Francis Brennan: the Kerry hotelier making a career of being himself

Francis Brennan, Ireland’s favourite hotelier, talks about celebrity, the single life, and why a childhood disability means he will never do Dancing with the Stars. He had a cup of tea with Donal O’Keeffe
Francis Brennan: the Kerry hotelier making a career of being himself

Francis Brennan

“I am a marketing person’s dream, because I interest everybody,” says Francis Brennan over tea in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin.

“From 12-years-of-age to 90, it’s unbelievable to me the number of people who want to talk to me. Teenagers tend to ask me the most interesting questions. The 14- and 15-year-olds.

“And then the grannies are mad about me.”

Owner of the five-star Park Hotel in Kenmare, the hotelier has been a household name since he first appeared on RTÉ’s At Your Service in 2008, and the show, in which he and his younger brother John give makeover advice to B&Bs, guesthouses and small hotels across Ireland, returns to television in 2022.

Arriving 10 minutes early to his meeting with the Irish Examiner, he is immaculately dressed in an unshowy but expensive blue suit, his tie and pocket handkerchief perfectly judged, the black shoes gleaming, and there’s not a hair in his trademark white fringe out of place. He looks at least 10 years younger than his 68 years, and he is as mischievous and entertaining as his on-screen persona would suggest.

He says he gets stopped by people of all ages, everywhere he goes, and — somehow — he manages to not come across as egotistical when he marvels in a matter-of-fact way at the public’s fascination with him.

“If I walk from here to Stephen’s Green, I will be stopped at least four times. But if I’m in a rush” — he reaches into his satchel and produces with a flourish a black baseball cap — “I have to put that on.”

It’s quite a thought that Francis Brennan might sometimes walk among us in disguise, but he says mostly he barely notices the attention.

“I have it. I don’t know what it is, but I have it. I just make people happy. It’s a gift from God.”

He pours a hot drop of tea, dispensing with the strainer, saying he’ll go slow to avoid getting tea-leaves into the cup. Although he doesn’t drink alcohol, he is quick to offer his interviewer a gin and tonic, but tea will do fine.

He says advertisers seem aware of his star-power, and he receives lots of offers, which he routinely declines, as he is anxious not to undermine the Francis Brennan: The Collection luxury brand he has with Dunnes Stores. He has just turned down the third approach in as many years from ShinAwiL, the independent television production company behind Dancing with the Stars.

“I said to them, listen ShinAwiL, you’re gas, because every year you come knocking, and every year I tell you the same story I’m going to tell you now. 

"I was born with a gammy foot, and while I love dancing, I could not do Dancing with the Stars, because I’d be afraid I’d break my leg.”

He was born without ankles on his right leg, which is four inches shorter than his left, a condition he says nobody usually ever notices, as he wears shoes custom-made by specialist shoemakers Tuttys of Naas (“they’re absolutely brilliant”). As a child, he endured months and months in hospital, and underwent 11 major operations.

“If I had two legs like this,” he says, patting his left knee, “I’d do Dancing with the Stars in a flash, but my foot just wouldn’t take the twirling and turning. Likewise, when I walk the streets, I have one eye down the whole time because if I get a break, I’m bunched.”

The same fear prevented him from walking the Camino with friends last week. He agrees that his faith is a very important part of his life, and he says he is “not afraid” to talk about it. He speaks with admiration of hearing racehorse trainer and former jockey Donnacha O’Brien give a radio interview in which O’Brien mentioned attending Mass.

“It’s not easy to stand up at 22-years-of-age and say ‘I go to Mass.’ Listen, they’d be roaring at you on Main Street for that.”

Does he really think that Ireland has become so intolerant a place for people who have faith?

“Well, not just faith. There is an element in Ireland that’s just not nice, and I don’t know where it comes from. I suspect it comes from American television. As an example, when you went to The Late Late Show 15 years ago, you clapped when you got a prize, and you said ‘hurray’ when there was one for everyone the audience. Now they roar at the guests; they heckle the guests, which is a direct translation from American television programmes. There’s a disrespect for everything now.”

Addressing an incident in August when ‘Late Late’ host Ryan Tubridy was verbally abused on the street, he says he thought the presenter was very brave to try to engage with one of the people shouting at him.

“Twice he got it in one day, and he does not deserve that. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed in Ireland for that. I just thought ‘how have we come to this?’.”

When asked about the influence of social media, he says he keeps his distance online, even though his own experience there has been very positive, and he regularly meets in real life people who follow him on Facebook. Sometimes, he says, the line can be blurred as to whether he actually knows people, or whether they know him online or from the television.

He laughs recounting a recent meeting in a restaurant, when someone approached him for a full conversation despite his not knowing who they were.

“I didn’t want to embarrass them, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Anyway, I will never get caught in a conversation. I will keep going forever and you will never know I hadn’t a clue who you were.”

