Not so much a hotel, more a way of life


Hunter's Hotel in Wicklow has been a family business for about 200 years, writes Rose Doyle

"There is nothing," wrote Dr Samuel Johnson, "which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good inn."

He was right, of course, and Hunter's Hotel, Rathnew, Co Wicklow - a good inn for almost a decade before the wise doctor was born - has had the wit to inscribe his wisdom on its menu.

The legendary, as well as the famous, have stayed in Hunter's over the years. Bram Stoker did, as did the king and queen of Sweden and Liza Minelli. Joyce Grenfell, Peter Ustinov, Walter Osborne, Jack Lynch, Brian Ferry and Paul Simon have stayed. Daniel Day Lewis visits with his father-in-law, Arthur Miller. Barry Fitzgerald of "Dublin and Hollywood", stayed in 1953 and so did Laurel Hardy of "Hollywood".

On a sunny Sunday, the diningroom in Hunter's is as convivial as a family at dinner, the rambling rooms with low ceilings inviting intimacy, the gardens all around ablaze and a-bloom. Much as it's always been in fact.

Hunter's, unarguably one of the country's better known hotels, began life as a coaching inn around 1700 serving the main Dublin to Wexford road. (Dr Johnson was born in 1709). It was called the Newry Bridge Inn and had been well mentioned in guidebooks and the like before the Hunter family, in the shape of John Hunter, a butler in nearby Ballycurry, took it over with his wife Elizabeth in 1825.

In time one of their sons, Robert, took over while their other son, George, moved on to the Wooden Bridge Hotel. A generation later and Sarah, daughter of Robert, took over Hunter's.

By then, an institution had been established and the scene set for the family which owns and runs today's hotel to move in.

Tom Gelletlie tells the story of life's turns and fascinating ways with laconic ease. His mother, Maureen, who has given most of her 85 years to Hunter's, comes and goes with anecdote and fact. Her other son, Richard, continues with the business of running the hotel.

The first Gelletlie, Tom says, was also a Thomas, a farm labourer who came from Scotland and worked as a gardener in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. When he married Jane Nicholl, daughter of the steward of nearby Tullynally Castle, they moved to Inistiogue, Co Kilkenny, where Thomas worked on Woodstock House demesne. They had four children: Thomas, Jane, James and Adam, who died. Their mother remarried a Mr Ruxton, a man she'd known in the Tullynally Castle days, after her husband died and the family moved back to Co Westmeath.

The young Thomas Gelletlie learned the trade of watchmaking from his stepfather - and set in motion the family's second business in south Wicklow, that of watch and jewellery making.

Jane Gelletlie-Ruxton kept up her Wicklow links and in time her son Thomas returned to work for Barton's Watchmaker and Jewellery shop in Wicklow town, where he met the extraordinarily named Francina Dorcas Tuke. Francina was a watchmaker too and older than her suitor by seven or eight years. Love had its way and they married. They had one son, named Thomas.

Francina and her son Thomas went on running the shop, now named T J Gelletlie Jewellers, when Thomas Gelletlie senior died. Thomas grew to manhood and a friendship with Fanny Hunter which led to marriage in 1897. The Gelletlie-Hunter connection was established.

"Fanny had about 12 brothers and sisters," today's Tom Gelletlie explains. "Some died, some were killed in the Boer and Great Wars. The hotel was being run by her sister, Sarah, and brother, Charles Parnell Hunter, whose godfather was Charles Stewart Parnell, who used come and play cards in the hotel with a revolver on the table beside him for fear of assassination. Neither Charles nor Sarah married. Charles, a great fishin' and shootin' man, died in 1935. Sarah ran the hotel and lived to become a 91-year-old fascinating relic of the Victorian age."

Thomas and Fanny Gelletlie, meanwhile, were living over the jewellers' shop and rearing their children, Francie, Cecil and Lillie. Cecil, the only boy, became the favoured fishing and shooting companion of his uncle Charles.

A life being lived elsewhere was heading their way. Maureen Murtagh of Cootehill, Co Cavan, was born to a farming family but had an aunt who decided her life for her. "She said to my mother that I should go into the hotel business," Maureen explains, "because then I'd at least be well fed and have a clean room and bath. It's given me those but I've given it my life too. It's been a way of life - but I wanted to be in the hotel business anyway because I liked meeting people and liked the buzz."

Maureen Murtagh arrived in the area in the late 1930s to work first in Kilmacurragh Hotel, near Redcross, Co Wicklow. From there she moved to Hunter's as a trainee manager.

Maureen and Sarah Gelletlie got on famously. Maureen got on even more famously with Cecil Gelletlie. None of this cordiality prevented her taking off for a stint managing the Bundoran Great Northern - but it did bring her back. In 1944 she married Cecil.

Maureen was Catholic, Cecil Protestant, "a thorny issue in those days", Tom says. They lived over the shop in Wicklow town and had five children - Joan, Helen, Ruth, Richard and Tom. "As Aunt Sarah grew older, my mother helped more and more with the running of the hotel," Tom says. "Cecil, my father, died in 1964. Aunt Sarah, who died in 1966, left the hotel to my mother, Maureen."

Maureen runs today's hotel with Richard as hotel manager and Tom, who modestly says he "helps out". The Gelletlie daughters all opted for lives outside the family business; Joan lives locally, Helen in Dublin and Ruth in Leeds.

Maureen Gelletlie remembers vividly how "the pattern of business has changed. In earlier days, when Aunt Sarah was running things, husbands home on leave from the services would bring wife, children and nanny and stay for three to four weeks. They'd go off in the middle of the day with wine and baskets of food to picnic. In the evening they would have high tea.

"Later on, when bicycles came into vogue, cycling parties would cycle from Dublin to stay. Then literary groups would come down from Trinity College, go on walking tours, make a note of the first spring flowers and such. There was no radio and no TV and, until the end of the 1940s, no telephone from midday on Saturday to Monday morning. The advent of the car meant more people came and went for short stays."

Hunter's 16 bedrooms are "completely as they were in terms of their sense of time", Maureen says, "though they've all modern comforts. A few years ago we installed phones - but everyone has their own phone now so we needn't have done so!"

They don't do weddings and functions in Hunters, just a very steady restaurant and return visitors trade. The continuity of ownership is important and reassuring for guests, Maureen says, though a newer Ireland is reflected in the 30 staff members. Most are local but others come from Belarus, China and Hungary. Chef Martin Barry is from Waterford and is aided and abetted by Jeys Warren, from Surinam via Sri Lanka. Bernie Smullen has been with Hunter's for 30 years, Margaret Thompson is assistant manager to Richard.

Richard Gelletlie, proving that history really does repeat itself, married Joan Kavanagh, a goldsmith and jeweller who runs the Wicklow shop. Tom travels to work in Hunter's from his south Dublin home; Maureen Gelletlie lives with the job in Hunter's Hotel. The hotel's future, Tom says, lies safely within the family, with Richard's children. "It's an all-absorbing thing," he understates, "running a hotel." Or a way of life, as Maureen Gelletlie would have it.