Friday 17 January 2020

Wedding expert Franc: 'People thought I was gay 
but it never bothered me'

Wedding guru Franc aka Peter Kelly gushes about life, love and royal rebel rousing.

The launch of Franc Wedding Secrets in 2009
The launch of Franc Wedding Secrets in 2009
Tea-ing off: Franc and Graham enjoy an afternoon tea at the Castlemartyr Hotel
The Castlemartyr Hotel
Franc with Eliouse Dunne and Darren Johnston for his show

Graham Clifford

The last time I set foot in the Castlemartyr Resort I was on the hunt for newlyweds Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

It was something of a wild-goose chase, but on a balmy summer's evening, with the sun kissing the east Cork countryside and the smell of freshly cut hay hanging in the air, I manage to successfully track down a genuine star who also knows a thing or two about glitzy wedding ceremonies and lavish banquets.

Tea-ing off: Franc and Graham enjoy an afternoon tea at the Castlemartyr Hotel
Tea-ing off: Franc and Graham enjoy an afternoon tea at the Castlemartyr Hotel

Peter Kelly (aka Franc), complete with gecko broche, breezes into the Bell Tower restaurant and immediately scans the tables to make sure every flower, piece of cutlery and milk jug are exactly where they should be.

Recently he collaborated with the management to re-launch afternoon teas at the award-winning resort and explains the effect he and the staff here have created.

"We wanted the teas to be very Downton Abbey in style. The room here, the chairs, the scenic views, all lend themselves to that vibe but we needed more of that 'old-charm' feel. We purchased real Vera Wang patterned china with gold rimming, everything had to match. All the teapots are silver as are the milk jugs and we use Waterford glass," he tells me.

Men of leisure, we recline with a panna cotta and strawberry consommé and honeycomb. Peter is relaxed, full of yarns and hearty laughter. In truth, I'm fortunate to have grabbed a couple of hours of Peter's time at all. It's the height of the wedding season and Ireland's most famous wedding planner is in demand.

"To be honest it's always busy," says Peter, adding: "I'm run ragged at times. When people book our company they want me as I'm the brand. But look, I love my work and wouldn't have it any other way. I do think its vital though that we try to make time for moments during our day when we can switch off."

Working on a range of weddings, events and corporate projects at any one time and with four young children in his Fermoy home that's not always easy and he has an unusual way of creating 'Franc-time'.

The Castlemartyr Hotel
The Castlemartyr Hotel

"Every night I stay up until 2.30am watching documentaries," he explains.

"I know it sounds nuts but that's my time to unwind. Since the age of 18 I've done it, some call me 'the armchair thriller'. I've always been fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci and he got just two hours sleep every eight hours. He never went to bed - he thought it was a complete waste of life. I kind of think the same, we spend half of our life in bed which I think is sinful when we have so much to do!"

While Peter is engrossed in some documentary or other, his wife Eadaoin is in the land of nod - "oh, she's the total opposite, she goes to bed nice and early," he jokes.

The Birmingham-born former chef and TV personality has planned weddings and events for the world's rich and famous -though he keeps his client-list close to his chest. In 2011 he was the creative director for the queen's visit to Cork city.

"It was a great honour and it went off well, though protocol and I are unhappy bedfellows! Like, originally, clapping wasn't allowed in the English market, I wasn't happy with this. The stall owners there were nervous so I said to them 'Just think of her (the queen) as a posh lady from Montenotte and she's coming down looking for fish'.

"One lad said to me in a strong Cork city accent before she came in: 'Come here Franc, it's like a feckin' morgue, we're never this quiet'. So when the queen came in, I started clapping and so did everyone else and quickly it spread throughout the market. You could see immediately that she was so much more relaxed, the atmosphere was far more jovial."

The launch of Franc Wedding Secrets in 2009
The launch of Franc Wedding Secrets in 2009

Franc's fingerprints were all over the royal visit to the Rebel heartland. From the sprayed 'Welcome to Cork' sign on a hillside golf course in the city which the queen spotted on her approach, to the stained timber, massive trees and Victorian re-decoration of the English market. "I even got them to hang up stuffed hares, pheasants and rabbits that I borrowed from the nearby Fota House," he tells me.