Francis Brennan: a 'radio man', by his own reckoning
Francis Brennan: a 'radio man', by his own reckoning

As one of Ireland’s most famously single people, does Francis Brennan ever get lonely?

He answers with a firm shake of the head: “No. I have never lived with anybody, never. Not even to share a flat.

In fact, he adds, the only time he had a flat was in Montenotte, when he worked in Cork’s then Victoria Hotel, and he usually stayed in the hotel, only four times in the year sleeping in the flat.

“So, I’ve always been on my own, never shared with anybody, and I never get lonely, as long as I have the radio. I’m a radio man. I listen to the radio all the time. Radio 1, mostly, and occasionally Newstalk.

“I love to read, and I love to go for a walk. I have never felt lonely. Never in my life.”

Not even during the pandemic? “No. Never. I used to go out for a walk, and I used to revel in the ditch. I’m not joking. I’m serious. I watched the seasons going through the ditch. I’d start out with the sloes, going on to the wild strawberries, which were in the ditch, which I picked, going on to the woodbine, going on to the montbretia, and I watched them all coming to life. And then there was the foxgloves. Nature is fantastic. And of course, the weather was beautiful then, so we were blessed.”

He concedes, though, that he might be a lucky exception: “There are a lot of single people like me, single men and women, who are very lonely.”

He says he often thinks of those people, reflecting on his own luck. “I could make 15 phone calls every night, to chat to people that I know, so I would never be on my own, never.

“For me, my own choice is to be busy, to not ever have the time to be thinking about being on my own. That’s the choice that I make.”

He describes his working day, which is usually 13- or 14-hours-long and full-on, seven-days-a-week. He laughs: “Sure where would I find the time to be lonely?”

Having recently added the Lansdowne Kenmare to his growing portfolio of hotels, alongside the Park Hotel Kenmare and Dromquinna Manor, time to be lonely does seem likely to be even more of a premium these days.

Although avowedly apolitical, he says he follows politics closely, and he feels this government, and the previous one, did as good a job as they could during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially compared to Britain: “Now, Boris Johnson does not inspire any sort of confidence...”

He describes as “a load of auld nonsense” the recent controversy over the planned, and subsequently abandoned, appointment of former children’s minister Katherine Zappone to an unadvertised position as special envoy to the United Nations: “I don’t know who was driving that, because it really was nonsense. She’s a good person. We lost a good person, I think. She’s done wondrous work, and the biggest surprise for me was when she lost her seat. She was an outstanding minister for children.

“Now there might have been a bit of jiggery-pokery on giving her the job. Well not ‘might have been’. There was. Let’s be honest.”

However, he shrugs, “that’s Ireland”.

He feels the Pandemic Unemployment Payment was a very good thing, giving people a basic level of support during the pandemic, but, as a hotelier struggling now to get staff, like many another, he feels it needs to be wound up now.

He is delighted with his new book, The Homekeeper’s Diary 2022, which was written during lockdown. It’s crammed with stories, poems, and helpful household tips on everything from sewing a button to changing a tyre, and from wiring a plug to putting up a shelf.

“The publishers (Gill Books) kept saying to me, ‘Put more stories into it’. I said I must have told every story in my life four times in print, now that I’m on my sixth book. Two diaries, and four books.” (He later clarifies that he still has loads of untold stories, and he has included several in the book, but, like most people, he needs to be prompted.)

Turning the pages of the book to one showing a conversion table, he says: “A lot of recipes you get online are from the USA, and they might say ‘a cup’, like, what in God’s name is ‘a cup’? So, we worked through all of those measurements. And we have a guide to the tides, and the phases of the moon. That might be handy for someone with a mad dog or a mad cat, to let them know what’s coming up.

“The good thing about this book is that if you leave this by the phone, open on the planner section, you’ll be able to know what you’re doing for the week.”

As our interview ends, he insists on paying for the tea, and, as we leave the hotel, he tips the doorman, in a breezy, back-handed blink-and-you’d-miss-it manoeuvre (“That’s for yourself. Thanks for everything.”) He even offers to drive me to the carpark.

He’s very funny, fiercely intelligent, and great company. Simultaneously, he is quite guarded, while also being hilariously indiscreet when it suits him, dropping fantastic quotes and surprising titbits, all of which he asks not to be used, probably knowing full well that most of them would never make it past the lawyers anyway.

He comes across as someone who is a very open, honest, and thoughtful man, with a great flair for the dramatic, while also being a very private person whose default settings appear to be sunny optimism, no-nonsense perseverance, and genuine kindness.

In other words, Francis Brennan seems to be exactly who you think Francis Brennan is, and he’s made a career of being himself, and has a whale of a time doing so. Nice work if you can get it.

  • The Homekeeper’s Diary 2022 (Gill Books, €16.25) is in bookshops now
  • At Your Service returns to RTÉ One in 2022

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