As the Blue Book turns 45,joins the women at the helm of Ireland’s country houses for afternoon tea.
Hazel Allen was a young girl at boarding school and one of the highlights of her week was getting a copy of the Farmers’ Journal. She would go straight to Myrtle Allen’s cookery column.
“I loved them,” she says, laughing, as she recalls an Ireland of long ago. “There wasn’t a lot of excitement around then and I didn’t even know who Myrtle was, but I would always tear them out and keep them and they sparked my ambition to go into hotel management.”
Little did she know back then, but Myrtle Allen would become Hazel’s mother-in-law and Hazel was to become another female pillar of the phenomenon that is Ballymaloe, setting up and running Ballymaloe House as a hotel and restaurant for the last 40 years.
Ballymaloe is a founding member of the remarkable Blue Book, Ireland’s premier hospitality collection.
It’s not just the Allen women who have made Blue Book such a success. I spent a throughly enjoyable afternoon in the gracious surroundings of Cork’s Hayfield Manor chatting to five dynamic women, whose hotels and properties are all members of Blue Book. In the era of MeToo and calls for gender equality in the workplace, it’s interesting that women were always at the centre of the Blue Book’s success, from its origins 45 years ago.
Women such as Myrtle Allen and Jane O’Callaghan from Mallow’s Longueville House were at the forefront of Ireland’s Blue Book, when the association was founded in 1974. I sipped afternoon tea and savoured petits fours with Hazel, Patricia Roberts of Limerick’s No 1 Pery Square, Emer Corridan of Cahernane House in Killarney, Kela Hodgins of Dunowen House near Clonakilty, and Claire Scally of the Hayfield Family Collection, which looks after Hayfield Manor, Great Southern Killarney and the Killarney Royal.
Claire, who is their communications director, is carrying on the dynamic female tradition since it was her grandmother who owned and ran the Killarney Royal.
“Her husband was a school master and she bought the hotel,” she explains.
Claire’s parents are both nurses but the hotel business called out to them and they took over the Killarney Royal. But they had a much bigger plan. It’s hard to imagine Cork now without Hayfield Manor but it was the Scally family’s vision that set up the hotel on the old Musgrave family home site in the mid 1990s. They purchased the Great Southern Killarney in 2014 and the four Scally children are now involved in the running of the three hotels.
And it was one woman who was the source of this family dynasty. “My grandmother continued being involved with the Killarney Royal right up into her 70s,” remembers Claire.
Patricia admits she is the driving force behind No 1 Pery Square in Limerick, a Georgian house hotel which was in two pieces when she and her husband bought it in 2005. “He worked in agricultural machinery,’” laughs Patricia, who had all the hotel experience. But they painstakingly restored it and managed to open just three years later in 2008.
It can’t have been easy opening a boutique hotel in the middle of one of the worst ever recessions. Patricia admits it was tough. “We lived in the property for the first few years and we had our three boys.
“But I’m glad to say the last five years have seen good steady growth and now we’re able to reinvest back into the hotel,” says Patricia, who maintains Limerick becoming European City of Culture in 2014 has led to a real increase in tourists coming to the city.
Kela Hodgin’s husband Stephen was in finance and neither of them had any experience of running a Blue Book property since Kela had spent her career in marketing.
But they both had a passion to try something new and move out of Dublin.
“We’d been looking at old houses for quite a while,” she remembers. But when they found the right one in 2013 — Dunowen House near Clonakilty — they moved fast. Within just six weeks they had sold their house in Dublin and found themselves in West Cork with their three children, two of whom were teenagers. “They were fairly surprised,” Kela admits, laughing.
Dunowen House, which dates back to 1771, is best known as the former residence of Noel Redding, bass guitarist with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who lived there for 30 years. But Kela bought the house off another music star — 80s pop star Nik Kershaw.
“It needed a bit of TLC,” she recalls, “but the structure was good.” Kela and her family now live in the Coach House, which they also renovated, and the beautifully restored Dunowen House along with the adjoining Orchard Cottage, are available for private rental for parties, hen weekends, intimate weddings and family getaways, with full private catering provided by the Hodgins.
Cahernane House in Killarney also has a fascinating past. The house was built by the Herbert family in the late 1870s but they lost their fortune. It became a hotel as early as 1900 and went through a succession of owners including the Italian Vincent Albericci and yet another dynamic woman, Patricia Newling who owned and managed Cahernane in the 1940s and 50s.
Now owned by the Prem Group since 2016, Emer Corridan is Cahernane House’s conscientious and capable manager. Having worked in the hotel industry for 20 years, she is clearly relishing her role and loves recounting the house’s colourful past. “We’ve actually produced a history brochure on Cahernane, ‘If these walls could talk...’, the history is so fascinating,” she explains.
Hazel Allen has come a long way from the young girl who tore those recipes out of the Farmers’ Journal. She has been at the forefront of a massive change in the Irish hotel industry. She arrived in Ballymaloe, fresh from her hotel experience in Switzerland and Canada, in 1969 and was determined her hero Myrtle Allen was going to give her a job. “It was November,” she remembers, “and there were no jobs. But Ballymaloe was featured on a BBC show called The Holiday Programme and suddenly they were inundated with letters from people who wanted to stay. Ballymaloe was a farm and suddenly we had to get a hotel up and running.” No better woman than Hazel, who found herself running the country house hotel and restaurant. She went on to marry Myrtle’s son Rory in 1974 — the year Blue Book was founded — and the rest is history. But Hazel remembers the origins of Blue Book which started life as The Irish Country House and Restaurants’ Association. “The other country house hotels were our friends,” she recalls, “and in the winter we’d go and spend time with them. If guests were staying with us, we’d also ring ahead to the other houses and see could they take them.”
Today Ireland’s Blue Book boasts 53 exquisite properties from country houses to castles to Michelin-starred restaurants to five-star hotels and there are very few establishments that don’t want to be part of this exclusive club. “We receive up to 30 or 40 applications a year,” explains Blue Book’s CEO Michelle Maguire. But as their website states, members are selected on a strict criteria basis with the emphasis being on properties with a strong individualistic style and character.
The overseas market is vitally important and Michelle has just returned from a tourism event in Cannes where she held about 30 meetings a day. But the domestic market is their most important, with Blue Book vouchers now becoming a really popular wedding gift, not to mention the corporate and Christmas markets. “The network they have is really valuable,” maintains Emer from Cahernane House.
And Claire Scally makes the point that many of the smaller establishments have no marketing budgets so Blue Book is vital for them. What’s really lovely is how many Blue Book members are part of family dynasties such as the Allens and the Scallys and that’s clearly down to the women who have always been to the forefront of the organisation. And Kela Hodgins reveals her son Ben, who is in his second year of a brewing degree in Carlow, is eyeing up Dunowen House’s orchard. “It is exciting to think we could pass this on to the next generation.”