Why this man is the toast of new Irish writing
Published 09/04/2011 | 05:00
'The nature of the Irish when they go away is to adapt," says Maurice Hennessy. His ancestor Richard Hennessy left Cork with the wild geese to join the army of King Louis XV of France, eventually settling in Cognac in 1765 where he produced a beautiful aromatic amber orange drink that became synonymous throughout the world with brandy.
"People ask me why did you not make whiskey?" Hennessy says. "Well, because we were not in Ireland."
The only member of the family still working in the business, he lives in a chateau in Cognac where he owns vineyards and sells his eaux de vie -- the white spirit from which brandy is distilled -- to the Hennessy firm, which is now part of the luxury multinational LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton).
"I am a farmer," he says, although, fluent in several languages, he's abroad up to four months every year marketing the Hennessy brand not just in the US, but Russia, South Africa, Brazil, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Just back from China, he'll be in Dublin on Tuesday to host the Hennessy Literary Awards 40th Anniversary in the Great Hall at Kilmainham. "I see the world through a Hennessy glass."
His family never lost touch with the country they left behind. There are letters from the 18th Century about receiving 'potatoes from the old country'. "But my grandfather was particularly fascinated with Irish literature and the unique way Irish writers have with words."
This prompted him to launch the Hennessy Literary Awards in 1971 to help young writers discovered by David Marcus in the New Irish Writing Page in The Irish Press become more widely known. "I've been coming to the awards nearly every year since you took over the editorship of New Irish Writing in 1988," Hennessy reminds me. "Together we've seen a whole new generation of Irish writers emerge."
He drops into Hodges Figgis whenever he's in Dublin. "I picked up the new John Irving novel there, a storyteller I love. When Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize, I bought all his books. I particularly like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter." Most of his reading is done on planes. "It's a great way to overcome the tedium of long journeys. You lose yourself in a writer's world."
The Hennessy Gold Cup every February offers a regular excuse to visit Ireland. "Not that I need one. I come here a lot especially now that my brother Frederic lives in the old Hennessy home in Cork, which he has restored."
As a child in Cognac -- he'll be 61 on Monday -- he'd no thought of joining the family business. "I wanted to raise cows. I did my final thesis in agriculture. I went out to Africa as a volunteer, running a hospital in the former French protectorate Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso. I spent another year out in the bush, helping to plough and build paddy fields and purify water. We wanted to save the world."
When he returned in 1975 his uncle brought him into the family business. "Much like my dear father, who trained as a nuclear scientist and worked at Cern in Switzerland. When his brother died my grandfather asked him to join the firm. He was devoted to his family, so he left his research where he was very happy. He was against drinking. Even at 18 he'd only let us drink under his supervision. He'd give us every Sunday a little drop of wine, with some water added."
One of the reasons Hennessy remains in Cognac -- he has three daughters, and he and his wife have an apartment in Paris -- is to take care of the dead. "Somebody has to be there to make sure the roof doesn't fall off the family vault. All the family are there, with their wives and children, 250 years of family history. I just can't let it down."
He relaxes by growing roses. "But the deer keep eating them. So we spread human hair from hairdressers to put them off. They're very sensitive to smell."
He once tried writing a diary. "But if you're honest and want to talk openly about your feelings you're afraid a grand-daughter might pick it up some day, or your wife or your children. Maybe I'll write a novel instead about the Sun King Louis XIV arriving at our house and having to explain to him how we live. Compared to a child with an iPhone and a car, he had so little power."