Thursday 18 January 2018

Francis Brennan: 'If I had played football for Kerry I'd get a jersey on my coffin but I'll get a toilet roll'

Nearly 20 years ago, Francis Brennan was planning his retirement, he tells our reporter, but having been 'utterly a hotelier' until the age of 54, God then had other plans for him. The latter day TV star, author and now homewares designer talks about his dream job, hating parties, his love of minding people, and how God minds him

Francis Brennan
Francis Brennan

Sarah Caden

The evening before our meeting, Francis Brennan was driving through Dublin when he spotted a young Asian couple looking lost on a corner between Milltown and Donnybrook. At the time, Francis was driving to his city-centre hotel from Clonskeagh, where he had had his car cleaned, not because it was convenient, but because he is a creature of habit, and that's what he always does when he's in Dublin.

The couple were lost. Francis knew they were lost. He didn't think it; he knew it. "They had a map and I thought that they might be one road up, or something, from where they thought they were," he says, explaining how one road 'down' from where they were would have brought the couple to the road for the one-time Burlington hotel.

Francis Brennan is now a homewares designer
Francis Brennan is now a homewares designer

Francis drove by them, but then he turned back. The couple were staying at the Clayton (formerly Bewley's) hotel in Ballsbridge, and were, as the At Your Service star knew, well and truly lost. He reassured them, and then he drove them to their hotel. It was out of his way, but he needed to do it. To see the job through. "They hugged me when we got there," he says, with a laugh that seems a tiny bit choked-up. 

Would it have bothered Francis all night, kept him awake, even, if he hadn't gone back to help the couple?. 

"It would," says Francis. "I would have been saying, 'God help them, where did they go?' I only flew by them in the car, but I knew they were looking for a hotel, and there's no hotel on that road. But in the end they were fine, and I went home happy. I don't know how I saw them. I thank God. I do. He gave me the ability to see them."

Francis Brennan's life view is that he helps other people and God helps him. And this life of service that God has given him is a very good life, Francis says. A stranger may look at Francis and see things missing: like a partner, like a family of his own, but Francis doesn't see it that way. He sees a full life that is that way by design.

"I am interested in the global," he says, explaining that it wasn't an accident that he chose not to nurture a nuclear family of his own, but to effect happiness further afield. "I just love making people happy.

"I'm 63 now," he says, "and I'm at that stage where you start to look back and to think about the decisions you've made, and I think of all the people we made happy in all our years in business [in the Park Hotel Kenmare].

Francis Brennan
Francis Brennan

"Every morning, we check people out of the Park and they go off happy, but it's more than that. You ask them where they're going, and if they're going to Dingle, you tell them they must go to the Chart House, and if they're going to Dublin you tell them to make sure to use the toilets at [motorway] Exit 8, because they're the easiest. It's not just saying, 'Goodbye and off you go'. I'm thinking ahead to making them happy once they leave. That's just a gene in me; that's just the way I'm made."

And does Francis ever think: 'What about me? Who makes me happy?'

"No," he answers emphatically. "I don't ever think like that."

We sit in a sun-soaked room in Dunnes Stores HQ in Dublin city-centre, surrounded by the pristine white and grey bed linen, towels, robes, candles and other luxury household items that he has created for Dunnes Stores' Francis Brennan The Collection, to launch later this month. It's the latest unexpected turn in the career of the hotelier who turned TV star in his 50s, and author in his 60s. 

These turns clearly surprise Francis, pleasantly, but he doesn't take them for granted. He takes them with gratitude, and specifically gratitude to God.

Francis Brennan might have been an ordained man of God in another life. He certainly has a lot of the characteristics of a priest, with his strong religious belief, and his life-defining sense of duty.

It's worth noting that every September, Francis Brennan goes to Lourdes. This will be his 34th year. He doesn't go simply as a pilgrimage but instead, characteristically, he goes to work in the kitchens, and it's really hard work - 12-hour days, with "maybe" an hour for lunch. The same group from Kerry have been going all these years, and Francis's niece, Ruth, his brother John's daughter, will join him for the first time this year. Francis is extremely close to all of his nieces and nephews, so the addition of Ruth to the Lourdes group pleases him from that point of view, and he likes the idea of passing a family baton to her.

