Thursday 29 September 2016

Hotel New York: Meet the Irish staff that make Fitzpatrick's fabulous

The Grand New York Hotel

Graham Clifford

Published 11/09/2015 | 15:16

Shane Cookman, manager Fitzpatrick hotel Manhattan
Shane Cookman, manager Fitzpatrick hotel Manhattan
Jayne Wilkinson, Management Trainee
Shona Perry. Assistant GM
Eilish Sheehan, Waitress
Patrick Spellman, Chief Engineer
Kelley (Cronin) Turcic, Bar Tender
Jayne Wilkinson, Management Trainee

For 24 years, Fitzpatrick's Hotel has been a beacon for Irish visitors to Manhattan. Graham Clifford meets the Irish staff that make it tick. Photos by Nuala Purcell.

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The yellow taxis whizz by as I side-step my way through the hordes of New Yorkers darting in all directions on the busy sidewalk.

It’s hot (31 degrees), my holdall weighs a tonne and it’s been 14 hours since I left my home in Cork... but finally I lift my head to see those words which have been so welcome to Irish travellers to this town for the last 24 years – ‘Fitzpatrick’s Hotel, Manhattan’.

It is, in effect, something of an Irish institution. Set up by hotelier John Fitzpatrick in 1991, it has provided shelter and comfort to every Irish President and Taoiseach of the last two decades. But it caters too for Irish families who seek a home from home, business types in the city on work and Irish couples realising that dream of a weekend away in the Big Apple.

“About 30 percent of our guests here, and at our other hotel in New York, the Grand Central, come from Ireland. And our aim is to make their stay as relaxing and enjoyable as it can possibly be,” explains John Fitzpatrick who lives and breathes this hotel with his staff – many of whom are Irish.

“Our general manager Shane Cookman is from Donegal and while we have employees from many different countries it’s so important that there are those from Ireland too to add that personal touch,” he adds, sipping his Barry’s tea.

If the walls of this hotel could speak they’d have many a tale to tell.

Of how acting legends Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne regularly drop by for a brew, of the time they prepared Joan Collin’s Christmas turkey when her oven packed in, of political soirees and how it acted as an ‘unofficial consulate’ in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as young Irish people flocked to the hotel in search of a working telephone line and protection.  

A portrait of President Higgins hangs in the foyer and a tri-colour dances as an early evening breeze finally blows up Lexington Avenue.

“Our hotel reflects a modern, dynamic Ireland so we don’t do the whole corny Irish bar thing. We want our offering to be authentic, our service and attention to detail to be second to none and our customers to get that sense that we care about them and their time with us here in the hotel’,” says John.

Irish accents are everwhere - at the bar, in the lift, over dinner – this is the team behind the success of the Fitzpatrick Hotel Group, and here are their stories.

Shona Perry, Assistant GM

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From: Knocklyon, Dublin

In New York: Seven Years

“I first came here on a graduate training plan seven years ago and have enjoyed every minute of it so far.

The Fitzpatrick Hotel Group bring over six graduates from across Ireland every year giving them invaluable experience before they return home.

I had completed a bachelor of science in hospitality management at the Dublin Institute of Technology but always wanted to work in New York, the city just appealed to me so much.

And now that I’m here I’ve totally fallen in love with the place.

It’s so exciting, so fast-paced and there’s so much to do. They call it ‘the city that never sleeps’ and that couldn’t be more accurate. Even when you’re working unsociable hours it doesn’t matter. If you finish at 1am you can still go grocery shopping, to the movies, do your laundry, whatever you want.

I’m really into bike riding and the trails and treks around the city are so beautiful. You can cycle the length of the Hudson River or through Central Park, an oasis of calm in one of the world’s most electric cities. There are so many museums to go to, parties all the time, free movies in the park and the beach is only half an hour away.

Of course I miss home but now with WhatsApp and Skype the distance seems less. I don’t think I’ve ever been homesick but I’m fortunate in that one of my sisters works in Washington DC.

I do have a 20-month old nephew in Dublin and of course I miss not seeing him take his first steps or starting to talk. Also regardless of advances in communication you can’t replicate that feeling of sitting down and having a laugh with the friends you cherish and grew up with.

It sounds corny but Fitzpatrick’s is like a second family to me and there’s a real close bond between all the staff from the top down. We look after each other in tough times and have the craic together in good times – that’s what makes working here such a complete joy for me.

Jayne Wilkinson, Management Trainee

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From: Cookstown, Co Tyrone

In New York: One year

“Without a shadow of a doubt the last year has been the best of my life. I started working here on the 1st of September 2014 and will finish up at the end of August before returning home.

I was accepted into the hotel group on the graduate management trainee programme having achieved a first class honours qualification in international hotel and tourism management at the University of Ulster in Belfast.

Shane (Cookman) and John Fitzpatrick took me under their wing and I leave with more knowledge about the industry than I could have ever gained in college.

Of course I adore New York but sometimes during the day I half-forget I’m here at all as the Irish influence in the hotel is so strong. It’s only when I walk out those front doors and see the yellow taxis whizzing by that I stop and realise where I am.

I’m a country girl so coming to New York and integrating into the pace of the city has been a life-changing experience.

In March I met Tom Hanks and George Clooney at a charity event in the city, I’m always finding some quirky event or production to go to and since being in New York have seen Maroon 5, Sam Smyth and Mariah Carey in Concert.

