First encounters: ‘She is a lot more tolerant than a sane person would be’

Ray Byrne and Jane English of Wineport Lodge

Ray Byrne and Jane English. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill Ray Byrne and Jane English. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Ray Byrne and Jane English. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill Ray Byrne and Jane English. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

RAY BYRNE owns Wineport Lodge in Glasson, Co Westmeath, with his wife Jane English. He is also managing director of Splash Hospitality, a hotel management company that runs businesses hit by the downturn, including Dublin’s Cafe en Seine. From Dublin, he lives in Glasson with Jane and their two sons.

When I saw Jane in Kennedy’s, I was smitten. A week later, she went to a party with me and that was that. It’s hard to believe it was 28 years ago. We were from very different backgrounds, didn’t have common interests, but Jane’s just a very easy person to be with.

I didn’t have any background in business: my dad was a self-employed fitter/welder. Growing up I worked in a pub. That graduated to doing all kinds of weird things, like selling toilet rolls in Meath Street market, and Aran sweaters around the B&Bs in the north inner city. I learned quickly that the small bit of talent I have lies in selling.

I did a business start-up course and drove a van for a cheese marketing/distribution business. My job was to drive to the far corners of west Cork, collect the cheese and stop en route back to Dublin to try and sell it. To meet chefs you had to go into kitchens, where there were flames leaping out of the pans, people shouting and roaring . . . I got a great buzz out of it.

By now Jane and I had bought a house in Dublin. She was working in a poker club, from 9pm to 7am. I’d be home from my trips about 7pm in the evening. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could do something where we’d be in the same place? There seemed to be more fun in restaurants than there was in driving a van.

We opened the coffee shop in Tyrrellspass but it wasn’t a long-term option. Jane’s mum and her partner were developing a sailing centre, asked us to get involved and that became Wineport Lodge. I didn’t anticipate it might last 21 years. It’s not for the fainthearted, the restaurant business. You’re not able to separate your business life from your personal life. You need to be very strong people individually to work together, so that you don’t take things that go wrong out on each other. We’ve been very lucky together: our strengths definitely combine. Jane would put her hand to anything, she has very little fear. She’s interested in people and she’s a fantastic mother.

When I say things like, let’s build 20 bedrooms, sometimes Jane might have to be encouraged a little bit. She’s allowed me to go pretty mad financially.

She’s definitely a lot more tolerant than a sane person would be. We are absolutely different characters. The other thing about Jane is that she’s selfless, the complete opposite of selfish.

JANE ENGLISH Co-owns Wineport Lodge, a lakeside restaurant and hotel in Glasson, Co Westmeath, which hosted RTÉ’s ‘The Restaurant’ show. This is Wineport’s 21st year. Originally from Athlone, Jane lives across the road from Wineport with Ray and their children Robbie, 10, and Glen, nearly 12

We met in a pub in Dublin, Kennedy’s of Westland Row, on May 1st, 1986. I remember it well because I had met a guy I knew from home in the pub. He was waiting on this friend who turned out to be Ray. He arrived at closing time. I was facing the door, looked straight at him and thought, oh, he looks okay. He asked me to a party the following week. I thought the week would never go, worried he might not turn up. It was definitely love at first sight. I was 24, he was two years younger.

At the time we met, I was in Trinity, one year into a Masters research project after graduating with a degree in genetics. At the end of the year I felt I was going nowhere, academia wasn’t for me.

I got to know Ray and it was the first time anyone had said to me, well, if you’re not happy you don’t have to do it. He hadn’t gone to college, his background was totally different. He’s a businessman.

I had a great time after leaving Trinity: one of my first jobs was as a cashier in a poker club in Merrion Square. Ray spent five years with the Traditional Cheese Co but really wanted his own business.

Around 1990 we saw an ad in the Irish Times for space to let in a castle in Tyrrellspass. In May 1991 we opened a coffee shop there. Then we opened a restaurant on the little piece of land that is Wineport, where my mother Dorothy and her partner Robin Baird had a sailing instruction centre.

We only got married in 1999, 13 years after we met. We eloped, went to Barbados. As we headed to the airport we had a church blessing at my local church at 8am. The clergyman took a photo, we put it on an invitation to a party and posted them on our way to the airport. We had the party for friends, family and staff in Luttrellstown Castle when we came back.

RTÉ’s The Restaurant has been absolutely fantastic for our business: nearly every night, someone mentions the show.

You have to have a lot of patience to work together. I’m a very good hands-on person; Ray’s strengths are in planning and marketing. On my own I never would have thought of building rooms. Ray’s very driven, he never seems to need a break. I admire his devotion; he doesn’t seem to get tired.

We walk together four or five mornings a week: this is together time, when we discuss the business, the kids and so on. It helps to clear things that get forgotten during the busy days.