The great divide
When southsider Eithne Fitzpatrick and northsider James Scott Lennon finally agreed on a family home, they realised that the only way to get it was pray to St Joseph. Photography by Tony Gavin
Hotelier Eithne Fitzpatrick lives in a gorgeous house in Dublin's southside, and conveniently, it's just a short distance from her hotel, the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel.
So what, you might think. Isn't that the norm for hoteliers? Don't they need, like doctors, to be nearby - on call, just in case of an emergency? And you'd be right, but Eithne is married to a northsider, who was also in the hospitality business, so a tug of love was inevitable. It was, perhaps, inevitable too, that Eithne would win.
She may be a petite, fragile-looking blonde, but she's well able to fight her corner. Didn't she face down her father when he insisted that she was not going to follow him into the hotel business?
"After school, I went to the Grafton Academy to pacify my father," Eithne says. "'Do something girly,' he said. He just didn't want me going into the business."
But it was too late. Eithne, the eldest of five, with four brothers younger than her, had fallen in love with hotel life long before, probably when her father was manager at the Talbot in Wexford.
"My earliest memory would have been annoying the telephonist at the Talbot, pulling the plugs at the old-fashioned switchboard there," Eithne recalls with a laugh.
When Eithne was 12, her father came back to Dublin and became general manager of the PV Doyle group, but then, in November 1970, chance intervened in the form of Killiney Castle. "I think it was really fate, because he was born and bred in Dalkey, and when Killiney Castle came up for sale, he just said: 'That's it'. I remember driving up to see the castle and he said to my mum, 'I'm going to buy this' and she just looked at me and said, 'I'm going to divorce him'," Eithne says with a laugh.
The castle has been there for several hundred years, was lived in by lords and had also been a British garrison, but in the 1940s it had been turned into a small hotel with just 23 rooms, catering mainly to the Welsh tourist market.
By the 1970s, that business had waned and so had the hotel, until the Fitzpatricks - whose marriage did survive the purchase - took over. "They hocked everything to buy it. It was a labour of love," says Eithne, who remembers the state of the hotel when they first took over.
"You've no idea. I remember doing the inventory with my mum the day we took over, walking down the corridors in my school uniform. The rooms were like cells - there were cast-iron beds," she says, as she recalls the horror. "There was a po under every bed and a water jug in every room, and my mother would say, 'Oh Christ, I think I've seen a rat' and I would say, 'Oh god, yes, you have', and we were literally scurrying around each room listing, 'Yes, it has a bed; yes, it has a po; yes, it has a jug; let's get out of here'."
The rest is history. Her mother, Eithne Dunne, who had been a model and was the first ever Miss Ireland - "She never let us forget it," says Eithne with a fond laugh - had fantastic style, and gradually did all the interiors. She and Eithne's father turned around the fortunes of the hotel, making it the Killiney landmark it is today.
Over the years, they've added improvements, and now it has 113 gorgeous rooms, several bars and restaurants, and a swimming pool and a fitness centre. The hotel appeals to a wide market; as well as hosting weddings and conferences, the hotel hosts a great mix of guests, including American tourists, Irish weekend-breakers, and executives doing business at locally based companies.
And, despite her father's initial reservations, Eithne has been there throughout all the changes.
After a short stint at the Grafton Academy, he accepted her wish to work in the business and sent her off, first to Switzerland and then to the States, where, through his contacts, she got an internship with the Radisson Group.
She stayed there 18 months, spending time in both Minnesota and Kansas. "I was in Kansas for the National Republican Convention; Gerald Ford was running for President, and we did a banquet for 2,500 people. I remember ringing Dad - no mobiles in those days, just the obligatory weekly phone call home - and telling him we had 2,500 people in one room and we had two heart attacks and one tracheotomy. Talk about scale - I'm only from a little castle on the hill in Ireland, I'd never seen anything like it," Eithne says.
She loved it in the States. Radisson wanted her to stay on and she was keen to, but her father knew she had learned a huge amount from the sales-and-marketing point of view and he wanted that expertise back in Ireland.
"The old man was bouncing up and down, 'I sent you to America to learn - if you're going into this business it's with me, you're not going with anyone else'," she recalls. There was also unfinished business on the romantic front - she had met James Scott Lennon, who owned the Abbey Tavern in Howth, before she left for America, and he was still there when she came back.
