'There could be fireworks in the office at times' - Well-known Irish couples and siblings on how they work together
For many of us, the idea of working with family is rightly terrifying - the potential for personal arguments, for bitterness, for background resentments to rise to the fore; the lack of boundaries, the dangers of personal rows spilling over into professional life and vice versa. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, Robert Frost’s famous quote, applies to far more than farming. And then there are others for whom those same things — the proximity, lack of distance, the doubling-down of passion/ obsession — have been a huge source of strength and support: couples and siblings who have chosen to work with the person who knows them best, and who may be their greatest critic, right alongside being their greatest champion. So how do they do it? And why does it work? Emily Hourican talks to couples and siblings who work together running Blue Book properties to find out, and she gets their top comforting January suppers while she’s at it.
Brothers John and Francis Brennan have been running The Park Hotel Kenmare together for 22 years. Francis is 13 years older than John
'Francis had been at The Park since 1979. I had been working in a hotel in Sligo for a few years, when, in 1996, Francis said, 'Why don't you come down here?' so that's how that all happened," John Brennan says of the chain of events that brought the two of them together.
Given the thorny possibilities, did they think twice before deciding to work together? "Being siblings wasn't an issue at all," says Francis. "I'd never worked with John. In fact, I didn't know John very well. Because there's 13 years in the difference. I had left home before he came to the age of reason, as it were. I was gone to college, so we never really knew each other. Working together was the same as working with any other person."
No baggage? "No, that all developed since," he laughs.
How do they divide roles? "Because of the TV and all of that, which grew out of me to a certain extent, I would tend to do the marketing, and John would do the budgets and the financial stuff more than I would. It just happened that way," Francis says.
Do they ever argue? "We know how each other thinks, and the two of us would think the same, generally," John says. "When we don't define roles, that can be difficult, because one can make a decision today and the other can contradict it tomorrow, which is not good. But that would be the worst-case scenario.
"There could be fireworks in the office at times, but that'll be the end of it. It would never come out the front gate. It's strictly business, and then that's the end of it."
"We're lucky it works that way, because that is not a nice thing to happen in families," Francis agrees.
What about outside work, do they see much of each other? "We live on the same road," John says. "Neither of us would be huge social animals. We wouldn't be out in restaurants in Kenmare five nights a week. Or even one night a month. That just wouldn't happen. But Francis would call to the house on his way home. In the past, he probably called more than he calls now, because of the way our schedules work, and he travels a lot."
John has two children - Adam (22) and Ruth (19). Would he like to see them follow their father and uncle into the business? "If they wanted to, I'd be thrilled, but if they didn't, I'd be thrilled as well. I would never, ever force anyone into this industry, because there are two things that are at the root of 90pc of the problems we see with At Your Service - we've just finished recording the 12th series - and one is inheritance, which is the greatest curse of all times."
What's the other? "Not knowing what to do. No one wants to open a bad restaurant!" he says.
How does Francis reckon he is as an uncle? "First class."
John agrees. "Adam and Ruth would have a huge, huge love, and Francis would absolutely look after them like they were his own. That's not only with our two, that's with all the nieces and nephews. There's 11 of them."
What do they think it is about their personalities that mean they work well together? "We hate these questions," they agree. "We work well together. We don't dwell on the how or the why. We think the same. We have a desire to have The Park right, and we're always working for that. We never take money out of the hotel, we always put it back in. We take a salary, but not big - not by international salaries. It suits us, and we're making people happy, and that's great."
Sallyanne and Derry Clarke have been running L’Ecrivain restaurant together for nearly 30 years. They have two children, Sarah May, and Andrew, who died on December 31, 2012
‘All Derry ever wanted to do was open his own restaurant,” says Sallyanne Clarke. “There were plenty of places available where we could have had accommodation over the restaurant. But because I lived over my dad’s shop as a child — and I remember people would knock on the door on a Sunday morning, when you’d barely got out of bed, looking for something — I said, ‘No, we’ve got to be completely separate’, and he agreed.”
The separation means, she says, that, “if we need to discuss something, we stop and have a coffee or whatever on the way home and we talk about it, and then we leave it at the back door. We don’t bring it home. We never wanted the kids to know if there were difficulties. There were times when we would be working a 16-hour day, when the kids were small, so we had a live-in nanny, but at least we always had that hour on the way to school and the hour on the way home, to talk with them.”
