Thursday 18 October 2018

Garrihy's Star of Doolin pushes the boat out with €3m ferry after braving the economic storm

Entrepreneur Eugene Garrihy, father of Love/Hate actress Aoibhin, has had his own dramas in a varied working life, he tells Fearghal O'Connor

Eugene Garrihy, Director Doolin2Aran Ferries. Photo: Eamon Ward
Eugene Garrihy, Director Doolin2Aran Ferries. Photo: Eamon Ward

Fearghal O'Connor

When the shiny new 200-seater ferry Star of Doolin pulls into the west Clare harbour for the first time in May, it will be a moment of great personal satisfaction for Eugene Garrihy.

The arrival of the innovative new ship to serve the Doolin to Aran Islands route will mark a €3m investment for the area - with the likelihood of more investment to follow - but it will also stand as a monument to Garrihy's own personal recovery from the traumas of the economic crash.

The aluminium ship, which uses huge stabilisers especially imported from the US to ensure a comfortable journey for passengers, is being built in La Rochelle in France.

It's being assembled Airbus-fashion, from parts manufactured at five different sites around Europe.

"The big plan is to get this one in and launched. It will be a unique boat here in Ireland and we have designed it specifically for comfort and sustainability.

"The bookings are very strong. We had a big booking from South Korea the other night, a huge amount from the States, and a lot from the UK, despite Brexit, and Canada because of connectivity. We can say with certainty that it's going to be strong for us and we think we reflect the general tourism trend across the board."

Garrihy is planning a complete renewal of the company's fleet of five boats with a smaller number of larger, more comfortable, more sustainable boats. Further stages of the plan are dependent on the continued strength of the tourism market but he is confident.

The plan could also see him bring his east coast operation - Dublin Bay Cruises, which operates five daily cruises between Dun Laoghaire, the city centre and Howth - to what he, without elaborating for now, describes as "the next level".

Garrihy recalls the scene on Dun Laoghaire pier on Easter Sunday 2013, the first day of the new Dublin Bay service.

"It was the coldest, windiest day. I had my three daughters giving out lollies to kids, trying to entice them on to the boat. We had put up bunting but the wind was so strong it blew it all down and into the harbour. I knew in my heart that even if we had got anyone on to the boat that they would have been sick if we went out. We didn't sell a ticket."

Garrihy had already endured a difficult five years in business. But, by contrast, his three daughters - Aoibhin, Ailbhe and Doireann - were enjoying growing success in varied roles in acting, marketing and social media. A few months after the Easter Sunday launch, RTE's Marty Morrissey had decided to do a five-minute live interview on the deck of the Dublin Bay boat with Aoibhin, a former Fair City actress and Dancing With The Stars runner-up. It proved a fateful interview for her father too, marking, he says, a change in his luck.

"It was a sunny day in Dun Laoghaire and just as Marty begins who walks on to the ship out of nowhere but Gay Byrne and his grandchildren. How in the name of God in heaven could you arrange that? Not a chance. The amount of retired people who sailed with us after that interview over the rest of that summer was unbelievable.

"It was pure luck, but in business you have to be lucky."

Watching the growing success of his daughters, and the hands-on help they were happy to provide to the business, provided solace to Garrihy as he went through his own business difficulties. And slowly, things started to come good for him too. Last year, Dublin Bay cruises carried 32,000 people. And Garrihy says that, as with the Doolin service, he has bigger plans for it that he cannot discuss for now.

"I could not have done it without them," he says. "My parents had given me an underlying confidence that was completely shattered. But what it didn't shatter was the confidence we passed on to our children and that came back to support us when we were really low."

Garrihy was born on July 17, 1959, one of 11 siblings. It was a day that was also tinged with sadness for the family. His oldest sister, Mary, then 17, called to the maternity hospital that same day to see him and say goodbye to her mother. She was on her way to Rineanna Airport, as Shannon was then known, to fly off to a new life in America.

In those days emigration was just a fact of life in a place like Doolin, where the family were from. Of all the children he would be the only one not to emigrate at one time or another.

But the family had a good life and a good business in the village. His father had originally worked in the local phosphate mines that employed about 300 people in the area and later worked in a local creamery. But eventually he went into business for himself, opening a petrol station and began trading with the Aran Islanders who would come over and back for supplies in their currachs. He would buy and sell fish from them and so also opened a fish processing plant.

"He was a trader in everything," says Garrihy, sitting in McGanns pub in Doolin, sipping a mug of coffee. "Vegetables, cattle, fish. I would be travelling around with him and it is only later in life you realise how valuable that experience was."

As a boy in the early 1970s, Garrihy would man the pumps at the family petrol station.

"We were lucky. We had the Cliffs of Moher and Bunratty close to us. In the 1950s and '60s the revival of traditional music had started in this area as well. If you took those three things alone it made this place a honey pot.

"People would walk the cliffs or the Burren and come back to a hearty fire in O'Connor's Pub and in there you had the local characters, the storytellers and the musicians who had not lost the old traditions, even though it had been dying out in the '40s because of emigration. So you would have Dutch people visiting Doolin, staying in a tent, maybe smoking a joint... free spirits who found this area. It was a special time," he says.

