He is one of RTE’s best-loved faces. Francis Brennan tells Barry Egan how he talks to his Aga cooker, about how his bedroom is “frightening”, his idyllic childhood, his 91-year-old mother and his father’s death in 1988.
Why am I not surprised? Francis Brennan loves to dance. Hearing this is like having Bob Dylan say to you he likes a good moan. “I’m a great waltzer at weddings,” Brennan beams, his eyes lighting up, before he adds with a Michael Flatley-like flourish: “All the women say I’m a great dancer. But there’s nowhere you can dance these days, really, except at weddings, is there?”
The sub-head on his new book It’s The Little Things: Francis Brennan’s Guide To Life sums up his guiding philosophy – and perhaps even more himself. It reads: spread a little sparkle dust and make the world a happier place. Even allowing for exaggeration, it is safe to say that since he walked into the swish drawing room of a certain top Dublin 4 hotel, Brennan has spread more than a little of his particular sparkle dust. Sparkle? The place practically lights up. Little old ladies look up from miniature sweet creations and afternoon tea to observe the blond-coiffured vision in the pinstripe suit, glasses resting on the edge of his nose, and the 24/7 smile that has a wattage that could power an ESB station.
“It’s a beautiful day in Dublin! I didn’t think you had days like this at all!” he says breezily, having just arrived from his home and his 5-star establishment (the world famous Park Hotel in Kenmare) from Kerry in his car. He is a tempest of laughter and pronounced positive energy flow. Possibly personally responsible for all the Zen in the Kingdom, the Buddha Brennan is impossible not to like, or impossible not to wish, at some level, that you were more like him. I went to meet him in the Merrion Hotel in a bit of fouler; I left floating on air after an hour of his cathartic company. I’m not even sure he fully realises how entertaining he is to be around.
“I’m away a lot, ” he says at one point. “But if I am at home, I have a very simple life. I have an Aga cooker, which I talk to. Not everyone has an Aga, but I talk to mine, because I love it.” He adds that when he comes home from the Park Hotel on a winter’s evening, he lifts the two lids on the Aga, reads the paper, makes a cup of tea and sits at the kitchen table – “with the Aga roasting the back off me.”
The image of the back roasting off Francis Brennan could almost be one of his many tips to better living in his fabulous new book. It covers everything from manners beginning at home, to guess who’s coming to dinner, to births, marriages and death, to grooming.
I ask him to tell me about his own grooming. Does he dye his hair? “You’re hilarious!” he hoots. And I mean hoots. When he stops hooting with laughter, Francis Brennan continues the tale. “I was in Spain two weeks ago for a weekend and I was shopping and I had a trolley full of stuff. I have an apartment in Spain for 14 years which everybody uses except me.”
He goes off on a tangent, which is his way about how last year he didn’t get to go to his place in Spain at all and this year “only a weekend. Just to tell you! Just in case you think I’m lording it around the place! So, anyway, I was in the supermarket in Spain. I was getting loads of yoghurt for the breakfast and then when I turned around my trolley was gone, right? The only trolley that was left was the trolley of the person who took my trolley – which had a Just For Men hair dye in it. I thought: ‘Is someone being funny?'”
The only person being funny today, of course, is Francis Brennan. The knowing glances from people as they come into The Merrion make you realise that you are in the presence of a very well known Irish face from the telly. Francis and his younger brother John, as well as running the Park (Francis has the hotel since 1980 while John got involved in 1994), are the stars of RTE’s hotel-revamp show At Your Service, now in its seventh season. This has its own, albeit mild, drawbacks. He says people sometimes have the wrong idea of him because of the show.
“People think I’m desperately fussy,” he laughs. “Now I am fussy, but I am not fussy if I’m going to your house or anything like that. People are afraid to ask me to come visit them because they think they’ll have to put on a seven course meal! The biggest misconception about me would be that I would be terribly fussy. I mean, like if I was coming to dinner they get so excited it drives me out of my mind! I prefer they just give me a bag of Tayto and a glass of Club Orange.”
Pur-lease! When was the last time Francis Brennan ate a bag of Tayto?
