The King of Kenmare: what lies beneath
Francis Brennan is one of Ireland's best known hoteliers and one of the breakout reality stars of the last few years thanks to At Your Service, but little is known about the man behind the on-screen persona. He talks about sex, death, happiness, and his bad investments
Anyone who finds out I'm meeting Francis Brennan tells me a version of the same thing: "Find out who that guy really is, what makes him tick." Perhaps more than most prominent Irish people, there is a niggling sense that the hotelier's public persona is somehow too good to be true.
Surely, you can't help thinking, there is a hard-nosed businessman behind the soft-hearted host we see on screen in his multiple reality-TV programmes. Surely there is a devilish hedonist behind the patina of grown-up altar boy (in one glowing profile, he was described as "the widely beloved Saint Francis of Kenmare"). And surely, beneath his exterior of relentless affability - he has just written a book on happiness - there are hidden depths of discontent.
The 61-year-old Francis that sits before me is a much more muted version of his on-screen self: quieter, more reflective and less prone to twinkly stories. We talk about the happiness thing first, since that's why he's here. Amid the cosy anecdotes of the first few pages of the book - which is called Counting Your Blessings - there is just the tiniest suggestion of an indigo shadow across the endless sunlight. It's a reference to the old Mike and the Mechanics song, The Living Years. The lyrics to the song deal with a son letting go of the resentments he felt for his deceased father:
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my father held so dear,
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears.
I just wish I could have told him in the living years.
'Aha!' I thought as I read it. This is Francis, who dealt with the death of his own father in 1988, telling us something. And it turns out that he is indeed telling us something, but not what I imagine.
"I really love that song because it always makes me think of dad," Francis begins. "To me, it's about a father seeing his own father in his newborn son's eyes. It's really a beautiful song about connection and the importance of communication between the generations."
It's an interpretation that explains a lot about his philosophy on contentment and his ability to sail through negative emotions in search of positive ones. "Was there darkness in the song? I think the sentiment is lovely. I think there is a huge tendency in the modern world to over analyse things," he explains. "I actually think that one of the biggest secrets to happiness is just getting on with things. I feel lucky every day of my life. Truly I do. I have my family, I have work I love. What you see is what you get."
I plough on. He tells me, at one point, that he "would have made a good priest", he's never touched a drink and he's famously been to Lourdes dozens of times, but all of this only makes me even surer that Francis has a deliciously debaucherous back story to unleash. To settle the matter, he brings me back in time to a cinema in 1970s London, which was showing a lurid film. "I was about 19, I'd say, and we were there as a group. And the decision was made that about 12 of us would go to Soho. We got there and I was completely nonplussed. First of all, it was absolutely filthy. I mean, if it was going to be enjoyable and exciting, it would want to be like this (he gestures to the salubrious surrounds of the Westbury). My attitude was that I wanted to get out of there and I did leave after about 10 minutes."
Does he remember what he saw? "Oh, some bit of sex, I can't even remember. But that sort of shows you how I thought, even at that age."
He relates another anecdote from his youth, this time about getting the ferry to Holyhead. "There was a girl opposite me and she asked me to play backgammon with her, a game which I had never heard of. And she asked me where I was staying in London and I told her and she said, 'Oh, you should come and stay at my apartment.' And I realised what was happening and I said to myself, 'Oh, I'm running a mile now.' She was fluttering her eyelashes at me. In the hotel business, you'd be well able to handle things like that."
So, he never felt desire for someone? "I've never lusted after anyone. I suppose I'm what you would call asexual. I'm always too tired anyway. So forget that. [Sex] doesn't interest me at all." With anyone - male or female?
"Well, everyone is always probing this point. When you're 61 and unmarried, there are assumptions made. People think I'm gay but, just so you know, I'm not. I would have had (men) coming on, not in my youth, but as an adult. Nothing too heavy. A wink and a nod."
But, I think aloud, he spent a lifetime working in hotels, surely the most natural of settings for sin. No, Francis assures me, and in the early days, he scoured his own establishments clean of that kind of thing. "During our induction for staff, we talk about a million different things, but one of these is sex. When we had a staff house, we didn't like the sexes mixing and I would tell them straight out. I didn't even blush. Many of them would be 18 or 19, away from home for the first time, and I'd just say to them, 'Think about what your mum and dad would like you to do.'"
This attitude is also extended to the guests: "Well I used to tell couples that they couldn't go upstairs unless they were married. That was in 1978 in Cork. Some fellow had come back from a pub with a girl. They accepted it; they went to the bar and had a drink and she went home."
Another time, a Korean man rang down to the front desk politely requesting what Francis could only assume to be a prostitute. "And I said no, no, no, this is Ireland and this wasn't possible. I wouldn't have even known where to get a woman in those days. Well, I'm sure there was some street in Cork, but I didn't know where that was."
His conservative values - which he's careful to point out have evolved greatly over the years - and the course of his life, were very much influenced by the twins pillars of faith and duty. Although he is associated with Kerry, through his ownership of the Park Hotel in Kenmare, he grew up in Sandyford in south county Dublin, where his childhood was somewhat marred by the pain of a club foot. He was in and out of Cappagh hospital in Finglas and the condition prevented him from playing football. His family were religious and he inherited their Catholicism, as well as their pragmatism. "I used to be an altar boy and there were certain priests I was always careful to avoid. The other boys would tell me, 'Watch out for him now.' I was always a little worldly wise."
