And the password is cheers

Brian Hughes, co-proprietor of Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, Clifden

Brian Hughes, co-proprietor of Abbeyglen Castle Hotel, Clifden

The gushing garden fountain, giant ‘triffid’-like plants, towers, and parapets are all dead giveaways. This is no ordinary entrance; this is no formulaic hotel.

Step through the ‘fortress’ front door of Clifden’s Abbeyglen Castle Hotel and prepare to be welcomed by the aroma of a peat fire and the squawk of the ‘duty manager’, Gilbert, who as resident parrot oversees everything and everyone.

But this is not a film set for Lord of the Rings, and neither is it Brigadoon. It’s a four-star award-winning hotel whose origins date back to the early 1830s, and whose appeal is as varied as its clientele.

Notables from the worlds of entertainment, sport, and politics, including Woody Allen, Lee Trevino, Bill Clinton, Brian Cowen, Siobhan McKenna, and first cousin to the owners, Ryan Tubridy, grin from a gallery of photos, endorsing the magnet that is the Abbeyglen.

The 50-plus room ‘Manor House Hotel’ has a loyal following of guests who really don’t want to stay anywhere else. Not for them the minimalist malaise of 21st century décor; the Abbeyglen’s furnishings are as flamboyant as its father and son proprietors, Paul and Brian Hughes.

“We’re an adult hotel, and we provide an escape — a haven — from the stresses of modern living,” explains Brian.

From four-poster beds and brocade curtains, to walnut wardrobes and shiny brasses, this is a hotel whose ‘pot-pourri’ furnishings may give Trinny and Susannah palpitations, but which offers a genuine warmth of character and service that cannot, but should be, bottled and sold.

“We love our hotel, and if we have the odd squeaky floorboard, our guests don’t seem to mind. Our only aim is to make everyone feel special.”

Father and son are renowned duo

And that they do. There can be few hotels anywhere whose proprietors are as ‘hands-on’ as the Hughes. Whether at breakfast or dinner, Paul and Brian move from table to table, greeting guests personally. The 50 staff are no different; each seems to genuinely enjoy the business of hospitality.

“I think that the staff take their cue from us, and they understand the importance of being warm and friendly towards people — that’s how we secure repeat business.”

Receiving Egon Ronay, Condé Nast Johansen, and AA Rossette awards, the hotel’s dining room wows both residents and visitors alike. Head chef Kevin Conroy turns out gourmet dinners that are delivered by waiting staff with a theatrical flourish that has made the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel a landmark for quality and style.

Complimentary champagne and afternoon tea are standard

Complimentary afternoon teas and early evening glasses of champagne are standard fare here, and it’s little wonder that many of the guests seem reluctant to stray outside of the hotel’s 14 acres.

“I was always interested in hospitality and music, so after graduating from Shannon School of Hotel Management it seemed natural to run the hotel with my dad, Paul. He used to play the piano, and although I was never formally trained, I seemed to have an ear for it,” explains Brian.

Brian has become synonymous with the hotel’s piano bar, and personally entertains guests every weekend with his piano playing and singing.

Self-taught pianist entertains guests

“When I was a young teenager I heard a guy play The Beatles’ song ‘Hey Jude’ on the piano, loved it, and asked him to show me how — and that got me started,” laughs Brian. “Down the years people have shown me various tricks of the trade, and I learn a lot by listening and watching others.”

John D’Arcy, a founder of Clifden town, erected the original building in 1832 as a hunting lodge. It subsequently housed the local parish priest until 1854, before changing sides to accommodate the Irish Church Mission Society’s Protestant orphanage for girls who were ‘rescued’ for training in domestic service. Before it closed in 1955 it had become a mixed orphanage, after which the building fell into disrepair. Local businessman Padraig Joyce bought the property in the 1960s, running a hotel for a few years, before the Hughes family took over the reins in 1969.

“My mum June, and dad were running the Renvyle House Hotel at the time, which was owned by dad’s uncle Donnie Coyle. Mum and dad met while they were working in Dublin’s Hibernian Hotel, now gone, before setting up a small restaurant in Francis Street, called ‘The Old Dublin’, which is still there today.

“In the late 1960s the Abbeyglen only opened for the summer months, as there would have been no business during the winter months — it was difficult enough operating outside of the town. But dad knew that if the Renvyle House Hotel could flourish in its isolated location, that there had to be a market for the Abbeyglen. Mum managed reception and looked after the rooms, while dad cooked.

