THERE are people who walk among us who have lived a life full of stories. Chapter after chapter of adventure and happiness, tragedy and redemption.
Dorothy O’Tuama is the founder of O’Tuama Tours. These days, she is best known for leading tours of Johnny Lynch’s buffalo farm near Macroom. How this came to be is an epic tale of hard work, determination, loss and love.
Born in Inchigeelagh in 1963, Dorothy is the fourth eldest of 11 siblings. Her parents took over the running of her father’s family business there, The Lake Hotel, in 1957.
After they married, Dorothy’s mother moved to Inchigeelagh working in the hotel kitchen and her father worked front of house. The 11 children were all roped in: “Maybe that’s why they had so many of us!” she quips.
“I was desperately close to my mother, an aunt said I was always hanging onto her. She worked in the hotel her whole life; she was a wonderful cook and chef. I loved being in the kitchen with her.”
Dorothy and her siblings were sent to boarding schools across Munster. She first went to Bruff, Limerick and later to Macroom. With family ties stretching to Sheep’s Head, Glengarriff, Gougane Barra, Cork city and Kanturk, Dorothy’s life is intimately woven into the fabric of the region.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the hotel,” she says. “I saw an ad in the paper for a hotel management course at the Metropole in Cork. I stayed there for three years; it was a stepping stone: I was planning on going to England. At the time, that’s where everyone was going because there was no work here.
“I witnessed Ella Fitzgerald falling over her fur coat coming into the Metropole; I checked Phil Lynott into reception, and he told me I had beautiful green eyes. I met Rita Coolidge at the start of the Jazz (festival). It was an incredible time, and we worked so hard.
“I woke up every morning with Thompson’s bakery across the way and the smell of fresh bread. It just seemed to me I was in the right place and on the right track.”
Dorothy learned her passion was in the food and hospitality business. But, at the time in Ireland, the kitchen was no place for a woman, a male dominated space where even a publican’s daughter like Dorothy, couldn’t find a foothold in the heat of a commercial kitchen.
She left Cork and travelled to London with a good friend in 1981, just 18 years old, and stayed working for two and a half years, going hotel to hotel. Eventually, she saved up enough money to buy an Interrail ticket and took off around Europe for two months.
A few years before, Dorothy had met Padraig O’Tuama, a Ballingeary man, at a Céilí dance.
“We kept in touch in letters while I was in London. Then, one year I came home for Christmas, and he asked me to marry him.”
Padraig’s job as a Coillte forester meant their early married life was spent moving frequently from place to place. Wherever Padraig went, Dorothy followed, picking up work easily in hotels in Blarney, Avoca in county Wicklow, Limerick and Clonmel.
“I went for an interview at Clonmel Arms Hotel with Brendan Petit, very famous hotelier, and got a job as a housekeeper. Before I knew it, I was back in the kitchen. I loved working there, and Clonmel was a vibrant town, but I was 27 and I thought it was time to settle down. I was getting broody, I suppose.”
Dorothy and Padraig welcomed their first son, Tadgh, in 1993, followed by their daughter, Ailish, two years later. When Ailish was nine months, Dorothy got itchy feet.
Soon after, it was announced the Irish supermarket chain, Superquinn, were coming to town.
“They were looking for staff, I knew they did good food, and I loved their Dublin shop. I got the job of deli supervisor in the Clonmel branch.”
Dorothy recalls her time working at Superquinn as one of the most supportive of her career. But her memories are tinged with a great tragedy. While there, she fell pregnant with her third child, Eamonn.
“I had a desperate chest infection when I had him and had to go straight to Cork. When he was born, he seemed to be unwell, but everyone said he was fine, so we went home.”
The next few weeks, Dorothy’s son was repeatedly with doctors who were trying to understand why he was struggling with breathing and moving one moment, and then hyperactive the next. She knew something was wrong.
“My sister visited us one day and commented Eamonn was breathing too fast - he was blue in the face from it. He almost died on the way to hospital. A few days later, I ran to the doctor and said there’s something wrong with my son; he’s dying in my hands.”
Eamonn was rushed to Crumlin hospital where, eventually, he was diagnosed with a mitral valve heart defect, but couldn’t be operated on until he was two years old.
