The Irish B&B in 2021: ‘The B&B needs to be reinvented. What we have to offer is unique’

Jennifer O’Connell’s assumptions are shattered searching for the essence of Irish B&Bs

There's a small ceramic pig lying in a hammock suspended from a tree outside The Happy Pig, the B&B run by Irma Weeland in Kenmare, Co Kerry. Inside, there are pig calendars, pigs on the table mats, pig art featuring pig puns ("don't go bacon my heart"). And there are pigs on the menu, including locally made organic sausages and bacon for breakfast.

I don’t think I’m going to be able for the bacon along with the eggs, tomatoes, and mushrooms I’ve ordered, having just devoured Weeland’s fresh fruit salad and homemade pastries, but she persuades me to try it because it’s made inhouse, the old-fashioned way, boiled and roasted. I do, and I don’t regret it.

Weeland explains that the pigs act as an unofficial door policy. “When I bought this place, it was called Ashbury Lodge. And I thought, no, that’s too boring. So over lots of wine with friends, we tried out every name under the sun,” she says. When she ran a restaurant and bar in Kenmare, she’d always had a lot of pig art and pig ornaments around, so someone suggested The Happy Pig. “And it stuck. It’s perfect. I always think people who stay here, if they like the name, are going to be nice.”

I am here on assignment to figure out the essence of the appeal of an Irish B&B. I’ll confess that initially my heart didn’t exactly soar at the prospect. For me, a B&B is a place you stay if you can’t get a room in the hotel where the wedding is on. I imagine fusty, old-fashioned places of disapproving or over-familiar landladies with floral bedspreads and Sacred Heart lamps on the walls. Pete McCarthy captured how many people feel about the traditional B&B experience in his book McCarthy’s Bar: “It was half past five in the morning as I lurched through the front door of the B&B. Mrs O’Sullivan appeared just in time to see me pause to admire the luminous Virgin holy water stand with integral night-light, and knock it off the wall. Politely declining the six rounds of ham sandwiches on the tray she was holding, I edged gingerly along the hallway to the wrong bedroom door and opened it.”

I nodded along in recognition when I read this, though I haven’t actually stayed in a B&B in at least two decades. I confess this to Weeland. “I personally would never stay in a B&B. I go to hotels. I like to have a bar and have a few drinks,” she says.

The Happy Pig describes itself as a “biker-friendly B&B” and has a huge covered area for motorbikes outside, kitted out like a small beer-garden. There are no Sacred Heart lamps, and no chintz. My room – a twin, for which Weeland charges me only €90 because I’m travelling alone – is bright and airy with crisp, white cotton bedlinen, thick wooden shutters on a cast iron rail, a view over the lush garden and a welcome breeze coming down from the rolling farmland beyond.

Weeland, who is originally from Holland, got tired of the late nights running her restaurant in town. She sold up and moved to Spain for 12 years, but she discovered that she missed Kenmare too much. She heard that an English couple who ran a six-bedroom B&B on the outskirts of the town were keen to go back to England, so she knocked on their door and made them an offer. The Happy Pig opened three years ago.

What is the appeal of the B&B experience? “I just like people to come in and I want them to feel at home. I’d like them to leave feeling relaxed. We’ve had a few people come back now every year, even twice or three times. People that I wouldn’t expect; people like this one family – he’s a judge and he comes with his wife and three kids. They could easily go anywhere but they just love it. I’ve had a few people say to me, ‘Oh my God, you have to call it a boutique hotel’, but I don’t want to be pretentious. I’d prefer they’d come and it’s a pleasant surprise. Because really, it’s only a B&B at the end of the day,” says Weeland.

When guests check in, they get coffee and a slice of banoffee pie in front of the fire. “In the evenings, they sit in the sittingroom and when it’s quiet they read and we might have a little chat and I explain where to go.” Breakfast is served in the very unhurried atmosphere of her spacious diningroom or in the garden.

'Bikers are so easy. They just want a nice bed and a few beers. They want to sit around and look at their bikes and talk about their bikes. And,' she grins, 'I love men with bikes'

She was worried about reopening this summer after the last lockdown. “It was very strange. I talked to other people and while everybody was happy to open again, we were all very apprehensive in case it goes wrong again. Obviously, I felt really nervous about welcoming people. This is my own home. But it’s worked out great. Everybody’s been so relaxed. Everything is lovely.”

Still, in the midst of the staycation summer, there are a few shadows on the horizon. She and other B&B owners locally have had a few cancellations from Irish people who now have decided to go abroad. On the night I leave, there is a last-minute cancellation for a booking for four rooms. She is disappointed, but says: “What can you do?” She’s lucky that she doesn’t have a very big mortgage or a large permanent staff.

