Wednesday 11 December 2019

'I only had one girlfriend in my life... I was 17' - Francis Brennan on his love life as a teenager

In his most revealing interview, Francis Brennan tells Barry Egan about his love life as a teenager, breaking someone's heart, how his faith stops him 'charging after every woman I meet', loving The Clash, talking to his Aga and how death holds no fears

Francis Brennan pictured in the Merrion Hotel last week. Pic: Marc O'Sullivan
Francis Brennan pictured in the Merrion Hotel last week. Pic: Marc O'Sullivan
Francis Brennan and his brother John at the Park Hotel in Kenmare
Francis Brennan outside the Taj Mahal during his Grand Tour of India
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Memo to hotel managers: if the star of RTE's hotel revamp show At Your Service Francis Brennan comes to stay in your establishment, please don't try to suck up to him by upgrading him to a suite. It will have the opposite effect you had hoped for. It will put the famously good-natured hotel guru in a rare fouler.

"I can't stand a suite. Because my pyjamas are over there and the bed is here, and then when I get up in the morning, my tooth brush is in there and my jacket is hung up over here. I like a compact room where everything is close to me. They are always very kind to me but please just give me an ordinary room, because I hate all this running around! But they mean well," Brennan beams, his 24-7 smile blinding me.

His eyes permanently a-twinkle, the proprietor of the five-star Park Hotel in Kenmare adds that he is off to America for three weeks for work, "selling Ireland". No better man than Francis Brennan to do that. It is impossible to come away after meeting him without feeling he should bottle his own brand of joie de vivre and sell it around the world. He'd make a fortune.

During his work trip to America, he will squeeze in a week chillaxing in Florida. He has already packed two books that he will read by the pool over there: Delia Owens's Where the Crawdads Sing and Christy Lefteri's The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

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Francis Brennan and his brother John at the Park Hotel in Kenmare
Francis Brennan and his brother John at the Park Hotel in Kenmare

"They are two lovely books. I am reading a Jack Reacher at the moment. That is just a throwaway novel but the other two are nice books, which I will read over the week, and I will maybe not get up until 11 o'clock, which is, 'Woo hoo! Isn't this great?'," he laughs with an energy that whizzes around the room. "I'll just have nice meals and have a swim. But the fact that I wouldn't have to talk to anyone for a day would be a dream!"

Does he enjoy not having to be 'Francis Brennan' when he is in Florida because - presumably - no one knows who he is there?

"Yes, there is an element of that."

What do people expect of him?

"I am a nice person. So everyone expects you to be really sweet. I enjoy doing photographs and all the rest. I don't do selfies. I will not do a selfie. Because originally when selfies came out I thought when you took a photograph you doctor it. Put me in short pants and a cowboy hat."

What kind of music does he listen to?

Francis Brennan outside the Taj Mahal during his Grand Tour of India
Francis Brennan outside the Taj Mahal during his Grand Tour of India

"Pavarotti," he begins, before adding, almost shockingly, "I love The Clash. I love London Calling."

Secret punk Francis Brennan also loves "the theatre in London and New York". Does he go on his own?

"No. When I'm in New York - unfortunately he's passed away - a good friend of mine who was a priest, Dermot, I would bring him to the theatre and he would be thrilled because he wouldn't always get to go, although he lived there. Or sometimes I would bring a niece or a nephew to London."

Francis's earliest childhood memory is not four or five years of age. It is of being ten. "I made my Confirmation. I had a rosette. I was walking down the hill in Dundrum to get the 44 bus and the 44 bus only came on every Tuesday and Thursday. That's my first memory. All my brothers and sisters got married but I can't even remember their weddings. I wouldn't have a clue! My mother remembers everything," he says of Maura. (His father Tom died in 1988. Francis was in Vancouver on a sales trip for the Park when he got the news at 4am.) "My 96-year-old mother has a better memory than her 66-year-old son!"

He can recall, however, a young lady when he was a teenager…

"I only had one girlfriend in my life. I was 17."

What happened?

"I was just too busy. I worked every Saturday night in some hotels in Dublin. She was in college. She was doing pharmacy. We ended up in a situation where I was never available. So I said, 'Listen…'"

Has she contacted him since he went on to become famous on our TV screens and on our bookshelves?

"Come here. As late as last week we were talking. So we still keep in touch. And she is married and she has had a family and all the rest."

Does he ever ponder, 'that could have been me'?

"Yeah. I thought we could have gone there but we never did. We didn't because I didn't allow myself because I hadn't got the time for it. I'm married to my vocation."

Through his vocation, he met Gay Byrne and Kathleen Watkins in 1984 in a hotel in Killorglin with 10 others at a Bord Failte event.

"We had great fun playing party games," Francis says, adding that Gay and Kathleen came to The Park - Francis has had the hotel since 1980, while his brother John got involved in 1994 - "many times over the years and they were very good to me. Gay admired entrepreneurs. He gave me loads of turns and mentions on the radio when I was starting out because he knew I was a young fella coming from nothing into the industry. I always respected Gay for that. He was always very keen to see the next generation moving on, which I thought was a very nice quality."

Francis has many very admirable qualities. He is self-deprecating and wickedly witty. He says he has been a teetotaller since he was 12, adding: "I'm a pain in the neck! I never drank or smoked! I never broke my pledge."

Francis adds that he goes to Las Vegas,"but I never gamble, ever, because I think I could have a weakness there. Because when we were small we used to go to Bray and everyone would be going to the beach for a swim but I'd be heading for the slot machines! I used to love them. So I don't allow myself go there because I am sure I could have a weakness. There's a great headline for you!" he laughs.