It's safe to say that Francis is a man who likes to keep busy, so you can't help but think that he couldn't simply go to Lourdes and pray and be calm; he had to make a job of it. I ask if he enjoys the Lourdes kitchen work. "I love the fact that I am able to do it," Francis answers. "Thanks be to god, I am well enough to go again and give of my time to people who are not healthy. Every year I think, 'Amn't I a lucky boy to be able to do it' and I hope I can do it until I'm 90. I think it's a way to thank god for my health."

At your service: Francis Brennan. Photo: Don MacMonagle
At your service: Francis Brennan. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Sitting surrounded by his homewares for Dunnes Stores, Francis is clearly in his element. The range, suggested in passing by Margaret Heffernan almost a decade ago, has been in development for a year, and while the process has been more painstakingly detailed than Francis anticipated, he has enjoyed every minute.

It helped, he said, that he knew about superior percale weaves and thread counts and tog values and towel yarns, but the level of detail and the dedication of Dunnes buyer Aoife Nic Carthaigh to Francis Brennan The Collection just amazed him. And delighted him in equal measure, particularly the FB-trademark pocket squares that are included in the range, and the plush toy sheep, which have always featured in every bedroom at the Park.

"It's called Francis the Sheep," he says with a laugh, "Or so they tell me. And they're making a black one, too. The black sheep of the family, as my mother says."

Francis delights in all of it because he loves having an eye to detail, and enjoys other people who share that dedication. More than that, this is a happy return to retail for him, since he started his working life in his father's shop in Dublin's Stepaside. The eldest of the family, Francis helped out his father from a young age and, after he left school and began to work in the hotel business in Jury's in Sligo, he was called back to Dublin to run the shop when his father became ill with emphysema. He did this for two years, until his parents sold the Stepaside shop and moved the family to his mother's native Sligo. Francis's father died more than 30 years ago, but his mother is still going strong at 94.

"I don't think I knew my father, really," says Francis, though he is very close to all of his family. "He worked nine to nine, and if he was at the shop, we were at home, and it was a hard life. I mean, I work hard, but I have such a beautiful job and a beautiful life compared to my father.

"There were terrible snows in Stepaside and my father was known for always getting through the snow with deliveries to people," Francis recalls with pride. "He was lifting four-stone bags of potatoes, or coal, in and out of the cash-and-carry; always lugging boxes. And I was too, from a young age, and, I was only thinking the other day, as I was carrying boxes from the hotel, 'Here I am, still lugging boxes'."

Francis Brennan at the Park Hotel.
Francis Brennan at the Park Hotel.

That said, the boxes Francis was carrying when he had that thought were boxes of fine food from the Park for a guest party of "cycling Americans", for whom the hotel always provides the meals for the Americans' private jet.

"Dad left no money, because we ate it all," says Francis. "It was always sirloin steaks, plaice, the best of everything. There was very little money to be made in shops in those days. There's no comparison between a shop then and a shop now. It was tough, and you only lived off cashflow. You fed your family and you lived off cashflow.

"If I died in the morning, I had a wonderful time. If everyone could say that, it would be a wonderful world," he says.

Francis says that if he had to choose to do one job, it would be waiting tables. He loves minding six or eight tables at a time, making every group feel that they matter the most to him, keeping on top of the orders and the demands and the personalities. The three jobs he has, of hotelier, TV star and writer - to date, he's written It's The Little Things: Francis Brennan's Guide To Life and Counting My Blessings: Francis Brennan's Guide to Happiness - are kind of enough for now, though.

Being just a hotelier was enough for Francis Brennan, and, at times, more than enough. When he was 45, he decided that he needed a retirement plan. This was 18 years ago, in 1998, when Ireland was a different place and not the burned-by-the-boom place it is now.

"So I went to see Derek Quinlan, because he was the top man at the time," Francis says. "And I bear no ill will to Derek, he is a good friend still, and I wouldn't say a word about him, though there are people around town who would. We were all adults and we did what we did and, listen boys, we all signed papers. I didn't sign your papers, you signed your own.

"So I went to Derek and said, 'I want a plan, because I want to retire at 55. I was going hell-for-leather at the hotel and it couldn't go on forever, so I said, 'I want to retire at 55 and have a nice time'. He said, 'You don't strike me as the type to retire at 55'. He tossed a piece of paper at me and said, 'Write down three things you'll do when you retire'."

