'My retirement went belly-up' - Francis Brennan on how the recession led to showbiz
Last September, Francis Brennan changed a duvet cover on the Late Late Show. "The clip got 4,000 hits, or whatever you call them - views - on YouTube," he exclaims in wonder. "But it wasn't fair, really, because they didn't have the duvet cover inside-out. The duvet cover has to be inside-out."
Well, of course it does, but if you didn't know that, or the fact that a good old lemon has endless uses in the cleaning of your home, then Francis Brennan is here to help. And what better man?
In his third book, Francis Brennan's Book of Household Management, extracts from which are on the following pages, the hotelier-turned-lifestyle-guru and TV personality has the answers to every domestic dilemma you've ever had. Or didn't know you had. He has tips on cleaning the fridge, keeping the car tidy, organising your chores that need to be done daily, weekly, monthly and annually, and generally keeping house and home spick and span. Francis finds the annual jobs particularly hard to get around to, since you ask.
The tips are terrific. As previously mentioned, you'll never look at a lemon as simply a boon to a gin and tonic again, and who ever thought that the annoying 'suction' when you take the bin bag out of the bin could be solved with a few drill holes?
It's not just about the cleaning tips, though, that would be to miss the point of Francis Brennan altogether. Much like his previous two books, this is also a guide to life, even something of a self-help book. There is a message within it, you could say, that cleanliness is next to godliness, but not in a holier-than-thou way. Instead, it's about self-care and healthy self-regard.
Through keeping one's home and surroundings clean, Francis's message seems to be, you maintain a sense of well-being, of clarity and peace. It's a message that works in the modern age, despite the fact - maybe even because of the fact - that a lot of the top tips and household habits are from times gone by, when women largely worked only in the home and cleanliness was their career.
The introduction to this latest book refers to Francis as a "national treasure". What does he think of such a title, I wonder? Some people might take that as putting years on them, but Francis' laughter suggests that this isn't an issue for him.
"What I love about me is that at 54, I got a TV show," says Francis, whose working career really began when he was a child, helping his father in his shop in Dublin's Stepaside. "At 59, I got a travel show. I just wrote my third book, and the publishers were on to me about an idea for a fourth already."
Francis giggles. It's the only word for how he laughs from time to time, shattering that other impression of him as a sometimes scary bossy-boots.
"It all just goes to show that age is not a limiter. I'm 64 in a few weeks, and once I would have thought that I'd be cooling down at this age, but I'm busier than when I was 20," he says.
Francis goes on to say that he looks around him at his peers who are retiring and he wonders if it's a good idea at all. He talks about an acquaintance he saw recently, retired only a year, but looking 10 years older as result of that year. Francis thinks that a lack of a sense of purpose, of direction and motivation, can be very ageing.
"You need to do something," says Francis, who's not sure if he'll go in for retirement at all, but like all plans, that could change.
Of course, Francis has made no secret of the fact that, had it not been for financial investments that went south when the boom went bust, he'd have been retired at 55. That had been the plan.
"My retirement went belly-up," says Francis. "There's not one cent of it left. But I never look back, because it only embitters you. There are developers who developed [during the boom] and never had anything else. I always had The Park [Hotel]. What was to be a very comfortable, super retirement won't be as deluxe. When I should be heading to the airport in a limo, I'm taking the bus instead. It's not going to be deluxe, but I'm happy."
"I could have been bitter," Francis says, "but I'm not. I thank God that I was strong enough to go through that. There were people who were not, and I feel very lucky. I've always been very strong in myself. I know who I am, and I'm happy with that."
Got on with it
Francis dates this sense of certainty back to his childhood. Born with a twisted leg that had failed to grow in the womb, he wore callipers until the age of 11, and spent long periods in Cappagh Hospital.
"With my mother's help, I never cared what anyone thought, and I just got on with it," he says. Francis's mother, now 96 and living in Sligo, features prominently in his latest book, and she is a model of how to handle ageing, it seems. Francis is full of admiration for her careful, thorough housekeeping in his book, and in person he sings the praises of her ability to enjoy life and remain independent.
The fact is that although Francis is more busy than ever in his life, while his contemporaries bow out of their careers, he's not oblivious about how life can change as the years pass by.
He talks about the group of friends with whom he has holidayed for years, how the original party of 18 is now down to seven. "I'm known as The Kid," he says, "because they're all older than me. We're true, true
friends and each time we've lost one, it's very upsetting. At some point, I suppose, we will have to stop."
One can't imagine Francis Brennan stopping anything in a hurry, though. His Grand Tours on RTE One go from strength to strength, and have become an appointment-TV phenomenon for all the family.
When families come to The Park now, a lot of the children know Francis, as well as the parents. He loves the interest they take in the detail of his shows and the questions they ask. In his book, children are portrayed as terrible purveyors of mess and clutter, but Francis Brennan forgives all if they share his interest in doing things properly.
Being purposeful and proper, after all, are the guiding principles of Francis Brennan's life.
"People will see this book and think, 'It's easy for him with no children, to write a book and say this is how to run a home', but my only idea was to help people. That's my intention, really," he says.
The intention ever and always, when you're Francis Brennan.
Photography by Barry Murphy