Sarah Caden, Irish Independent
Sun 1 Oct 2023 at 02:30
In reflective mood, the businessman discusses his decision to sell his beloved Park Hotel, his brother’s brush with cancer and his lessons for thinking young.
In his head, Francis Brennan is not 70: “I think probably 48 or 50,” he says. “To be honest, that’s where I would be.”
In fact, Francis turned 70 last Tuesday, an occasion his family marked with a surprise party in a Dublin hotel the week before — the evening before we meet. His eyes sparkle with delight at how they absolutely caught him out. Francis hadn’t planned a party, but he was pleased to have one.
Francis says he didn’t get moist-eyed, and I believe him. Affection he has in abundance. But he doesn’t do sentimental. The reason for this, perhaps, is that affection is useful, while sentimentality serves no purpose — and Francis Brennan is all purpose.ow to age gracefully and not stress about it, with Francis Brennan As we sit and chat, his eyes dart around, not distractedly, just in the habit of noting what might need doing in the room. “You never go back to the kitchen empty-handed,” he says. It’s a rule for life. Being useful has, perhaps, been the driving force of Francis Brennan’s whole life. From the early years of his childhood in Dublin, helping his father in the family shop, all the way through to owning and running the five-star Park Hotel Kenmare for the last 42 years, to finding a new lease of life in books and television in his 50s and 60s. This is what keeps you feeling 48 as you turn 70, or so Francis Brennan believes. You try to stay vital and useful. It’s what he believes for himself, and it’s what he counsels, in his latest book, “Age is Just a Number” “I have good energy, thanks be to God, and I keep in touch will my 11 nieces and nephews all the time, and that helps to keep an eye on things.Our mother was very sharp. Yes, I would say we are all [in the family] a bit that way. We see things that nobody else might see. Now, I wouldn’t know all the lingo on Snapchat or whatever else that might be knocking around, and I’d be asking them, ‘What’s all the FOMO’ and all that, but I keep on top of it, so if we’re having a conversation, I know where they are coming from.”
His late mother, Maura, who died just before the pandemic in January 2020, at the age of 97, always kept an ear on the grandchildren when she gave them lifts in her car, he recalls. She would say to Francis that she wasn’t sure they were even speaking English, but he laughs to remember how she enjoyed it all the same.“She was very sharp,” Francis says, agreeing that the sharpness and staying on top of things stood to her and that he has it too.“Yes, I would say we are all [in the family] a bit that way. We see things that nobody else might see. His father, on the other hand, was 70 when he died, having had emphysema for many years. As a young man starting in the hotel business in his mother’s native Sligo, Francis came home to the family’s Stepaside shop when his father became too ill to manage it. “I have been through it and I’m out the door now and let’s see what’s going to happen next”. At this stage in his own life, Francis says he reflects on his father’s life, a much harder one than he has enjoyed.
He’d be lugging 4st bags of potatoes. When I see youngsters lifting things, I think, ‘Poor Dad, all his life, delivering briquettes and then got sick and got nothing out of life.’ He got sick at 53. “All the things I’ve done from 53 to 70, he wouldn’t have had a whisper of it. People say to me that I work very hard, but I don’t see it that way. I love it. I don’t consider the hotel business. I worked all day every day, but I loved every minute of it.” His life in the hotel business is coming to an end, as it looks like the sale of the Park Hotel Kenmare is about to come through.
In May of this year, the hotel was put on the market, with its sister property The Lansdowne, directly across the road, with an asking price of €20.5m. As it has panned out, the hotels will sell separately, and Francis is buoyant about the buyer they have found for The Park, which is very much his baby. He bought the hotel out of liquidation in 1986 and has run it with his brother John, also his partner on screen on RTE’s At Your Service for decades.In recent years, they have co-owned it with Fergal Naughton of the Glen Dimplex Group. It is the Brennan brothers who are very much synonymous with the hotel, however, with its immaculate but friendly service, the staff who seem to be an extension of family and a welcome that saw loyal customers return again and again for years and years. All the most long-standing guests have been written to, Francis said, to let them know the era is coming to an end.The prospective buyer, he says, came there for dinner in the summer, liked what he saw, asked who owned the hotel and was told, in a classically Kerry way, that if he wanted, he could own it himself. “This person’s due diligence, on all levels, has shown mad interest in the place. He’s been very conscious of the staff and making sure that they’ll stay, and that’s very important to us. He’ll come at it differently, and it will be slightly different, but not too much.” How to age gracefully and not stress about it, with Francis Brennan. I wonder if Francis will feel a wrench when it actually goes through and the hotel is no longer his. Won’t there be a grief? I don’t believe so. Because since I was that size, I have compartmentalised everything. I’ve been through it and I’m out the door now and let’s see what’s going to happen next. Even though 42 years of my life is tied up in it.” Francis is adamant he’ll move on seamlessly, though he makes it clear that if the new owner has any questions, he’ll always be there for him. But in a physical sense, he won’t be moving anywhere. Having sold his house outside Kenmare, Francis has moved into one of the modern and stunning apartments on The Park grounds, which they built during the boom. He will, literally, be looking at the hotel every day.“There’s a separate exit, luckily,” he says with a laugh of being on site.
Do you get use of the pool and spa, I ask. Yes, he says, laughing again, that’s always been part of the apartment facilities.