Naturally, things change over time. “Now that Sarah May is working in London, and Andrew’s not around any more, we’re less strict. We could bring work home, but we tend not to. We deal with it in the car, and then park it, so it’s behind us. You need a balance between home and work, for your sanity. You do need to have formal rules. Otherwise, you could get totally consumed. Derry and I are both Virgos, both very driven, both very ambitious, so that could happen.”
Derry and Sallyane’s son Andrew was found unconscious on December 27, 2012, and died four days later, so Christmas is always a hard time for the couple. “We didn’t do Christmas after Andrew died,” Sallyanne says, “but last year, my mother invited everyone to our house — 24 in total, adults and children — and then told us they were coming. She felt it was time to celebrate Christmas again, and she didn’t give us any choice. She was right. This year we decided to stay at home, with Sarah May, because we were heading away for New Year’s.”
The couple run L’Ecrivain along clear lines — Derry is in the kitchen, Sallyanne runs front-of-house. “But we do make decisions together. I don’t do anything without asking him, and vice versa,” Sallyanne says. “A good relationship is all about compromise and communication.”
Derry, she says, is very easy-going, but only outside the kitchen. “My family always loved Derry, but my dad thought he was very laid-back, until my sister came to work for us, years ago, and came back and said, ‘That man is a nightmare in the kitchen!’ My dad patted Derry on the back and said, ‘Great!’”
Derry, she says, “doesn’t shout; he’s a great teacher; he takes time; he’s not a diva, but he’s very much a perfectionist. It has to be right. If it’s not right, he won’t send it out.”
For Derry, “The best thing about working with Sallyanne is that I know all operations in the front-of-house will be perfect, organised and slick, and all our guests will be happy. She is by far the best restaurant manager I have worked with. The worst thing, perhaps, [is that] Sallyanne is too hands-on; she’s not great at delegating, and is far too generous with her time. But believe it or not, we don’t disagree much regarding the direction of restaurant.”
Catherine and Kevin Dundon have run Dunbrody House together for 21 years, since it opened. They have three children, Emily (18), Sophie (15), and Tom (11)
‘There’s so much going on in Dunbrody that it’s like a mini-resort,” Catherine says. “So Kevin and I have very clear areas of responsibility. Kevin looks after everything to do with food, maintenance and the garden. I look after sales and marketing, the hotel office, front-of-house and interiors. He and I are on the same page most of the time, but nothing would get done if you had to have a discussion over every decision.
There are plenty of things I’ve done that Kevin doesn’t like — my choice of wallpaper, for example — and likewise, things he puts on the menu that wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but we agree to differ.”
Kevin says: “I think it’s important to keep a certain formality. If you did end up in an argument with each other, the other staff around the table would probably feel uncomfortable. If needs be, we just say, ‘We’ll chat later’.”
At first, the couple lived in the hotel, “but when Catherine was pregnant with Tom, she decided she wanted her own house,” says Kevin, “which was probably a really good idea, because you have that natural separation between home and work life. It does seep over from time to time, but we try to keep it as separate as possible.”
At home, Catherine says, “Kevin is great for coming home, being on the phone, doing bits and pieces all the time. But I find once I’m in the door of home, I can’t — I’m in a different mode. I’m not interested in dealing with work things, unless it’s an emergency. Once I’m in the house, it’s family time — homework, laundry, shopping. Then I would go back in the evening for a few hours. That wouldn’t suit most people, but it suits me. We try and organise ourselves so that the rugby, swimming, piano, all that stuff, is at the beginning of the week when we’re quiet, or the hotel is closed altogether.”
They have strict rules around dinner — “Telly off, no phones, no headphones,” says Catherine. “We sit down for a family dinner usually at about 5.30pm and we try and catch up on everybody. If you were talking work all the time, it would be a disaster. The girls are away at school all week, so we see them Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and catch up then.”
