Purchased in early July for an undisclosed sum from the Mooney family – owners of Belfast’s Wellington Park and the Armagh City Hotel – The Dunadry Hotel is a significant addition to the McKeever’s burgeoning portfolio.
By the time its new owners took it on, the Dunadry was looking a little shabbier than it had during its halcyon days in the 90s and early noughties. Despite that, however, it had retained its reputation as a popular wedding and tourist venue.
And now, thanks to good progress on a planned £4m refurbishment scheme by its new owners, the iconic venue is already well on its way back to the top tier of local hotel accommodation.
“We’ve gone a good bit of the way down the road but we still have a lot of work to do,” confirmed Eddie McKeever, operations director for the group. “We have just finished the first phase of improvements, we’ve done the restaurant, the ballroom, the Linen Room function space and the conservatory, which we have transformed into a lounge. We’ve also upgraded the gardens, the walkways and the car park and a lot of general maintenance has been undertaken, things that had been neglected for a few years but which really needed attended to.”
In its heyday, the Dunadry was a four-star hotel. Over time, lack of investment at the venue led to the removal of one star, but GM Malachy McCollum, says that he hopes to see that star restored, perhaps as soon as the end of this year.
He is currently overseeing phase two of the Dunadry investment programme, which involves a thorough refurbishment of all 80 bedrooms. It’s hoped that the first 10 new-look bedrooms will be unveiled in July.
Malachy (58), has worked at the Dunadry since taking a part-time position there in 1976. At that time, the hotel was owned by Paddy Faloon, who’d bought it a decade earlier.
After taking his licensing exams, Malachy went full-time at the hotel in 1981 and five years later, the venue was acquired by Cathal and Margaret Mooney.
Aside from a four-year period spent managing a local golf club, Antrim-born Malachy has always worked at the Dunadry. He was assistant manager under the hotel’s previous owner, John Mooney.
“I love coming to work,” he told LCN. “I love managing things here, it’s a great place to be. The people I have trained and worked with over the years have been fantastic and I’ve formed some great friendships as a result.”
He recalls the first people he met in the bar on his first night – Irish rugby internationals WJ McBride and Mike Gibson. That set the tone for a career in which he has welcomed to the hotel many of the biggest names in music, sport and entertainment.
Politics too, have impacted on life at the Dunadry over the years. It was here that many of the complex negotiations that led up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 took place and Malachy has a sizeable repertoire of behind-the-scenes stories that he’s happy to recount.
Malachy was friends with Eugene McKeever long before the latter acquired the hotel where he worked. Malachy had met Eugene through Eugene’s late brother, Gerry, with whom he’d also been great friends and the pair became close, often retreating to the golf course where shop was never talked:
“Eventually, the day came where Eugene said to me, how would you feel about me being your boss? I was delighted to be able to come on board with the McKeevers,” recalls Malachy. “They have a great family tradition and a great way of doing things. Things here are done just right and they have brought a breath of fresh air to this hotel that was greatly needed.”
Going forward, the McKeevers admit that the potential for continuous improvement at the Dunadry is almost limitless. As Eddie McKeever puts it, “how long is a piece of string?” The current planned upgrades amount to an investment of around £4m by the family, but there are already fluid plans in place to take the venue well beyond that point.
Among a battery of suggestions for further improvements at the hotel is a suggestion that it could become a destination venue for anglers. The picturesque Six Mile Water runs through the hotel grounds and the McKeevers now own fishing rights to their section of the river. They hope to be able to add new facilities and develop packages that would attract anglers to the Dunadry.
Eugene also hopes to be able to improve and extend the facilities included in the hotel’s existing leisure centre. This, he says, may be done within the next two years:
“In three or four years’ time, I hope to be able to take a step back from the everyday running of the business,” he adds. “All the work should be completed by then and it will speak for itself, I think we’re going to be up there with the best hotels in Northern Ireland and I am looking forward to that.”
Been there, done that…
Eugene and the McKeever family brought the eighth annual LCN Gala Awards to a fitting close on June 1 when they stepped onto the stage at the Europa hotel in Belfast to collect the LCN Lifetime Achievement Award.
The veteran hotelier joins a long list of worthy figures from the NI hospitality trade who have accepted this accolade over the years, including fellow hoteliers Lord Diljit Rana, the late Sir Billy Hastings and veteran publican Patsy Lavery.
Speaking to LCN at the Dunadry hotel in Antrim after the awards, Eugene declared himself “absolutely overwhelmed” by the honour:
“When I know that many of the people that I have followed and respected over the years and looked up to have also received it, then it’s great to be seen in the same light,” he added. “Since I won the award, I have received lots of emails and cards from people congratulating me and saying that it was well deserved. Some of them have said to me that it’s great to see someone who has worked in the industry for so long being recognised.”
Eugene also said that he believed winning awards such as LCN’s Lifetime Achievement represented important milestones in anyone’s career:
“As a result of an award like this, people recognise you as someone who has been there and done that,” he added. “I hope that as a result of this award, people might be able to look up to what’s been achieved here and say to themselves well, there is no reason why I couldn’t go ahead and do that as well.”