John Lennon and Yoko had a love for Ireland, buying an island off Co Mayo. His visits to the area caused a mighty stir as chef, Johnny Carroll tells Jonathan deBurca Butler
THERE was a giddy anticipation amongst staff at the Great Southern Mulranny in the summer of 1969. John Lennon was coming to Mayo and had chosen their hotel to lay his head. It wouldn’t be his first visit to the county. In 1966 the Beatle, who today would be celebrating his 75th birthday, had bought an island in Clew Bay for £1,700.
Dorinish was to become a refuge, a world away from the madness and screaming of Beatlemania, and a few months after buying it at an auction in Westport, he visited with his then wife Cynthia and their young son Julian. On that occasion they had stayed in a hippy caravan that had been transported from England and by handmade raft to the island but this time was different. This time he came with Yoko and their hangers on; a group not so keen on camping.
“It was sort of top secret,” recalls Johnny Carroll, former head chef at the hotel (pictured right). “A few of us knew he was coming but we couldn’t let it get out. I think it was shortly after the thing they did in bed together,” he says recalling their bed-in at the Amsterdam Hilton.
“They came over with their entourage of about 15 or 16. A lot of them you wouldn’t necessarily like to be associated with. They’d be up in the morning having champagne royales and the like. They were messy and by the looks of them I’d say they were on the how-do-you-do.” On the other hand, according to Johnny, Lennon was “an exceptional gentleman” who was “nothing but gracious in his dealings”.
“I met him on a number of occasions,” recalls the 71-year-old.
“He didn’t strike me as a star. I mean he didn’t overdo his fame. He was a very well-built man and he’d no problem coming in and standing at the hot plate. He’d chat away but we were told not to overdo it in terms of the chat and that’s how it was with all of the guests. He was actually a very structured kind of a man from I could see. He liked his routine.” Johnny had been based in Mulranny for six years. Having been born and reared in Ballyhea in Cork his apprenticeship with the Great Southern Hotels had seen him travel to both Switzerland and France where he fine tuned his craft. In 1963, a teaching post came up in Mulranny and after spending a winter there, he decided to stay on. Overall, he would spend 18 years at the hotel where he dealt with many varied and original requests. At the time of their visit both John and Yoko were vegetarians. This presented something of a challenge for a chef in a hotel in the West of Ireland in the late 1960s.
“Back then nobody had even heard of vegetarianism, never mind how to cook it,” says Johnny. “So in many ways that’s probably why I ended up speaking to him so much. He had the whole Indian guru thing going on. But he’d come into the kitchen no bother and say ‘I’d like a bit of boiled rice with sweetcorn or whatever it was’.” Getting the Beatle’s dinner right wasn’t the only problem that Johnny was faced with. Actually getting it to him was another side of the job that sometimes proved if not difficult, a little frightening.
“If the weather was fine he’d stay out on the island so he wouldn’t come in for his dinner and that was grand,” says Johnny.
“But if they did stay out we’d have to bring them out their afternoon tea. They had a helicopter and they’d send it over to the hotel to pick me up and another fella and we’d bring the tea over to them. I mean they had a stove and the like but we’d bring their cakes and their sandwiches out to them. I had never flown in a helicopter and I had a fear of flying. I didn’t enjoy that part of it too much.” Altogether, as Johnny recalls it, Lennon and his retinue “stayed about five or six nights”. On one of those evening it was decided to show the Liverpudlian the best that ireland had to offer in terms of entertainment.
“We invited a performer named Tony Chambers who used to do the Ballroom of Romance circuit,” recalls Johnny.
“He was a bandleader and saxophonist. So the manager at the time Bob Chambers closed the doors and we put on a bit of a show for him. He did his part in it. He got up and did his bit in the Siege of Ennis or whatever it was and he enjoyed it. He was very amicable and I have to say so was she, although she was quieter.” A few months after his departure, another helicopter appeared over the skies of Clew Bay. Rumours ran around the area that Lennon had returned but as it turned out, it was a government minister acting the big shot. Lennon never returned to Mayo after that visit but lent the island to hippies for a commune. Though he had obtained planning permission to build a cottage on the island, the project never came to be.
Four years after John Lennon’s assassination on the December 8, 1980, Yoko Ono sold the island and donated the money to Crumlin’s Children’s Hospital in Dublin.
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