Thursday 23 November 2017

Ready, willing & happy to serve... Francis Brennan

A TV star and national treasure, Francis Brennan is first and foremost a hotel man - and a busy one at that. Here, Graham Clifford spends an exhausting day with Ireland's most energetic host. Photography by Don MacMonagle

Francis Brennan in his Park Hotel.
Francis Brennan in his Park Hotel.
Family business: Francis Brennan and his brother John, who owns Drumquinna Manor Hotel, both starred in At Your Service, until John decided to leave the show this year.
Francis Brennan
Francis Brennan at the Park Hotel.
On your bike: Francis Brennan
Francis Brennan

I hear him before I see him. It's early morning at the Park Hotel in Kenmare and while bleary-eyed guests shuffle into the lobby, Francis Brennan is ready to pounce. "Well good morning, where are you off to today?" he asks an American couple in his trademark high-pitch.

"The Ring of Kerry," they answer, and Francis is off at breakneck speed. "Right, well don't go the way they tell you to in the travel books, you know clockwise, because if you do you'll meet all the tour coaches coming the other way. What you need to do is head for Killarney and travel around that way and you'll have clear road in front of you. Now do you have your brolly, where is your car parked, is everything OK with the room?" He wraps his guests in cotton wool and they lap it up.

It's just a few hours since Francis left the five-star hotel to head home to his house in the direction of nearby Sneem, but at 8.10am he's returned for another energy-packed day. "I think it was nearly 11pm by the time I got out of here last night. I got into the bed at 1.50pm. I never turn the light out until I hear the news on Radio 1 at 2 o'clock. I jumped out of bed at 7.20am for another day," he tells me as we take a seat in the cocktail lounge.

With his new book Count Your Blessings on the bookshelves since yesterday, a hectic promotional schedule in the diary and various other media gigs in the pipeline, the Dubliner, who turned 62 last Friday, could be forgiven for stepping back from his role as hotelier-in-chief. However, it seems relaxing is an alien concept for Francis.

"My father worked as a grocer from nine in the morning to nine at night so I think it's in the blood. I have boundless energy, always have, so I pack as much as I can into every day," he explains of his childhood in Stepaside, as he flicks through the file of reservations for the day.

Already he's said good morning to Val and Gerry in the kitchen. On wash-up duties - Val on crockery, Gerry on pots and pans - he tells me these are the 'most important' people in any hotel, "without their hard work everything else would grind to a halt."

And as he meanders through the Victorian hotel checking every flower on display is blooming, every glass table free of smudges and every piece of antique furniture gleaming, he greets his staff and I try to keep up. There's the breakfast chef, the porter, the waiting team and the cleaners - everyone enjoying their brief morning chat with the dynamo that keeps the Park Hotel in rude health.

"The staff are everything, look after them and we'll be alright," he says over his shoulder as he bounces up a staircase.

Since 1980 when he first arrived in the Park Hotel as manager - after first leasing the hotel he would buy it from a Swiss consortium six years later - Francis has worked tirelessly to make the business a resounding success. I ask if he feels, in a way, he's married to it?

"Oh I am of course. Being a hotelier is like having a vocation. A priest gives his life up to join the priesthood and I give my life up to the hotel business."

But what of the sacrifices? "Yes they are many," he says. "I never partied when I was younger because I never had the time. I was always working with my father and then worked morning, noon and night in hotels all over the place. I've sacrificed many of the normal things that other people have, like becoming a father. I never came close to getting married and I've never lived with anybody. I had relationships in college but nothing serious and nothing since."

People were surprised when Francis publicly stated, in an interview last weekend, that he was not gay, as many had supposed. He also disclosed that he saw himself as asexual. "Sex doesn't interest me at all," he told the Sunday Independent.

"I've no secrets," he says today. "You can come to my house and open every drawer and I'm happy within that. Now listen, I wouldn't be easy to live with. My father always used to say when I was 15, 16, 17: 'If you get the girlfriend, bring her home and I'll tell her all about you and she'll be gone, she'll run a mile.' And maybe that's the way life was meant to be, that she would be gone. If I got married in my 20s and lived the way I live, my wife would be gone - and she'd be absolutely right because I'd never be there."

Could he ever imagine getting married? "No way. Who'd have me? Never. I couldn't imagine sharing my house with anybody, it would drive me mad. I know where the scissors is, where the needle and thread are, and that's always in the same place."

