One would want to be dim or unbelievably unobservant not to clock that Mark and Maria Nolan are passionate about golf.
The first sign is a miniature golfer on the hall table of their gorgeous home in Lahinch, the second is a line up of old hickory-wood golf clubs on the wall on the landing. Not to mind the fact that the house – strictly speaking their holiday home – is strategically positioned between two golf courses. To the front is the Lahinch Championship links course, where the Irish Open is to be played next year, and to the back of the house is the club’s Castle course.
The miniature golfer, by the way, is the trophy they won when Mark and Maria played their annual ‘divorcesome’ last month in Portugal. This is a yearly tournament between themselves and three other couples, and Mark and Maria have taken it home triumphantly for the second year in a row.
“You’d think the way I’m going on, I’m a good golfer,” Mark notes with a laugh. “I’m not, I’m a disaster. Thank God for Maria, she’s very competitive.”
Though they obviously love their golf, fortunately they’re not golf bores. Both have other passions, including love of family and friends. Mark, in particular seems to have a huge circle of friends. He knows everyone, and is obviously incredibly gregarious – a handy quality in the person who holds the position of managing director of the luxurious Dromoland Castle, a post he’s held for nearly 30 years. It’s a job the silver-tongued, silver-haired dynamo from Dublin 4 seems born for, though his parents probably thought their only son, the youngest of four and a Gonzaga boy at that, would go to university and go into one of the more established professions. After all, his late father was a GP and his mother, who will be 100 next year, was herself a solicitor.
But fate decreed otherwise. “We had a summer house in a place called Golden Bay, the most idyllic place, right beside Ashford Castle. I was 17 and I suppose driving my parents cracked,” Mark recalls. “I met a friend of mine in a pub – I know we shouldn’t have been in a pub at 17 – and he asked me what I was doing for the summer. He suggested I go up to Ashford, that they’d definitely give me a job. I went up that evening and I started the following day. And I got the bug. “I know it sounds like a cliche, but I loved it all, the meeting people and the diversity of the job,” Mark explains. “My mother reckoned it was exactly what I should do, but I had to get some qualification.”
So he went to GMIT in Galway, did a diploma in hotel management and was lucky enough to get a scholarship on the back of it to spend a year in the Dunfey Hotels in New York. After that, he came back to Ashford and became deputy to Rory Murphy, the legendary hotelier who ran Ashford in those days.
“Rory was my mentor and he really has been one of my great life mentors ever since,” Mark enthuses.
Mark stayed six years in Ashford, and during that time he met Maria, a nurse who also studied art and whose paintings are now all over the house.
“We met at Ballinrobe Races. My great friend John Tobin was going out with Maria’s sister Suzanne, and they decided we’d be perfect together and introduced us,” Mark notes, adding with a laugh: “They broke up but we’re still together.” The couple have four children, three daughters and a son, now all in their 20s.
During Mark’s stint in Ashford, the group then running it took over Dromoland, and Mark was appointed general manager.
“One Friday evening Rory met me and said, ‘What would you think of becoming GM at Dromoland?’ I went down the following day and I’ve been there ever since. At 28, I was the youngest ever GM. That was nearly 30 years ago. I went with literally a shirt. The same Saturday, my sister-in-law was getting married, but I couldn’t go to her wedding. I had to take up the job that day.”
Initially it was a huge challenge. The hotel, a genuine castle dating from 1835 and the home of the O’Brien family, who had a home on the site from the 15th Century until the 1980s, was losing money, but fortunately the owners gave Mark a free hand and over the years he has turned it around.
“It was a daunting task,” Mark says. “The hotel wasn’t doing well at the time, but equally there were great people among the staff, and a few of them are still there, 30 years on. We were able to do a major refurbishment, and it became the leading castle product of its day.”
And since those early days, he’s kept it hovering at the top, despite stiff competition from Ashford and Adare. The many American tourists love the fact that it’s a genuine castle, and its increasing number of Irish guests love the luxury and the welcome. “It’s our absolute milestone that no one leaves the hotel unhappy. That’s our absolute objective,” Mark emphasises.
To fulfil that objective, Mark has to be pretty much on-call to the hotel, and they live on the 14th hole at Dromoland, but they spend as much time as they can in their Lahinch holiday home. It exudes warmth and a welcome and indeed a certain level of luxury; both of them adore houses and decorating and interiors.
“Maria and I, if we could do nothing but, we’d build houses,” Mark says. “People go on about the stress. There’s no stress if you plan it out properly.”
It was, of course, their love of golf that brought them to Lahinch, and it was while playing there that they spotted the site on which their house is built. “During the crazy period the then owners turned down ridiculous money for the site. Then, four years ago, we were playing a round and we saw the ‘for sale’ sign and I said, ‘Let’s put in a cheeky bid.’ We did and it was accepted,” he volunteers.
They got Cyril O’Reilly from Quin, County Clare, the same architect who had designed their family home, to design the house according to their wishes. It has lots of light, of course, and lots of interconnecting reception rooms, as they are big party people. Their builder was Gerrard Guerrin of Liscannor. “We never had a cross word, you couldn’t ask for a better builder,” Mark avers.
The ground floor consists of an open-plan kitchen-dining room, a dedicated TV room, a living room, and an ensuite bedroom for Mark and Maria’s mothers, who both love to spend time here with them. Upstairs there are three further bedrooms, all ensuite. Throughout the house there is a phenomenal amount of storage. “We’re terrible hoarders. All the storage is by Nolan design”, Mark notes before adding: “That’s me.”
They did the colour schemes themselves and bought all the furniture, mainly locally in Clare and Limerick. “I love interior design, I used to do a bit of it, maybe I will go back to it,” Mark says.
Off the kitchen is one of Mark’s favourite spots. Accessed through glass doors is a roofed outdoor dining area, complete with barbecue and ship’s wheel and, rain or shine, when they’re at the house, that’s where the cooking and eating are done. There appears to be no reason for the wheel, other than the fact that the sea is beyond the Championship course. But as with much of the house and its contents, there’s a story. “I’m an auction fiend. And I was buying some artwork for the hotel – I love spending OP’s money,” Mark says with a laugh.
“I was at a Sheppard’s auction, where there was a piece I wanted for the hotel, but the auctioneer was taking ages to get to it. The lot before it was the ship’s wheel and Michael Sheppard obviously hoped for a lot of money for it but no one wanted it. He started it at €750 and when he brought it down to €250, I bid for it, to get him started on my lot. So I got it by default,” says Mark, “and then I didn’t get the one I wanted.”
Another favourite spot is the little porch. “It’s actually the grandmother spot. My mother and mother-in-law love to sit here and watch the world go by. Or I might be playing a round of golf and my mother will say, ‘Tell me when you’re coming round the Klondyke [the hole in front of the house],’ and she’ll see me putt. Or miss the putt, more like,” he laughs, self deprecatingly
An important spot is the balcony off the master bedroom overlooking the golf course. It will be a coveted post come the Irish Open and there will be no shortage of guests to enjoy it with them. Mark will certainly be there doing what he does best whether he’s off duty or on – making sure people are having the best time.
Dromoland Castle have a special offer of a two-night Winter & Autumn Escape from €294pp for 2bb & 1 dinner. For more details of winter breaks, see dromoland.ie
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