Their two daughters work part-time in the hotel. “Emily, the eldest, works in the pub every weekend; the middle child — Sophie — does breakfast on a Saturday morning. They’re involved, they enjoy it, and they have more of an understanding of what we do. We were both brought up that way, with summer jobs, and weekend jobs. There’s no pocket money in our house any more. The girls are on the payroll, they get paid directly into their bank accounts, the same as any of the staff.”
Although, Kevin adds, “There’s no pressure whatsoever. I don’t think anyone should put pressure on kids to follow them into the family business.”
The biggest challenge, Kevin says, “is that your whole life revolves around Dunbrody. It’s about trying to bring your head back into the home space.”
“We all need time away from the hotel,” Catherine says. “It can become a little cocoon, because it can be so intense. We value our downtime. We like doing family things to switch off all together — cinema, dinner. And Kevin and I get time away, just the two of us, without the kids, which is important as well. Unless you have it in the diary six months in advance, it doesn’t happen, but we’re strict about that. The older you get, you realise time goes by much faster.”
Paul and Marie Flynn have been working together since the Tannery opened in July 1997. They have two children, Anna (12) and Ruth (13)
‘I suppose I’m the mammy of us all,” says Marie Flynn. “I look after the overall business – admin, HR — but I also work on the floor of the restaurant every weekend. And then I come home and I’m the mammy there!”
Or, put another way: “I’m stupid in many ways,” Paul says, “and it just worked that the bits I’m stupid at are the bits my wife excels at. I couldn’t do it without her.”
“Our business spills over into home life,” Marie freely admits. “Often, the only chance we get to discuss things together is at home, and, at times, work completely takes over, particularly if there is an issue going on there. We consider ourselves always on duty and our mobiles are never turned off. But I don’t think this business would work if you were to count the hours. In fact, I don’t think any self-employed person counts hours. I am very lucky, though, that I was always able to manage school pick-ups and be with the children in the afternoons, as I am my own boss.”
Paul agrees. “The two tend to blend seamlessly,” he says. “The only time we think about it is when the children ask us to stop talking about it — then we get the guilts!”
Sunday nights are sacred. “That’s family time,” says Marie. “It’s the one day of the week where we all sit together as a family for dinner, and it’s always a special evening for us, where we try to give the children our undivided attention. Work talk is banned — by them!”
Do they try to have parts of their lives that are completely separate from each other, and from work? “We are married 25 years and still enjoy each other’s company,” says Marie. “We are still great pals and have a good laugh together. If we socialise, it’s together. We don’t have separate friends, really, but we have a few separate hobbies. I started to learn to swim as an adult last year, and finally I am getting there. I walk, I love nature, I have an oul’d bash at the piano and I aspire to gardening, but really I want the perfect garden without the work.”
For Paul, it’s music — “I love going to gigs” — and for both, it’s food. “A love of food is an abiding part of who we are as a couple, so we enjoy going to restaurants,” Paul says. “The best thing about working together is that we are both equally passionate about what we do. Friends talk about retirement, and this is a difficult life, but I feel lucky. I’ve been in love with it since I first went into a kitchen. I can’t think of what else I’d have liked to do; it’s been my university; my education.”
Ross and Jessica Lewis have been running Chapter One together for 19 years, and Osteria Lucio for three. They have three children, Molly (17), Eabha (15), and Sheana (12)
‘I married into the business,” says Jessica Lewis. “Marrying Ross brought with it Chapter One. There was no having one without the other, and that was something I would never change. Chapter One was there for seven years before that, so I suppose the word ‘blow-in’ might be bandied around from time to time...”
When asked to define her role, she laughs. “Oh for a title! Actually, I’m quite happy not to have a defined role, and I think it suits the business to have it that way, also. I have filled in the gaps, be that administrative, publicity related or front-of-house duties, and despite it not having definition, the reach is wide, as any of our staff will tell you.”
This has allowed Jessica the freedom of “flexibility, because of a growing family. Ross’s hours are much longer than mine. The nature of what he does as a chef, but also as a business owner, means that the hours are difficult on a social and personal level. He can’t be working all the hours god made, and then be up at 7am for the school run, so I do a lot of the leg-work on that, and I’m happy to do it. The trick for us is doing simple things with the children — a swim at Seapoint, a trip to town, going to see a play. Ross is really good at ensuring that when he is with the girls, for however short a time, it is full-on ‘him and them’ time. He is definitely ‘the good cop’ and our youngest has him wrapped around her little finger!”