Francis insists that he doesn't dwell on his single status. "If I died in the morning I could say I had an amazing life. I have the greatest of friends all over the world and will always keep in touch with them and, of course, I have a hugely supportive family including my 93-year-old mother."

Almost on cue his brother John, who co-hosted RTÉ's At Your Service programme with Francis for six seasons, pops out from behind the reception desk and wishes me good morning before darting out the front entrance.

In January, John - the youngest of the five Brennan siblings - who owns the luxurious Dromquinna Manor hotel and glamping location nearby, announced he was to quit the popular TV programme citing 'increased commitments' as the reason for his decision.

But Francis tells me there was more to it than that for the father-of-two. "He didn't like the fame, he found that very difficult. You know people roaring and shouting at you at airports wanting pictures and so on. It was never his way. It all came to a head last Christmas. He was on his way back home from Dublin with his wife and she wanted candles so they called into Home Store + More in Cork. He opened his car door to get out and his wife said: 'Ah listen, you don't come in because if you do we'll be an hour whereas if I go it will be 10 minutes.' After that he said: 'That's it, I'm gone from the TV."'

He adds: "John did 88 weddings at Dromquinna this year so he would have had very little time to dedicate to At Your Service. It means I was twice as busy during filming this year but got through it."

Back to business and Francis shows me the day's reservation requirements. One guest has a dog , one couple want to speak to Stephanie, the gardener, about a particular plant outside, then others desire a north-facing room. There's a 50th wedding anniversary dinner to be arranged and a gang of cyclists need their wet clothes dried in the boiler room. All in a day's work for the ever-ready 'Mr Brennan', as staff address him. I ask if he ever makes use of the 'Deluxe Destination Spa' called SÁMAS at the hotel? "No never, I think it's important to keep a slight professional distance with the staff. It just makes things run smoother so I've never popped in for a facial or anything."

But it's his connection with and respect for his staff which has led to employees staying with Francis for decades. "Every year I organise a staff holiday when we close between the end of November and the Christmas period. This year we're heading for Copenhagen, 53 of us! We don't have service charges here in the Park so some guests feel they should leave something here for the staff when they check out. So they might give a few Euro and we put it all into a staff account and at the end of the year I double it personally so we can afford the trip. Over the years we've been everywhere - to Las Vegas, Egypt, Lisbon, Barcelona, Seville, Rome, Malta, Tunisia, Sicily, the Canaries and lots of other places. Sure it's great craic and an important way to keep up morale."

Even in more difficult years for the hotel Francis maintained the staff trip. "One year we went to Ashford in Wicklow. We hired 12 self-catering houses, bought our provisions in Tesco, brought the staff to see Diana Ross and then on another night Joe Dolan in the Royal in Bray, skiing in Kilternan and to top it all off we got tickets for the Toy Show for all the staff."

For the last 32 years he's also spent five days in September each year in Lourdes helping adults with special needs on the annual Kerry Diocesan Pilgrimage. "I work in the kitchen when there making sure those with specific diets get the right meals. Its hard work and I'm on my feet a lot which is difficult with my bad leg," he says of a club foot that required major surgery as a child. Not that it stops him darting about. Once guests have checked out and received the Francis treatment as they depart, he gets to work on correspondence, telling me: "I'd be 'up the wazoo', with the amount of things I have to do and people I have to contact. Then as the afternoon progresses people start checking in and the process starts all over again."

He pops into the busy kitchen where head chef James Coffey is preparing for dinner later in the day. "We chat about the menu and food ordering, are we getting the lobsters at the best price and so on. James runs a great kitchen and crucially is very good to his team," says Francis.

We meet an American couple on the second floor and Francis makes sure they have everything they need. With the news that he's dipped his toe into the world of media in the States I wonder if, in the coming years, tourists from across the pond will instantly recognise the colourful hotelier. "Ah look, ye in the press are divils! People are really putting the cart before the horse here. It's true that I've recorded a two-and-a-half minute demo on wedding tips at the request of an agent over there but nothing is set in stone - the press have me in LA already," Francis says.

But later over tea in the restaurant, Francis, who has a holiday home in Florida, admits that should a US TV show come calling the impact on his life could be enormous. "Supposing America beckoned… it would mean a lifestyle change. If one wanted to go there and I accepted an offer it would change things. I couldn't be in America and running the hotel here at the same time obviously. As time goes on, I will pull back a little from the hotel anyway for health purposes - I can't be on my feet the whole time. My doctor told me that three years ago. It would be hard to slow down. But if the media things take off, that would fill that gap."

