With foreign travel on the backburner for most Irish people this year, the lure of old-fashioned Irish hospitality has become increasingly appealing. Family-run accommodation has a charm of its own; it’s a home away from home with a more personal feel than many mainstream hotels.
Ireland’s Blue Book – a collection of country house hotels, manor houses, castles and restaurants – was founded in 1974 by 11 founding members, who realised that there was a gap between B&B accommodation and the larger hotel industry. Several of the original members have withstood nearly a half-century in operation.
Guests love the charm of a family-run hotel or country house, but what’s it like for the siblings who work together?
Francis and John Brennan run the Park Hotel in Kenmare, Co Kerry (parkkenmare.com). Francis took on the hotel in 1980 with a Swiss consortium, and took ownership six years later. His brother joined in 2002, and added Samas spa to the hotel.
The Brennan brothers, who both talk a mile a minute, are 11 years apart. They are the eldest and youngest of five children of a former grocer from Stepaside, Co Dublin.
We didn't grow up together at all ... we hadn't really been in each other's lives ever
Both recall that their father kept his grocery shop pristine, and his attention to detail is across everything they do.
"I always wanted to be in the hotel business since I was 11," Francis recalls, "Dad had one of those coats Fred Astaire wore, and I would dress up in that."
“We didn’t grow up together at all,” notes John. “Francis had gone to college while I was still in national school. We didn’t really have a relationship until I came to Kenmare. We hadn’t really been in each other’s lives ever.”
“It’s funny – in the TV programme [RTÉ’s At Your Service] everyone says I’m the accountant, but really I can’t add two and two,” says John.
“Francis would be more methodical, and I wouldn’t be good on any of that. Everyone thinks I’m the quiet one, but everyone who knows us knows it’s the opposite. I would have to know you to let that side out, but Francis would be full on thrilled to meet anyone.”
Earlier this year, John revealed that he had an incurable, if treatable form of cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Though neither brother likes to dwell on it, the diagnosis has brought them even closer together.
“I got an awful fright first but he got very good treatment, and the Lord was good. He doesn’t worry about it at all,” says Francis. “He never thinks about it and gets on with things, which is great.”
Celebrity chef/restaurateur Richard Corrigan and his younger sister Deirdre work together at Richard's Virginia Park Lodge (virginiaparklodge.com) in Cavan. Growing up as two of six siblings, Deirdre recalls that Richard was in the elder gang of siblings.
“I was always pushed out,” she laughs.
Hospitality was a big thing in their childhood home.
“For anyone who came into the house, there was always food on the table,” recalls Richard. “Tea, coffee, wild fish, homemade bread coming out of the oven. There was lots of wild game, so we got to taste great food very young. When everyone else was eating pots of mince, we were eating rabbits from an iron pan.”
And when it came to hiring staff, Richard knew he didn’t have to look much further than his younger sister.
“When I was trying to work things out, I rang Deirdre and said, ‘will you join me?’ and it was simple as that,” recalls Richard. “I wanted close, trustworthy people around me; someone who would know how this whole estate would operate. It turned out to be a very good move on my part.
“I always had a really particular feel about how things should be built – it wasn’t going to be just another venue. It’s almost like a big family estate.”
Adds Deirdre: “It’s a major draw for the clientele, the fact that family members are working in the lodge. There’s always a Corrigan family member working – our brother-in-law is the bar manager, and my husband did a lot of the planting on the estate too.”
I always felt if I did some things a certain way, Richard would find fault
While Deirdre marvels at Richard’s attention to detail, Richard admires his sister’s assertiveness. Still, forging a working relationship was a learning curve for Deirdre and Richard.
“I didn’t come from a hospitality background, so it was a big change in direction for me. It was a huge eye-opener. I had to really ramp up my understanding of food, beverages and gardens. I always felt if I did some things a certain way, Richard would find fault,” Deirdre smiles.
“That would be problematic from time to time, but I got over it. Generally speaking, he’s right. We’re really proud of what Richard has achieved, and it’s great to work behind him.”
In Sligo's sumptuous Coopershill House (coophershill.com), head chef Christina McCauley works alongside her sister Helen, Cooperhill's head gardener. The garden provides all the flowers for the house and in season, 90 per cent of the vegetables that are served in the dining room. Helen is also responsible for fruit trees and bushes whose produce are used at breakfast, in desserts and for jams and sauces.
"Coopershill is my husband Simon's [O'Hara] family home," explains Christina. "He'd have grown up abroad, but we grew up in Strandhill. Our family, who had a contract cleaning business, knew Simon's parents quite well. Simon and I took over the garden that needed attention, and really, we met on the job."
The sisters are “two in the middle of a family of eight,” with Helen being the elder of the two.
After working in Reuters in London, Christina found herself attending cookery courses at Ballymaloe and the Organic Centre before returning to Sligo. Originally working with Michael O'Leary in Ryanair, Helen went "travelling for a bit" before settling in Dublin.
“I remember thinking that I was commuting for hours, and I needed to go back home for a bit,” she recalls.
The two work together one day a week, while Helen embarks on a new floral business: “Whether we’d work every single day together, it’s hard to say,” laughs Helen.
It's lovely to be able to talk about the stuff we love about the job
Of the challenges of working with a sibling, Helen adds: “You don’t ever want to fall out with them. If one of us is slightly off-kilter for whatever reason, you instinctively know how to offer support, or to stay out of the way.
Christina credits Helen with being one of her main motivators.
“Even on the worst days of the year when the last thing you want to do is go into the garden, she’s there,” says Christina. “She keeps her eye on the ball about new methods of doing things, what looks good and what tastes good. We love working together on that. When you’re open in the season, it’s a very full-on job, but we plan a day together to talk things out and figure out where we are going. It’s lovely to be able to talk about the stuff we love about the job.”
Marlfield House in Gorey (marlfieldhouse.com) has long been renowned for its familial, personable vibe. After spotting the property in an advert in Country Life magazine, Mary and Ray Bowe opened the country house hotel in the late 1970s. Their eldest daughter Margaret, after working in conference management abroad, returned to the house in the mid-1990s to assist her mother.
As teenagers, both Margaret and her sister Laura were familiar figures around the period house.
“All our friends at school used to slag us off having to spend our summers as waitresses,” laughs Laura. “Margaret did a lot of front of house, too, but really it was pitch in whenever it was needed.”
We're both very organised, and pragmatic too
Laura originally pursued a career in London in film, as a set designer, before returning to Wexford 15 years ago.
“It [film] was a very exciting business and it makes you very resourceful,” notes Laura. “It’s very high demand, and with a child, I couldn’t do big movies and started working on ads, which I found creatively stagnating. The countryside was calling me home to roost.”
Where Margaret’s wheelhouse is marketing, front-of-house and recruitment, Laura deals with housekeeping, the gardens and the writing of menus.
“We’re both very organised, and pragmatic too,” Laura says. “We’re brilliant on crisis stuff, and probably operate much better in a crisis. Because we were brought up in the business, this is something we make work pretty naturally.’
Referring to Marlfield House’s familial vibe, Margaret notes: “I think it mattered more to previous generations of guests. These days, guests like that you know them, but it’s also really important to give people their space. In general, people know that family businesses are well run, because it’s in the interest of the family to look after the business well.”
The next generation of Bowes is enjoying a similar experience, growing up amid the cut and thrust of a busy hotel.
“They do love it,” Margaret says, referring to her two daughters. “The only thing is, we can’t get our girls out on the [restaurant] floor now.”
For more information on Ireland's Blue Book, see Irelands-blue-book.ie