Before I go, I ask why she decided to market it to bikers. “Because I know from experience that you have to park your bike safely. And bikers are so easy. They just want a nice bed and a few beers. They want to sit around and look at their bikes and talk about their bikes. And,” she grins, “I love men with bikes.”

When I asked over Twitter for recommendations for the best B&Bs, five people mentioned the same place. It turns out, though, that that place, Castlewood House in Dingle, isn't really a B&B at all. "We would never describe ourselves as a B&B," says owner Helen Heaton, when I call to ask her about its popularity – it was awarded a Trip Advisor Best Small Hotel in Ireland award, as well as a Travellers' Choice Best Hotel for Service title in 2020, on top of a host of other accolades. "We're not the traditional B&B. But Irish people call us a B&B because we don't have a bar."

I want to see what is so special about her 12-bed guesthouse, which is solidly booked out now until the start of September, so I make the spectacular drive via Moll’s Gap and Ladies View to Dingle to the large, well-proportioned, purpose-built house overlooking Dingle Bay.

Attention to detail and comfort are part of the answer. It helps too that Heaton loves what she does. "You have to absolutely love what you do and be invested in it. You get up in the morning and you're thinking about it, you're thinking: 'How can I make it nicer?'" She looks after front of house, accounts and marketing; her husband Brian Heaton does all the cooking. There are four full-time staff, one part-time and one for the summer. The couple's own 16-year-old son is working in the kitchen on the morning I visit. Helen recently found one of her seven-year-old twin daughters folding laundry unprompted. "It's our baby," she says.

The essence of being a host – whether it’s in a small hotel or a tiny B&B – is the same, she believes. ”You have to love meeting people. You have to totally be invested in people enjoying their holiday.”

Helen and Brian met when they were both working in Ashford Castle on work experience as part of their degrees in hotel management. After they got married in 2000, they started looking for their own place. Brian's parents had built Heaton's Guesthouse in Dingle after they had purchased a site from a local landowner, and in 2003, Brian and Helen made an offer on the site next door. Even while their guesthouse was under construction, Helen was creating a vision for how she wanted each room to look, right down to the art and furniture picked up at antique auctions. She says that, from the start, "we knew where we were going because we both had that four- and five-star experience. That's where we were pitching ourselves. My whole thing is you can't just meet people's expectations, you have to exceed them."

Exceeding expectations here means 18 options for breakfast; thick, hotel-standard mattress toppers on the beds; organising druid weddings or humanist weddings and even – recently – helping a prospective groom to organise a surprise marriage proposal on a nearby beach. “We find with the people that we have, [it’s about the fact that] they know your name, you know their name; if they come back a couple of times, they’re nearly friends. When they’re leaving, they’re booking for the next year.”

Being a good host to her means “you never stop. I think that’s the essence of it. You never say, ‘Well, we’ve done our best.’ There is no ‘best’. You have to keep going and you have to keep striving. You try and take their stress away. You just want people to just relax, so there’s no hurry, there’s no rush. There’s no request too big or no detail too small.”

Denise Begley's B&B An Riasc is on a different scale, with just four guest bedrooms in a house built in 1996 which looks like it has been there forever, nestled between Mount Brandon and the Atlantic in rural Kerry. The former maths teacher sits me down at a table with the enormous spread she lays out for guests – a cheeseboard, crackers, several types of homemade pickle and chutney, cake and buns baked in her Stanley cooker. Food, I'm learning, is a big part of the modern Irish B&B experience.

Begley gave up teaching after her children were born more than 20 years ago, and decided to run a B&B instead. Gaeilge is the first language spoken here. “It’s very much the traditional B&B experience in the sense that we all live as one big happy family. The kids grew up with it, and they learned to be very sociable.”

Her daughter used to help folding linen, and even before she could read, she would call out when she saw a notification pop up on the family computer. “She’d say, ‘Mam, there’s an inquiry.’”

“The lack of privacy as a family is probably the main downside. But we have our own living area, and our own floor. The upside of having a traditional bed and breakfast is that you have a connection with people that’s missing in the Airbnb experience,” Begley says.

Breakfast is served from 8am until 9.30am, and guests can choose the night before whether they want sweet or savoury. Rooms cost €120 per night. What’s the appeal of a B&B holiday for guests? “It’s the personal touch. And it’s the story. It’s meeting another human being, seeing a friendly face and a smile. I’m very aware of the fact that people are trying to unwind and forget.” That’s particularly true this year, she says. “We try and avoid ‘the big C’.”

You have to love being a host, she says, echoing the other hosts I speak to. “I love what I do. It’s not a case of just getting heads on beds. I want people to have an experience that they remember. It’s the personal connection, the local knowledge and here it’s the food.”