He goes to Mass every Sunday. "I don't miss Mass. I love to go to Mass. And I love to go to Mass when I'm abroad, because there is a community element to it and you meet people. I have been asked to people's houses afterwards in Hawaii and Australia, and if you are Irish you are everyone's friend. 'Come in for a cup of coffee'. My religion has allowed me to do that all over the world. Which is unbelievable."

Francis remembers "when we were young and my brother Damian went away to be a priest. He did three or four years but he didn't stay, and everyone always said, 'Oh, I thought that would be you!' I never was the priest. I went into the hotel business. And it is a vocation."

Why didn't Francis become a priest?

"It was never in my head, never. I was never going there. Damian gave it thought, obviously. I never saw that in myself and I never had it in my mind."

The last time I interviewed Francis, in 2014, he told me that he spoke to his Aga at home in Kerry. Does he still chat to his cooker?

"I love my Aga! When I come in from the hotel say at 10.30pm there is the Aga, warm and welcoming, radiating heat. I thank it for being there as it could have gone out!"

He also said in 2014 that his bedroom looked like an accountant's office - files and bills everywhere. Is that still the case?

"No - my bedroom is fully cleared as the house is for sale. So no untidiness allowed now!" says Francis, who is groomed fashionably to within an inch of his life. So groomed in fact that I wonder that given Francis Brennan is such a colourful, warm, vibrant and charismatic person, does he ever feel his life would have been more enriched if he had had a relationship?

"No. When I say no, I just never go there. I have never had a relationship. I've just always worked, right? And in our business you can work 24 hours a day and you don't even notice. And now I work not as hard as I used to in the hotel because I can't…"

But when he sees his brother married with kids…?

"I have fantastic nieces and nephews. Two of them texted me this morning already just for a chat. I have a great relationship with them and I can relate to them really, really well."

A romantic relationship never crossed his mind?

"No, no, no."

He never thought of going on dates?

"No. I have never dwelled on that. And I don't need to. I am busy. I have friends all over the world. If I go to any city in the world, I can meet people I know, and good friends, nice friends."

Does he get lonely, living on his own?

"I don't allow myself to. I am a great man for the radio. And I read quite a lot. You see, all of that where you're talking is all in the mind," he says.

I'm talking about love, I say. That is in the heart, not the mind.

"Er… no, I don't think so. People say, 'Why don't you do that or why don't you do this?' I don't dwell on things. My faith is wonderful.

"Sure, I have a great mother. I was with her for the last three days in Sligo, minding her, because she is in her 90s. I love all my nieces and nephews. I don't miss it, no," he says, meaning romantic love.

Does he ever fancy people?

"No. No. No. I mean, you sometimes see a nice girl and you think, 'Isn't she gorgeous?' You know what I mean, at times like that? But she wouldn't be gorgeous in 'C'mon, I'd love to go to bed!'"

But there must be loads of women around the country who see dapper, eloquent charmer Francis and would fancy him instantly.

"Loads of them!" he laughs. "But you see, I have a faith, and there is no way I am charging after every women on every corner that I meet, because I believe in my religion. I obey the rules and I don't go right or left of it. And I am very happy.

"There are very few people in this country, I think, that have a faith, are happy and are not worried about dying. I believe it is all there [the afterlife] and I have been a good boy - inverted commas - and I am not going to break the mould at this stage," he says.

But being in love wouldn't make you a bad boy.

"But you see, I was never in love."

I say to him: St Peter is not going to say to you at the Pearly Gates, 'Francis, you been a bad boy! You fell in love'.

"Oh, yeah, I know, but I never gave myself the opportunity to be in love, I suppose. I don't know. I think the vocation I have is the hotel business and that's where I am."

Has he ever had his heart broken?

"I never had a broken heart but my sisters tell me I broke one!"

Who was that?

"Not for printing to safeguard her identity!"

Francis is here as an ambassador for Skoda's new initiative to attract retirees back into the workplace, dealing with customers in showrooms and forecourts across its dealer network.

"I just turned 66," he says, "and I have no plans to retire any time soon. Many of us are fitter and more physically active in our 50s and 60s than our parents were. Life expectancy is at record levels and we can expect a much longer period of healthy, active retirement. The more I experience, the more I know that keeping mentally active has significant benefits for health and well-being. What Skoda is doing brings huge benefits to both the employees and the Skoda business in general."

When was the last time he cried?

"Last night as we watched Marley and Me on on-demand TV."

Who would play Francis in the movie of his life and what would the movie be called?

"Tom Hanks," he answers, "Believe It Or Not."

I ask him what six words best describe Francis Brennan.

"Happy. Honest. Forgiving. Helpful. Resilient," he says, "and fun."

Does Francis fear death?

"I have absolutely no fear of death, because I was a member of the Catholic Church. I observed all the rules of the Catholic Church as I lived through life. I didn't hurt anybody. I didn't kill anybody, I didn't do any of those things that your faith says you are not to do. So I believe in God and an afterlife and I always have. So, I believe that when my day comes, it will be, 'In you go!'"

Will Francis be running the show up there?

"Oh, stop. Well, they say it is divine and beautiful, so I will probably have nothing to do!"

What would Francis Brennan have to confess in Confession?

"Confession is a peace within yourself rather than anything else. Bless me Father for I have not prayed enough, or passed a poor person on the street and didn't give them something. There is all sorts of things you can do without technically sinning. So, they would all be included therein and pushed along, and then I come out cleansed and happy."

When he says these words, Saint Francis of Kenmare positively - even beatifically - glows.

Francis Brennan is the ambassador for Skoda Ireland's Simply Older, Still Clever campaign which aims to recruit older individuals who may have previously worked in the motor industry

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