“I’ve great memories of my parents, three brothers, and myself all living in a caravan on the hotel grounds during the summer months, but we got into the hotel for the winter.”

Such seasonal work forced Brian’s dad Paul to take on building work during the winter months.

“Dad used to build houses and I remember travelling with him to Inisbofin to renovate the roof of Days Hotel out there, and that’s where my love of the islands began, that later translated into our complementary business, the ‘Connemara Safari’.”

Island-hopping huge hit with tourists

The ‘Connemara Safari’ (www.walkingconnemara.com ) is an island hopping and walking holiday, established in 1993 as a result of Brian’s love for the geography and history of the local area.

Featured on all major Irish and British television travel programmes, the five-day Connemara Safari runs from June to September and includes all accommodation, transport, and food and is very competitively priced.

“It’s not just about generating extra income; it’s an opportunity to showcase Connemara and the islands to tourists from home and abroad, letting them enjoy the breathtaking scenery and wonderful hospitality. I run the business with Gerry MacCloskey, a qualified archaeologist, who ran a very famous restaurant at one time in Bunratty. So using our joint skills we provide gourmet picnics and dinners, which makes the walking highly enjoyable.”

Adding facilities onto the hotel over four decades of ownership now sees the Abbeyglen offering a series of more sedate leisure facilities. There is no gym and the outside pool, built ahead of its time 40 years ago, has been transformed into a garden fountain. The Abbeyglen Castle Hotel’s gentle pursuits include the billiards room, library, tennis court, pitch and putt, sauna, jacuzzi, and beauty therapy rooms, run by Brian’s wife Michelle. For the more adventurous, the wilds of Connemara are on the hotel’s doorstep.

“We could have added on a pool and leisure centre 15 years ago, but that would have changed our focus from adult retreat to family centre, so we renovated the rooms instead. I like to think our leisure centre is our piano bar,” smiles Brian.

“Our ambience is traditional, but we make sure that our guests have all the comforts and conveniences they need — everything from Wi-Fi access to fluffy bathrobes. If they arrive with nothing but a heavy heart and an empty suitcase, we’ll provide every home-from-home accoutrement to see them through their stay.”

Most guests arrive by car, but the hotel provides a well-used heli-pad, enabling helicopters to unobtrusively fly VIPs in and out.

Heli-pad jets celebs to hotel

“The runway is down on Clifden airstrip — a 20-year project in which Paul was involved, whose primary purpose is to take passengers in and out of Inisbofin. Maybe one day it will be opened up to handle internal flights, and that would really open up the west.”

The hotel’s website (www.abbeyglen.ie ) lists upcoming Christmas and New Year deals, but entertainment and special packages are on tap most weeks. Tuesday nights for instance have been designated ‘Irish nights’, with traditional Irish cuisine, menus written ‘as Gaeilge’, and plenty of ceol agus craic.

The Abbeyglen advertises regularly in national print and radio where its catchphrase ‘and the password is cheers’ has made it a well-known and respected product; however, the slowdown in the economy is becoming noticeable.

“We have to be increasingly careful at the planning stages of ordering, particularly in food and beverages, as these are areas than can incur huge waste, if not handled properly. We must continue to offer a high quality product, but at ever more competitive prices.”

Being appointed to the board of Fáilte Ireland has afforded Brian the opportunity to swap ideas with others in the hospitality industry and to keep abreast of new developments.

“What makes tourism viable in a location like Clifden is the home market; overseas visitors really only account for three months of the year, so we have to be really imaginative on the home front. It’s all the little extras that we offer, like a smile or a song that make people want to come back.

“It’s also difficult to plan ahead in the way we once did, as these days everything is done at the 11th hour. People decide on a Friday to go away for the weekend, which is in complete contrast to years ago when two-week summer holidays were planned as soon as Christmas was over, and weekends away were for the rich and famous.”

The Abbeyglen is a reader’s paradise. Huge comfy armchairs accompany shelves stuffed with books, and no television in sight. Does Brian indulge?

“I enjoy reading books of local interest and am currently enjoying Jackie O’Grady’s book, The Green Road to the Lighthouse, about his life on Clare Island.

“We get away too, and had a wonderful family holiday in Easter Island and Chile last year. When I want a local break I head out with Michelle and our kids, Grace and Dermot, to our little cottage on Inis Turbot, where we walk and fish.

“But there’s really nowhere else I would rather be than in Connemara, and Paul, Gilbert, and I look forward to welcoming guests for many years to come.”

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