“Actually, the other day in Lourdes,” he says of his recent visit. “One of the patients had a bag of Tayto! ‘I said: ‘Here! Give me one of them, I need the salt!'” he laughs. “So I ate two bags of Tayto.”
So would you be sitting up in bed at night having a bag of Tayto? I say. “No! Never! I never eat in bed, ever. Bed is for sleep, nothing else. And I have no trouble sleeping thank God. Into the bed and gone.”
He adds that his bedroom “looks like an accountant’s office. If I brought you in, you would die! Piles of stuff! My bedroom is absolutely frightening, because I only file stuff away twice a year. There is loads of stuff on the table, bank statements, bills . . .”
He goes off on another of his tangents: “They’re all paid, don’t worry about that!” he hoots for the billionth time. “I never read in bed,” he adds. “I don’t have time. I only go to bed at 2 am. I come home at around half 11. My brother is married with children. He would never be that late in the hotel because he has a wife and children. That would be wrong. So I would make sure that he would go home to his wife and children.”
I ask him why did he take that path in life and his brother took the other one.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It is funny.”
But he is not at home having the dinner on his lap watching the telly? “No. That happens six times a year. And I’m rooting in the fridge to see what I’m going to eat. I might have a fillet steak and a bit of fish or a bit of veg.”
Other than that it would be 5-star dining every night in the hotel he owns. Despite the constant procession of gourmet food served up to him, the RTE star and hotelier could never be called Flab Francis or Beefy Brennan (maybe Fillet of Beef Brennan.)
Indeed he was at his doctor recently for a vaccination because he is going to Mexico. The doctor put him on the weighing scales. He told Francis, who is 5 foot 9, that his weight was the very same as it was in 1988: 13 stone exactly.
He was delighted. But then Francis Brennan, without being smug or full of himself, is nearly always delighted about something in life. He says he always has been contented and in a good place in his life.
His secret, he says, is that there is no secret. “You hear these gurus on the television talking and they are trying to explain where they want to be. And I’m thinking: ‘Well, I’m there all the time! So what’s the fuss?’ I’m just always a happy person. And I like to make people happy.”
He attributes this trait in no small part to his 91-year-old mother, Maura. She would frighten you with how much detail she knows about people: their family names, where they grew up, what colour coat they wore, the bike they rode. She passed on her love of her fellow humans to Francis. She’d tell Francis that life is too short to moan and to get on with it and you’ll be fine.
His mother’s secret, he says excitedly, “I’ll tell you now! Last night I was on the phone to her and she said she had two roast potatoes in the oven. And my sister arrived with four potatoes from her poly-tunnel, because she does all that modern carry-on style and madness. She says she ate them all. Six potatoes and she is 91! So that is my mum. She has good health and a good appetite. You don’t have many people at 91 eating six potatoes.”
His father Tom died in 1988. Francis was in Vancouver on a sales trip for the Park when he got the news. “That was a long way to come home,” he says.
How did he feel on that plane journey?
“I felt sad because he had a difficult time. He was sick for 17 years with emphysema. My father died 10 times but he didn’t die. Do you know what I mean? I think if someone dies suddenly – like a brick falls on your head – you never know were they happy with God the day they died. But with my father he had been anointed and all the rest; everything was perfect. And I think if you die that way, isn’t it wonderful?”
Francis, who has just returned from his 32nd annual trip to Lourdes, has his own solid relationship with Him in the celestial Penthouse above the clouds.
“I just have a religion. I believe in it and I don’t break it. We always went to Mass and all that carry-on. We were not overly religious and I’m not either but if you’re a Catholic, you’re a Catholic. And if you want to be a Catholic, you be a Catholic.” He recalls the bliss of his idyllic childhood growing up in Sandyford in south county Dublin was tempered by the trauma of “having a bad leg.” He was, he remembers, in and out of Cappagh hospital in Finglas.
“I spent an awful lot of time in hospital. I was born with a bad leg – and I had 11 operations by the time I was 11. It was a nightmare but it was never a problem.”
I ask Francis is that why he has become so successful in adult life because he felt at some deeper level he had to compensate for that.
