LABOUR OF LOVE The ambience at Leafy Greens allows Lucy Bracken to meet and chat with her customers. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
BY any standards, they were a rather flamboyant menagerie back in the 1970s. It is no wonder Lucy Bracken recalls that Westport ‘didn’t know what to make of them’. Well, there were ten children, a small airplane, a boat, a Citroën Safari bought en route in Paris and, of course, the parents, a mother from Dublin and a father from Kerry.
They had just returned from living in the small African country of Lesotho, where the late Gerry Bracken was an Agricultural Advisor.
With a new job at Balla Co-Op as a manager and an expanding family, their discovery of a perfect home overlooking Westport Quay proved serendipitous. In the following years it would withstand the many adventures they would embrace – an old granary with stores that used to service the boats at a onetime busy quay.
With a large family to feed, it was fortunate that the mother, Anne, loved nothing better than to colonise and cultivate the large garden to the rear with figs and asparagus, radishes and potatoes, while Gerry, when not working, cycled off to discover the sun rolling down the side of Croagh Patrick, among many other cultural and historical excursions.
Lucy Bracken is the fourth eldest of eight girls and two boys. She was five years old when the family landed in Westport.
“We were a bit wild and our mother, who is such a lady, would have preferred if we were more refined. We had such an interesting childhood. I’d had a nanny in Africa, who I really bonded with, and she would tie me onto her back as she went about. We quickly settled in to Westport though, and had brilliant adventures in the old grain stores in the garden, where there were ‘treasures’ (old china cups and plates),” she recalls. We are sitting over tea in the sanctuary of the Wyatt Hotel’s, Park Terrace. Lucy has just escaped around the corner to the Octagon from Leafy Greens, her latest venture in the town’s bustling café culture.
We fast forward to 1987, the year Lucy did her Leaving Cert and her father decided to open the Old Granary Hostel.
“Daddy did all the work himself. He looked up books in the library. While it might have been pretty basic by today’s standards, it worked well and we made lots of longterm friendships. You would never know who you would meet when you’d walk out the back door,” she recalls.
Amid working part-time in The Towers during her teenage years – where she learned many invaluable skills from owners Dolores and Colm Cronin – Lucy headed off to Paris as an au pair for a time. But her love of cooking and food, engendered by her mother’s ability to make delicious meals out of basic ingredients, would bring Lucy back to cooking again and again. She would go on to run the café at Old Head, near Louisburgh, for eight years from May until September, while spending the winters in Sydney with her then boyfriend.
“I remember the Good Tucker Special – a quarter-pounder burger with an egg, cheese, bacon and the best bit, beetroot – was a big hit. Beetroot was usually served with burgers in Australia, but it was quite a novel ingredient here.”
Over the years she worked also for the Cronins in the Sheebeen as well as their Louisburgh hostelry, Teach na nÓl. There was also the café at the Whyte House, as well as a period in An Port Mór, where she really enjoyed the experience of working in an award-winning restaurant that had built a brilliant reputation.
“I have to say one of my favourite jobs over the years was at La Bella Vita with Anneli [Watson] and [the late] Angelo. He simply cooked from the heart – everything about Angelo was good. He died tragically in a car crash eleven years ago.”
There was something special also about another restaurant she ran for a time.
“It was at the Linenmill that I met the love of my life, Eamonn Gill. He is from Kilmeena and we are about to move back there with our eight-year-old daughter, Alice, to a house he has renovated,” Lucy says, with a big smile on her face.
What with moving house and running the recently opened Leafy Greens café (formerly Duo) on Westport’s James Street, Lucy is happily busy.
“Leafy Greens kind of happened. I took over the lease from Kaska Rucka just after Christmas. Since I’ve had Alice I’ve been looking around for something that would leave my evenings free. There was already a lovely staff there, Basha and Adela, who are now joined by Áine (Eamonn’s daughter) and Leesa Murray from Carrowholly.
“Basha is just passionate about food – it’s a labour of love – and so while normally I like to be in the kitchen, I am standing back. It’s a bit like Masterchef: we get a box of vegetables from Joe Kelly and she puts her creative hat on, and who knows what will come out of the oven, but it is usually delicious.”
Since opening Lucy cannot get over the loyalty of the local clientele, whether it is young mothers meeting for coffee after they drop their children to school, or workers rushing in for a quick lunch, the atmosphere is full of the buzz of the town, with an added frisson of exotica from the regular tourist trade, naturally.
Well, what else would you expect from one of the Brackens?