Tuesday 13 November 2018

A very Brennan Christmas: Get festive with Francis

Christmas Day is the busiest day of the year for hotelier Francis Brennan. But for a man who also juggles TV shows, books and a line of homewares for Dunnes Stores, he wouldn't have it any other way

National treasure: Francis Brennan. Photo: Fran Veale
National treasure: Francis Brennan. Photo: Fran Veale
Francis Brennan with his toy sheep 'Franics' and 'John' from his range at Dunnes stores. Photo: Fran Veale
Ambassador: Francis Brennan welcomes this year's Rose of Tralee contestants to the Park Kenmare. Photo: Domnick Walsh

Leslie Ann Horgan

In front of me stands a snowy-haired man with a fur-trimmed hat and a twinkle in his eye.

 "Ho ho ho," he cries, not in a booming baritone but, rather, a lilting singsong. "Ho ho ho!" As everyone on the photoshoot set dissolves into giggles, he gives a knowing smile. Christmas might be serious business for both the big man from the North Pole and this slight elf from the Kingdom - but that doesn't mean that they can't have fun with it. As I step forward and introduce myself to national treasure Francis Brennan, I feel like all of my Christmases have come at once.

The first thing to know about Francis in the flesh is that he's exactly like he is on his hit TV shows, At Your Service and Francis Brennan's Grand Tour. Fizzing with energy, he talks a mile a minute, making sure to engage every person in the room. A born host and organiser, in the middle of our photoshoot he was to be found wrestling an 8ft Christmas tree into the perfect position, despite the real risk of being crushed by it - not the typical behaviour of a photoshoot star.

In person, however, there's something more real about Francis' loud exclamations and dramatic flourishes. When he speaks it's with warmth but also an underlying authority befitting of a man who runs a successful, and demanding, business empire - including his hotel, the Park Kenmare, TV shows, several books and a line of homewares with Dunnes Stores (most recently featuring umbrellas that "pop up and pop down - hello!").

Francis Brennan with his toy sheep 'Franics' and 'John' from his range at Dunnes stores. Photo: Fran Veale
Francis Brennan with his toy sheep 'Franics' and 'John' from his range at Dunnes stores. Photo: Fran Veale

It's an empire built on politeness, propriety and good, old-fashioned manners. Where others might bark orders, he uses his bonhomie to coax and cajole. If the Francis Brennan we see on TV is a construct for the cameras, then the man is a committed method actor. (Later he'll tell me how the hotel stocks up on batteries for use by the guests whom Santa has visited. Two years ago, a local man who had heard Francis mention the batteries on the radio drove up on Christmas morning hoping to buy some. Francis gave them to him for free: "I was delighted to, when you do those sort of things you get it back a hundredfold," he says. I'm struck by the contrast with another leading businessman, Michael O'Leary, who has told how he doubled the price of batteries on Christmas Day in his own early days as a shopkeeper.

Santa hat off and cameras away, we sit down with a pot of tea to talk about what makes a Francis Brennan Christmas.

"The most important thing about Christmas is to be prepared," he states - unsurprisingly for the man whose Book of Household Management was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award this year. "I have my presents wrapped since early November. I buy all year round for Christmas presents - that way I'm never under pressure. If I'm in London or Milan or New York and I see a nice little silk bag or slippers and it reminds me of a person I'll pick it up. I have one wardrobe in the spare bedroom and I put all the stuff in there."

I presume that he's an expert gift wrapper? "I do like to wrap and I like it to be right, with a nice ribbon and tags," he says. "It adds to it. When we were kids, my father - who was a shopkeeper - used to wrap our Easter eggs in lovely brown paper, and they would be up on the shelf. I always used to think about that lovely brown paper and how we'd have to ruin it to open it!"

Though Francis (63) says there's "just me in the house", he has a brood of 11 nieces and nephews to buy presents for. "I never once missed one of their birthdays or one of their major days," he says proudly. "But when they are 21 they get a card and a ticket for two for around the world..." "An around-the-world ticket?!" I splutter. "That must make you favourite uncle for all time?"

"It's a great present because it opens their minds with a bit of travel," he replies modestly. "And they can bring a friend, and between them they'll have enough money. And that's the end of it - they don't get a card when they're 22."