"We were going out for seven or eight years in all. It took a while and a lot of rows; it was very tempestuous. Rows that would last for weeks, and then you'd go out one day and you'd find a bouquet of roses under your car outside the castle. He'd have driven all the way from Howth, and I'd go, 'Oh god, I'll have to give in now'," Eithne explains with a laugh. "And we used to write letters - I'd write stinkers to him and he'd write stinkers back to me."
The relationship survived the rows and the stinkers of letters, and they got married in 1984. The couple have four sons - James (29), the eldest, works in Accenture and is married to the "wonderful" Vicky. Next is Mark (27) now the general manager of the hotel. David (24) is in Mindshare; and Joseph (21) is still a student, but will probably join the business.
In the early days of their marriage, Eithne travelled a lot. She looked after the marketing-and-sales end of things for all the hotels. After Killiney Castle, they expanded into Cork and Shannon and then New York. She was also on the board. When her father died in 2002, life changed dramatically. Up to then, she and two of her siblings, John and Paul, were involved together with their father in all of the family's hotels, and if that had continued after his death, Eithne doesn't think family harmony or the business would have survived.
Luckily, her dad had worked out a succession plan, and after his death Eithne chose to take her majority shareholding in Killiney. Then, in 2005, she bought her siblings out. Paul has his hotels - the Morgan and the Beacon; John has two in New York; the other two didn't want to stay in the hotel business. Killiney is Eithne's baby.
"It works better for family," Eithne explains. "We've a great family, we're all very close and if we were still in business together, that may not be the case. Family is family and business is business. It's very hard to draw the line and you have to, because otherwise it can end up a battle of wills at the kitchen table, with us all fit to kill each other.
"I remember in the early days, the boardroom was the kitchen table, and whether it was the wine, or a broken plate or the chef had left, everyone had their tuppence-worth to say, and it would end up in an argument," Eithne recalls with a wry smile.
A major argument in Eithne's life occurred early in her and James's marriage and it revolved around the purchase of their home in 1988; at that stage, they lived in a little house in Booterstown. Two of their four boys had arrived, and a third was on the way.
The couple knew they needed a bigger house, but the question was - where would it be? James dug his heels in, as did Eithne. "James had his business in Howth and he was like, 'I'm not going beyond Sandymount'," she recalls.
"The toll bridge had been built and I said, 'don't be ridiculous, Blackrock is only five minutes further out'. I was not going northside, I just wasn't. We'd looked at 60-odd houses in Sandymount and Ballsbridge, and we were looking particularly at one old house on Merrion Road. We brought my dad to give it the elder lemon look-over, and he said: 'you dirty-looking ejiits, you'll pour money into this'."
"While there, the auctioneer told us about a house in Blackrock, but James said, 'I'm not going to Blackrock'. I said, 'I'm telling you, we have two sons and they'll be going to Blackrock college'."
Finally, James agreed to look at the house. "I remember going into the house, me going one direction, James going another. We met in the garden and James said, 'what do you think?' I was afraid to tell him that I loved it. I said, 'I dunno'. He said, 'you do bloody know' and I said, 'well, I love it' and he said, 'well I do too, It's gorgeous'." Eithne recounts with a laugh.
With both in agreement, they ended up storming heaven to get the house at auction and - possibly thanks to the statue of St Joseph, which, according to an old tradition, Eithne planted in the garden - they succeeded.
Twenty-seven years later, Eithne says they've loved every minute in the house, but with three of the boys gone and James now retired, it's got too big for them and they've put it on the market.
The house dates from the mid-1940s and with its five bedrooms and four reception rooms, it was ideal for a growing family. It was also in great condition, and all they needed when they moved in was gallons of paint and the generosity of their parents and other relations, who donated pieces of furniture. Then, six years ago, they had a problem with central heating - they moved out for two months and had the house completely renovated and redecorated, which gave Eithne the chance to update all the colour schemes.
Needless to mention, they moved into the hotel for the duration. Now that was probably a little too close for the comfort of the staff. "I think they had a party when I left," Eithne laughs.
Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, Killiney Hill Rd, Killiney, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 230-5400, or see fitzpatrickcastle.com