It's his attention to detail, creative genius and connection with each specific project which has helped make the 47-year-old so sought after both at home and internationally.

'It would be very easy to sit back and regurgitate what we've done and do the same flowers, the same décor and use the same suppliers and bang out a generic 'Franc' event," says Peter, but adds: "I don't think I could do that though because to me the event is so specific to the couple or group of people involved."

We take our time devouring traditional egg sandwiches and scones with clotted cream and homemade jam.

The power of emotion has always been at the epicentre of Peter's work. The use of it inspires him, the pursuit maintains a freshness and energy to his work.

Franc with Eliouse Dunne and Darren Johnston for his show
Franc with Eliouse Dunne and Darren Johnston for his show

"I want to tap into people's emotions when I'm planning a wedding or event for them. I want them to be scared, to laugh, to cry. . . to have that emotional experience."

"More coffee gentleman?" asks a youthful-looking waiter. "Why not," I reply. . . even if Kim Kardashian walked into the room now and threw herself at me I'd find it hard to disengage from Franc's riveting catalogue of stories.

He tells me of his five-year chase for the love of the woman who would eventually become his wife.

"I spotted Eadaoin on the first day of college in Cork, turned to my friend Colin and said 'I'm definitely going out with her - I'm telling you now!' I wasn't very subtle in my approaches over the next few years. All the way through college she refused to go out with me, I begged her, charmed her, sent her letters on scented paper. . . but it was no good. I embarrassed myself and brought my guitar into the middle of the canteen and sang her a song I wrote about her but with no joy."

Peter proposed to Eadaoin in a Chinese restaurant in Gorey before he'd even kissed her. "I got a half bottle of champagne and everything! She didn't say yes. . . but she didn't say no really either!" he laughs.

Eventually his persistence paid off and after a spell working in a hotel in the Grand Cayman, Peter returned to re-continue his pursuit of Eadaoin. She relented and kissed him for the first time on a beach in the Kelly spiritual home of beautiful Courtmacsherry - where Peter's parents now live. In 1996 he and his precious Eadaoin tied the knot.

Franc also tells me of the culture shock he experienced when his parents decided to move to Ireland from the English Midlands when he was aged eight. His father Patrick, the seventh son of a seventh son originally from Mountbellew in Galway, and his mother Doreen, from Scotland, traded in a comfortable lifestyle for the wilds of west Cork and the parish of Ballinascarthy.

"It was a bit of a culture shock for me and my two sisters especially. I went from a Catholic school in England with about 1,000 students to Ballinascarthy national school which had an open fire and where the children would bring in bottles of tea for break," recalls Peter fondly.

On the first day at school with longer hair than the average pupil in the area Peter's well-clipped accent seemed to bamboozle the múinteoir. "There was a girl's side and boy's side you see. The teacher asked me my name, I answered 'Peter'. She reacted saying 'okay Petra, you can sit over here on the girl's side'. Eventually I got moved. There was only me and a girl called Martina O'Leary on the one bench - we were third class, just the two of us."

In school he wanted to be an engineer and inventor, that'll be the da Vinci influence, before opting for chefing in which he excelled. Eventually he joined Eadaoin in her display business and the rest is history.

He took on the name 'Franc' as the press started focusing on him as a man working in a woman's world. "Of course you had the character 'Fronc' in the Father of the Bride film so I took that but changed the 'o' to an 'a' like the old French currency. I used to tell people I'm so expensive I'm my own currency!"

Jumping to conclusions, many presumed he was gay and he admits that may have assisted him in the early part of his career.

"You see Fronc in the movie was gay and so people thought I was too. They expected the 'Da-ling you look amazing' approach. It never bothered me and because of that misplaced assumption I could go into changing rooms with brides, and outside their husbands-to-be wouldn't bat an eyelid! Sure I spent half my life working backstage at catwalks with naked women walking around me," he explains.

Our tier of goodies seriously dented, we think about leaving - then reconsider and order two more coffees. We're on Franc-time in Castlenmartyr.

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