From hoteliers to tour guides, Esther McCarthy meets our tourism workers as they ready themselves for the busiest time of year.
Meet Ireland’s Welcoming Committee - the people working at the front line of our tourism industry, who understand the true value of our Céad Míle Fáilte.
With the numbers of tourists coming here reaching record figures following a tough recession our hoteliers, tour guides and hospitality workers know first-hand what makes Ireland such a treasured destination.
They’re also aware of the strides we’ve made in developing a highly successful tourism industry, and the steps to be taken to sustain its development.
We spoke to them about fun, Fota and Fungie - and why our small island continues to beguile people from all over the world.
Francis and John Brennan know hospitality. Since Francis first took on the Park Hotel in Kenmare, overlooking the beautiful Beara peninsula, the brothers have turned it into a world-class five-star hotel with a distinctive Irish charm.
“The hotel is 120 years in business, but I’m here just 38 years - I didn’t drink the Oil of Olay, I just put it on my face,” quips Francis with the rapid-fire banter that has made him one of Ireland’s best-known hoteliers.
For him, it’s all about the welcome, and our reputation for being a friendly people is of enormous value to visitors. He was shocked at a recent visit to a hotel where a staff member never engaged with him.
“I was in a hotel in Ireland this week, and the receptionist, who was about 200 feet away, never noticed me once. I must have walked past eight times, but she never engaged or made eye contact once. I couldn’t believe it. It matters hugely.”
He believes the Irish tourism industry is in a healthy place after a number of challenging years during the recession, and that it can continue to grow and flourish if we plan ahead.
“We do a lot of things right. We’ve got a good road system now, and a very high standard of accommodation compared to other places. When I came to Kenmare first, there were two restaurants, now there are 42. There’s a lot of growth, no doubt about it.”
He feels that while Ireland has an abundance of free activities and attractions for families, it’s important to cater to families further, particularly in the catering trade.
“We could do a bit more for families, maybe. It would be good to see more family-friendly restaurants where you can go in the early evening.”
John says that the birth of Ireland’s tourism came with the opening of family B&Bs in the 1960s which opened up Irish hospitality to the rest of the world.
The fact that they were indigenous and family run helped spread or reputation as a friendly and personable people.
The development of coach tours - which marks us out from the destination resorts of other countries - was also significant.
“We get free, independent travellers. We don’t have a destination tourism in Ireland,” he said, adding that “The Wild Atlantic Way is the most significant development since Aer Lingus first crossed the Atlantic”.
John feels that the number of flights to and from Ireland help us stand out as an island nation.
“Our connectivity to the world is phenomenal. We are blessed with that because we are an island and unless we can get people here we can’t function.”
He cautioned that car hire insurance bonds are costly for tourists, and that keeping our roads and beaches clean is crucial to maintaining Ireland’s image as a place of natural beauty abroad.
“People are looking for freshness. A pure, clean, natural experience. A pint and a smoked salmon sandwich.”
Like his sibling, he ultimately believes Ireland’s people are its greatest strength.
“People come here knowing it’s a friendly destination, but they encounter an honesty that they didn’t expect. Irish people communicate openly and look people straight in the eye, which is really important.”
The Jaunting Car Tour Operator
As a child, Laura Tangney can remember running out of the family home every time she heard the distinctive trot of her father’s horse and jaunting car, begging him to let her come along.
Often he did, and Laura and her siblings Paul and Michael grew up on the cars and around the horses that have always been their way of life.
Michael Senior and his family run Killarney Jaunting Cars and Laura has been involved in developing the business, expanding their private and corporate tours.
Her dad has worked with horses all his life, and his first jaunting car tour was when he took American actress Gloria De Haven on a tour of Killarney’s National Park.
In 2011 he welcomed back an old friend, the late Maureen O’Hara, to the town, and she shared fond memories with the family of her time on a jaunting car with John Wayne in The Quiet Man.
The business, Laura explains, goes right back to their grandfather.
“He was poaching in the National Park so they said they’d better give him a job,” she laughed. “It’s been a generational business.
“Tourism is in our blood. I did my college degree, but I knew in my heart that one day, I would be going into the family business.”
In subsequent years, the family decided to build their business so it could sustain them all, and set up a website and expanded the types of tours they have to offer.
They use four-wheel cars which carry eight to ten passengers, except for the Gap of Dunloe where a two-wheeler with pony and trap is still commonly used.
“A lot of our business is contract, and we would deal with large corporate groups, people who are team building or rewarding their staff.