Years later, when the trickle of abuse scandals became a torrent, he wasn't surprised. "In terms of the way the Church handled those scandals, I think that they were overwhelmed and didn't handle it all very well. I can understand how the reaction of many people was to turn away from them. The older priests came up in the 1920s and 30s and their mindset was from then. There was also a huge element of not wanting to give up power - no dictator, be it Assad or whoever, wants to do that. The Church was much the same. Priests were people's saviours, going back to famine times."
His father had set up one of the country's first supermarkets in Stepaside and Francis, the third of five children, worked long hours in the shop, gleaning both his old man's entrepreneurial spirit (in his youth, he coordinated the local teenagers into a sort of babysitting squad, taking 10pc of their earnings) and his attention to detail. "He worked 9am-9pm, seven days a week. We never really spoke properly to each other, the way people do today, but I would say very few fathers and sons of the 1950s in Ireland did that. Nor the girls, for that matter."
After his father contracted severe emphysema in his early 50s, Francis, then barely out of secondary school with a single Leaving Cert honour to his name, also inherited the running of the shop. "I think the determination I learned in those years really stood me in good stead. What really struck me in those years was the sacrifices my mother made. She looked after him for 17 years of his life. She never even thought about, she just did it, and I think that was the kind of attitude we inherited."
Did Francis ever rebel? "No, I don't like conflict, I get a pain in my stomach when there's conflict. I never clashed with dad. If I ever had a row with someone, I'm never the better of it. There was no wild youth for me. I worked so hard, there was no time. I never went to parties because I was always working."
Francis went to work at the Park Hotel in 1980, but it went into liquidation four years later. He leased it for two years and then bought it in 1986 from a Swiss consortium.
His father pased away in 1988. Francis took the phone call informing him of the news while he was in Whistler, Canada, at a Tourism Ireland sales trip. He made the long journey back home in something of a grief-stricken blur, although he says the funeral ceremony itself was not sad, "because by the time he died, dad had already died many times". "I'd come back home each time and then he'd rally again. He'd really suffered enough. He gave his body to science."
His mother, Maura, is still alive, however. She is now 93 and the book is embroidered with anecdotes about her resilience (she learned to drive in her 60s, after her husband had passed away) and the closeness of their relationship. Was she the love of his life, I wonder? "You could say that, yes. She's been a huge influence on my life. I talk to her every night, no matter where I am in the world."
What about other relationships? "I've never lived with anyone in my life. I had a few relationships, but never anything serious, just college stuff. I work every day from 8.20am until late at night. The hotel business is a vocation."
He laughs at the notion that there is some shark-like businessman behind his image as a cuddly hotelier. "I hate conflict, but conflict is usually part and parcel of working in a hotel. But when people come to the Park, they often comment on the Christian ethos of the place. I'm always terrified of being portrayed as a holy Joe, but I don't know how else you'd describe it. I just want everybody to be kind to everybody."
Keeping going has been the name of the game over the last few years, as Francis has seen his various investments, "my whole life, basically", get swept away in the tide of recession.
"John (his brother and on-screen partner in At Your Service) used to say to me that I should fly business class and all that, but I was too parsimonious. I wish I'd spent the money now though! I had planned on a Westbury retirement, a five-star retirement, where if, say I went to New York, I'd fly business class. That's all gone now, my money is all gone - every penny of it is gone. I spread my investments, I would have thought I was very clever. But when all was said and done, it didn't look clever at all. If I'd taken all that money and, instead of investing it, just put it in a bucket under the bed, I'd be swinging now."
Not that he nurtures any bitterness about the experience: "(Businessman and former property mogul) Derek Quinlan was my man and if I met him today, I'd give him a big hug. He's a thousand times worse off than we are."
Francis does point out that he's "not destitute, nor will I ever be" and he has holiday homes in St Lucia, Majorca and Florida. His television career helped him through some difficult financial straits, he says. "It was incredible. I definitely did not see it coming. I get offered work all the time and have to turn down most of it. It's been a second career and I can tell you, it didn't do me any harm when I needed to pay my tax bill. Like I said, the Man Above had a plan for me."
Not that he's been thrilled with every aspect of his media career and there have been things he's taken issue with. He claims that The Grand Tour was unfairly edited as far as he was concerned. "They voiced me over as annoying people constantly, which didn't happen in real time the way they showed it. The director decided the tension in the show was me. The minute it was put out, I wrote to the director to tell him I'd never do another series. I was annoyed. There could have been another series, but not after that. There was no response."
We are back to where we began, I feel: to the slight disjunct between his public and private self. "I do sometimes have a feeling that the person I see on television is not me. In real life, I'm much shyer - I think a lot of famous people are like that, they take a deep breath before going into the party. That's the way I am. I don't like walking past people and feeling them watching me. But that's only a tiny thing, you take the good with the bad, and overall, things are very good. This is my life now and I also wouldn't want it any other way."
'Counting Your Blessings: Francis Brennan's Guide To Happiness' will be published by Gill & McMillan on October 2, priced at €14.99
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