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Checked in for loving life

'I DIDN'T fancy him at all -- absolutely not," is how Audrey Loughran describes her initial feelings about her husband John, owner/director of Sandymount Hotel in Dublin. "I'd say I was afraid of him, because I was 18 and very shy, and was working as the receptionist in what was then his parents' hotel. He was 20 and very outgoing."

Their first real conversation came about when student John ran out of money while hitchhiking in France, and called his parents George and Rosaleen for help. Audrey answered the phone and John reckons he may have been quite rude to her -- they both recall that the words "who the hell are you?" may even have been his opening gambit. Once they met in person, they began to see one another in a different light.

"Being honest about it, I did fancy her at a very early stage, but I was going out with someone else," says John. "There was also a kind of unwritten rule that the family didn't date the staff. Then, more than a year later, when I wasn't going out with anyone, I gave Audrey a lift home and asked her out."

By then, Audrey said that John was growing on her, but they kept their relationship under wraps for the first six months. Then they were spotted by a friend of John's sister, and the cat was out of the bag but John's parents didn't mind as, by then, they had a great relationship with Audrey.

"They had both interviewed me for the receptionist position," she says, adding that they didn't realise then that they were interviewing their future daughter-in-law. "I got on really well with them, particularly John's mum, who was a fabulous woman."

John's parents started the hotel in 1955, with only four bedrooms. John was born in the hotel and recalls how, in the early years, he and his four siblings all slept in the sitting room during the summer months, because their bedrooms were too valuable! They all helped out with washing dishes and making beds, and while his mother was the public face of what was then called the Mount Herbert Hotel, his dad worked behind the scenes, overseeing the running of it.

John studied business at Trinity College, before qualifying as an accountant. He worked for Price Waterhouse for a couple of years, and then started up an accountancy practice with two friends. After 10 years, he left the practice to join the family business. He ran the hotel with his brother Paul for several years until 1995. He then became sole owner, and these days, holds the title of owner/director.

Audrey is from Seapoint in Dublin, and her dad worked in the hotel business, before opening a shop in the garage at the back of her house.

After they got engaged, John was keen on her leaving the hotel -- although she adored her job -- as he believed that running a business together had taken a toll on his late parents' personal life.

Audrey went to work in another hotel for a few months, but suffered a few bereavements. Her fit and active mum died from cancer aged 56, a few months prior to their wedding, and the following year, her only sibling, Roseanne, died, aged 32, from skin cancer, leaving behind two small children. Now that her dad has also passed away, Audrey's family are all sadly gone (she also had a brother who died in infancy).

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She and John were married in 1980 in Monkstown Church, where her dad was sacristan, and they quickly started a family. They have four children, Lorraine, 29, Gerard, 27, Oisin, 23, and Sinead, 20. While Gerard is operations manager at the hotel, Oisin is studying and does the hotel's accounts,

Lorraine is marketing manager of Harlequins' Rugby Club in London, and Sinead is on a hockey part-scholarship at the University of North Carolina.

"We're all very close although it doesn't mean that skin and hair can't fly at times," says the genial John with a laugh. "When our children faced into problems and issues over the years, Audrey was the one who mainly looked after the caring, whereas I looked after the nuts and bolts.

"She's very beautiful, and while she was very shy, she has blossomed over the years and is very comfortable in her own skin. I'd say that what drives her mad in terms of me is that while I may not always be right, I'm never wrong, so I can be quite stubborn!"

John and Gerard are keen to provide guests with a family atmosphere. The hotel has a cosy, welcoming feel, and this is very important to the Loughrans, in the face of competition from so many other hotels. They have 168 bedrooms, a restaurant, bar, conference rooms, and a business centre, and are the nearest hotel to the new Aviva Stadium, which is a huge selling-point.

While Audrey says that John's snoring is his worst point, he says that when she "flaps" over minor things and doesn't see the bigger picture, it can annoy him.

"What I have to get across to her is that even if I get a bit annoyed with her, I still love her," he smiles. "She is certainly the most important person in my life. In terms of keeping our relationship going, I like to do things to surprise her, like bringing her to Jamaica for our 25th anniversary when she thought we were going to England. And after all of these years, she is still putting up with me!"

Audrey loves to play golf, walk her two rescue dogs, and spend time at their apartment near Nice. When asked what she loves about John, she says that he is very caring and loving, and would do anything for anyone. "He's a very good guy who knows about everything," she says. "Someone very dear once said to me, 'That's not a husband, that's a gift from God', and they were right."

Sandymount Hotel, Herbert Rd, Lansdowne Rd, Dublin 4 Tel: (01) 614 2000, www.sandymounthotel.ie

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