It was as much pride of place as human kindness that drove Don O'Neill into the water to save a drowning man. No-one has ever drowned on Ballyheigue Beach, as he told Derbhail McDonald (sitting in for Brendan O’Connor) and it wasn’t going to happen on his watch.
Last summer, The Kerry-born fashion designer had been in for a dip with his husband Pascal when they heard the distress call:
"When I heard that cry for help and I saw the person splashing and I know, I thought oh my, he’s way too, that person is way too far out. Ballyheigue is such a safe beach and no-one’s ever drowned on it and I just remember thinking, not on my watch. This is not going to happen."
Don and another man dived in and swam out to reach the man who had been crying out for help. All three of them eventually got back to shore, safe and sound; but only after being swept far out to sea in a strong current:
"Myself and the other man, Dónal Hanley, we were able to save that man and bring him safely to shore. Again, there was a wake-up call there because when I reached him, and realised how far out I now was, and I’m not a good swimmer. And I didn’t realise, but we were in a rip current, which is why it was so hard to bring him back in."
It was a terrifying moment, Don says. The designer was in Kerry with his husband on an extended career break. Don drew on some inner strength and focused on the task in hand. Luckily, everyone got to safety:
"We need to just make it to shore. There’s no time to be worrying or panicking, just get back to shore. That’s what we did and thank God we were able to save him."
The incident made Don re-evaluate what mattered most to him in life, he told Derbhail McDonald. The self-examination process had already begun in early 2020 with the advance of Covid and then in June 2020, Don was let go as creative director of fashion brand Theia.
It was a role he adored and had poured every ounce of time and energy into making it a success. When it was over, Don says it was a crisis of identity:
"I dressed celebrities and superstars and all of a sudden, that just vanished and I had a really hard time in reconnecting with Don O’Neill the man who was not Don O’Neil the designer of Theia."
Don’s husband Pascal Guillermie was the one who kept him going, he says. The couple has been together for 30 years and got married in 2016 in Don’s native Ballyheigue.
They decided to take the opportunity presented by Covid to spend more time in the seaside town of Don's birth. It was there, among family and in the stunning surroundings of his home place that Don says he began to heal:
"Covid sort of brought everything to a halt. It gave me time to reflect upon what I had, what I was doing, how hard I was working. I have to admit I was a wee bit burnt out. I just got the time to reflect on life and work out what was important to me."
An eye-watering schedule imposed by eight collections a year has been replaced by sea-swimming, walking on the beach and making conversation with whoever happens to be passing by. It is this simple human connection that Don says he finds so transformative.
He has spent his career dressing the biggest names in the entertainment world, including Taylor Swift, Nicole Kidman and Oprah Winfrey. Don says that forging a personal connection is essential to making someone look and feel amazing. Now he wants to make the same meaningful connections, but in a different way:
"You don’t have to be a famous fashion designer to do that. You can just stop and say hello to someone in the street and ask them genuinely how they are, and be invested in that conversation, and I think that’s way more powerful than what a dress can do for somebody."
Don and Pascal have relocated to Ballyheigue and it had been a joyful homecoming, Don says:
"Spending time there, I discovered that Ballyheigue truly is my happy place. And I found such peace and solace there. Which is my home, but I just never really got to spend a lot of time there after I left there over 35-40 years ago."
The couple are making plans to find new outlets for their creative talents. Pascal is a florist, so wedding planning is one of the possible ventures they are looking at; as well as media and consulting, which Don would like to explore. Recently, Don completed three postcards for the ingognito art sale on behalf of Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation later this month. Whatever he does, Don O’Neill says that human connection will be at the centre of it:
"When I saw that man in trouble, it’s about helping people, reaching out to people and I guess it’s the core of who I am and it’s part of my nature."
Don speaks more about the healing power of nature, family and home as well as the highs and lows of his career in fashion in the full interview here.