“Like everyone, we took a hit during the recession, but they’re coming back now, and there’s definitely been a turnaround.”
The key to Killarney’s success, she says, has been the extension of the season from the traditional summer months, and indeed the growth in popularity of ‘staycations’ among Irish holidaymakers.
Many Irish holidaymakers are either treating themselves to a second break on home soil as well as the foreign package holiday, or staying at home to holiday altogether.
“The season is almost year-round now. Killarney is good at going out and selling ourselves as a complete package. Many of the businesses are family owned or managed. We’ve built up the business to sustain us all, and staycations have become very popular - it’s easy for Irish people to holiday here.”
She doesn’t miss a beat when asked what makes us such a popular destination.
“Friendliness is in our veins. We’re always involved in any kind of party that’s happening. I meet different people from all over the world every day, and when I ask them if they’re enjoying their holiday, the first thing they mention is the people. I don’t think we ever lost that welcome. I think we’re a good old breed!”
The Fungie Boatman
Is there a happier job on the planet than bringing boatloads of excited tourists out to meet one of the world’s most famous dolphins? Jimmy Flannery can’t think of one.
As one of the boatmen behind Dingle Dolphin Tours, Jimmy escorts travellers from all over the world - among them a former James Bond - to see the much-loved Fungie strut his stuff at sea.
Ever since the bottle-nosed dolphin first started to make the mouth of Dingle harbour his stomping ground three decades ago, he has delighted many and helped bring tourists and growth to the beautiful Co Kerry town.
Never tired of the day job, Jimmy counts himself as one of Fungie’s greatest fans.
“Fungie is the only thing not born here that isn’t considered a blow-in,” he laughs.
“He was a very young dolphin when he first started coming here 34 years ago.
“I had been to fishery school in Donegal, where I met my wife, Bridget, who came down to Dingle with me, and I was fishing with my brother at that time.
“You’d be used to seeing dolphins all the time, but this fella started hanging around the mouth of the harbour. I remember my mother would ask for him when we got home.”
She wasn’t alone in her interest in the mammal, and as word got out, people would visit the picturesque Co Kerry town in the hope of catching a glimpse of this unique creature who was making the harbour his home.
Within a couple of years, Jimmy and several other boatmen set themselves up in business professionally and started organising tours.
“Little did we know the road he would take us on. He’s known all over the world. Wherever you go, when you say you’re from Dingle, people say: ‘That’s where the dolphin is from’.”
Although Fungie’s position is unique, Jimmy says it’s not all that unusual for a bottle-nosed dolphin to go it alone. And he speaks with great affection and respect for the creature he has watched at close quarters more than most.
“They’re fierce intelligent, I think they’re very like humans. Some people come in to visit him time and time again. Fungie does whatever he wants to. He still feeds himself - he will not take food - and he can be a complete and utter messer at times.
“He has patterns, moods, and he does different things on different days. You get used to his mischief and his ways.”
He has drawn tourists from all over the world, among them celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan, James Nesbitt and Mary Black, and helped put Dingle on the map as a tourist destination.
Jimmy, who is branching into other tours through his business Dingle Sea Safari operating a variety of other sea trips (“this is an industry
that is only starting - there is so much life out there”) says the dolphin has become central to their lives. “My kids grew up with him. He’s like part of the family.”
The Viking Tour Operator
When you work for one of Ireland’s most colourful tour companies, offbeat occurrences are the norm.
So when the staff of Viking Splash Tours found a fake male appendage fashioned from leopardskin following a stag party, they didn’t skip a beat - though they were a little surprised when the owner called by looking for it the next day.
Such fun is all part of the job for the Dublin-based company which has become one of tourism’s great success stories and a colourful sight around the city. It anticipates that it will carry 119,000 passengers this year.
The tour of the city is unique in that it takes place in an amphibious vehicle, ending with a splash - literally - in the Grand Canal Basin.
For tour guide Jimmy Dent, a career as a tour guide offered not only a new job but a new way of life. Jimmy worked as a truck driver for many years before seeking out a career change as his children became older.
“I worked driving trucks and felt I needed a change but didn’t know what I was going to do.
“I’d always had an interest in boats and when I saw the ad for the job I decided to make the call. It was daunting to change job at first - I was still driving, but now there were 28 people sitting behind me - but it has been very rewarding in terms of job satisfaction.”
Jimmy is not alone in retraining to become a tour guide - Viking Splash also counts actors, engineers and a pharmacist among its guides, and it is not uncommon for people to consider tourism-related jobs as a second career.
