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INTERVIEW Carmel Campbell: a colourful and unconventional life

Living
Typography
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LIVING LIFE TO THE FULL Carmel Campbell. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

No age limit for Campbell creating ripples


Interview
Áine Ryan

LET us be clear, she is not a European. She is an Irish woman. And the quicker the punt returns as our currency, the better. In fact, septuagenarian, Carmel Campbell is considering lighting candles for that cause.
Forget about all this globalization: let us foster and celebrate our individual and cultural differences once again.
Clearly, Carmel Campbell has strong convictions but they are tempered with the rich experience and irony that age affords.
So far, during a busy and colourful life, Louisburgh resident, Carmel O’Dwyer-Campbell has been an avid campaigner, a counsellor and a creative designer. She also worked as a psychiatric nurse, had nine children and established a halfway house for women with addictions.
And when we met in the Brehon Room of Hotel Westport last week for coffee and an animated chat, The Mayo News suggested she become a make-up artist. What a glamorous and vivacious addition she would be to any film set!
Way back in 1955, 19-year-old Carmel O’Dwyer from Kiltimagh married the family lawyer, Caoimhghín Mac Cathmhaoil.
It is no surprise that her father, Walter O’Dwyer was a close friend of Caoimhgín’s. They both had strong and uncompromising political views. Walter was a socialist republican who was christened locally as ‘the communist’.
“That was because he opened his mouth and spoke out against injustice. He was a master plumber and ran a successful company called The Connaught Plumbing and Central Heating Service. He would take people in who had been evicted; these were very difficult times economically. At one stage, at the behest of a local priest, his business was boycotted but the local nuns broke the boycott,” she explains.
Times were  very different in Ireland of the 1950s.
“Caoimhghín actually told my parents he wanted to marry me. It was all very formal. Daddy was able to tell me before Caoimhghín asked me. We were very innocent.”
Soon the couple was ensconced in a big rambling family home in Swinford and despite her busyness giving birth, Carmel managed to find time to do a design course at the Grafton Academy.
Carmel Campbell Creations made high-class children’s fashions, crocheted and spun by around 45 employees, who worked from their homes, in this innovative cottage industry, one of the first of its kind at the time.
Next thing Carmel was on the Late Late Show. The BBC came to Swinford and made a 45-minute documentary about her. “That nearly done for me. It was too much, there was a big crew in Swinford and eventhough I had a housekeeper, a nanny and a secretary, I got fed up with it.”
At this stage, she was selling her homespun children’s ponchos and suits in Harrods of London. Even Robert Mitchum – in Kerry at the time shooting Ryan’s Daughter – had bought some of her clothes for his grandchildren.
“You know, when I started I didn’t know the difference between debit and credit. But as a young mother I wanted my economic freedom. There were days, however, when I looked out of my office and I could see my children out in the garden playing and all I wanted was to be out there with them. If I had the chance again, that is where I would be.”
Carmel’s marriage ended around this time, 1970, and, unsurprisingly the following years would prove difficult on many personal levels. Separation was almost unheard of in rural Ireland 50 years ago but, fortunately, Carmel and Caoimhghín remained friends. 
And, resilient, as always, she had opened a vegetarian and seafood restaurant – Glosh House – in Murrisk by 1984.
“Money – I mean the lack of it – never stopped me,” she is laughing. “I had the dream, the vision, that is all that is needed.”
A decade later, even though the restaurant was a great success, Carmel was on a different campaign trail. In the interim she had trained as an addiction counsellor and was determined to help women alcoholics.
“I realised there was no half-way house for women suffering from alcoholism and, after raising money through fundraising in the US, I opened Horizon House in Galway. It wasn’t without controversy though. One of the local objectors was former Fianna Fáil Minister Máire Geoghegan Quinn.”
The eight-bedroomed facility was forced to close five years later due to lack of funds.
Carmel Campbell has not given up on her commitments to helping female addicts. Even though she has officially retired as a counsellor, she often gives talks and lectures on the devastating human and familial impact of addiction. Well, when she is not busy having fun with her grandchildren.

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