“Superquinn were just unbelievable,” she recalls. “Whatever time I needed; they gave.
"For seven months, it went between being at home and everything well, to Eamonn going into heart failure and rushed to Crumlin.”
As his health deteriorated, Eamonn was scheduled for surgery. Although the operation was successful, the long-term effect of his condition and repeated episodes of heart failure left him too weak to recover, and tragically, Eamonn lost his battle for life.
“We had a precious window of five hours; he died in our arms at 1.33am. In time, we came to think of him like a racehorse: he was in prime condition, this was his life, he had nine and a half months, he affected so many people with his gorgeous smile, and he just did the best he could.
“I was desperately upset and really broken, but I didn’t want to finish the family on a death. So, we threw caution to the wind, and nine months later we had another baby – Fionn. That’s what saved my life.”
While the tragedy left her broken, it’s also the fuel that keeps driving her on. After Superquinn, her career went from employee to employer when she took over the lease of a coffee shop in Clonmel and opened O’Tuama’s Café.
“It was on Market Place in Clonmel. I wanted to get away from what I was doing, and any chance I could get to be in a kitchen and cook, I’d take it.”
O’Tuama’s Café opened its doors in 1999 and it “snowballed into this amazing restaurant that was really busy, Bridgestone Guide awarded, we made everything on site, there were queues out the door and it became an enormous success.
Dorothy ran the business successfully for seven years before selling it as a going concern in 2006.
“I walked out the door. I did feel relief in one way, but I also felt awful. I had some amazing customers who had supported me through thick and thin. But I thought, no, family first now. My parents were getting elderly; daddy had vascular dementia and I knew mummy would need help with him, so we came back.
“I just loved being free. I knew I could always make biscuits and cakes if I was stuck for a few bob, but Padraig was doing very well at work, we had a lovely life, a lovely home and things were going great.”
Dorothy’s father passed away peacefully aged 86, but after she noticed her mother’s mental health declining.
“Mummy was struggling afterwards, and every now and again she would be crying,” recalls Dorothy. “We had become great friends, she loved what I was doing, and she’d listen to all my stories, but she was definitely a little bit depressed.”
One night in 2014, on the way home from working as a consultant at Blarney Woollen Mills, Dorothy’s brother, John, called.
“My mother hadn’t been great, and I’d asked my brother to come down from Dublin because I was concerned. John was inside the house, door wide open. Her coat and keys were there, but no sign of mammy. I knew something wasn’t right, she wouldn’t go out without her coat. It was February. She was found the next day in the river – she had turned herself in.”
After that, Dorothy says, she felt even more driven to her family, to “get on with yourself and do what you want to do to get by”.
Once again, an advert in the local paper caught Dorothy’s eye - for a tour guide course.
“I knew I was never again going to work in a hotel or a kitchen – there was no going back to that life without my mother, my son, or the old me. There was too much of my experience of growing up with her and the expertise she gave me. But I love to talk! I love tour guiding; I love this place. I don’t want to be waffling on about Cromwell, I want to talk about food and culture and what’s it’s like to be Irish today. I have a passion for telling a story and learning, and I didn’t need a degree in English or history; it’s about the guide, the story and having the craic. It’s about bringing culture to life for people.”
In search of a place that embodied Dorothy’s interests, she approached Johnny Lynch and asked if he was interested in having an accredited tour guide giving tours of his buffalo farm.
“He said absolutely, and would I look after all of it for him? Johnny could see there was an interest and something there he could do to share the story of the farm, but he didn’t have the time. We got on straight away.”
That collaboration developed into a successful tour business for both Dorothy and Johnny and is the only way to visit this unique farm enterprise.
“It’s been such a positive experience,” she says.
For Dorothy now, life is about simplicity and drawing every ounce of enjoyment from what she does.
“I should be proud of it all. I’m extremely proud of my children and my husband: My Four. These are the things that shape you; the beautiful way people minded us, and the families that came around us.
“I’ve always got an ear out for someone who loses a child, or who don’t or can’t have children.
“I’m grateful for what I have; I’ve worked hard at it, and I’ll never take any of it for granted.”
For more on the tours and tastings see https://www.otuamatours.ie/