He shakes his head. “Not at all,” he answers. “But it never hindered me in anything I ever did, which is probably unusual because the doctors were afraid I mightn’t walk properly. That was in the 1950s. They brought me to London and they got me the best doctors – and they didn’t have the money to do it. So they were great people.”
Young Francis attended junior school in St Anne’s for three years in Milltown, beside where his father had a grocery shop, and has fond memories of the particular kindness of a lay teacher.
“We used to get a little bottle of milk and a sticky bun on a Friday. The milk used to be cold and she used to put it in her bosoms – six bottles of milk! – to take the chill off them for us because we were very small. Can you imagine that nowadays? I was born in 1953,” he adds.
You were born in 1953? You don’t look it. Is it Botox? I joke. “No! Just clean living and fresh air,” he smiles.
Did he put Holy water up on his face in Lourdes to keep him young?
“I did! Every night. Lourdes water! I got up at 3am in Lourdes to go to the kitchen to cook for the patients and then we put them on a plane and took them to Kerry and I got home on Sunday night. It is nice to give of yourself to people who are not well.”
Holy water aside, Francis puts his youthful, almost age-defying looks, down to the fact that he never drank or smoke.
“I never touched alcohol, not a drop, since I took my pledge at 12. I renewed it at 16. I never broke the pledge. It is funny because I’m in the hotel business and, sure, drink is everywhere. I’ll tell you what – and you’ll laugh at me now! – The Lord knew I was going to go into the hotel business and he gave me that privilege of having that pledge because drink would be too available.”
“I’ve always had a simple life. People will think, ‘Your man is always going here, there and everywhere.’ Which I am! But my life is ferociously simple as a person. I move in a circle that is much more glamorous than I want my life to be.”
Does he enjoy the glamour? “Of course I do. Well, it is part of my life. I have a nice country house in Kerry. It overlooks Kenmare Bay, you know, lovely gardens and 60 acres.”
You have a house on 60 acres? I hate you! I joke.
“Sure, land is cheap is Kerry!” Francis smiles, adding that he has “a ride-on lawnmower. I was never on it! Don’t write me up as being that sort of person, because I am not like that!” he hoots.
What happened to the simple life on 60 acres? Is it Downton Abbey in the Kingdom?
“Well, let me tell you,” he smiles, “I work seven days a week from eight in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. I love my job. I look after people. I make people happy. I am a good employer. And I enjoy life. I am never at home in reality. This year, I was away for seven and a half weeks on the road in America for sales for the hotel.”
Francis lives on his own on his 60 acres. Asked what is that like, he says, not inaccurately: “Well, I never lived with anyone, so? I’m very happy. And I always know where the scissors is!”
Francis says that he inherited that organisational skill from his father: “My father would bring tins of beans to put on the shelf in the store and if you didn’t put them in the right row and the right shape with all the names out, he’d eat you alive. I worked in the shop all the time. So I suppose since I was this high I would end up in a situation where I always had everything right.”
In terms of getting Ireland right, Francis Brennan says, as Taoiseach he would reduce the tax rate hugely “so people would spend money and I’d try to get everybody back into work and I’d try to give people the work ethic; unfortunately there are so many people in Ireland with no work ethic, not through their own fault, youngsters, but through their parents’ fault. Because their parents haven’t shown them how to work or got them out of bed, or told them to pick up their pyjamas. Or do all those things that people should do when they’re training a youngster. Now, I’ve no kids, but I just know those things.”
What would he be like as a father?
“Oh, I’d be a great dad,” he says. “I love kids. I’m mad about them, to be honest with you. Ask any of my nieces and nephews, they’ll tell you. I have 11 of them and they’re all wonderful,” Francis says, naming Sarah, Paul, Adam, Ruth, Barry, Fiona, Neil, Ian, Helen, Rachel and Barry.
“I have two Barrys,” he explains. In ten years time, “when I’m 71”, the hooting Saint Francis of Kenmare sees himself, “please God, retired.”
God or no God, lets hope not.
‘It’s the Little Things: Francis Brennan’s Guide to Life’ published by Gill & Macmillan is in shops now, priced at €14.99.