Garrihy moved on from the family business taking an apprenticeship in a local joinery shop and by the late '70s had moved to Dublin to work as a carpenter. He lasted two years.

"It wasn't that I didn't like being a carpenter and it wasn't that I didn't like Dublin, but the craic in Doolin was just irresistible. It was the time of the Lisdoonvarna Folk Festival and there was a lot happening around Doolin."

Garrihy began to fish for a living with his brothers, catching salmon and lobsters under the Cliffs of Moher and around Loop Head.

He met his wife, Clare, the daughter of the famous local concertina player Chris Droney. After getting married, they moved to Dublin and he returned to the city's building sites.

"I worked on building the East Link for two years, driving a tug pulling barges around the Liffey. I also worked on the new marina in Howth at the time and a reservoir in Delgany."

But it was a recessionary time and the work dried up. "I always had the comfort of knowing I could move back down here to Doolin to the family business. There was the shop and the fish processing, but at the same time you need to make your own way in life and so I decided to go out on my own in construction."

He got a job for his new company extending the water reservoir in Leixlip and he began subcontracting for fellow Clare company McNamara on a variety of jobs around the city, including on the redevelopment of ESB's building in Fleet Street.

"There was a canteen in there where retired ESB workers could have a cheap meal. I remember one day the place was full and an old man came down with his dinner so I stood up and let him sit down and didn't think about it again."

But a few weeks later Garrihy was in the canteen again sitting next to another man who began chatting to him. "I'm after taking over as regional property manager for ESB and I'm looking for a small builder," said the man.

It was the making of Garrihy's business.

Months later, at the ESB Christmas party, the man was chatting to him again: "Do you know why I took a shine to you?" said the ESB man. "In the canteen one day you got up off your seat to let an old man sit down." Garrihy smiles at the memory: "Do you know," he says, "it was a small thing but there is always someone watching you. That was a crossroads in my life. Once I had got one job with ESB, I was recognised as someone who worked with semi-state companies and so I got work with other semi-states. I was on my way.

"If you were to chase getting into a semi-state company you could forget about it so it was a major juncture in my life and it happened without even thinking about it."

Regular semi-state and local authority work allowed Garrihy's operation to grow and he formed Castleknock Construction, which he built up to a turnover of €13m per annum.

"That company reared my three daughters, gave us a good standard of living - holidays, savings, a few properties. It secured our future."

But by 2008 there were dark clouds overhead and within a year the company had spent €500,000 of its reserves to stay in business.

"I was in a state of disbelief. So many companies were going to the wall but I thought that because I was building for the semi-states that I would be okay. But I didn't recognise what was happening. The bigger companies were shrinking and coming down to my level and undercutting for work.

"And sub-contractors were falling like flies. I had three jobs on at the time and five of my sub-contractors went bust. That meant I had to take the hit and pick up the pieces and carry on with those jobs without them."

His accountant was issuing increasingly dire warnings. Garrihy faced a choice: "Either I kept going and got into a situation of recklessly trading and risk letting down people who had trusted me all my life or I go back to my accountant and do whatever I needed to do."

He put the company into voluntary liquidation.

"I tell you, it was the saddest day of my life," he says, growing visibly emotional.

"I had built it up from 1985. I had to make the decision on my own but when you turn around to tell your wife and your children the only sentiment in your mind is failure. But I've learned since that those are not the right thoughts. In the States, for example, it is seen that there is great value in that type of experience."

Nevertheless, there was a dark period of three months where Garrihy could not sleep.

Even recalling it now is obviously painful.

At his darkest hour he returned to Doolin for a few days. A straight-talking brother sat him down: "Get rid of your ego," said his brother.

"If you've been successful for so long and then get knocked over the head it is hard to do that," says Garrihy. But the advice stuck.

Even before the bad times, Garrihy, who lives in Dublin but spends up to half his week in Doolin, had become involved in the family ferry business in the Clare village. His two brothers had changed from fishing to running cruises from Liscannor to the Cliffs of Moher.

With his building company gone, he decided to throw himself into it full time and worked hands on for two seasons and they began competing with other companies from Doolin to the Aran Islands. After Garrihy joined, the business bought out one of the competitors, doubling its capacity, and bringing the number of boats to five.

"After two years of that I thought to myself that if the business worked in Doolin surely it would work in Dublin, which is the centre of the tourism industry. I had a couple of strings to my bow: I had experience of the sea and boats, I had tourism when I was growing up and two years with the business here in Doolin."

He went to look at a boat in Westport and it was perfect. It needed doing up but the mechanics were all good. Bank borrowing was not an option, so he agreed vendor finance to buy the boat and he spent time doing it up.

Some doubted he could make a go of a Dublin Bay cruise. "An eminent person said to me 'you know, Eugene, you are the fourth person to try this in my time. The other three failed'."

He quickly established why so few cruising boats were operating in Dublin Bay.

