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The Unsung Hero – Behind the scenes at Ashford Castle with Mary Hehir

Published: Tuesday, September 28, 2021.
The Unsung Hero - Behind the Scenes at Ashford Castle with Mary Hehir

Mary Hehir is out of sight, out of mind, for guests at Ashford Castle, but behind the scenes at the iconic hotel, she and her colleagues are a crucial cog in keeping the show on the road.

In May 1984, U.S. president Ronald Reagan visited Ashford Castle, a five-star luxury hotel near Cong on the Sligo-Mayo border, and Mary Hehir had a front row seat.

The Connacht native was working in the kitchen at the time and she and her colleagues peeped out the exit door to see Ronald and his wife Nancy as they passed by in a car. “Oh my God, it was amazing,” she recalls. “On the evening they came into the castle, the security was unreal. We took a look then disappeared behind the scenes again and got back to work.”

Ashford Castle has many things going for it. As Ireland’s first and only Forbes Five Star Hotel, and the former home of the Guinness family, this 83-bedroom castle is one of a kind. The Reagan presidential suite, which overlooks Lough Corrib, is a testament of its rich history. But the castle’s greatest attribute is arguably its staff and unsung heroes like Mary Hehir who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes for decades. In Mary’s case, almost four decades.

Mary, who is originally from Kilmaine but now lives between Cross and Cong, started work at the hotel on Good Friday, April, 1982. “I remember the day very clearly,” says the 63-year-old. “I started in the kitchen, helping out in the wash-up. It was so different at that time. The kitchen was downstairs, the dining room was upstairs, and everything had to be carried upstairs. The kitchen is now on the same level as the dining room. But there was always good fun here and there’s still good fun. They are very good to work for.”

Ashford Castle’s remarkable history adds to her enjoyment of the job. The castle was built in 1228 as a stronghold for the Anglo Norman de Burgo family. In 1715, a French-style chateau was built alongside the castle. The Guinness family, who bought the estate in 1852, joined the two buildings. It became a hotel in 1939 under the ownership of Noel Huggard. The building’s defining cultural moment of the 20th Century occurred in 1951, when John Ford filmed The Quiet Man in the locale. Today, the hotel still screens The Quiet Man, which stars John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, in its bedrooms and private cinema.

In 1970, John Mulcahy purchased, restored and expanded the castle, adding a new wing and a golf course. A group of Irish-American investors bought the property in 1985. Mary, meanwhile, worked in the kitchen until her move to the back-of-house staff area, a few years ago.

“I start at 6am and finish at 2pm,” says. “People come in from 7am and the first thing they want are their coffees. I look after the canteen area and the corridors. They have to be swept, mopped, cleaned, sanitised. The coffee machines have to be cleaned. I have to refill the milk. It’s like light housework, but you’re going constantly because there are staff coming in and out all the time. At lunch time you serve staff their meals and tidy up after them. I work Monday to Friday. Someone comes here after 2pm to sanitise and they finish at 10pm. On weekends, someone comes in part time.”

Mary’s work changed significantly over the pandemic. For a start, there are fewer staff members to cater for. “About 80,” she says. “Before Covid, there were up to 120. We have to sanitise everything in the canteen: door handles, microwaves, work tops, table tops, chairs, coffee machine, taps. It’s unbelievable how many times you touch surfaces; you wouldn’t realise it. All that has to be sanitised every hour. Then I leave the canteen and have to clean the corridor.”

Alongside Ronald Reagan, Ashford Castle has hosted many other famous names: Brad Pitt; Pierce Brosnan; Princess Grace; Ted Kennedy, amongst others. In 2017, Rory McIlroy, the professional golfer, married his partner Erica Stoll here. But, for all of these famous visitors, Mary is out of sight out of mind. “I’m not on the frontline,” she says.

Yet, her role is a vital cog in the running of the operation. Without her keeping the staff fed and watered and (crucially) safe during the pandemic, the train would leave its tracks.

Mary has seen the castle pass through a number of different owners. In 2006, it was sold to Gerry Barrett, a Galway-based property investor, for €50m. But the hotel ended up in receivership after the crash. “That was really was tough,” she recalls. Did she worry about losing her job? “I did. You’d wonder what was going to happen. That was a worrying time.”

Ultimately, the staff kept the show on the road. In 2013, Red Carnation Hotels acquired the castle for €20m, and this family-owned business have since spent around €68m restoring it to its former glory. “They saved the castle,” says Mary. “I would not like to have known what would happen if [Red Carnation owners] Mr and Mr Tollman didn’t buy Ashford. It bounced back. We have a great general manager, Mr Niall Rochford, and fantastic management.”

Over the generations, Ashford Castle put an emphasis on good relations with its staff, which explains why Mary stayed there for so long. In fact, she has some long-term company.

“Martin Gibbons, who works in the dining room, has been here 37 years. Paddy Costello has been here 42 years, so there’s two ahead of me.” Do newer managers come to her for advice? “They do! They can come and find me here [back of house]. Anything I can do to help you I will. The majority of staff are like that. We will always look out for each other. Everyone looks out for each other at Ashford Castle. I’m very happy here. I love going into work.”

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