Ambassador: Francis Brennan welcomes this year's Rose of Tralee contestants to the Park Kenmare. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Ambassador: Francis Brennan welcomes this year's Rose of Tralee contestants to the Park Kenmare. Photo: Domnick Walsh

He must get brought a lot of nice presents back from their travels, I suggest. "Oh yes but I told them to stop because I got grossed out with so many apples." Apples? "I started collecting them maybe 30 years ago. I must have 400 of them now in all various forms of porcelain, wicker, China, marble, glass… Some are coloured, some are plain, some are eaten. I have a lovely wooden one that's just the core. I said to them to stop, don't get me any more, because I have nowhere to put them."

In fact, he's in the middle of a downsize. "I'm selling the house. I have a big house out in the countryside and I don't need it, I'm never there. I have a more manageable house in Kenmare town. So I'm kind of tidying up my life before I get old. I have so much stuff I don't know what to do with it, and Aisling at Longueville House in Mallow - where they have a fantastic orchard and make apple brandy - heard me talking about it and said that she'd house the 400 apples in a proper place. I'll be thrilled to give them to them."

So no apples, but is there anything that he does want from Santa on Monday? "I don't need anything. Not a single thing."

Francis and his four siblings grew up in Stepaside, Co Dublin, with their parents. "We'd a very happy family," he recalls. "My father was a grocer so he would be mad busy until Christmas Eve. I worked with him, and we used to deliver big orders. My father would always be watching the weather like a hawk because there was no refrigeration like there is today, so you'd be always worried about it. If it was warm we'd have hams and turkeys getting excited."

It's not hard to see where Francis inherited his work ethic from. "My father worked 9am-9pm Monday to Sunday; he worked very hard. The only days in the year Dad had off were Christmas and St Stephen's Day, so they were real family days. We used to go to Sligo a lot because my mother was from there, but at Christmas the weather was too bad and the roads were nothing like they are today so we stayed at home. We would have a proper Christmas dinner, watch television, play games… We were all happy. We were a real family, and we still are. I was talking to my two sisters this morning already, and my brothers yesterday. We're in each others' lives." What was he like as a child? "I probably was a little bit of mummy's boy because I had a lot of operations and I spent a lot of time in hospital," he says. Francis was born with a club foot and wore callipers on one leg until the age of 11. "I was in and out of the Mater and Cappagh hospital - it was quite a lot. Once, Mam got quite upset recalling how they'd told her I might never be able to walk.

"It never worried me, though. I never knew I'd a bad leg as a child, I just got on with it. I never played football, nor was I interested in it, as it happened. I was always happy, I believe.

"I can remember being in Cappagh hospital over Christmas. I went in in October and was there 'til February. I loved Christmas because Fossetts circus came, the Irish football team came, Dickie Rock… I don't know who didn't come! It was exciting. When I was going home I was crying because I didn't want to leave," he laughs. "It shows you the warmth that was in the hospital. I'm a patron of Cappagh today. It's nice to give back to something that helped you. I might not be walking but for them."

Today, the quick-on-his-feet Francis could give Old Saint Nick a run for his money in terms of a productive December. With the Park Kenmare closed for most of the month, you could forgive him for taking a holiday, but instead he was drumming up business from that all-important US clientele. "I was working in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut with [luxury hotels federation] Relais & Chateau. We are one of their 440 worldwide members."

That work involved being on the road, calling to the travel agents, each of whom he endeavours to visit at least once every three years to make sure that the Park stays fresh in their minds. "Last year, I did 19 cities over two trips. This trip had eight cities. There's no point in standing in Kenmare with nothing happening when I could be working in America. If I don't go and tell people I'm there…"

He'll be back in the States again at the end of January, on a trip that will take him right up to March. "Near St Patrick's Day we partner with Sisley, the range of products that we use in our spa. Five-star department stores like Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdales will invite their high-end clients for a free facial from Veronica, one of our therapists, and then I'll do a little talk on Ireland. This year we're looking at Boston, Chicago and Toronto. It's a nice, subtle way to get business for Ireland."

So it's not just the Park he's promoting, he's an ambassador for the whole country? "I've always been an ambassador for Ireland, I never stop. I'll also tie in with Tourism Ireland while I'm in America, and we might do six cities. We'll visit 80-100 travel agents and then we do a show. It's a tour round Ireland on stage, with lots of photos and people talk about each area."

Somewhat surprisingly for an industry that bore the brunt of the recession - Francis himself has spoken previously about how he lost heavily on investments and had to abandon his planned early retirement - he says that it's a case of collaboration not competition between Ireland's top hotels. "If you came to me and said you wanted a wedding for 200, well I won't do that but I won't let you go. I'll take you to talk to another hotel. There's a great camaraderie with all the Irish trade, there's a huge amount of working together. We never lose business.

