Interview: Simon O'Hara of Coopershill, Ireland

Simon Although Coopershill is not at the pinnacle of luxury, it embodies the spirit of Irish hospitality at its best. Presiding over the Georgian house that his family has owned since 1774, Simon O’Hara could not be more gracious and helpful. During our recent trip, he was to be found at breakfast each morning, helping to serve the wonderful dishes of eggs and Irish meats, and always ready with insightful tips and touring suggestions (for which he would later provide annotated maps). In the evening, he hosted the cocktail hour with consummate charm and then transferred to the dining room, where, in turn, he engaged each table in fluent and solicitous conversation. - A.H.  

Part of the appeal of Coopershill is that it is a lovely old house that has been in your family for generations. How do you maintain a property like this?

Old houses, like all of us, do tend to need love and attention on a regular basis. This house is 18,000 square feet and needs more than most! We live in the house year-round, and so we are able to keep on top of things and I carry out most of the routine maintenance myself. My parents lived here before us and they are still around to consult with questions like: “Has that pipe always leaked? Is there an easier way to clean that chimney?” Or if my handyman skills are failing me: “Do you have the number of that antique clock repairer?”

Naturally, it is expensive to maintain a country mansion. It was once financed through rent paid by tenants on the extensive estate. Today, visitors from all over the world come and share and enjoy the house with us during the summer months, and funds are generated that way.

And how do you strike the balance between keeping its old charm while making it comfortable for modern guests?

There is usually room for compromise and balance. For example, two of our double bedrooms had original 18th-century four-poster beds which were five feet wide. Naturally, the fabrics and mattresses were new and of the finest materials, but our guests were finding them too small. We were reluctant to stop using these fabulous beds, and so this year, we have put both four-posters into one very large bedroom to create an amazing twin-bedded room. The other room has a new custom-made king canopy bed, but we have kept the original Georgian style.

The food we had was delicious. How much is sourced locally? And what do you think of the evolution of food in Ireland?

As well as looking after the house, we also run a farm on the estate, and so growing our own food is a part of what we do naturally. We have our own vegetable and fruit gardens and produce venison for the house and for sale throughout Ireland. Selling our venison through farmers' markets has introduced us to most of the local producers, and wherever possible, we buy from them. All of our meat, fish and eggs are produced in the county of Sligo.

In the last 10 years, the standard of food in Ireland has gone from mediocre to outstanding. We are in the age of the celebrity chef and reality TV, and everyone feels like a food critic. I think this has happened because 20 years ago, most of the Irish people couldn’t afford to eat out, and so restaurants were seasonal businesses catering to tourists and not too bothered about repeat customers. With the Celtic Tiger, that all changed, and restaurants had to up their game for a new, discerning domestic customer. I love eating out, but sometimes I wish a little more effort was spent achieving great, fresh flavors and less in trying to make food look like something you might put on your mantelpiece.

Obviously, we thought highly of your role as the host at Coopershill. How do you see your role there, and how did your skills evolve — especially as this was not your first career?

When I get up in the morning, I never feel as if I am going to work. Being here doesn’t feel like work, and welcoming guests, chatting with them and helping them to get the most out of their stay and the region is a pleasure. We get a huge amount of repeat business, and often, I really am just welcoming old friends into my home.

Having said that, I have had some experience looking after clients under quite different conditions. In the 1990s, I was a safari guide running budget camping expeditions across the African continent. I used to persuade clients to put up their own tents, sleep on the ground, help cook dinner, stop complaining about the heat and enjoy themselves. In contrast, it is not very difficult to entertain in a fantastic mansion in the west of Ireland!

You have very impressive environmental bona fides. Do you think this registers with many of your guests?

When the house was built 250 years ago, energy, as we know it today, was unavailable. By using the systems that my ancestors installed such as solid fuel fires, rainwater collection and local sourcing, we tick many environmental boxes. However, to be very honest, it does seem to me that this is of more interest to the media than most of our guests. This still makes it incredibly important to the success of the business, because without the free media coverage that is the result of our environmental credentials, many of our guests, environmentally concerned or not, would never have heard of us.

Any news on upcoming projects at Coopershill to share with Hideaway Report readers?

Food is very important to us, and living close to the sea means we have a fantastic resource at our doorstep. Not only fish, but seaweed! This year, we have a pilot program of events working with a medical doctor who has become a specialist in the use of seaweeds in food. So on July 25, 2013, for two days you can stay at Coopershill and go seaweed-harvesting with Dr. Prannie Rhatigan, learn how to cook with it and see a magical, little-known corner of Ireland all at the same time.  

Read more from our Interview Series.

Download a complimentary copy of the 2013 Grand Awards issue.

By Hideaway Report Staff