Francis insists it won’t be his business to keep an eye on the place via the facilities, but given what we all know about his meticulous personality from \At Your Service\Francis Brennan’s Grand Tour you’d imagine the staff standing up a little straighter when he comes in for a swim, and that he just might have to fix the toilet rolls if they’re on the holder the ‘wrong’ way.(In case you don’t know, they should roll forward, which is more efficient and means that fewer sheets tear off with each use.) In his book, Age is Just a Number, Francis does not shy away from the issues of getting older. Sticking our heads in the sand about ageing is part of our problem really, he says. We pretend it’s not going to happen and then it sneaks up when we’re still 48 in our heads.He discusses everything from pensions to pastimes, fitness and mental health, loneliness, friendship and relationships. Though he told me once that he’d been to about 10 parties in his life and hates social gatherings, Francis has always been committed in his friendships.He takes regular holidays with a very close group of friends, and goes to Lourdes every year, out of gratitude for his good fortune in life, and helps in the kitchens there. His niece Ruth, John’s daughter, has accompanied him on occasion. A mistake people often make, he says, is that their social group will comprise only the people they work with. They might not call themselves friends, per se, but they are each other’s constant, sometimes over decades. Then, when retirement hits, that connection is lost. It’s something he has seen people suffer keenly. Work cannot be the only thing in your life, he says. Regrets, too, can sour older age, he admits. Not that Francis does regrets.
He tells me the story of how he nearly went to America to work for Hilton Hotels in the 1970s, but a postal strike delayed his letter to visit the US embassy for a visa by months. So it never happened.“So I never got to America. I’d often think, ‘If I went to America, how different might it have been?’ But I don’t think it could have been any better, absolutely not. Like, I could have become chief executive of Hilton Hotels over 40 years, but would I really have wanted that?”It’s a sliding-doors thought, rather than a regret, he thinks.“The family call me ‘Plenty of No Notice’. I don’t pay attention to things, I just keep going.”Do people assume, particularly as he gets older, that Francis regrets not having a partner and a family of his own?“They probably think I could have been a great father because I do like kids and all my nieces and nephews. But nobody who knows me would be thinking like that.” Francis Brennan, when in his mid-40s, had planned to retire at 55. In the late 1990s, he went to see Derek Quinlan, the Celtic Tiger developer and investor, former owner of Claridge’s, once one of Ireland’s richest men and then one of Nama’s biggest debtors. Francis told Quinlan, whom he has said remained a friend through boom and bust, that he wanted to “retire at 55 and have a nice time”.Quinlan, pointed out he didn’t seem like the retiring kind, but also facilitated him doing what Francis once described to me in this magazine as: “I did all the deals, and they were in hotels and offices and car parks. A lot of it went pear-shaped and he lost a lot of money, but never pleaded poverty and has always counted his blessings in being financially comfortable.
Retirement at 55 was no longer an option, however, and, in the long run, Francis has come to see that as a blessing.When he was 54, he took part in a TV show called Design for Life that saw him renovate a property he owned in the centre of Kenmare and someone saw something in his sparky, sometimes spiky on-screen persona. In fact, to call it a persona is to suggest it is assumed for the camera. It’s not. It’s Francis. After that came At Your Service, which John has dipped in and out of over the years, and Francis Brennan’s Grand Tour, a great family-viewing show that plays on what might be called his pernicketyness and ability to cut to the chase of anything or anyone.At the moment, a further series of At Your Service is being filmed, with John, for broadcast in late 2024, he says. But plans for more grand tours are on hold for now.Becoming a household name in his 50s and 60s has been a treat, Francis says. After our meeting, he’s off to Galway for a book event and then off around the country for more ‘Evening With…’ style promotion events. Francis enjoys them thoroughly and is always gratified to be asked when he’s back on the telly.Between the books and the television and his Francis Brennan Collection for Dunnes Stores, he’ll be busy, he says. The Dunnes Stores association began in his 60s, though Margaret Heffernan had suggested it almost a decade earlier.
One imagines a simpatico between the hotelier and the Dunnes Stores matriarch that ties in with Francis’ comment about the Brennan family trait of noting and noticing everything. It is something that people brought up in retail often have in common, that eye for what’s next and how and why things work. The Francis Brennan Collection has been a massive success and he can increase his workload on that going forward if that fits his plans, he says.Francis Brennan won’t be bored. He’s not so sure that his brother John won’t be, however, once the hotels are gone. Francis mentions that he’s a great sleeper himself, while John seems to struggle with it a bit more. In fact, Francis refers to John regularly in conversation, and he is close and very connected to John, his wife Gwen and their children Adam and Ruth. John’s diagnosis with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2011 was a massive shock, he says. To date, it is a treatable but not curable form of cancer and John has spoken about further treatment he had in 2019 and has always been sanguine about it. Francis says there is hope of a cure now and he says it with relief.“I did get a fright,” he says of John’s first diagnosis, and that’s evident in how he admits it.The only moment in the conversation when Francis gives pause — because everyone knows he isn’t for pausing — is when I ask if he’ll miss John once they no longer work together every day.“I hadn’t really thought of that,” he says, stopping and looking around. “That will be strange.”John will spend more time on his boat, he says. Francis makes a face like he couldn’t imagine anything worse. He’d go mad cooped up like that. The Dunnes collection, the books, the TV, that’s Francis’s kind of retirement.Anything else? I ask.“Is that not enough?” he replies with a laugh — but there is more. “I have a little plan to do all the capital cities in Europe, like for three or four days each, just ticking them off.”I don’t doubt that he will do it — and the toilet rolls better be the right way around.