From industrial school to Michelin star: Michael Clifford was a chef who had real bite

One of Ireland’s greatest chefs survived an industrial school, says Joe McNamee 

From industrial school to Michelin star: Michael Clifford was a chef who had real bite

WHEN 52-year-old Michelin-starred chef, Michael Clifford, died, in April, 2006, the Irish culinary world reeled at the loss of a rare talent. Though his death was noted in the media, the wider, public response was muted.

In the era that pre-dated social media, which has fuelled populist interest in all things food, chefs, even great ones, were far from household names.

Suffice to say, if Clifford had died last week, Twitter would have gone into meltdown, for he was was one of the most important of Irish chefs, not just technically gifted, but a true innovator.

Andrea ‘Andy’ Petrini, listed in Time magazine last year as one of 13 ‘global gods of food’, first encountered Michael in the late ’80s.

“He was the link between a very French-infused kind of cuisine, in vogue for his generation,” says Petrini, “and what was starting to happen in Ireland, working with local producers in season.

“Michael was also ahead of what was about to happen in London in those days, where you only had Marco Pierre White turning the scene upside down.

He was one of the first to have a fantastic Irish cheese board, one of the first to use not only Michelin-star produce, but also poor, simpler products, for example the black pudding — it has a very peasant connotation and to put it into an a la carte restaurant menu was very revolutionary in those days.”

But Michael was also a reserved, even secretive man, so only a handful are accquainted with the story of his personal life — first in an orphanage and then an industrial school — prior his professional cooking career.

Michael Peter Clifford was born in Co Kerry, on June 29, 1953, to Catherine ‘Kit’ Clifford (nee Fleming) and James Clifford, but when Michael was an infant, Kit was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was dead within six weeks.

Michael’s older brother, Timothy, was taken in by his maternal grandparents; young Michael was put into an orphanage in nearby Killarney.

“After our mother died, it had a huge effect on our father,” said Timothy Clifford.

“I don’t think he coped well with it. I was, maybe, six or seven the last time I saw him.

“Michael would be let out to spend a week or so with me, and my grandparents, during the summers.

“There was talk that another uncle, living quite nearby, would adopt him, but it fell through.”

Liam Collins was a solicitor in Clonakilty, Co Cork, and his wife, Betty, was a pharmacist, who, after her compulsory post-marital retirement, instead devoted herself to children, rearing eight of her own and fostering four, including Michael Peter Clifford.

Betty’s daughter, Helen, says: “My mother said she just fell for Michael Peter when she saw him. How could you not?

“A beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy. He was nine, going on ten, and he came at Christmas, Easter and summer, and returned for school to Killarney.

“We used to just run wild down in Inchedoney.

“There was nothing there then, but us and another family in holiday houses.

“The first day Michael Peter came, he asked my father was the sea at Inchedoney a big lake, because he’d never seen the sea before.”

But one summer, when the Collins family went to collect Michael from the orphanage, he was no longer there.

Because he had reached the age of 12, the nuns felt it was no longer appropriate for him to be living alongside girls and had him transferred to St Joseph’s industrial school in Tralee.

“My mother went to Tralee to get him,” says Helen, “but was told she couldn’t have him. She wrote to the bishop. He said, she couldn’t have him, because it would be unsettling for him to be taken out and unsettling for the other boys.

“She wanted to go to the cardinal, but my father wouldn’t let her. She wrote to Michael Peter every month and sent him parcels and we never saw him again until he was 16, when he was released.

“And when he was released, they handed him all the letters and presents she had sent him. They had held them all back.

“She died in 2001 and one of the last things she said was she never forgave herself for what happened to him. She went to her death broken-hearted and I couldn’t console her about that. They were bad times.”

When Michael was released from the industrial school, at the age of 16, he was expected to go into an apprenticeship in Tralee, but this time Betty Collins would not be thwarted.

Liam Collins organised for Michael to go to the renowned catering school in Rockwell College, and there began a stellar career.

Michael later moved to London and from there to Michelin-starred establishments in France and Holland.

Michael returned to Ireland in 1981 and was snapped up by Declan Ryan, of Arbutus Lodge, and soon earned a Michelin Star for Ryan’s Cashel Palace restaurant.

He was later headhunted for a new Dublin restaurant, White’s On The Green, making a national name for himself, before opening his own restaurant with his wife, Deirdre, in Cork. Clifford’s was housed in the old county library building on The Mardyke, and became one of the most renowned restaurants in the country, laden with awards and acclaim. They opened a bistro next door, to reach a wider audience but were probably ahead of their time and were financially over-extended.

The family relocated, eventually opening Clifford’s in Clonmel. It was Michael’s last restaurant.

Michael Clifford once said: “As a small boy, I never wanted to own a guitar and sing rhythm-and-blues. I never wanted to line out for Manchester United. I never wanted to be Taoiseach. I wanted to cook and I wanted this as far back as I could remember”.

And cook is exactly what he did.

Clifford & Son, by Peter Clifford and Joe McNamee, is available from Liberties Press.

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