Do they worry about work ‘taking over’ home life? “There have definitely been times that work has had to take priority,” Ross says. “But it has usually been for defined periods. The business is part of the family. It is our own and we have to mind it, and that can mean it impacts on to what might otherwise be defined as ‘home time.’”
The family will “always” eat together on Sundays and Mondays. “We’ll cook at the house one night and eat out on the other,” Jess says. “Nothing too elaborate, but it means more time to focus on discussion. For which, please read ‘full-scale war’ with two teenagers in the house! But that’s healthy, right?”
What do they do if they disagree over business matters? “I’ll try and keep the peace at first,” Jess says. “I’m not good with conflict. I believe in talking things through, but that only goes so far. And then we do like everyone else does… fight!”
The hardest thing about working together? “The impact on the personal relationship,” Jessica says. “We manage it well I think, but it’s not always easy. It’s difficult to come home if something big has happened at work that might not be entirely positive and put it to one side. Just because you’ve changed location doesn’t help to entirely change the mood.”
And the best thing? “Jess does an amazing job looking after the family, which is even more precious than the business. The gap that I leave, she can fill that so well. It is a huge comfort to me,” says Ross.
Deirdre Corrigan is weddings and events manager at Virginia Park Lodge, owned by her brother, Richard Corrigan
‘I began working here in 2014, just over six months after Richard bought it,” Deirdre says. “He and I are both of the opinion that our styles of leadership are visionary and democratic! But Richard really is the ‘boss’, and leads by example. It is not unusual to see him blowing leaves on the avenue, changing light bulbs or pulling weeds in the garden.”
From a family of seven, Richard is three years older than Deirdre, and was “from a young age, different to the rest of us,” Deirdre says. “He wasn’t interested in the things we did. He preferred to be inside helping our mother cook, rather than playing outside. He left home in his teens, to train, and I saw very little of him. I really only got to know him when I was in college — in the summer of 1996, he was working as a chef in the Schipol Hilton in Amsterdam, and I decided to join him there.
“I worked in a horticultural nursery during the day and we would meet up back at the apartment at night. He decided that, to entertain ourselves, we would learn a page of the Collins English Dictionary each night and examine each other afterwards... That wasn’t really my idea of fun! But with no better offers until I made some friends, I went along with it. He won, most nights.”
Richard recalls that, “Deirdre was really sweet as a child. She was always hanging out of my coat-tails! As you get older, you rarely get to spend time with your family, so it’s great to spend so much time together and have a shared passion.”
How and why did they decide to work together? “Let me think,” Deirdre says, “I’m sure there was wine involved… No, but seriously, Richard asked me to come on board as he really wanted the business to have a family feel to it. I was very honoured to be asked.
“We bounce ideas off each other and we can be very honest with each other, which is refreshing in business. And the threshold of trust is already established, as we have the benefit of knowing each other all our lives.
“The biggest challenge is that the pressure is more intense once family is involved. Decisions that are made at work can spill out into our personal lives. We do try to limit this as much as possible; both my husband, James, and Richard’s wife, Maria, ban business talk at family functions, so we are put in our places.”
Do they worry that work might take over the personal relationship? “Sometimes yes, but then when something funny happens, we can enjoy that moment as well,” Deirdre says.
For Richard, the worry is “trying not to offend family and making sure that we don’t take disagreements too far! Like many chefs, I can be quite intense in my work life compared with my personal life, and I expect a lot in the businesses I run… that would be the main challenge,” he says. “But we make sure it doesn’t affect our family holidays or occasions.”
All those interviewed are proprietors of member properties of Ireland's Blue Book, which celebrates 45 years this year. The 2019 Anniversary Edition features six new properties, including Ballyfin Demesne, Co Laois; Bishop's Gate Hotel, Derry/Londonderry City; Cahernane House, Killarney, Co Kerry; Butler House, Kilkenny City, and two private rental properties, Dunowen House, West Cork; and The Hideaway at Dromquinna Manor, Co Kerry, bringing to 56 the number of members. See irelands-blue-book.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll