Blue Book trail­blaz­ers

Ire­land’s Blue Book, now 45, boasts found­ing mem­bers who have sur­vived ev­ery­thing from the Trou­bles to Airbnb, writes Tanya Sweeney

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL- BAG -

Ire­land’s hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try knows a thing or two about cut and thrust. In a scene where ho­tels and restau­rants spring up – and per­ish – al­most ev­ery week, it takes a lot to sur­vive. Yet, amid this ex­cit­ing dy­namism, one or two es­tab­lish­ments have held firm down the decades with a sim­ple but ef­fec­tive mantra: keep do­ing what you’ve al­ways done. And it’s this old- school Ir­ish wel­come, cou­pled with the ro­mance and fi­nesse of old coun­try houses, that has seen some much- loved ho­tels weather sev­eral storms, among them the re­ces­sion, the Trou­bles and the Airbnb in­va­sion.

Some 45 years ago, Ire­land’s Blue Book – a col­lec­tion of coun­try house ho­tels, manor houses, cas­tles and restau­rants – was founded. It was formed in 1974 with 11 found­ing mem­bers who re­alised that there was a gap be­tween B& B ac­com­mo­da­tion and the larger ho­tel in­dus­try that was not be­ing mar­keted at that time. There are 48 prop­er­ties in the 2017 edi­tion of Ire­land’s Blue Book, and sev­eral of the orig­i­nal mem­bers have with­stood nearly a half- cen­tury in op­er­a­tion.

The Bal­ly­maloe crew

Hazel Allen came to work in Bal­ly­maloe House from a ho­tel in Canada in 1969. She was taken with the story of Myr­tle Allen, a farmer’s wife, who had cre­ated a farm guest house “and was do­ing it very well”.

Back in the 1960s, down- home hos­pi­tal­ity was very much the Al­lens’ USP.

“But when the chil­dren went in to help, they had to dress up and play the part. Myr­tle was very fo­cused and pre­pared to of­fer up only the very best. The whole idea was that it was like hav­ing your friends come to visit. “It was very much a fam­ily home, with the Aga burn­ing away in the kitchen. I re­mem­ber first see­ing a photo of her with her chil­dren in the news­pa­per – they were a scruffy bunch,” she laughs.

Hazel would go on to marry one of them ( Myr­tle’s son Rory) and watch at close range as Bal­ly­maloe tran­si­tioned from a farm guest house to a se­ri­ous restau­rant and, even­tu­ally, into a huge culi­nary dy­nasty.

Was it by ac­ci­dent or de­sign? “I think a bit of both,” rea­sons Allen. “No one ever woke up to cre­ate a restau­rant with 30 bed­rooms. At that time, you could count the restau­rants of note in Cork on two hands. The foodie scene is so dif­fer­ent now, but we’ve stuck to the orig­i­nal prin­ci­ple – lo­cal food, pro­duced in the lo­cal area.

“If you pull out one of our old menus, you’ll see that a lot of our dishes to­day – wild wa­ter­cress salad, or a lob­ster dish – were the same in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Forty- five years ago, English tourists, keen to take a hol­i­day of sev­eral weeks, made up the main clien­tele of many Ir­ish coun­try ho­tels: “They re­ally un­der­stood the coun­try house style of liv­ing, and many fam­i­lies would book from year to year,” re­calls Hazel. “The Amer­i­can mar­ket is very strong. The Eu­ro­pean mar­ket, not so much, as they of­ten want to go to the west.”

Wheeler dealer

Mark Wheeler, the cur­rent pro­pri­etor of Rath­mul­lan House in Done­gal, has no­ticed that his clien­tele has got younger and more Ir­ish in re­cent years. Much of this is his do­ing: a few years ago, he de­cided to cre­ate a Rath­mul­lan House food stand for fes­ti­vals such as the Elec­tric Pic­nic, cre­at­ing vis­i­bil­ity for a whole new gen­er­a­tion.

“We made a huge con­scious ef­fort to make that hap­pen be­cause I no­ticed that there was a ho­tel next door and its clien­tele were essen­tially dy­ing and they were re­plac­ing them,” he says.

His par­ents bought the house in 1960 from the Batt fam­ily, who owned the Belfast Bank ( now Ul­ster Bank). Mark has been at the helm for a quar­ter cen­tury.

“Back in the 1960s the house was too cold to open in the win­ter. We ren­o­vated a lot of those, so now we have 12 vis­i­tor bed­rooms for pretty much 52 weeks a year,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the gen­er­a­tion that ru­ined the house.”

Yet the cosy fam­ily- run vibe is in­trin­sic to its on­go­ing suc­cess.

Re­call­ing his ex­pe­ri­ences of work­ing a fam­ily ho­tel as a young­ster, Wheeler says: “Un­like most other peo­ple, we never had sum­mer hol­i­days. We had a se­ries of ‘ friends’ who we de­vel­oped – we knew that in the first week of Au­gust, say, the O’Reilly fam­ily would al­ways come. You do have to be here an aw­ful lot of the time, but the best part of it is see­ing peo­ple ar­rive a lit­tle stressed and leav­ing happy.”

Mal­low vibes

Along with her late hus­band, Michael, Jane O’Cal­laghan opened Longueville House in Mal­low, Cork, in 1967 af­ter Michael con­verted what was orig­i­nally a school­house. Michael prided him­self in of­fer­ing the sort of con­vivial hos­pi­tal­ity rarely found else­where: “He gave loads of time to peo­ple, plan­ning itin­er­ar­ies, or tak­ing them to the hurl­ing fi­nals or the lo­cal mart, where vis­i­tors couldn’t un­der­stand a word,” notes Jane. “Even now I’ll ask the Amer­i­cans if I can see their itin­er­ary. When they ask why I want to see it I re­ply, ‘ be­cause I want to change it’.”

For many Ire­land’s Blue Book mem­bers, there have been chal­lenges down the years. “The big­gest one was the Trou­bles,” Wheeler re­calls. “The hos­pi­tal­ity busi­ness had been dec­i­mated when English peo­ple stopped com­ing as they were scared to

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