"It was incredible. Around Dublin Bay you have three country councils, you have three harbour boards, you have three government departments involved. There's the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, the East Link bridge. These are all people you have to get permission from to operate. When I didn't go into an early grave trying to get up and running… The only reason I could get through all of that was because I had been dealing with semi-state companies for 30 years and knew how they worked."

Despite his initial challenges, Garrihy is positive about where the tourism sector is at, and not just in Dublin.

"This is a very lucky area. You've the Aran Islands, the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, the best of traditional music. Any area would be delighted to have just one of those things. So you won't hear too many people along the coast here giving out that they don't live in the Pale, although there are areas further inland that have not seen any sign of recovery."

Driving through Doolin, he points out how tourism has impacted the place. Farming families have slowly turned over fields to camping, glamping, pitch and putt and B&B developments. Pubs advertise music sessions for later on a cold Monday night when bars elsewhere would be quiet and empty. "There would have been a view that no one would want to visit Ireland or a place like this outside of the summer months. But now there are a growing number of people who are happy to come during the winter for the waves and the fresh air."

Two years ago a new pier was built in Doolin. It was a €6m investment sanctioned by former finance minister Brian Lenihan not long before he died. It allows the boats that run back and forth to the Aran Islands - visible across the Atlantic swell - to run independently of tides and opened up the harbour for the more modern vessels Garrihy is planning to introduce.

But bringing the new vessels is just the starting point, Garrihy knows.

The success of the venture will depend upon attracting enough tourists but in a sustainable manner. Garrihy says his ideal customer for the Doolin ferry service is the independent traveller rather than the coach tours from as far afield as Dublin that come through the area. He believes it is a more sustainable form of tourism.

"Smaller groups and individuals are much easier to manage in an area like this where you don't have massive accommodation capacity. That's the type of person we are after.

"But in return for that type of person you have to give a better service, a more comfortable experience, more information, you have to engage on a more personal level. To do that we need more capacity on the boat for people to move around. And from an environmental point of view, it is better if you can take 200 people rather than 100 people in a boat with greatly reduced emissions and with proper sewage tanks on board."

His plan is to ultimately replace the five boats he has with two boats. The initial total investment for the first boat will be close to €3m, financed by Bank of Ireland: "It's a big private investment on the Wild Atlantic Way, it really is."

Key to the success of the investment will be to ensure that it remains sustainable.

"It's about making sure that we don't blindly promote the place to every sort of traveller. It's all about managing it properly."

Some 1.5 million tourists pass through the nearby Cliffs of Moher centre each year. Garrihy estimates that 300,000 or 400,000 of those come down the road to Doolin. As we talk, a modern coach pulls into the village and a tour party disembarks at the cold, windy harbour.

"There's an issue about the value of day tours to the area," says Garrihy. "Nobody is saying they're not welcome. They're integral to the tourism product in areas like this. But they need to be managed and they do not have endless growth potential. It is important not to allow a place become overrun by unsustainable tourism. I was at the Taj Mahal recently and there is an example of what happens when tourism becomes unsustainable."

Garrihy says that it is important that tourism is dispersed properly around the country, otherwise growing numbers would lead to a slow consistent erosion of beautiful areas.

His company is planning to promote sustainability by introducing a special coach service from hotels around the region over the next few weeks.

"We'll pick up at every hotel in Clare bring them out to the Aran islands for lunch and maybe a pint, bring them back by the Cliffs of Moher and back to their hotel. So rather than having 40 individual cars coming to the area you will have a coach. It might cost us money to begin with but we think it's a good idea."

The new boat, it seems, will be just one more reason to visit a Clare village that has long exerted a magnetic pull, for tourists and locals alike.

Business Lessons

How important is the tourism industry to a place like Doolin, Co Clare?

No matter who you are around here an aspect of your life is affected by tourism and 99pc of the time it is a positive impact.

Has enough been done by governments in recent times to develop the sector?

The reason the West of Ireland is getting more tourism now is because access is better because there was a major capital injection of taxpayers’ money into roads. The country is not recognisable compared to 30 years ago. There were good things done even if there is a massive bill there for our children.

How did you decide on a name for the new boat?

My father-in-law is Chris Droney the famous concertina player. He’s 93 and still plays. We went through 100,000 names but could not come up with a name for the boat. It was crunch time because we needed a name to register with the authorities. Clare, my wife, was telling him about the naming difficulty and he said: ‘Listen here to me now, there’s only one name for that boat ... the Star of Doolin.’ And if we get another one, which we hope to, it will be the Spirit of Doolin.

Name

Eugene Garrihy

Age

58

Position

Managing director at Dublin Bay Cruises and marketing director at Garrihy's Doolin2Aran Ferries

Lives

From Doolin, Co Clare. Lives in Dublin

Education

Ennistymon Vocational School and Limerick Institute of Technology

Family

Married to Clare. Three Daughters, Aoibhin, Ailbhe and Doireann

Pastimes

Golf, local history and conversations with friends

Favourite book

In The Heart Of The Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

Favourite movie

Any one of the Dollar trilogy

Favourite holiday

Coogee Bay, Australia with family

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