Francis wrote that he wanted to spend more time in Lourdes, present a nice radio show with music and chat, and have his health. The retirement plan didn't quite come to pass, but, as Francis says, there were other plans for him.

"So at 54, I get a TV career, thanks to the man above," he says, "and at 55, I'm completely bust.

"It's publicly known that I haven't had it easy, as the fella says," Francis explains. "I'm not shy about that; I don't blame one person. I'm an adult, I did all the deals and they were in hotels and offices and car parks, so they were all tax designed. People say, 'Aw yeah', but all those things were employing thousands of people at a time that there wasn't much else. So I know we got a tax break, but it's not like we got that and there was no benefit to anyone else. There was plenty of benefit. So there's two sides to every story."

Obviously, it became clear to Francis during that period that early retirement was off the cards, though he doesn't regret that for a minute. 

"Well I should have been a lot better off, but let me tell you, I'm lucky," Francis says when I ask him if he's comfortably off, despite his investments going awry. "I have a job. Well, I have two jobs. Or three, or four, if you take in the retail side of it now. The way things have happened is unbelievable. And I believe that God above has made things happen this way. You ask who minds me, and it's him."

When Francis was 54, he was asked to take part in a TV show called Designs for Life. Francis's episode saw him work with an architect on a cottage he still owns in Kenmare town, and it was a memorable episode for being beset by hitches and enlivened by this relatively unknown hotelier's personality. Later, when Waddell Media, who made Designs for Life, were planning a new show set in the hospitality business, they called Francis. Initially, he didn't want to do it, but his brother John, who has always worked alongside him in the Park, convinced him.

"And I took to it," Francis says, understating somewhat the success of At Your Service; Francis Brennan's Grand Tour and, latterly, Francis Brennan's Grand Indian Tour. "I don't get nervous or anything like that. But in real life, to be honest, I'm not a confident person. I'm quite shy. 

"I would prefer now to walk down the street and nobody know me," he says, "and I'm not a party person at all. I'd say I've been at 10 parties in my life. I'd rather be at home, with my newspaper, the radio on and a nice quiet evening and a cup of tea."

Is it the small talk or the mingling that puts him off parties, I ask, or does he just get bored if he's not busy?

"No, it's the fact that I would have to be on; I would have to be performing," he says, and some might say that this is a pressure Francis puts on himself, a demand he makes of himself. I ask if he likes to be in control, as that's what he's used to in the rest of his life.

"I'm in charge," Francis corrects. "And at someone else's party, they're in charge. But it still always flows to me. Now people ask me to parties, but only because I'll keep the whole thing going, and that's exhausting. Talking is exhausting. Let me tell you, we close [the Park] for six weeks after Christmas every year and that's a silent time for me. And then we reopen, and I'm exhausted from talking for the first three days." 

Francis's social life is all about small groups of well-loved, long-standing friends and that's how he's always liked it, and more so since he became well known and unable to move about unnoticed. 

"I like small groups and people I am comfortable with," he explains. "They are an old group of friends and they know me from before I was almost famous. Because, how can I put this? When you are a public figure, the dynamic of you changes things. It changes how people are with you and behave with you."

Not that Francis is complaining. He doesn't complain about the big stuff, it's the detail that bothers him, you know, the messy pillowcases and the toilet roll hanging the wrong way. 

"The toilet roll," he laughs, rolling his eyes in mock horror. "When I die, if I had played football for Kerry, I'd get a jersey on my coffin. I'll get a toilet roll. Isn't that a terrible indictment of a life?"

Of course, Francis doesn't think it's terrible at all. He wouldn't really have it any other way. Francis is a man who doesn't bother questioning who he is; he accepts himself and is grateful, in a way, that getting the toilet rolls right is one of the small things that adds up to a vocation for making people feel happy and comfortable. Once, that was limited to running the Park; now, later in life, when he didn't expect it, the effect has spread. 

"I was completely and utterly a hotelier until I was 54," says Francis, looking around him at the linen, the towels, the candles and the pieces of furniture, all with his monogram. "I couldn't have seen it coming, but I think that's a brilliant bit to life, you know?"

Photography by Barry Murphy

Styling by Ann Marie O'Leary

Francis Brennan The Collection will be in 18 selected Dunnes Stores nationwide from Thursday September 29,

or see Francis will be visiting Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt on Saturday, October 8

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