WHEN visiting the splendid Castlemartyr Resort in East Cork three or four years ago, I met the delightful Dermot and Noreen Fetton. At the time they were both on the managerial team of The Dromoland Collection, which had taken over the management of Castlemartyr – previously under the Capella umbrella. The Dromoland alliance has now ceased and Castlemartyr stands on its own again.
We all know you can arrive and depart in many hotels without ever meeting a manager, but what caught my attention was that both Dermot and Noreen, and former general manager Andrew Phelan, were always very much to the fore.
They seemed to be everywhere, enthusiastically welcoming people, settling them in, and always at your shoulder just as you wanted something. They all were consummate hospitality people. They would take your coat, or your bag, order that drink for you; you felt you were 'home'. They were not the types to stand aloof and wait for a porter or some other minion to appear; they were so hands-on.
They were such a presence in Castlemartyr during a difficult time and helped bring it to the fore again, for it is a stunning place to be.
Dermot and Noreen have recently taken the bull by the horns, opening their own business, The Cloister Bar and Restaurant, at Abbey Street, in Ennis, Co Clare. Although neither is a native of the county, having spent 22 years working at Dromoland Castle, they both feel the pull of Clare, and to them it has become home.
Dermot, a native of Waterford, went to De La Salle College before going on to train with CERT in bar management. His hotel career began at the top of the tree in Dromoland Castle's cocktail bar, but he had a great desire to advance his knowledge and interest in wine so he moved to Chateau D'Artigny in France's Loire Valley.
At Chateau D'Artigny, he says, he was "absorbed in the world of wine, which culminated in my role as assistant sommelier in its two-star Michelin restaurant". He subsequently returned to Dromoland Castle as chief sommelier, progressing his career there before moving under the Dromoland Collection umbrella to Castlemartyr.
Noreen went to school at the Loreto Convent, Fermoy, before going on to study business and tourism in Cork Regional Technical College. Her first placement in the hospitality industry was with the Marriott Hotel Group in Boston.
"It was an incredible opportunity at that time, and I loved the buzz of the hotel. I learned a huge amount there – and particularly about large hotel groups. People were very friendly and responsive."
On her return to Ireland, Noreen joined Dromoland Castle. However, she did have another opportunity to gain further experience in America during a quiet winter period.
"I worked at the St Regis in New York. The St Regis was absolutely amazing and there was an abundance of staff and managers for everything. It was less friendly, though, than Boston and I would have found it more difficult to initially integrate with my co-workers. That being said, there was massive opportunity for progression for hardworking individuals and this was always recognised in the Irish.
"However, I just found that New York overall could be a lonely place sometimes and I decided to return to Dromoland and continue my management programme."
Romance blossomed for Dermot and Noreen when they met in Dromoland Castle, and in 2002, after "nine years of hotel courtship" they finally married. They now have a son, Sam, who is almost four years old – and they are back in Co Clare, which has meant so much to them.
"We have many long-time friends here. Ennis people have been extremely supportive of us since we opened The Cloister. It is quite a traditional town and its location is perfect between Galway and Killarney, and the coast is just 15 to 20 minutes' drive so we really have it all on our doorstep," says Noreen.
"It was our dream for many years to run our own restaurant and bar. A lot of advice we were given was to steer clear of such a venture in these times but the little man with the hammer kept chipping away and so here we are."
The Cloister itself is a rather special building in that it lies within the Ennis Friary cloistral buildings. The friary was established in the early 13th century and was once the home to more than 300 Franciscan friars and students.
As The Cloister restaurant is built within the friary enclosure, every part of its development has been scrutinised to ensure that it complements the historic buildings with which it is so closely entwined. The original 13th-century cobbled floor that was uncovered was painstakingly restored and has been protected with glass as a reminder of the historical and spiritual significance of this special place.
Dermot and Noreen know about good food and, together with chef Paddy Collins, they have created a very broad contemporary bar menu downstairs using the best of local and seasonal produce.
The food is really good and well presented, and one of the shining lights on the menu is chef Paddy Collins's award- winning chowder, which in 2011 took first place in the Kinsale National Chowder Cook Off, and Silver Medal in the Schweppes Chowder World Cook Off in Rhode Island. Let me tell you, it was so good, they could bottle it!
I also had a lovely smoked salmon with red onion, capers, and horseradish cream whilst my better half had a great club sambo. I was delighted to see, and thoroughly enjoyed, cracking zucchini fries – deep fried in panko breadcrumbs with homemade hummus. They are a great option for people who want to keep off the 'white carbs'.
Doolin crabmeat features on wholegrain bread and in a cold seafood platter of poached, smoked and cured fish, with Marie Rose sauce. Bacon is glazed with honey and clove, served with Savoy cabbage, creamy mash and parsley sauce, whilst lamb's liver is pan-seared and served on spring onion mash with a red wine and onion reduction. Whether it's a rib-eye steak, risotto, or fish 'n' chips you will find it at The Cloister Bar both day and evening.
The Cloister Restaurant upstairs is a fabulous space, which opens at weekends proffering a top notch menu. Think terrine of ham hock and duck foie gras with pickled vegetables and bread crisps to kick off, or maybe a tian of chilled lobster with wild garlic oil and aioli with pea mousse.
Scallops come with confit pork belly, poached hen egg and black pudding. Follow up maybe with pan-seared duck with beetroot and cherry jus; 10oz Hereford beef fillet with oxtail and baby spinach ravioli, Girolle mushroom jus, or a cracking seafood assiette with scallops, salmon, crab, lobster, spaghetti of vegetables and a lobster bisque.
Dermot and Noreen have an invaluable five-star pedigree in the hospitality industry and are committed to the core traditional values of service and excellence, which makes The Cloister the perfect venue for private dinners, family celebrations, and small civil weddings (up to about 50 people). And how romantic is it to get married in the 13th-century Ennis Friary Cloisters?
"Our motto is work hard, keep our heads down, and watch each other's back. It's a busy life and all consuming, but we are doing what we have always wanted for so many years," Noreen says. "The trick is keeping Sam out from behind the bar where he loves to 'help out'."
The next generation of hotelier is starting early!
Cloister Bar & Restaurant, Abbey Street, Ennis, Co Clare; Tel: (065) 686-8198