In the mid-afternoon, between showers, we take a stroll outside and mid-sentence Francis trails off. He's spotted something. Sun rays expose red rosehip fruit and he's clearly excited by his discovery. "Will you look at these, I've never seen them looking better. Now what I'll do is make rosehip syrup out of these."

I wonder where he could possibly find the time - between now and December 5 Francis has a staggering 39 public and media appearances to do. "I know, I'm always on the go," Francis says. "And it's all made harder by the fact I'm based down here in Kenmare, so I have to travel for nearly every engagement." And on top of all that, he's heading to Spain next week to take part in the Camino de Santiago. "I won't walk it all now, no way, but I'll do a bit every day for a week. I'm doing it for the Cappagh Hospital Foundation which has always been so good to me. I spent a lot of time there when younger and had my last operation when I was 11. I've no ankle on my right so effectively my leg and foot fuse. If I overdo it or step on a rogue pebble the pain can be excruciating and my doctor keeps telling me I have to slow down." The words aren't out of his mouth and he's leaped up to greet another travelling soul at the reception desk. I'm half-exhausted just looking at him.

I engage a local staff member about the recent All-Ireland football final and Kerry's no-show. The two of us mourn the loss and when Francis returns I ask if he watched the final? "No, no, no, I'd be too busy for that and I wouldn't have any interest," he tells me, neither overjoyed by his native county's glory or saddened by his adopted county's loss. "If one of the Kerry players walked in here now I wouldn't recognise him - expect Colm Cooper. I was on a flight to Dublin from Farranfore a few years ago and came across him, he's the only one I'd know."

As afternoon gives way to evening in Kenmare, Francis changes mode. "As it approaches dinner time I mingle with the guests and chat with the pianist to make sure all is well. The waiting staff go mad if I lift a cup so I let them do their work and check all the guests are relaxed and happy. Occasionally I'll give an after-dinner talk about the history of the hotel if requested. I don't need to be asked twice." He scans the dining room to make sure every fork is straight, every table perfectly laid and every light-bulb shining brightly - nothing is left to chance. I ask Francis if, given his obsessive attention to detail in the Park Hotel, the media work has been something of an unwanted intrusion over the last decade.

"Not at all. Look, we had a difficult period here during the downturn just like everyone else. Our business fell by 50pc for a period and we had fixed costs to cover so that was a testing time. But there is a God and he's very good to me and he gave me a TV show when the recession came, it did our business no harm and boosted the profile of the hotel incredibly."

Dinner over, some guests linger before most head to the luxury of their four-poster beds. Francis checks, then re-checks that the day ahead is in hand and puts on his coat to leave - the hands on the clock approach 11. He''ll head home to warm his hands on his Aga and catch a bit of TV and radio before hitting the hay. "I look forward to listening to Alf McCarthy on the radio before bed, he plays such wonderful music."

In a few hours he'll be back, bouncing with energy. As he departs he tells me: "My father used to say if you enlist you have to soldier, that's the way I live my life. Goodnight now, by the way which way are you driving home?"

Francis on….

Famous guests

“Over the years we’ve had a lot of well-known names here at the Park Hotel including Woody Allen and John Travolta, who has actually stayed a number of times with his family, and Irish actors such as Colin Farrell. Various Taoisigh over the years and foreign politicians such as Mario Draghi. When a famous guest stays we keep it quiet until well after they’ve left and there are many names we don’t reveal at all.”

Being an Uncle

“In many ways I feel like a second father to my nephew Adam and niece Ruth who are my brother John’s children. They are great young people and they’ll often ring me up to ask for advice or get some help. I feel really blessed to have them in my life.”

Preparing to shoot  At Your Service

“I never prepare for a shoot. I know the production team have already run through screen tests so I literally show up early, wait until it’s my time to walk into a guest house or hotel and totally ignore the cameras. I want everything to be natural including that first meeting and I think that style works well. If it’s rehearsed it wouldn’t look right.”

Christmas morning

“I work every year and get into the hotel just after 7am armed with batteries and screwdrivers because, without fail, there will be children here who have the toy of their dreams but not the means to make it work. That’s where I come in.”

His favourite place

“I have an apartment in Majorca which I try to get to when I can. There is no grass to cut there, no wall needs painting, everything is looked after. So I can totally relax, slow down and put my feet up. It’s my get-away place but because of my schedule I probably don’t use it as much as I’d like.”

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