He loves meeting people from all over Ireland and across the world and introducing them to The Viking Roar - a collective yell that’s part of the colour of the interactive tour.
“We ask what part of the world they’re from before starting the tour and it never ceases to amaze me the places that people have come from to visit Ireland.
“We can take a lot of things for granted, but we do have a great rapport and image across the world - it’s what we’re known for and what tourists love the most.”
Jimmy feels that as well as its unusual approach, tourists are drawn by the fact that the tour is live, with all the potential for spontaneity that brings.
“A lot of what we do is ad-lib, and that’s the good thing about having a live tour guide on board.
“The worst thing you can do is start giving out dates and numbers because people are on holiday mode. If you get a smile or a giggle, that’s what people remember.”
The Bus Tour Guide
Breathtaking Irish wonders like the Cliffs of Moher, West Cork and the Dingle Peninsula are all part of Jim Lee’s daily vista as he goes about his day job.
They are views, he says, which he never takes for granted as he heads on the road as a tour guide for Paddywagon Tours, which introduces tourists to many of Ireland’s most spectacular places of natural beauty.
Based out of the company’s Cork city offices, Jim worked in customer services before being invited to work as a back-up tour guide. After researching and devising his own tours in tandem and with training from the company, Jim went on the road full-time.
Part of the appeal of his job, he says, was researching and discovering unusual facts about well-known places - for example, that Bunratty Castle is the fourth castle-like structure to be built on its current site.
On weekday mornings, he can also be found leading walking tours of Cork city, a place he feels is ideal to explore on foot.
“My favourite haunts are up by the walls of the Elizabeth Fort, with its wonderful views over the city. I really like the Huguenot quarter and the Shandon quarter.”
Why does he think Ireland has such broad appeal?
“A big part of it is that the cities and towns aren’t massively huge. We have cities and towns that are friendly and welcoming and have plenty to do,” he says, adding that they are often within easy access of beautiful rural landmarks.
He agrees that his job rates highly in terms of satisfaction.
“Fundamentally, it’s a customer service job, but it’s better than other customer service jobs in that you’re working with people who are happy and smiling. And I get to spend a large part of my working day in some of the most beautiful parts of Ireland.”
He has favourite places among them, just don’t ask him to choose between the bus tours to the Cliffs of Moher and the Dingle peninsula.
One place which is special to him, he says, is Com an Chiste (Coomakista) near Caherdaniel, which offers extraordinary views of the Kenmare river, Deenish and Scariff Islands and the sea, from a 700ft panorama on the mountain pass.
“The view really is spectacular. You’re seeing all of these places and right out to the Atlantic Ocean.”
The Wildlife Park Warden
Willie Duffy was fascinated by birdlife and wildlife as a youngster and when an opportunity came up for exploring his interest through work experience, he jumped at the chance.
That was almost thirty years ago, and Willie is now both Head Warden and VIP tour guide at the East Cork wildlife park, bringing couples, friends and families on personal tours to see up close what Fota offers.
This element of his job allows him to talk about and share one of his great passions - education and conservation.
“The kids love to feed the penguins, and I love to tell them about what they can do for the environment,” he says.
“I’m really enjoying my role, because I get to talk about conservation and the work that the park does. We have 15,000 students visit us every year.”
The park is heavily involved in conservationism worldwide. The 50 cents that families pay to feed the ducks when they visit, for example, goes directly to the upkeep of a breed of ducks in Madagascar.
Willie has a particular fondness for cheetahs, and Fota has a huge success rate with the creatures - over 200 of them have been born there in 35 years.
And most days he checks in with one of Fota’s most popular residents - the legendary female black spider monkey called Old Blue Eyes because of her unique eye colour.
“She’s the same age as myself, 47,” smiles Willie.
“It’s special here. Some days on a lovely day I look out at the cheetahs or the giraffes and think it’s like a little bit of Africa in Cork.”
When we speak, the Cobh man has spent his morning hosting two groups - a family from Iceland and a family from Chicago.
“I bring them to the giraffe house, to the lions, tigers, rhinos and penguins. Our Humboldt penguins are from South America and they’re popular.”
He believes that Cork is ‘having a moment’ as an attractive destination, and that the city and country could see a tourism boom in the coming years.
“I know that my tours are busier. You can’t beat good old word of mouth. You’ve got Cobh, Spike Island which is a interesting and attractive destination, the Cork Harbour boat tours, Blackrock Castle and the market in the city - there’s an awful lot going on, and we have a lot going for us.”
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