The back story of Break House, a small hotel in County Donegal of northwest Ireland, is like a warning: Two city-slickers, accountants from Dublin, who have never worked in a hotel or served a scone, decided to open a custom- built, designer property on a remote, windswept peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. Throw in the wizened locals ready to deal with them, the natural and man-made disasters, and you have all the makings of a bad sitcom, with Monocle meets Fawlty Towers as the log line.
The reality is different: Cathrine Burke, 51, and Niall Campbell, 51, managed to create a magnificent hotel, not by flying in a starchitect from London, stocking the premises with luxury products and delivering globalized cuisine, but by remaining firmly Donegal. Their guiding principle in choosing materials, products, craftspeople and foodstuffs is “from Donegal, when it’s at its best.”
The basis of the success of their four-room hotel, which is already full for their 2023 season and will quickly fill up for next year, is the local chefs, chandlers, farmers, designers, weavers, potters and soapmakers that they employed.
In an area known as Ireland’s “forgotten county” — largely due to its position in the extreme northwest of the Republic of Ireland, next to Northern Ireland and far from tourist draws like Dublin or Galway — there is a thriving and robust ecosystem of great contemporary food, design and craft that is just beginning to be recognized in other islands of this country and the world. The people behind it are young and old, longtime residents and newcomers, business neophytes and seasoned entrepreneurs.
Get it Bernie Murphy, a fashion designer who spent over 20 years working for a local Fruit of the Loom factory, lost his job then struck out on his own, launching collections that earned him high praise from influential critics in fashion. Or Isobel Sangha, a bioengineer who moved home after years in Dublin, and launched the Donegal Natural Soap Companyincorporating foraged Donegal materials, originally to help her son, who had infant eczema. Hannah McGuiness is a designer who creates striking and colorful jewelry while also running a design collective and store called Donegal Designer Maker. And then there’s Ciaran Sweeney, a chef from Downings who enjoyed great success in Dublin, then returned home to cook in Olde Glen Barsharing with diners some of his culinary memories from a childhood spent here, by the sea, with a fisherman grandfather.
Although they are a diverse group, there are some common forces at work. Ireland has gone from boom to bust and back again over the past 30 years. “There’s nothing like a retreat to focus the mind,” says Mr. Campbell of Breac House. “It makes people think ‘If I really want to do this, I have to do it now.'”
There’s also the inspiration of the land, with rugged coastlines, wide sandy beaches, gray stone mountains and colorful wildflowers, mosses and seaweeds. From Breac House’s hillside vista almost all of these elements are visible: On the far left is Dunfanaghy’s Killahoey Beach, leading to a saltwater inlet which, at low tide, is crossed by horsemen. Tracking to the right, after the town centre, a small stone bridge connects the land of Breac, the Horn Head Peninsula, to the mainland. Finally, to the southwest, steep sands lead to Tramore Beach, which can only be reached by a one-mile walk. The colors and contrasts of the landscape are the obvious inspiration for the region’s most famous product, Donegal tweed.
“What’s unique about our tweed is that a more neutral base color is embellished with little bits of bright colour,” says Kieran Molloy, 37, who, with his father, runs Molloy & Son, a tweed-maker in Ardara. “Traditionally these bright colors were made from natural dyes derived from the flowers, mosses, seaweeds and berries found here.”
Mr. studied Molloy of industrial design in Dublin at the National College of Art and Design, one of the country’s most prestigious design schools, worked in the big city, then lost his job in 2009, when the recession hit hard. . His mother has always threatened, “If you don’t go to college, you’ll be stuck in the shed, weaving like your father.” And, indeed, Mr. Molloy, though educated at college, still came home and stayed in the shed. So he and his father joined forces, started their own business from the larger family business, and created tweeds that were lighter, brighter and made for today’s consumers, not designed for a time before central heating. They now export their fabric all over the world.
Tony Davidson, 38, has worked as a chef in fine restaurants in Belfast for four years. He and his Swedish partner Lina Reppert, 36, who run restaurants in Belfast, always dreamed of opening their own little place in Donegal. On a visit to Mr Davidson’s family holiday home here a few years ago, they found a small building, part of a pub, empty and with a lovely view of the horseshoe beach at Downings. After Tony hosted a successful seafood pop-up there, he convinced the owner to rent them space.
When they open Fisk Seafood Bar, a local friend said to Mr. Davidson, “You just sell fish? Are you losing your mind?” He didn’t mean it as a joke. For years, Ireland has shipped much of its best seafood overseas.
But with places like Fisk cooking straightforward, delicious, creative food using the bounty of Donegal, all that is starting to change. “We have some of the best crab in Europe just down the road,” Mr Davidson said. “We have someone who dives for amazing scallops and collects them by hand. We have beautiful mussels, oysters and all kinds of fish. People abroad buy our products in for years, but the locals are just beginning to rediscover what is here, around them.”
Breac House is a kind of living museum of this type of local food, craft and design. They hosted pop-ups led by Mr. Sweeney, Mr. Davidson and other Irish chefs. Their soap comes from Isobel Sangha’s company. Their tweed blankets and couch covers are hand woven by Eddie Dohertyone of the last tweed hand-weavers left in the region — and the world.
Beyond these more obvious local touches, there are also subtle design choices that are almost impossible for visitors to see, but important to Ms. Burke and Mr. Campbell, who lives in the area. Although a facade of their building is thoroughly modern, the proportions of their doors and windows at the side entrance are based on a historic longhouse design. Their two-person, wood-fired sauna, which looks modern, sleek and Scandinavian, shares all the elements of a traditional Irish sweathouse: a window with a view of the land, a living grass roof and a dark interior.
While all four guest rooms at Breac House share a subtle and inviting aesthetic, with brown wood, clean lines and comfortable furnishings, the sweeping views of the bay, mountains and farmland from the side of the hill, framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, dominates. the design. There is a small, wooden window bench, where to sit and look out, as well as a terrace attached to each room. (Rooms rent for 355 euros per night, or about $389, including breakfast.) A special two-way compartment allows breakfast to be delivered without opening the door.
These details point to something significant about Breac House: Unlike most businesses around the world, Ms. Burke and Mr. Campbell is the hotel with a specific demographic or ideal customer in mind. They said they just did what they thought would be good, and let the customers come if they did.
I was guided by Mr.’s hand-drawn map. Campbell around the peninsula on my morning run and afternoon bike ride. Ms.’s home cooked breakfasts. Burke, which includes bread she bakes, yogurt she makes, honey she buys from a beekeeper across the street, and goose eggs from a farmer down the road, is her personal idea of what to eat. of visitors.
During the downtime caused by the pandemic, Mr. Campbell and Ms. Burke of the fourth room in the hotel, which they believe is the largest they can be while staying true to their ideal of a hotel run completely hands-on, theirs. They also added multiday chef-driven experiences to replace the one-night pop-up dinners they previously hosted. Guests at Breac House can now meet with guest chefs not only for a few words after dinner, but for three days, visit nearby farms together, eat meals and share drinks . (The cost for two nights’ lodging and breakfast, as well as two dinners and excursions, is 2,950 euros for two.)
I had a dinner, cooked by the chef Cuan Greene30, who worked at Noma and later became head chef at a well-known Dublin restaurant, Bastible, focusing on local products such as oysters, turbot, ramson and rhubarb.
Breac House’s success, evident in this meal, presents a perhaps insurmountable problem: How to provide the level of interaction and intimacy more guests want, without compromising the essence of what a place like Breac House is made of.
But, Mr. Campbell said, “After two years of Covid shutdowns and interruptions, there are worse problems that we can think of.”
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