Book review: Counting My Blessings

OTELIER Francis Brennan is a natural storyteller.

In a book that rampages through the psychiatrist Jung, the writer Twain, US president Roosevelt in praise of work, glorious work, whirrs from Mexico to Majorca, back to Mass in Kenmare, Francis Brennan in his Guide to Happiness becomes the cartographer of wellbeing — he is telling us how to be happy.

Francis sets out on the very modern premise that happiness is a choice — and a by-product of how we behave.

Francis Brennan is, of course, rather Edwardian. The 62-year-old is really at home in the early part of the 20th century. He has already written a best-selling book on etiquette.

He is neat, tidy, tee-total, and most of the quotations Francis chooses to underpin his guide derive from the late 19th or early 20th century.

“Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect: it just means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections,” Francis sets out in a quote that unusually for the meticulous Francis is not attributed.

Refreshingly there is plenty to contradict this dry philosophy and the penultimate chapter, on God, completely overturns it. It transpires that the very practical Francis is a great believer in something other than rationality; he is a Mass-goer but his Catholicism is less important than the need to believe in something other than oneself; and life after all has an element of luck, he concedes. He loves work — but he also likes leisure.

Francis is at home with telling us funny anecdotes of being mistaken for Pope Francis — and one suspects this is not beyond the bounds of possibility: He would easily talk his way up the Vatican ladder!

But before Francis is canonised, we have a riotous and hugely funny account of life à la Brennan that is sometimes not unlike Gerald Durell’s great My Family and Other Animals.

There are fantastic anecdotes about close shaves with guests and staff. He learned for instance “the not so-subtle art” of spotting theft while a junior manager at the South County Hotel in Stillorgan, a huge dance and five-bar venue in the 1970s.

It was a place “full of wildlife” and a mouse appears in the cracker box on the cheese trolley in an uncanny resemblance to an episode involving a rat in Fawlty Towers. The tills never balanced and one night Brennan found there was “a cool £1,000 missing.” A bar maid he suspected blamed her fingernails — the till buttons were incompatible with her nails!

Brennan also gives an insight into what is really the upstairs downstairs of hotel life, where the customer is always right.

But he also tells of the Kenmare restaurateur who deals with complaining customers by asking them to leave.

And the hotel staff at the Park in Kenmare are, one suspects, really family — encouraged up the ladder and brought on fantastic holidays each year.

The Dublin-born, partly Sligo-reared Francis, loves Kenmare; For him it is home. But he is rarely there. Apart from his apartment in Majorca, he is away in the US on sales and marketing trips for Tourism Ireland; he is filming At your Service.

Francis is a lifelong devotee of travel: He takes up to 45 flights a year loves “the process of travel” — the going there as much as the getting there.

And what does he always bring with him? His rosary beads.

The real key to Francis’ unbelievable energy and happiness which emerges towards the end of the book is, one suspects, his attitude to the twins drink and religion. Francis took the pledge at this confirmation at the age of 12; has never broken it and has never felt the desire to. He is up and out while fellow travellers to far flung places are staggering back to the hotel. His Catholicism has given him a structure to his life and his faith is central — hence the blessings in the title.

Among the people he most admires are the businessman Denis O’Brien (treated so badly by the press, Francis says), alongside the Dalai Lama and Pope John XXIII. This is a book to bring in a suitcase and dip into on colourless days.

Counting My Blessings

Francis Brennan’s Guide to Happiness

Gill & Macmillan, €14.99


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