Hotels don't have to hire Irish staff, but it's nice to meet the natives
I don't want to sound like an adherent of one of those burgeoning European political parties which are hostile to immigrants – because I'm not hostile to immigrants. How could any Irish person be so, from a nation which has experienced so much migration?
But I do think there is a valid observation to be made about the hotel and catering trade in Ireland: which is that you may often stay in an Irish hotel and never encounter an Irish person on the staff. I've stayed in a couple of top hotels in recent months around the country and that has been the most noteworthy aspect of the sojourns.
The reception and catering staff have been very polite, competent at their jobs, and crisply helpful: there's just a faint absence of a traditional "Cead Mile Failte" about the experience.
I'm not going to name these hotels because, firstly, I'm usually the guest of a local festival or event where I've been invited to speak, and it's churlish to complain about what you haven't paid for. And secondly, I would not wish anyone to be victimised, or have their job put in jeopardy, especially when they are working perfectly conscientiously. My comments are general, not specific, although drawn from personal experience.
But I will be specific about the other side of the coin, because it illustrates the point. One of Ireland's great hotels is the Listowel Arms in Co Kerry: alas, I wasn't able to be at Writers' Week there this year, but I have long experience of this venue, and when you walk in the door, you really do get a true Kerry welcome.
Not all the staff are Irish but there are enough Kerry people among the mixture for you to feel that you are savouring the vin du pays – the flavour of the place you are in. When you're in a hotel, you're by definition a visitor to the area, and it's nice to meet the natives.
This is particularly true for Americans, says Mitzie Corscadden, a doyenne of the Irish hotel trade, who owns three stunning manor house hotels: the Cabra Castle Hotel in Cavan, the Bellingham Castle in Louth and the Ballyseede Castle in Tralee.
"The American visitors especially want to meet Irish people when they stay at a hotel," she says.
A lot of her staff are Irish – the St Louis convent girls from Carrickmacross often start out training with her in the school holidays – and that really does please the American clientele.
But there are also some overseas staff and they are very good. If possible, the best thing is to try and maintain a balance, so that the hotelier is free to hire the best candidates: and yet, to bear in mind that visitors often like to encounter Irish people as part of a hotel experience.
Yet it seems that hiring Irish staff is not always an option, according to another hotel spokeswoman in south Co Dublin. Irish applicants for hotel jobs tend to be pickier about what they will and won't do. She says: "When I put up a job advertisement, we'll receive about 120 applications. Many of the overseas staff would have a lot more experience, and to be frank, they're often keener.
"Irish youngsters will tell you they don't want to work weekends – our busiest time, usually – or they'll request the Saturday night off, or phone in sick just when they're needed most.
"Many younger Irish people would be living with their families, and they don't need the money that badly. Immigrant staff have rent and bills to pay, so they'll put in the hours."
Some Irish applicants too want to go straight into a senior position, rather than climbing the ladder from the bottom.
Having said that, she added, there are hard-working Irish people who are excellent. But when the job applications come in, you have to choose the most suitable candidates.
Any discrimination on nationality grounds would be unfair and indeed illegal. But there is surely some room for nuance in the catering trade, just as there is in the area of domestic help. If you are hiring a nanny for young children, say, it's not unreasonable to prefer a woman of 43 (as, for instance, is baby Prince George's nanny) rather than a man of 23, even if he is trained.
There are certain jobs where an element of preference is reasonable, and certain jobs where the profile is part of the qualification.
In hotels, which especially cater for overseas tourists, let's say it is a friendly advantage if their front-of-house staff can be Irish. It just adds a soupcon of authenticity to the visitor's experience.
I'm not suggesting that anyone who is doing their job properly should be displaced; but in the next round of hirings, it might be something to bear in mind – that it's hospitable for visitors if the meeting-and-greeting staff are natives. It's not necessary, but it strikes a congenial note.
It's not about disfavouring overseas staff, but getting a good mixture.
The catering business is always going to be cosmopolitan, but a hotel does seem a little soul-less if you can't tell whether you're in Cork, Amsterdam or Sydney because the ambience is identical everywhere.
When in Dublin, I like having tea at the Gresham Hotel in O'Connell Street, for old times' sake, and there's a grand mixture of personnel working there.
And I like it especially when Deborah brings the tea-tray, for she has the warm-hearted, authentic manner of the true traditional Dubliner. For me, an evocative Cead Mile Failte indeed.