As Ireland’s Blue Book celebrates its 40th anniversary, Pól Ó Conghaile visits Dunbrody House to find out what it means, and takes, to become a member.
WHAT do the words ‘Blue Book’ mean to you? For me, they conjure up images of handsome country houses, of antique lamps glowing behind sash windows. They evoke a sense of character and elegance, of sure-handed hosts, warm welcomes and luxurious rooms. The 43 castles, hotels, country houses and restaurants in the 2014 edition of Ireland’s premier hospitality collection don’t get everything right. Some of them operate to higher standards than others. But all are deliciously memorable.There are romantic boltholes like Gregan’s Castle, hidden in the Burren. There are Michelin Star restaurants like Thornton’s and Chapter One. There are five-stars like the Merrion and Hayfield Manor, or country manors like Marlfield House. They come with stories, too. Newport House in Mayo welcomed Princess Grace, Cork’s Longueville House brews cider from its own apples, and the Bushmill’s Inn in Antrim adjoins the world’s oldest working whiskey distillery.
I meet the Dundons in an elegant dining room overlooking Dunbrody’s gardens. Today, they are one of the most feted couples in Irish food and hospitality circles (Catherine is president of the Blue book in its 40th year). Needless to say, however, success didn’t drop out of a cereal box.
“Blue Book members are selected on a strict criteria basis,” the association states. “The emphasis is on properties that have a strong individualistic style and character and who are not members of hotel chains.”
“The way it works is that you’re actually voted in by other members,” explains Kevin, casual as ever in lilac sweater and blue jeans. “You’re vetted by the committee and once they approve the property as fit for the association, then it goes out to a yearly ballot. You have to get three-quarters of that ballot.”
“It meant a huge amount of business,” Catherine adds. “But it wasn’t all about revenue. It was about other properties we admired, about credibility, about owners whose style we liked or had a kinship with. The Blue Book gives you a certain cachet. But you can also just pick up the phone to someone like Kay O’Flynn in Rathsallagh or Francis Brennan at the Park Hotel, any day of the week.”
The brand began life in 1974, when Myrtle Allen — its first president — and 11 other founding members came together to take advantage of a marketing gap between B&B accommodation and the hotel industry. The Irish Country House and Restaurants Association, as it was originally known, evolved into the ‘Blue Book’ thanks to the distinctive blue colouring of its annual guidebook. Travel Agents simply began asking for ‘The Blue Book’, its told.
Several of the original members remain, including Currarevagh House, Hunter’s Hotel, Longueville and Rathmullan House. Some, like Ballymaloe, are under the stewardship of second generations. Others waxed and waned or become private residences, eventually to be replaced by a slow drip of new blood — Clare Island Lighthouse, Liss Ard Estate and Thornton’s in Dublin being the most recent additions.
For the Dundons, the idea of turning an historic country house into a Blue Book property first sprouted in Canada. Back in the early 1990s, Kevin and Catherine were working at a top-notch Fairmont resort in the Rockies — him as one of chain’s youngest-ever executive chefs; her as a cocktail waitress.
“My parents came to visit, and they brought the newspapers with them,” Catherine recalls. “The property section had an old houses for sale in the West of Ireland, for something ridiculous like £130,000. We had the ad stuck up on the wall.!”
“You had it stuck on the wall! I was quite happy in Canada. I wasn’t going anywhere. Catherine’s mandate was to marry me and get me home.”
“Your mandate was to marry me,” she smiles. “Mine was to get you home.”
“And it worked!”
For some years the idea remained just that — an idea. The couple returned home, got married, and took on new roles, Kevin (still only 26) as head chef at The Shelbourne Hotel; Catherine as European Sales Manager with the Boyne Valley Group.
Together, they bought a tidy little house in Ballsbridge.
“Money was not an object,” Kevin says. “We had no kids. If we wanted to go on holidays, we’d just write a cheque and go. Then we came down here to Wexford, and we’ve struggled ever since!”
Dunbrody wasn’t the first property they visited.
“Old houses all have their own personalities,” Catherine says. “Some you walk into and instantly feel you have to stand up straight and watch your Ps and Qs. Others are spooky and you just want to get out. But as soon as we walked in here, it was easy. It was relaxing. I don’t know what it is — I mean, we completely redecorated. It bears no resemblance to what we saw. But it still has that feeling.”
“When we walked into Dunbrody, we knew this was it,” adds Kevin. “Everything was just right. The house hadn’t been bastardised, it was the original, and it had been built as a hunting lodge... a hotel for a family, really. So we bought it.”
