Hotelier John Brennan has learned to live with cancer but it’s his overcoming dyslexia that he hopes will reassure parents of non-academic children. Here he talks about his new book, working with older brother Francis – and a Celtic Tiger-era fracas with developer Seán Dunne
Reality television, John Brennan wryly observes, is all about the creation of fictional personae. To watch RTÉ’s At Your Service – in which he and his brother Francis give business makeovers to struggling hoteliers and B&B owners – you might think that Francis is the acerbic one and John the dry numbers man.
In reality, that’s not quite the whole truth, John observes. Francis is “the serious one” and very much a numbers man (he once called himself “the brother who writes the cheques”), and John, 13 years his junior, is the craic merchant.
“We shoot with a single camera that focuses on the person we’re speaking to first and then it turns around to us. So I often have brilliant one-liners on the first take that I can’t remember when the camera turns around to me. And then, somehow, I can come across as dry.”
So you might imagine, then, that John would relish the prospect of setting record straight with his seemingly misspelled new memoir My Name Is Jhon. But, though his warmth and wit shine through, he had a different reason for writing it, the clue of which is in the title itself.
“I wrote it to challenge society’s opinion on people who don’t go to third-level college. There’s an obsession with third-level and it’s a business. Young people are battered by society’s expectations. Think about it: if your next-door neighbour’s child went to work in Dunnes Stores or as a kitchen porter, you’d say, ‘Ah, Jesus, yer man never really did anything.’”
John was one such young man. Growing up in Sligo (where the family had moved from Dublin) in the 1970s, the youngest of five children, he struggled in school. Reading and maths were especially difficult and he preferred to spend his time absorbed in motorcycle magazines.
“I just couldn’t study, I’d try to look at the books and my head would be fried. I never avoided going to school but I’d come home at three o’clock and not know any more than I did going in that morning.” Eventually his mother took him to a specialist and it was established that he was dyslexic. “There wasn’t even a stigma around it at that point because it was just unknown to the average person. It was just thought that a child who had it was stupid.”
He left school at 15 to work in a fruit and veg wholesalers and “was as happy as a pig in muck” to have escaped the classroom and be out in the working world.
At 18, he applied to the IDA for a grant to set up a woodworking factory and secured nearly €100,000 in investment – no mean feat for a teenager in the recessionary mid-1980s – but some people still weren’t impressed. He bumped into one of his old teachers on the street who told him, ‘You couldn’t join your hands, never mind two pieces of timber.’”
“You might be right,” Brennan replied, “but I did get a savage grant from the IDA, and you never had the balls to do anything worthwhile for yourself.”
As time went on, he noticed that working in the factory was a health hazard. Dust from the wood went into his lungs and he would cough up “black stuff” at night. He allowed himself to be bought out of it and instead threw himself into various sidelines including selling glow sticks in Lillie’s Bordello, the now-closed Dublin nightclub.
He also worked his way up through several positions at the Sligo Park Hotel. He stayed for 13 years, and very much cut his teeth there, but his exit was acrimonious and he writes that his superiors at the hotel “felt he was betraying an organisation that had nurtured my talents”.
“I was looking to open a hotel myself and the lease purchase documents were taking longer than was expected to be agreed,” he recalls. “They heard about this in the meantime and they weren’t happy. Just because I was looking for opportunity, I don’t think I should have had to go. I think they were wrong not to champion a person with ambition who was working for them.”
Things reached an impasse and his employment was terminated. The deal for the new hotel fell through also and John was unemployed and newly married to Gwen, whom he met while he was working at the Sligo Park (the couple now have two grown-up children, Adam and Ruth). With a mortgage to pay on a brand new house, which he had designed himself, he had to do something to bring in money.
So it was decided that he would work with Francis, his eldest brother, in Kenmare, Co Kerry, at the Park Hotel, which his sibling had owned since 1986.
“It was like being slapped in the face with a wet fish,” he recalls of the move. “Sligo had been about quantity and Kenmare was about quality. I went to work [in Kenmare] at eight in the morning and didn’t come home until 10 o’clock at night and that went on for 20 years.”
There was the added demand of getting to know Francis, who had left home while John was still a child. “One hundred per cent, he drove me mad. He has a heart of gold and he wouldn’t intend it. I didn’t know him at all until I went there because he was gone to college from the time I was 12 years of age. It was a steep learning curve just in terms of dealing with the new work challenges and also getting to know him properly. He’d cut the hands off you if you put your hands on a glass while you were cleaning the table. I’m sure I drove him mad too, letting him down with not knowing the way things were done.”
John spearheaded the opening of the Park’s spa and, as Ireland’s property boom heated up, he was the driving force behind their plans to build luxury apartments, a few hundred yards from the hotel. “In the noughties, Ireland was on fire and hotels were booming and making a lot of money from properties built on their lands. When the crash happened some property developers went wallop having gone into hotels and some hoteliers went wallop having gone into property, and we fell into the second category.”
Seán Dunne might be said to fall into the former category and one of the many interesting parts of Brennan’s new book details the rise and fall of his relationship with the erstwhile Baron of Ballsbridge.
In 2007 Brennan took over the running of Dublin’s former Jurys, Towers and Berkeley Court hotels, which Dunne bought for more than €370m in that same year. When Dunne abruptly terminated the arrangement, John, understandably aggrieved, decided to pull the plug on the booking website which he had set up.
“We registered ‘D4 hotels’ because we knew we were only going to be open for a short period of time and we felt that we would have the ability to represent other hotels in the south Dublin area. [The booking portal] was never covered in any legal document – it was like the shoes you wear to work. When Seán realised that we had taken the whole domain name with me, it was a hostile ending so he took us to court on that basis.”
The case was settled to Brennan’s satisfaction and he says of Dunne: “I would admire his vision and his ability to do deals but the way he approaches them would be questionable. There are some times in doing business where you say, ‘It’s time to back off’ and his line of when to do that is further down the road than most people’s.”
And then there was the Brennan brothers’ own crash-era headaches. As it turned out the timing for the new apartments at the Park was spectacularly bad.
“We got the keys the day Lehman brothers crashed. Francis hadn’t borrowed a penny up to then and we borrowed all the money to build them. In 2008 we lost 50pc of our business in three weeks. It’s the only year in the history of the hotel that we lost money.”
The bank, he says, “were good to us because we kept talking to them. We came through a few very serious years in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In some respects we were lucky because we were so indebted that the bank couldn’t let us go. They knew that they were better off working with us. There were personal guarantees but, sure, those aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if you haven’t assets.”
Former Glen Dimplex boss Fergal Naughton and his wife, Rachel, eventually secured a substantial minority shareholding, which helped them to ride out the storm, but John retained a majority shareholding.
And in the meantime, he had bought Co Kerry’s Dromquinna Manor – one of only two hotels sold in Ireland in 2011 – which he secured by way of hard-necked perseverance with the bank.
“Dromquinna was significant because it gave us financial independence and it was nothing to do with the Park. The property was lying idle for 10 years and the security on it was costing the bank €300,000 a year... We eventually did a deal on the basis that I would renovate the property and run it as a business and pay them 5pc or 6pc interest on the selling price of the property, once they gave me the option to purchase it. So it was a win-win for them – and for me.”
That same year, on the very day he got the call to say he had the hotel, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. Gwen begged him to abandon the plans to move ahead with Dromquinna and focus on his health, but he wasn’t for turning.
“It was a savage opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I was told I was at stage four, which I didn’t understand at the time. I was told it was treatable. I had no symptoms, but I had to go through chemo. I was lucky because I had my gall bladder removed and they found the cancer there before it had gotten more serious. I never felt I was sick and I never felt the stigma of having cancer.”
He went through chemotherapy again last year. “It knocks [the cancer] on the head for a few years and then it comes back again. I was meant to get four or five years, I got eight years. I’ll probably have four or five years before it comes back again. It will affect my life expectancy, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over that. I may be able to get a bone marrow transplant – if that works I would be cured.
“My attitude is that I could have been hit by a bus and be in a wheelchair.”
He had to make do with a quiet visit to the sacristy of the church last year when his mother Maura died.
“She was 97 years of age and had 10 visitors the day before she died so if ever there were a happy funeral, that was it. I was going through chemo at the time, and I went into the sacristy because if I didn’t, I would have had to shake hands with 3,000 people and my white cell count was very low. Nobody knew I was there except Gwen.”
The prolific handshaking duties are due partly to his television fame. He says that he cringes now when he thinks back on how the producers of At Your Service had to chase him to appear in the show – he felt that he didn’t have the time. But he’s thankful he relented, and the series has shown itself to have a kind of symbiosis with his own businesses.
The renown of the Park has certainly increased thanks to the airtime, and the penny dropped with investors in Dromquinna as to the potential of glamping once they saw it demonstrated in the context of the show. It seems a small price to pay for the public getting the wrong impression of him. “The whole world thinks I’m an accountant: I couldn’t add two and two!”
He is always on the look out for new ventures. Last year, as prophets of doom predicted prolonged pain for the hospitality industry, he and Francis bought the Lansdowne, another hotel in Kenmare, and have completely overhauled it.
“People’s disposable income has increased during the pandemic and the appetite to travel will come back. The new market that’s coming in now is more affluent than any new market that’s come in in the past. It will be very interesting to see what they consider luxury. Is it minimalist contemporary or is it traditional-historic? The jury is out on that at the moment.”
That derring-do was also there in his determination to write his memoir. He wrote the book himself, with help from an editor who gave shape to the chapters.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I haven’t read it,” he says. “Firstly, I wouldn’t have the concentration and, secondly, I’d be beating myself up saying, ‘Why did I say things like that?’ But it’s actually my voice in the book and I wrote it because I wanted to show there is always hope for a young person that doesn’t fit the academic mould. I want to give parents comfort, if [their kids] aren’t performing in the classroom, they can still make a great go of life. I hope in this book that I’ve shown that and that’s the essence of the whole thing.”
‘My Name is Jhon’ by John Brennan is published by Gill Books, €19.99, and out now