Monday 19 March 2018

Family are 80 years and counting at the Bel-Air

Fundraising night in aid of Wicklow Cancer Support will mark milestone year at hotel and equestrian centre, writes Myles Buchanan

Victor and Leona Evans with Luciano Pavarotti in 1990 at the Bel-Air
Victor and Leona Evans with Luciano Pavarotti in 1990 at the Bel-Air

The Bel-Air Hotel and Equestrian Centre celebrates its 80th anniversary this year and a special 'Stetsons and Shades' night will be held to mark the occasion.

In 1937, Tim and Bridie Murphy from Cliff Castle Hotel in Dalkey bought Bel-Air Hotel in Ashford and their daughter Fidelma went on to set up the Equestrian Centre.

Four generations and 80 years later, the family business continues to go from strength to strength.

Plenty of memorabilia and photographs from the 1930s right up to the present day will be on display at the special function taking place on Saturday, August 12, at 8 p.m..

Noni Law, Fidelma's daughter, says the event is open to all with an interest in attending.

'We are hoping to see some locals, current clients and former clients and guests. There might be someone who hasn't been here for a while. It should be a great night and we decided that it should also act as a fundraiser for Wicklow Cancer Support.'

The original house was built in 1750 by Hugh Eccles when the estate was known as Cronroe. Hugh conveyed Cronroe to Julius Casement in March of 1862. The house was burned in the 1880's and Julius built the present house in 1890.

Sir Roger Casement was a cousin of Julius and he spent a considerable amount of time in Cronroe. His signature is still seen on a wall in an upstairs room.

In August 1934, Cronroe passed from the Casement family to an American, Nicholas Burns, who changed the name of Cronroe Manor to Bel-Air Hotel.

Noni's grandparents, Tim and Bridie Murphy, bought Bel-Air in 1937 under slightly unusual circumstances.

'My grandparents were running the Cliff Castle Hotel in Dalkey at the time. My grandfather Tim asked my grandmother Bridie to attend an auction that was taking place at Bel-Air so they could buy a few beds for Cliff Castle. When she returned, he asked if she had bought the beds and she replied that she had bought a bit more than that - she had purchased the whole hotel,' explains Noni.

They continued to run both hotels and the riding school with the help of their three daughters, Ita, Ena and Fidelma. In 1980, Fidelma and her husband Bill Freeman, Noni's parents, took over the running of the hotel and riding school.

'I have been rummaging around trying to find stuff and some of what I have found is unbelievable,' said Noni.

'I think it's important it is all seen and it will all be on show on the night of our celebration. I found an auction catalogue from 1933, which is around the time the Burns bought it. I have a copy of the deeds from the Burns family and the Casements. I discovered loads of great photographs and old newspaper articles on Bel-Air. I don't want to give too much away because it will all be on display on the night but I think people will be fascinated.'

Former Irish President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh was a regular visitor to Bel-Air, while actress, novelist and singer Marsha Hunt enjoyed the seclusion the Bel-Air offered while she was suffering from cancer.

Luciano Pavarotti was a surprise visitor to purchase a horse, while at one stage actress Mia Farrow used to spend her summers at Bel-Air.

'I found an old postcard addressed to my mother from Mia Farrow asking how she is and offering to help out at Bel-Air over the summer if my mother needed any assistance. Twenty years ago she came back here and stayed with her whole family.

'There is also a letter from Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh thanking my parents for suggesting he bring some of their cooked meats back home with him.

'Roger Casement spent quite a bit of time here and is meant to have signalled out one of the windows when the guns were meant to be coming in,' said Noni.

Most guest staying in Bel-Air are expecting a 'real Irish' experience, something the estate's 200 acres provides in abundance.

'We aren't so much a hotel as a big home,' said Noni.

'We have ten bedrooms and people are always commenting on the real 'family' atmosphere around the place. It is a family home and people staying here are treated like a family member.

'You would be surprised at some of the people who come in and out of here but they don't want to be known. They just want to come in and be left alone and treated the same as everyone else.'

Now Bel-Air consists of a hotel, working farm, an equestrian centre, a livery yard and a competition centre.

'I grew up with horses. I'd say I was already jumping over a few fences when I was still in my mother's stomach' said Noni.

Today, Bel-Air Hotel and Equestrian Centre is run by Fidelma's and Bill's children Noni, Aileen, Margaret and William, while the next generation are already in line to take over.

'Myself and Maggie's children all help out, just like we did when we were their age. Whether it's helping with the stables, changing bed linen or scrubbing dishes, they do their bit.'

Tickets for the 'Stetsons and Shades' night in aid of Wicklow Cancer Support cost €10 and can be purchased from Bel-Air, Classic Cuts in Ashford or the Wicklow Cancer Support office in Wicklow town.

Wicklow People