One of the most iconic hotels in Ireland is currently undergoing a major refurbishment project which will see it bringing back the style and glamour of its heyday, writes Siobhán Cronin
The Eccles in Glengarriff was Ireland’s first purpose-built hotel when it was opened in 1745, to cater to the great and glamorous of Irish, and international, society.
With its stunning location overseeing the most northerly tip of Bantry Bay, and its incredible history (it also spent time as a respite home for WWI British soldiers), the Eccles is certainly worthy of the current investment programme.
It was purchased last year by Ray Byrne and Eoin Doyle, who between them have vast experience of running top-end hotels.
Ray runs the much-loved and stylish Wineport Lodge in Athlone – the venue for TV show The Restaurant – and Eoin runs Wicklow’s boutique Brook Lodge Hotel, and both are hoping to replicate the success of these sister properties, in The Eccles in West Cork.
‘Ray and Eoin bought The Eccles in July of last year and I have been on board since January,’ explained manager Aileen Hanley, who has come from the well-known Sheen Falls Hotel in Kenmare. Aileen’s husband is the new manager of the Park Hotel in Kenmare, owned by the Brennan brothers, so there is a strong hotel pedigree at work here.
What’s more, Aileen points out that her late father-in-law, Bobby Hanley, was the manager of the Eccles in the 60s. He, sadly, passed away three years ago. ‘My one regret is that he died before he saw me working here. It would have been wonderful to walk around here with him, and he would have known every nook and cranny,’ she smiles. ‘He would have loved to hear every detail about it,’ she adds, picking up her teaspoon and pointing out it differs slightly from mine. ‘These are driving me mad, and I am in the middle of ordering new ones, and new crockery – that is the detail that I am involved in, and he would have loved all of that.’
Aileen says she is very happy that the new owners have given her a blank canvas to work with – from the said cutlery selection, to décor, to furniture restoration and even the proposed re-painting of the exterior of this landmark property.
‘Ray knows me for many years – I worked with both himself and Eoin many years ago – and he knows I have a very clear picture of what I want.’
She is currently repainting the restaurant and this will be only its third colour since 1745 – it was originally a deep burgundy colour and then was repainted green. Aileen says the new colour scheme will be subtle and in keeping with the cleaner, more modern, look of the hotel, without losing any of its style or sophistication.
She admits she is currently toying with a colour scheme which mixes a gentle salmon colour with cream on the main façade, but has a slight dilemma in that some of the windows in the wings are white PVC and this has to be incorporated into the new look of the building.
She is conscious of the importance of this large building, which commands a very imposing presence in one of the country’s most spectacular tourist locations.
It is visible from the garden paradise of Garinish Island – with which it has many historic links and in fact its restaurant takes its name from the ‘near island’ – Gar Inish.
‘People think it’s ‘garnish’, as in salad, and think we are making a play on food, but of course, it’s named after the island,’ jokes Aileen.
She plans to make their links to Garinish even stronger, by offering all-in packages to guests, and a planned new café in the former Captain’s Bar at the eastern end of the hotel will have prepared picnics for both residents and passing tourists.
The hotel has bikes on site for guests to rent out to explore this beautiful corner of the country, not forgetting the hotel is right on the Wild Atlantic Way.
A total of 23 bedrooms out of 64 are already refurbished, and another 12 will be completed within six weeks.
‘We took five shipping containers worth of rubbish out of the hotel, and recently we had a major sale of furniture in the ballroom, which was a huge success,’ she points out.
Other furniture which was deemed quite valuable – some of it dating back to the 1700s and 1800s – has been sent for restoration, showing the commitment and determination of the new owners to make this one of West Cork’s premier properties.
But there is already one very special piece of furniture in situ – a chaise longue in the library was the favoured seating place of Hollywood icon Maureen O’Hara, who lived close to the hotel, before she moved to the US a short few years before her death, in 2015.
‘This was known as Maureen’s chair,’ says Aileen, referring to the flame-haired Quiet Man actress who adored her many years living in Glengarriff and was a very frequent visitor to the hotel.
Other famous guests down the years included George Bernard Shaw who stayed here in 1910/11, William Butler Yeats who was a regular visitor in the 1920s, and writer and journalist William Makepeace Thackeray who described it as a ‘pretty inn’, in 1850.
Aileen points out that the elaborate façade was erected for Queen Victoria’s visit to Killarney in 1861. She passed by the hotel en route via Kenmare, and the locals were – quite unusually – invited to the hotel to watch her pass by.
‘In those days, the locals were not encouraged to come into the hotel at all,’ says Aileen. ‘It was a very grand place – you had men in top hats going out to lift ladies’ skirts up to their ankles as they walked into the hotel, and it was all quite regal.’
She says that while the hotel wants to capture some of that ‘glamour’ of days of old, they certainly don’t want to exclude anyone – least of all locals!
She has plans to have movie nights in the Captain’s Bar and hopes that visiting theatre groups will also be keen to use the venue for events.
The gorgeous Ilnacullin walkway on the first floor is an extension of the restaurant but many guests often make the most of the views by bringing their drinks up from the bar to the large balcony.
The hotel is also lucky to have the benefit of two large reception rooms – the stunning ballroom which can hold up to 350 guests, with a balcony overlooking the bay, and a smaller reception room, the Tara suite, which, when finished, will accommodate smaller events like civil partnerships and smaller weddings. It can accommodate up to 100 guests comfortably.
Aileen also wants to reassure tour groups – especially the visiting companies from the UK which kept the hotel going for many years – that they will not be forgotten in the ‘new’ Eccles.
‘We want to keep that business strong, and grow it, but the building is large enough to accommodate many types of tourist,’ she says, adding she sees no problem with all of that working in harmony.
Good locally-sourced food will be at the heart of the new hotel, making the most of the incredible produce that is available on its doorstep.
The proof is certainly in the ‘pudding’ of the owners’ recent appointment of head chef Nick Davey. Davey has worked in some of Ireland’s best known hotels and restaurants including Tankardstown House, Dunbrody House Hotel, the Michelin-starred Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, O’Brien’s Chop House in Lismore, as well as the famous Shanahans on the Green in Dublin.
While the hotel had one of the largest – and most advanced – kitchens in the country for many years, Aileen was tasked with replacing much of the equipment to bring it up to current catering standards – and beyond.
The owners are also installing an expensive but essential computerised ordering system, and Aileen laughs when she recalls discovering there was just one computer in the whole building – at reception.
‘We are introducing technology where it is needed, but it wil not affect the overall atmopshere of this iconic building,’ Aileen promises.
‘There is huge investment here that the public will never see, but it’s all going to be worthwhile.’