After we meet, she sends me on some feedback she received from guests over email, where they extol the hospitality, the “yummy breakfasts” and the treats before bedtime.

She thinks B&B holidays have a bad image among some Irish people. “I don’t know if you ever read McCarthy’s Bar.” I tell her I did. “I think that is still in people’s minds. People need to be actually informed that things have actually changed and moved on. I think the B&B needs to be reinvented. What we have to offer is unique. But it needs rejuvenation,” she says.

She worries that the Irish B&B may be a dying institution, without a big push from the tourism authorities to promote it. With platforms like Booking. com taking their percentage, margins are getting tighter, and there's a ceiling for what people are prepared to pay. "I suppose the vast majority of owners are probably getting a bit older. There aren't many of a younger generation involved in this business. I'm not sure what's going to happen when they all retire."

Still, running a B&B has given her, she says, “a wonderful quality of life. And I’ve been able to stay at home with my children.”

In the beautiful 200-year-old farmhouse Kilcannon House at Cappagh in west Waterford, where she has lived since 1999, Gertie Ormond and her husband Pat run a two-bedroom B&B, with a separate self-catering cottage on the grounds. "Anyone that comes here, they want to be here in the country. They want the experience. They're not just coming to get their heads down for the night. They just don't come in and go to bed and go out again in the day. It's a whole family experience. We get to know them and they get to know us. The people that we meet, they have enriched our lives. That's all I can say. They're so generous."

If I’d been hoping for horror stories from this assignment, or at least a bit of moaning about the bad behaviour of guests, I’d have been bitterly disappointed. “I’ve tried to think and there is not one story that I could relate that has been a disaster,” says Ormond.

I tell her that's amazing, but in fact, the same thing is echoed by all the other hosts I speak to. Denise Begley puts it down to the fact that "they know they're sharing your home, and they respect that".

'The work end of it doesn't bother me. Staff are absolutely wonderful, but I'm not depending on anyone here. It keeps us young. I'm 74 and Pat is 78, going on 79'

Ormond agrees. “They’re all, ‘I love your home. Your home is beautiful.’ So they’re not going to do anything. You should see the cottage when they leave. There’s nothing out of a place. They leave it perfect.”

In return, she is a very obliging host. Ormond allows guests to choose whatever time they like for breakfast. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not doing anything. My day is my own.” Breakfast starts with fresh fruit, orange juice, porridge with whiskey (“that’s John Tovey”), and then guests choose from a cooked menu on demand, which includes things like vanilla panna cotta with banana caramel sauce and poached eggs with kippers and maître d’hôtel butter.­

Ormond grew up in a hotel, the Devonshire Arms hotel in Dungarvan, and trained with Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe. She remembers Myrtle pointing out a young Darina, who was behind a partition in the kitchen, doing all the weigh-ups, and saying "this is ­the future". Later Ormond worked with John Tovey, the first celebrity chef in Britain in the 1970s.

Room rates at "Gertie's" start at €105, and the cottage is the same, plus cleaning and service fees. She cooks evening meals on request – during the afternoon I spent there, her husband Pat popped out to her local butcher, Michael McGrath in Lismore, for a rack of lamb for the night's guests. Her fish is all sourced locally too, from Helvic Seafood. (Later I discover that my own aunt has had dinner with her. "She's one of the best cooks I've ever come across," my aunt confirms.)

They do all the cooking and laundry themselves, with the help of daughter Aisling, and their teenage grandchildren. Gertie also manages the enquiries that come in via Airbnb – “you have to be very quick or they’re gone.” They grow their own vegetables in the beautiful garden. Gertie’s day starts at 5.10am, and she rarely sits down until she goes to bed between 9pm and 10pm. Even during Covid, they kept busy with the garden, doing maintenance on the house and turning an old 8ft chimney breast into an en suite bathroom in her own end of the house. She shows me the vegetable bed, where she grows things like spinach, courgettes, onions, lettuce and lemon verbena, which she turns into a syrup to pour over her panna cotta. “The work end of it doesn’t bother me. Staff are absolutely wonderful when you have a good team, but I’m not depending on anyone here. It keeps us young. I’m 74 and Pat is 78, going on 79,” she says.

So what’s the appeal of owning a B&B? “As a host, I love meeting people. It’s as simple as that. I love to be chatting to people.”

The appeal of Ireland’s B&Bs, as far as I can tell, is in the friendly, enthusiastic hosts, reasonable prices, even at short notice in high season, and an emphasis on excellent quality, local produce. That may have been my first time in a B&B since the grim memories of post-wedding breakfasts in my 20s, but it won’t be my last.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times