New to the Parish: ‘The sleepy buzz is what I love about Cork’

Despite the ‘massive adjustment’ involved in moving to Cork from London, a South African hotel manager liked his wife’s native country from the start

Frits Potgieter in the Imperial Hotel, Cork: “I fell in love with the property. It’s the oldest hotel in Cork city.” Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Frits Potgieter in the Imperial Hotel, Cork: “I fell in love with the property. It’s the oldest hotel in Cork city.” Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

 

Frits Potgieter was sitting in his office at a hotel in the chic London neighbourhood of Kensington one afternoon last autumn when a question popped into his mind: if he could be anywhere in the world at that moment, where would he see himself?

“The answer was Ireland. I rang my wife straight away and said to her, ‘We’re going home.’ That’s how I put it. Even though I’m from South Africa. By the time I got home that evening, the ‘For sale’ sign was up and the bags were packed. She was ready to go.”

Ireland might feel like home for Potgieter, but the hotel manager’s upbringing was far removed from the life he now leads in Cork city. He spent the first five years of his life in a small town called Rundu in Namibia, before his family moved to South Africa.

“We settled in a rural area about a 20-minute drive from the Kruger National Park. We were surrounded by wildlife, hunting, farms and private game lodges. My parents are Namibians born and bred, but I would consider myself South African.”

Potgieter moved to Johannesburg for university, where he studied psychology. He was ready to embark on a career as a psychologist when he got a call from his aunt asking him to come and work for her. He jumped on a flight and ended up working in a bar on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

“I had never worked in hospitality up until that point and I just fell in love with the industry. I loved the buzz and the customer interaction. I loved the freedom it gave me to express myself.”

London adventure

After three months in Hong Kong, Potgieter booked a flight to London. “I wanted to experience another big city and thought: let me give London a shot. I started working as a night porter in a hotel just outside London, and from there it was onwards and upwards.”

He met people from around the world through his work in London’s hotel industry. “London is so multicultural. You learn to respect different cultures and what’s important to people, both with guests and employees. Working in hotels has taught me a great deal, not just about the industry but also about people.”

While working in a Radisson hotel, he met and later married a young Irish woman from Youghal, Co Cork.

“As soon as a I met her, I got a taste for Ireland. We started travelling to Youghal and I fell in love with the place. Ireland is incredibly beautiful and it’s one of the few countries where people have got both the personality and the character. I found everyone incredibly welcoming and accepting. There’s also a real sense of community.

“It was interesting coming into contact with Ireland through a small community like Youghal. I’m quite a tall fella and I remember the first time I was there walking down the street, and people pointing towards me, asking ‘Who is that guy?’ I walked into a pub and was suddenly surrounded by people. They were curious about where I was from. People in Ireland are very generous with their time. They’re also inquisitive and very curious.”

The couple began talking about moving across the Irish Sea and kept an eye open for job opportunities in Ireland’s hotel industry.

“I have long adored London – it’s one of my favourite cities – but ever since we got married we were thinking of moving back to Ireland. Unfortunately then the recession hit, Ireland got into a tough spot, so we decided to stay put. But Ireland was always on the cards.”

Last year Potgieter decided the time had come to finally make the move. He began researching job openings in Dublin and Cork and discovered that the Imperial Hotel in Cork was looking for a new general manager. He was immediately attracted by the hotel’s 200-year history in Cork city.

“I must admit I fell in love with the property. It’s the oldest hotel in Cork city. The original facade was built in 1813 by a very famous architect called Sir Thomas Deane. It was the butter exchange and this was where the ships docked to pick up the butter and transport it around the world. There’s such a rich sense of history here; we’ve tried to keep up the aesthetics and the grandeur of it.”

A quieter life

Swapping life in bustling London for a much quieter existence in Cork has been a “massive adjustment”, he says.

“There are times when I miss the pace, although one of the key reasons we moved to Ireland was to work at a different pace. But Cork is beautiful. It’s quite medieval and has a great sense of history. But it’s really about the people. The people here take their time with each other and really get to know you.

“I’m used to getting into work at about 7am, but at 7am no one in Cork has woken up. By 8.30am it starts bustling and then by 10am you’re almost in a major city. It’s that sort of sleepy buzz that I love about it.”

“Cork is very diverse as well; you meet people from all walks of life. I’ve met magicians to pub landlords to some of the wealthiest business owners.”

Potgieter says his wife is thrilled to be living so close to her family, and he tries to make it back to South Africa to see his parents and brother every two years.

“I go back to South Africa from time to time; my family’s still there. But this is our home now. We’re not going anywhere. This is it.”

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish
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