The Cheesiest Romance of All!

Apr 5 2018


Mon 26 Mar 2018 at 02:30
As a young lad growing up on the Beara Peninsula in Cork, John Harrington's sister Angela used to tease him about being in love with the girl pictured on the Calvita cheese box. In June 1992, he walked into the Hillgrove Hotel in Dingle, and Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith's blonde hair and blue eyes reminded him of that girl. "She was drinking a pint, and I thought, 'The Calvita girl has grown up'," he laughs.
On that basis, it's ironic that Siobhan and John would go on to run a cheese company, but the first hurdle was getting past her friend Donal's vetting. "Donal got talking to John and at the end of the night, he said, 'He's alright Siobhan, he'll do'," she says.

Siobhan was living in Galway at the time, and she and John discovered they had a lot in common. They had both trained as teachers, for example, and had fathers who were county councillors. A few weeks later, John visited Galway and phoned and asked her out for a drink. She dragged her flatmates along, as she wasn't sure if she'd recognise him or even if she wanted to spend time with him. Luckily it all went well and she gave the girls the nod to go home. "He began to grow on me," she says.

Siobhan (50) grew up in the village of Inagh in Clare, and initially worked as a primary school teacher, like her parents, Flan and Mairead. She took a career break as she developed an interest in food, and after courses in marketing and PR, she left teaching altogether and worked at wholesaling local and regional food products, one of which happened to be St Tola Irish Goat Cheese.

When she met John, she liked that he gave her confidence and ideas around developing her career in food. He also introduced her to meditation, mindfulness and self-awareness, which she found interesting. John (55) comes from an entrepreneurial family and his mum Mary ran the local post office. He trained as a PE and Irish teacher and taught for a year, but left as the entrepreneurial streak won through, which probably worried his mum as she was keen for her nine children to have steady jobs. She's still going strong, but his dad, Donal Dan R, passed away aged 95 in January. John and his brother Flor established Kush Shellfish in Kenmare in 1987, and still run it together today (

Siobhan and John had a long-distance relationship for three years and then she moved to Kenmare. "Siobhan is a very strong character, and while she has a bohemian streak, she's very sensible and has much more common sense than I have," says John. They spent a good few years "gallivanting around the world" and John loves that Siobhan galvanised him into having great adventures, such as trekking and climbing. Their son Caoilte (11) was born when Siobhan was 39, and daughter Luisne (7) when she was 43. "We were overjoyed," says Siobhan. "I've always wanted children."

By his own admission, John wasn't that interested in having a family, but things soon changed when Siobhan became pregnant. "I became a broody dad and all my brothers and sisters were weak laughing," he says. "They were saying, 'Look at this for a U-turn'. Now that the children have arrived, they come first and business is second."

Siobhán bought St Tola Irish Goat Cheese in 1999 from her family's neighbours, Meg and Derrick Gordon, who developed the fine quality of the cheese and helped establish a gourmet cottage industry in a rural area. She moved it to her parents' farm in Inagh in Clare. They have a herd of 300 goats there, and although the farming side can be challenging, particularly when goats are kidding, Siobhan's heart is in the land and she adores it.

She has developed the business from a local industry to an internationally-recognised brand, although the cheese is still handmade in small batches as the artisanal quality is paramount. St Tola now has eight products and has won awards all over the world, including Best in Class and Best Irish Cheese at the 2017-18 World Cheese Awards.

Siobhan and John were also thrilled to win the Environmental Award at the Irish Food Writers' Guild Food Awards earlier this month, which celebrates Ireland's food producers and organisations. It recognises great Irish producers and products that are integral to Ireland's fine reputation in food and drink, both at home and abroad. Siobhan is passionate about sustainable farming and protecting the land for future generations.

The family now divides their time between their homes in Kenmare and Inagh and while it's a busy life, they love it. It's a lifestyle, they say, and they have a passionate team of staff supporting them.

While focusing on his shellfish business in Kenmare, John primarily looks after finance, the farm and capital investment for St Tola. "Siobhan runs the show and I'm primarily in the background," he says.

They have differences of opinion, of course, but they iron them out, says Siobhan. "John is always the optimist and I'm the realist," she smiles.

"I'd be more into straight-talking whereas he'd take a longer approach. He's very kind and gives a lot of time to people, and tends to see the good in everyone where I'd be more wary.

"In one way, he's innocent, but sure it's an attractive innocence."