Today he runs three of NI's best-known eateries, but at just 36 father-of-four Ronan Sweeney suffered a terrifying stroke that made him reassess life... now he's putting helping others on the menu
The owner of one of Northern Ireland's best known gastro pub chains has opened up about his struggle after being struck down by a stroke just as he was getting his business off the ground.
Ronan Sweeney, who owns Balloo Inns, had just bought the first of his three pubs 10 years ago when at the age of 36 he had a stroke.
Terrified and initially unable to run his business, it took almost a year for the father-of-four to recover.
Now running three thriving award-winning eateries - The Parson's Nose in Hillsborough, The Poacher's Pocket in Killinchy, and Balloo House in Balloo - he is dedicating the year ahead to raising awareness of stroke among his customers.
A packed year-long series of events involving all 120 of his employees, including chefs, managers and front-of-house staff, will also raise funds for Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS).
Ronan has been motivated to support the charity by his own personal experience and also the tragic loss of his head chef at The Parson's Nose, Marius Clery.
Marius, a father of three boys from Enniskillen, was 50 when he suffered a stroke three years ago, dying a few days later.
Ronan (46) runs the business with his 46-year-old wife Jennie. The couple have four children, Eoin (18), twins Joshua and Luke (12) and Sarah (10). They opened Balloo House in 2003 and their hard work saw profits double in the first five years.
The future looked bright and full of potential when, without any warning, Ronan suffered a stroke. His diagnosis was complicated by the fact that he was suffering from the flu at the time and initially he thought his symptoms were part of that.
In fact, it was several days before he was told he had suffered a stroke.
He recalls: "I think I had swine flu although it wasn't diagnosed and I had been in bed a couple of days with vomiting and diarrhoea. I was also in a severe state of dehydration.
"I remember feeling this emptiness in my head and it didn't feel like I was conscious although I knew I was awake.
"I knew something was happening, but I thought it was a symptom of the flu.
"The flu abated but my right field of vision was very blurred and indefinable. I also had a numb scalp and didn't know where my feet were. I couldn't co-ordinate my legs."
Ronan went to his GP who diagnosed a migraine. When his symptoms didn't clear up in a few days he went back to another GP who referred him to a neurologist. He had an MRI scan a few days later and was shocked to be told he had suffered a stroke.
He says: "It made a lot of sense and to me it explained the way I was feeling but I was really shocked.
"Mentally I found it hard to deal with because of the ramifications of having another one. It brings your health sharply into focus and at that age it was not something I was prepared for.
"We had just had our fourth child and running the business was very busy. It was a real bolt out of the blue. I also had this overwhelming feeling of unfairness as I was a non-smoker and a runner and in good health.
"This is one of the reasons why I want to raise awareness as I associated it with an unhealthy lifestyle but stroke can strike anyone at any time."
Ronan said it took months for him to recover physically and at first he could do nothing but sleep as he was overcome with fatigue. It took even longer for his concentration to improve, he says.
He was unaware of the support available through the NICHS and, looking back at that period, he regrets now that he didn't seek out that help.
Strangely, he felt embarrassed about having had a stroke and believes counselling would have helped him to come to terms with it.
He says: "When you are young you just want to get over an illness as quickly as you can but with a stroke you have to be patient. It was months before I saw changes, not days. It was a long, slow process.
"The way the brain repairs itself, it takes time to make new connections and I was told that the younger you are the easier it is to do that.
"I struggled mentally with it. I wish I had known about the help as NICHS offer a fantastic counselling service. I just didn't know it was available and I now hope our campaign makes more people aware of it."
Ronan also freely admits that he felt uncomfortable when it came to telling people he had suffered a serious illness: "I went through a stage of feeling somehow ashamed that I had been struck down by a stroke and I didn't want to tell people because I found it an embarrassment.
"But I think talking to people is the only way to get over that. Happily, I have a fantastic relationship with my wife and she coached me through it."
Ronan says the health crisis did make him reassess his life - as well as redress his work/life balance. From working 60-70 hour weeks before the stroke, he now makes sure that he has more time at home to spend with his family.
And while initially this did impact on the way he was able to run his business, he was back at work within months and within a year was able to expand and buy his second pub - The Poacher's Pocket.
Today, Ronan says he feels lucky that he has been able to make a full recovery but no longer takes his health for granted.
"I did take a step back and reassessed the amount of time I was spending at work and at home and I rebalanced my life," he explains.
"I still work a full week and my phone is always on and Jennie and I are always talking about the business, but I spend more time at home with my family. That is one of the good things that has come out of it.
"The business continued to grow in spite of my medical condition.
"And I do appreciate my health a wee bit more. Before, I might have taken it for granted. Now, I have a sense of gratitude, and realise that nothing is given, your health or your ability to work."
Ronan hopes that by partnering up with NICHS for the next year that he will help raise awareness for stroke and much-needed funds for the charity.
Kick-starting the charity programme is the Balloo Eat and Defeat initiative, inviting customers at any of its three restaurants to add a donation of £1 on to their bill for NICHS.
Also on the menu at Balloo will be a bespoke fundraising dining experience this autumn and winter.
Ronan says: "Every table that dines with us is asked to donate £1 and although we have just started, so far it has been really well received.
"We haven't set a fundraising goal but I would like to think it will be in five figures."
All money raised by Balloo Inns Group will go towards NICHS' support groups and programmes. This will enable the charity to provide emotional support and practical advice or signposting to people and their families and carers affected by chest, heart and stroke conditions.
Ronan adds: "I want to use what has happened to me to help others. Our company has been affected by stroke. Our head chef in The Parson's Nose Marius McClery died from stroke three years ago.
"The bleeding on his brain didn't stop and he died within three days. It was heartbreaking and I still keep in touch with his wife.
"I realise I was lucky. And with 13 people suffering a heart attack and 10 people suffering a stroke every day in Northern Ireland, it is really important that we play our part in reducing these numbers.
"Our team is excited to get involved in our wide range of fundraising activities and committing to a cause outside of our day-to-day business."
Lorna Watson, from Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke, said of the company's programme: "We are really excited about the partnership with the Balloo Inns Group and we are very thankful to Ronan for sharing his story.
"It's important for us to team up with organisations in the food and drink sector so we can raise awareness of healthy eating which plays an important role in the prevention of serious health issues such as chest, heart and stroke conditions.
"We are looking forward to working closely with the Balloo Inns Group's team over the next year, with exciting fundraising initiatives and events."
All of Balloo Inns' three restaurants are critically acclaimed and all three retained their spot in the prestigious Michelin 'Eating Out In Pubs' Guide 2018.