The purchase price of £280,000 secured them the ancestral home of the Chichester family. Dunbrody dates from the 1830s, straddling the Georgian and Regency periods in terms of its architecture, and was home to several generations of the Marquesses of Donegall (Arthurstown is named for Sir Arthur Chichester, the first Earl of Donegall). It was finally sold by Patrick Chichester, now the eighth Marquess.
“If we’d known how much work was involved, we never would have done it.”
“No,” Catherine nods. “It was very drab, I remember. One side of the house hadn’t been used in so long, the paint was coming off the wall. It was all kind of grey and dirgey. But it was dry, there were no holes in the roof, there was no basement — which meant no rising damp — and it was south-facing. It’s in the sun all day.”
I can only imagine how amazing the house must have been in its heyday. With hundreds of staff, full kitchen gardens and thousands of acres sprawling out from the Hook Peninsula.
“The hunt balls were mad here,” Kevin grins. “The family was very friendly with Powerscourt and Mount Juliet. They even had a petrol pump, so the cars that came could be cleaned and refilled with petrol for them to drive home. I’d say it was a ball to be here. But we looked at their accounts and they were filled in beautifully by hand, but they were losing money to a ridiculous degree.”
Catherine nods. “Do you watch Downton Abbey? It was a bit like the last season, where they started looking at selling off land, or changing their business models to figure out different ways of making money. They’d all been hit by Lloyd’s.”
Downton Abbey seems a far cry from Kevin’s accommodation when he first moved down — a spotty caravan in the shadow of the grand old house.
“We hadn’t a clue what we were doing,” he says, recalling frenzied months spent turning a tired old husk into a country house hotel. “We had to re-plumb the house, do all the electrics, decorate and refurnish the whole place.”
“Kevin was the project manager,” Catherine chuckles.
“It just shows the inexperience,” he continues, shaking his head. “I was literally putting paint on, and the walls were sucking it back up. I didn’t know you had to put some sort of sealer on before the first coat. There were five different fuse boards. It took a month to knock two walls in the dining room.”
Bit by bit, however, things started to come together. Dunbrody Country House Hotel opened for business with a wedding on May 3, 1997. The bride and groom were friends of the Dundons, and knew what to expect, but it was still hectic.
“At one point she went to lean against the wall,” Catherine remembers. “And I shouted: ‘Don’t! The paint is still wet.’”
“We were living in pure shite,” Kevin says. “For three years, we lived in the old kitchen and steward’s sitting room, which is now the private dining room. We were ploughing money back into the business, so we ended up dividing our living space up with wardrobes… bathroom and all.”
Catherine laughs at the memory: “It got to the extent that one of us would go, ‘Are they new socks? Did you buy new socks? How dare you buy new socks!’”
I’m fascinated to learn that Dermot Chichester, Lord Donegall (the seventh Marquess), continued to live in the lodge before his death in 2007. Kevin and Catherine struck up a warm relationship with him, chatting on the estate, sending over dinners of bacon and cabbage in foil trays, inviting him to the house for New Year’s and the like, and even joining him for the odd nightcap.
“I ended up nearly becoming a second son to him,” Kevin recalls.
“That’s where I learned to drink whiskey. I never used to drink spirits, but he would summons me down for tea or whatever, and offer gin or whiskey. I’d ask what mixers he had, and he’d say: ‘Water.’ He’d pour two or three fingers of whiskey, add a drop of water, and I’d come falling out of the lodge a few hours later...”
“Lord Donegall was still sitting in the House of Lords at the time,” Catherine says. “He’d come back complaining about his gout. He was very shy, very quiet and a bit deaf, so you had to sit on the right side of him — but that was such an alien conversation for me to be having with anybody!”
Today, Dunbrody is on an exquisite footing. The Dundons have three kids (Emily, Sophie and Tom), a cookery school and spa have been added to the original house, the lodge has been converted to self-catering accommodation, and when the local pub in Arthurstown closed down, the couple opened up The Local, a traditional-style pub serving wood-fired pizzas and ha’penny ice-creams.
The recession has been tough, they say, but Kevin’s books, TV shows and other business interests are breaking big in the US, obviously helping the bottom line. There’s even talk of an Arthurstown Brewing Company in the works…
“I never actually got what we had until I went away,” he says, walking me around a cookery school emblazoned with images from his book.
“When you’re living and breathing it every day, you don’t see what you have. People stay here one night and feel like they’ve been away three days. Dunbrody has something special.”
“There are times when I’m going around, checking this and that, and I’d see guests with their feet up, reading a paper by the fire with a pot of coffee,” Catherine sighs. “And I actually feel jealous! I think, God I’d love to be doing that!”
But that was the vision from the outset, she says — the thought that drove them to create a brand new Blue Book property.
For Blue Book special anniversary offers, see Irelands-blue-book.ie.
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