By Avril Horan
Family Ties: Paul and Brian Hughes – Abbeyglen Castle, Clifden
Paul Hughes: “If you love it, you can live it, and never work a day in your life. I’m a Dub – I never got my leaving or my inter, and so my mother got me a job in the famous Russell hotel in Stephens Green, where I worked for two years free of charge. That’s where I developed my love for the hotel industry. I went to work for a year in France and later in Madrid, Italy, Switzerland and Rome; my love of Rome started then too.
I moved on to the Hibernian in Dawson Street. One day I was cheeky with my boss, as I wanted them to double my pay, from £4 to £8 a week. They didn’t like ultimatums! I then worked with the Jurys group for two years and, at the tender age of 24, my uncle offered me a job at Renvyle House Hotel as manager. He was very foolish to put a 24 year old in ! I nearly got the sack after the first year!
In 1969/ 70, when I was 29, I signed an agreement to rent the Abbeyglen Castle hotel for three years, with an option to buy it. My love of Clifden and Connemara grew and grew, and I bought it. I’ve been working with the bank manager ever since.
My son Brian became my partner in the Abbeyglen after my wife died. He loves the business as much as I do. He loves music and gives me piano lessons from time to time! We tend to work opposite one another and do different things – as it is a 24 hour day. We work 60 minute hours! I’d be up at 7am and work til 1pm. We both take the afternoon off, as the emphasis is needed early in the morning and in the evening.
I have three other sons, Aidan, Dermot and Ronan, who all love coming here on their holidays and their breaks. They all love it and they love one another. It’s amazing the amount of siblings who don’t love one another. There is only one black sheep in our family and it’s me!
We have had lots of famous guests, but they are only people at the end of the day. I remember when Woody and Mia Allen pulled up in two stretch limos back in 1991 and all of the kids got out – he really came to life playing music in the bar at night. We are very lucky that we didn’t overdevelop Connemara too quickly. We don’t have these huge skyscraper hotel – nearly all personally owned. And Clifden has two huge claims to history, Marconi and the first transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown.
I have no desire to retire. My age is a secret but you can work it out! I have seen men retire much younger than I, 15 years ago, and they are going around like grumpy old men with sticks!”
Brian Hughes: “Back in the early days, the hotel opened in early June and closed in early September, so it was a very short season. In the summertime, we lived in a little caravan outside the Abbeyglen, and we would move back in for the winter.
Dad used to buy these old banger cars and park them outside to make the hotel look busy. As children, we played in them. Over time, the cars grew moss, weeds and grass and we had to replace them with new old bangers every four or five years!
My mum used to say that ‘everyone in Clifden thought we were mad’, because the hotel was located outside of town. If you wanted a business, it had to be in the centre. But they had the vision to realise it was a great site – you can walk into the village in five or ten minutes – and yet you are completely away from it all. It was just different thinking back then.
I went to Garbally College in Ballinasloe, and then to the Shannon hotel school for some wonderful training. I lived for two years in Switzerland, two years in France and a year and a half in London. I can’t really speak French though! One thing I have learned is that you need a great sense of humour in this business.
My dad has a great sense of humour. We get on extremely well. As time goes by, there are some aspects of the business that are not only difficult for him, but equally difficult for me. We have had to embrace a new era of technology and we are trying to interface the front desk with the outside world. It’s a difficult journey, but if we don’t change, we will get lost in the shuffle.
We are very lucky that, in the boom years, we didn’t go crazy and build one of these massive spa centres being pushed on us at the time. What our people wanted was an intimate facility, and my wife Michelle, runs our beauty rooms, which is really popular with our guests.
It was only when I returned from the UK recently that I thought ‘this hotel is fabulous’. There is a sense of warmth as soon as you walk in, with open turf fires, and the lighting is just right. It’s the people that work in Abbeyglen that give it a sense of magic too. And the music. There are very few dining rooms with white linen table clothes, a candle and a man in the corner playing live music. It’s something different. It’s quirky, it’s oldey worldy and it’s fun! I love playing music and I play in the bar every Friday and Saturday night.
I was very lucky to survive a plane crash in 2007. We were doing a test flight of a small plane to Inis Meain. It was a very bad, miserable, windy day and, on the way home, we all knew we were in trouble. I remember waking up in a field. I was freezing cold and my shirt was marinated in blood. I had fractured my neck and two women were sticking toilet paper in my ears. We lost two very good friends that day and we think of them often. I am a lucky man to be alive and I am thankful. I certainly have had a lot of fun since then and have enjoyed my life a lot more.”