a guitarist, writer and producer.

"Ronnie taught me the true art of entertainment," says Hanrahan, who is currently working alongside Eleanor Shanley, in writing a theatre show in tribute to Drew, entitled Remembering Ronnie Drew, which they will start touring in Germany next October.

"He taught me how to take in the applause and how to lead the applause. He taught me how to be a much better entertainer and how to be a better person. He's the closest friend I've ever had."

He also recalls how "Ronnie was a serious foodie" and includes in the book his infamous breakfast showstopper Huevos a la famenca – otherwise known as Spanish flamenco eggs.

Drew's terminal cancer diagnosis together with Hanrahan's resignation as chairman of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) over "a matter of principal" and he and his wife Donna's acceptance of a life without children helped prompt a change in career.

"Fertility treatment is a very intense and highly charged emotional journey. Although heartbroken, we had the inner strength to re-energise and try to move on with our lives," says Hanrahan.

A chance concert in Ballymaloe with Eleanor Shanley which led to a tour of the Ballymaloe Cookery School and a chat with founders Rory and Darina Allen made Hanrahan realise he had arrived at "a crossroads" in his life, with the chance to explore his creativity through the medium of cookery. And so, in September 2007 at the age of 49, he enrolled in the 12-week cookery course.

It wasn't the first time Hanrahan had dealt with inner turmoil: He was a 14-year-old altar boy at a local friary when a Franciscan brother visited his home to ask his mother's permission to take him to Galway for a weekend retreat.

In the hallway of his home, the brother "began poking and feeling" around his genital area, asking him if he liked it and, despite Hanrahan begging him to stop, continued until he managed to get to the front door.

"I felt ashamed, and almost dirty," he recalls.

In 2001, Hanrahan felt compelled to write and record the song Garden of Roses in the wake of multiple harrowing accounts of child abuse by religious orders, and he has now been able to shut the door on the shame and guilt he felt.

He hopes his life, and book, helps others going through difficult times.

"We all have our trials. I went to arts therapy and drew and sketched my way out of my issues. If I can give any life lesson from the book it's the reassurance that there are always people to talk to and help you get beyond your struggles and see the light again."

Hanrahan spent 10 years working as a commis chef, sous chef, head chef and teacher at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Those jobs included working for comedian Pat Shortt for three years at his West Cork pub.

"Donna always maintains that I got my mojo back while working with Pat," recalls Hanrahan.

"I certainly learned to laugh again, both at life and at myself. Laughter is indeed a tonic, and we had plenty of it at Shortt's."

Ruling out starting his own restaurant due to the commitments, Hanrahan decided to hang up his whites. Rather than contemplate a third career, he has now come full circle and returned to Stockton's Wing.

"Believe it or not, we are on the verge of signing with Universal Records. They've taken our entire back catalogue and are putting together a compilation. We are so happy because a lot of that music never really saw the light of day," he enthuses.

"We've a live album that we recorded last Easter in Ennis that we will release next year, so we will be back on the road then – I'm delighted."

:: Beautiful Affair: A Journey in Music, Food & Friendship is published by HarperCollins and is out now.

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