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Sunday 21 September 2014

Restoring the heart of a historic old village

Published 26/08/2012 | 05:00

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A magnificent hotel in Slane, Co Meath has been brought back to life -- to the joy of the community, says Lucinda O'Sullivan

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THE historic village of Slane springs to the fore when it comes to rock festivals in Ireland. This is down to Henry Mountcharles, the eighth Marquess Conyngham, who pioneered the idea of open-air rock concerts in 1981 at his home, Slane Castle, to help finance the running of the estate.

Over the years Slane Castle has seen tens of thousands of people enjoy the music of Thin Lizzy, Bruce Springsteen, Guns N' Roses, David Bowie, Queen, U2, Madonna and the Rolling Stones. The Conyngham family have lived at Slane Castle since the late 18th Century and their influence can be seen immediately on entering Slane village by the four magnificent imposing Georgian houses which stand at the crossroads of the two main streets in the village and set the tone.

However, rock concerts come but annually. In fact, there is no concert in 2012 and life has to go on for community for the rest of the year. At the heart of this community for 170 years was the village hotel, the Conyngham Arms, and there was shock and a sense of loss on its closure three years ago.

Happily, the property has been bought, magnificently restored and recently reopened by a Dublin couple, Trish and Bryan Conroy, who came into the hospitality business in a roundabout way by purchasing and redeveloping another nearby Georgian property, Tankardstown House, 10 years ago. It is now a hugely successful destination for accommodation, dining, and functions.

Trish and Bryan are from Monkstown, Co Dublin, but they didn't know one another until Trish was out walking with her brother and met Bryan on the beach at Seapoint, where he was a lifeguard.

"I was pre-Baywatch, darling," she recalls with a giggle. "Even him being with my brother at school, we hadn't met until that point.

"I then went to work for Marks & Spencer in England, and when I was in the UK I came across Bryan from Baywatch again.

"It was a very strange story. I had this pretty little mews cottage near Maidenhead in Berkshire at the end of a long garden.

"The people from the house were chatting with me one day -- the chap was in oil and gas -- and it transpired that he was doing work with Bryan in the North Sea. I said, 'I know him -- Bryan Conroy from Monkstown' and so we met again and stayed together this time!"

In fact Trish and Bryan stayed in England for 22 years, living in Hampshire, and had four daughters, Georgina, Roisin, Lara and Amber.

Neither Trish nor Bryan is afraid of hard work. When Trish was in management training with M&S she did the lot.

"I got up at 4 o'clock in the morning and stacked bread and yoghurts. The company Bryan ran in England was involved in the maintenance of pipelines in the North Sea but I was in retail for a long time and then worked for a property company.

"Bryan ran his business for many years and dabbled in property, before finally getting out of engineering and into property development. I worked with him. We used to buy nice property in areas where you might divide a big old house into apartments.

"The stimulus for coming home was family -- the grandparents were still alive. My daughters were at a little convent school in England and they closed down the secondary boarding part, so we made the decision to send Georgina back to Ireland to school."

The couple bought a little house in Killiney but it took two hours to get to the airport.

"That was the motivation for the move to Co Meath. We didn't have any connection here of any kind but it was 30 minutes to the airport."

Bryan rang Trish up one day in 2002 and said he had found a house "with great bone structure". They bought Tankardstown and set about restoring it, lovingly and lavishly, as a private house.

"In 2006, I was still restoring and Bryan was still commuting, but somebody rang one day, who turned out to be a scout for the Ryder Cup, and asked would I be interested in them taking the house or my letting it. I was flabbergasted and said, 'Oh I don't know.' Then she offered me a large amount of money and I took 10 seconds to make my mind up. That is how I started up.

"For the Ryder Cup, I had 25 Texan men who were all involved in oil and gas. They were so lavish that their golf clubs were flown in a private jet. One of them had his 50th birthday dinner party here and they flew in their own drinking glasses engraved with the MacKenzie Cup!

"They were so gracious, I thought, 'If this is hospitality, I could do this with my eyes closed.' I subsequently learned that not everybody is as gracious as they were."

By 2008 Tankardstown had become so busy that the family moved out to a smaller house next door. Like everybody else, they have to gear their business to today's requirements.

"Business is tough, margins are very tight, we are still paying a very high price for labour, as everybody is. The stock we are buying in terms of food and drink hasn't gone down, but we have had to hold our prices.

"People are coming out to dinner but they are having a bottle of house wine; very little high-end wine is being drunk. Food prices are very competitive, so margins are very tight."

That hasn't stopped Trish and Bryan taking on the Conyngham Arms, which they bought from the Receiver for around €400,000.

"It was sad to see it closed because in a village like this where you only have two high streets, the hotel is the heart of the village and it was like the heart had been ripped out of Slane. It is a manor village with a castle and I used always say, 'If I could only get my hands on that place' because I could see it had potential. It was on the market but for an awful lot of money. I wouldn't have been able to afford it and it wasn't the right time.

"What happened then was it began to go down so badly that up until Easter this year, the paint was peeling off the whole front of the building and people were very sad and very upset. We like to keep things simple, but we like to do them very well and we felt that this would be a very interesting addition to us as our 'little sister'. Essentially, it is a village hotel and that's one thing I learned in a short time -- the hotel belongs to the village, we are just custodians.

"Everybody coming through the door has a memory, a story, their mother got married here, their granny had her funeral party here, so it belongs to the village and they are all delighted to see life breathing through it again.

"We've had support right through when developing Tankardstown, from people financially, and people have got involved with us and they continue to support us, which has allowed this to happen. We have further plans, which is what we did in Tankardstown, to keep local employment.

"Everyone here lives around here and we have developed about four acres of vegetable gardens at Tankardstown, so we are growing all our own vegetables. We have chefs who are interchangeable between the two kitchens.

"It is a different style and a different property, it is not meant to be fine dining, but there is great fun here, there is a great buzz."

Trish says her motivation was to get the 15 en-suite bedrooms as an overflow for Tankardstown but she soon learned that the locals were dying for them to open up the ground-floor area.

"I thought, 'My God, there is a business here.' Because initially I had thought there was a recession on, so I might have to mothball it. However, we are hammered, we did over 3,000 people in the first 10 days. Phenomenal.

"Prices are very tight, food is very fresh, nothing is being frozen or stored, everything is coming out of the garden or from local producers, so it is good for everyone because what comes around goes around. The chef from Tankardstown oversees the kitchen but we have a new chef, Mark, and he has embraced it.

"The Conyngham Arms is here 170 years and is very loved by the locals, it is the heart of Slane. Anything that happens here is good for everybody because if you are in here or staying here, you might go down the road for an ice-cream or a newspaper, you might go down the street for a drink if you want a change of scene.

"When you have a heart that is pumping, it pumps out blood to every other area, so it is good for everybody.

"We are not competition for anybody already here, we are complementary to it. I believe that, and I think they do, because we have had terrific support."

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