"We've lovely new hotels coming on stream: Ashford, Ballyfin and Adare are going to be up there. I joke that we're like An Óige beside them, but that never becomes an issue because all of the houses have their own personality." The lively Park Kenmare opens its doors today to its Christmas guests, and what sounds like a hectic schedule of festive events. Today and tomorrow will see check-ins, dinner, and carols with mince pies and eggnog.

On Christmas Eve, Francis will attend midnight mass in Kenmare. "Well it's 10pm - an Irish midnight mass!" he laughs. "I love the Christmas ceremony because everyone goes. You do think, 'where were you last week?' but at least it's good that they come for one day a year. I never interfere with anyone's religion, however at the hotel when you come to work for me if you're 18 or 19 I'll always ask you about the second Sunday did you get to mass. Not that it's any of my business, but sometimes youngsters can come into the hotel business and Saturday and Sunday are busy. So I just give you a little prod once because it's the easiest business to lose your religion in.

"I like my faith. When I'm in America, I will find a church and go to mass. You immediately become part of a community. I find it interesting in America that they always have doughnuts or tea and biscuits afterward, so it's nice to go down and share the community spirit and talk to people. I've gone to mass all over the world."

Then comes the Big Day. "For me Christmas Day is the busiest day of the year. I'm in at 7.30am and we serve breakfast, then a light lunch, and Christmas cake at 4pm. Then, at 5pm, Santa Claus comes with presents for the children. We don't have tonnes of children staying at the Park but the staff bring in their children, who will have practised a poem or a piece on the tin whistle for Santy. It's absolutely gorgeous. After that there's children's tea and I always buy a DVD in America of the latest movie to show."

At 6.30pm Francis and his management team have dinner - the only time they'll all get the chance to eat together in the year. After an hour they're back on duty for the guests' black-tie gala dinner, followed by a sing-along in the lounge.

On St Stephen's day they, rather considerately, serve a brunch menu "so you can still have your bacon and eggs if you don't get out of bed 'til 2pm" Francis says.

For those with more energy, there's plenty of activities on offer - all under the command of games captain Brennan. "We have a treasure hunt round the village which goes down a treat. We have shuffle board, we do a tennis competition, we do boules - all simple, family games that are great fun. I'm able to get everybody to play it. For those who want to do nothing, we have 'guess the weight of the cake' which sits on the piano. In kilos or pounds, we can work it out for you, and you might win a prize. It's a bit of fun."

Is it genuinely fun for him I wonder, surely he must get tired of hosting? "I have worked 41 Christmases in a row and I don't know anything different and I'm very happy. I like to make people happy - that's really what I like to do."

After an influx of people on a post-Christmas getaway and another black-tie event on New Year's Eve, the hotel closes its doors on January 2. "Then do you sleep?" I ask. "No! I take my staff on holidays. On January 4, I have 42 coming to Rome with me for five nights. We do walking tours, night tours, take the big red bus, and go somewhere outside the city. Then we go for dinner a few of the nights. It's our 35th year." The trip is paid for by the accumulated tips left by guests across the year, which Francis doubles from his own pocket. It's an astoundingly generous gift from a man who insists he doesn't want anything in return.

What's the best present he's ever gotten, I wonder? "You're going to die laughing at this! We always have nice crackers at the hotel - I obsess over trying to get nice crackers. It's not easy because the standard has dropped hugely. Maybe 15 years ago I pulled the cracker and there was a foldy-up scissors. It actually gets through security checks at the airport because you can't see what it is. I have it in my briefcase and I have used it 500 times since I got it. It is without doubt the most used thing and the most helpful thing I've ever gotten. A scissors in a reception in a hotel is a piece of gold, because there's 47 rooms looking to cut things. We send them upstairs and they never come back to reception - we have all these lost scissors. But mine always comes back to me."

I had been going to ask what his worst Christmas present has been but seeing as he's delighted with a fold-up scissors, he must be happy with anything, I suggest. "I hate getting socks. I have a small foot so I have a size 9 and a size 5 shoe, so when I get socks I need to get two pairs."

So there you have it Santa, Ireland's king of Christmas Francis Brennan doesn't want apples or socks, or even some time off - but another foldy-up scissors would go down a treat.

parkkenmare.com

Photography: Fran Veale

Styling: Bairbre Power

Garland by Appassionata Flowers, appassionata.ie. Tree, mirror and decorations from Dunnes Stores. Francis Brennan The Collection is available at Dunnes Stores nationwide and dunnesstores.com

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