On New Year’s Eve last year I surprised my mother, Edna, with tickets to see Elton John at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Fitzpatrick’s in Manhattan offers Irish graduates like me the opportunity to learn so much about working internationally and with VIPs. The responsibility that’s given to us and the experience we learn is unlike anything you’d find elsewhere.

Next week I’ll fly home and then onto London where I will take up a position in a Mayfair hotel. But part of me doesn’t want to leave. Maybe you can never really leave New York, I think it will stay with me forever and hopefully one day I’ll be back.”

Patrick Leyden, General Manager

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From: Tulla, Clare

In New York: 20 years

“Last year was special. The Tulla Pipe band were over for the St. Patrick’s Day parade and they stayed with us down at Grand Central. For me it was a lovely moment.

I first came to New York in 1990 and stayed for a year and-a-half. It was head-spinning, sure I’d just left a very small town in Clare and next thing I found myself walking down 5th avenue amazed by the sky-scrapers all around me.

Because of my mother’s American citizenship I was able to get a green card. After studying in hospitality at the RTC in Galway I came back to the city in the mid-nineties and then in 2006 joined the Fitzpatrick’s group.

It was the best move I ever made. We’ve had to weather some very tough days such as 9/11 and the economic downturn, but we’ve come through those. Occupancy in June was 95 percent which, even for New York, is quite remarkable.

I’m very fortunate in that I have two brothers and a sister living within 20 minutes of me up in Yonkers. At one stage all eight of us were out here in New York.

When I can get to the beach I do. Like just 45 minutes’ drive from the city is Jones beach on Long Island, it’s stunning and provides a break from city life. Also I love the San Gennaro festival in little Italy where they carry the statues through the streets. It’s hard to believe that still goes on in New York with all the changes.

I couldn’t imagine moving home to Ireland for good. I like going back to Tulla but after a few days I start getting a bit twitchy. I suppose I now have two homes – the best of both worlds.

Kelley (Cronin) Turcic, Bar Tender

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From: Cabra, Dublin

In New York: 16 years

“I was just off the flight working in an Irish bar in Queens and at the first table I served in my first job I met my future husband John! Can you believe that? And I actually asked him out!

When I first arrived I really didn’t know what to expect or if I’d stay here that long.

I’d worked in hair-dressing in Dublin for six years but decided I had to see what all this New York fuss was about.

My parents met in New York and the three eldest in our family were born here, I, myself, am a naturalised citizen. So in 1999 I came out on a six-month open ticket and sure I’m still here.

I’ve been with the Fitzpatrick’s group for nearly two years and I love it. As a bar tender you’re really busy during the week as most guests are here on business. But at the weekend you get a little more time to chat and have a laugh with those on holiday.

The Irish who come over love the accent. Everyone tells me I still have a very strong Dublin accent but sure when I go home they say ‘here comes the yank’!

I live up on Woodside which used to be a very Irish area but gradually that Irish influence seems to be fading away. I think the recently arrived Irish no longer stick to one area and can be found living anywhere in New York.

Do I miss Dublin? Of course, I think there’d be something wrong if you didn’t have a longing for home but my parents come out every year and stay for six weeks and I get home as often as I can."

Patrick Spellman, Chief Engineer

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From: Rosemount, Westmeath

In New York: 20 years

“I was home for the Leinster football final defat to the Dubs, it was a bit disappointing but what harm. We had a great time, I would have been gutted if I’d missed that.

When I came to New York it was because things were fierce quiet at home on the work front. I was doing a bit in construction but had nothing solid.

My brother John, who’s in the NYPD, was here so I thought I’d come over to him to see if I could get work and build a career – and thankfully I have.

I started working with Fitzpatrick’s four years ago and cover both the Manhattan and Grand central hotels making sure everything runs smoothly in both. I have lads in both hotels also who look after technical problems when they arise. With 92 rooms in this hotel and 151 down in the one in Grand Central it’s inevitable that you’ll have issues to address every day.

New York has been good to me really. This city gets under your skin, you can’t shake it off, it’s addictive, and the buzz is never-ending.

I married an Italian American and we have three beautiful children - Roisin (5), Padraig (8) and Niamh (9).

Of course there are times when I miss home. I get back whenever I have the chance. I pop up to Gaelic Park now and again, the home of GAA in New York, but it’s not as it used to be. I suppose a lot of the younger lads from home are heading for Australia and elsewhere rather than here.

Overall life here is very good. Now if I could just get my golf handicap down it’d be perfect!”

Eilish Sheehan, Waitress

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From: Ballyconnell, Cavan

In New York: 16 years

“You know something, this city can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. If you see someone running it doesn’t mean you have to run too, you find your own pace.

I started working for Fitzpatrick’s immediately after arriving in New York in 1999 and in terms of job satisfaction I couldn’t have been more fortunate.

Initially I didn’t think New York was for me. In my first year here I think I went home to Cavan six or seven times, sure I’d pop back for a long weekend!

Soon after arriving of course 9/11 happened. I was working that morning and the sirens were blaring outside the hotel, there was confusion and shock everywhere. I couldn’t contact my family as all the phone lines were down. Immediately after that they told me to come home but I stuck it out.

I’m an outdoor person and find New York offers so much. I love cycling, hiking, water-sports, you can do all of that here. Like you can find head-space. You can sit in the middle of Central Park and experience total calm…as if I was back at home.

But Fitzpatrick’s is one of the main reasons I’ve stayed here. It literally feels like a home.

You take a pride in its success and do everything you can to achieve it.

When you’re away from home and don’t have your own family around the camaraderie and friendship here can be wrapped around you and make you feel safe. You can’t put a price on that.”

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