FOR evolution to happen, progress is essential, whether slow and plodding or propelled by a few big bangs.
It’s a strategy that has worked for more than 252 years at Dunowen House, just outside Clonakilty in west Cork.
The understated elegance of Georgian architecture lends an air of sophistication to the former manor house a stone’s throw from secluded Sand’s Cove beach. It has had many owners and lived through monumental historical change, gracefully standing sentry, and gently rolling with all of it.
It took almost 200 years for Dunowen House to experience its first big bang moment when Noel Redding, the UK-born bassist for The Jimi Hendrix Experience, bought the property in 1972.
Rock and Roll skidded into this sleepy corner of West Cork right at the cusp of the region’s own Big Bang - an alternative food movement that would lead to Ireland’s culinary renaissance.
For 30 years, the house hosted stars of the rock and roll firmament, and ordinary folks, too.
When Redding died in 2003, other owners and guests passed through for another decade until a couple from Dublin looking to escape the rat race stumbled upon it for sale.
Kela and Stephen Hodgins are born and bred Dubliners. Working in marketing and finance respectively, both had often dreamed of leaving the hectic pace of life of the capital for a countryside property serving jointly as home and business.
By pure chance they found Dunowen House, immediately igniting the fuse for its next evolution: As a haven of laid-back luxury where good food and good vibes are the new rock and roll.
I caught up with Kela to learn how this grand old master nestled its way into her heart.
“We were in Inchydoney Hotel having lunch, looked up Myhome.ie, and there was Dunowen House. We drove around to it, peeked up the driveway and thought it looked interesting.
"We came back down to Clonakilty the following weekend for a viewing, and after we both said: It’s now or never.”
The connection was instant, despite the work needed to be done.
The 18th century property comprised of the manor house, a small cottage and a dilapidated coach house. The couple lived in the house until it was ready to open as their business, and the cottage while the coach house was renovated into a family home where they now live. The manor house and cottage are both available to rent with a maximum capacity of 20 guests between the two.
“That was important to us because we didn’t want a business where we were inside with the guests; we needed to have distance for our own family life.”
They headed back to Dublin, sold their Blackrock, home and within six weeks, Kela, Stephen, and their three children, then aged 15, 13 and five, moved their entire life to West Cork.
“We were thinking, oh my god – what have we done! Stephen was still working in Dublin during the week, my eldest was in boarding school up there too. I was here on my own with the kids trying to work out what are we doing. Yeah, the first six months were really tough.”
They knew no-one, and aside from the viewing, had visited Clonakilty just once for a friend’s wedding. Slowly, they got to know people, the children enrolled in local schools and life became not just easier, but better.
“The community here is so open, and once we got to know people, we realised our social life could even be better here than it was in Dublin, and we didn’t have that stress of the rat race. There was stress, of course, but it was different.”
The rock and roll heritage of Dunowen House was unknown to Kela and Stephen until they came for the viewing. The sympathetic renovation of the house pays homage to it now with original vintage framed posters, Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, instruments, and original vinyl records sitting comfortably amongst the Persian rugs and chandeliers.
“We would be music fans, so that was one of the things that struck us when we came to see the house, that, ‘wow, this is really cool’. But not many people outside this area knew about that. As you get older, I feel the appeal of that rock and roll history is not as unique to a younger generation as it is to an older generation. The demographic of 20-somethings-up, they might know about The Jimi Hendrix Experience or that their parents were fans, but when we get guests from America in their 50-70s they love that; they will come for that.”
So, if not for the unique music history of Dunowen House, what is it that appeals to a younger generation?
“They feel like they have a small hotel all to themselves; they get a real luxury feel but it’s not at all stuffy.
When you come here, you’ve got us available to you, too, and the cooking side has become a big deal. It wasn’t at the beginning, but it’s evolved, and we do at least a dinner party for every set of guests that stay with us now. They don’t have to worry about booking taxis in and out of town, being off a table by a certain time, or being a big crowd and feeling like they’re rowdy. They can just be here; they have the place to themselves and don’t have to worry about anybody else.”
The grounds of Dunowen House include gardens, small fields, an apple orchard and a walled garden where they grow a variety of crops destined for Kela’s dinner party menus. While living in Blackrock, Kela took advantage of being neighbours with Lynda Booth’s Dublin Cookery School; in West Cork she has learned at the side of Michelin-starred chef, Rob Krawczyk, of The Chestnut in Ballydehob.
There has always been an interest in cooking and Kela reconnected with baking during Covid, finding an avid audience with her popular Cake Mondays on Instagram, baking cakes and sharing recipes.
“It was a way to stay in touch with people. It gave me structure every Monday – people waited to see what was coming out. I got to know people because of it, opening a new audience for us; people realised Dunowen House is somewhere that does nice food.”
This year, Kela and Stephen celebrate a decade at Dunowen House. In that time, they have established one of the most exciting and in-demand boutique escapes in the country, picking up a prestigious inclusion into Ireland’s Blue Book. And the business continues to evolve.
“We’re at a stage in our life where we only want to do things that give us a bit of fun as well. I’m not interested in slogging my guts out now and not being happy with what we’re doing. We’re getting choosier about what we do and how we do it.”
Part of that is about looking outside your bubble for inspiring ideas for what to do next. The latest exciting project came from a chance connection on Instagram with an equivalent property to Kela’s – in Tuscany, from where she has recently returned and is busy hatching plans.
“We had such a great experience and there was so much interest on Instagram about it. I wondered; How can we do something with this? So, we will be bringing a small group of no more than 14 people with us to Tuscany for a week in October to experience what we did: wine tasting, vineyard tours - places that are really interesting; learning how to cook using Italian techniques and having a relaxing, fun time. That’s not feasible for everyone, so we’ll bring the guys back to us in late November for two residential weekends, and in the middle will be two one-day events for anyone wanting to learn but live locally and you don’t need to stay. You’ll come, learn how to cook something, eat it together, and enjoy wine pairings from Italy.”
Kela refers to this as a Cultural Culinary Exchange: Italian technique with West Cork produce – a sweet spot between two food cultures and finding where they work. If it’s a success this year, there are plans to turn it into an annual event.
Kela and Stephen are still pushing the boundaries of what Dunowen House can be.
“We didn’t come from a hospitality background; we didn’t set this up coming from somewhere else, we’ve learned on the job, and it’s evolved.”
What it is, is a dream escape. The perfect venue for celebration events, birthdays, hen parties and special family gatherings. They have carved a well-earned reputation for hosting idyllic and memory-making intimate bespoke weddings where, says Kela, the couples are in control of every and any aspect of their day. From an outdoor ceremony under a magnificent oak tree, to a relaxed indoor setting; from drinks on the Tuscany-inspired terrace to photos on the deserted beach; speeches or no speeches, and a wedding breakfast cooked with care to your own design.
“You can decide the structure of your day; we don’t dictate that you have to do this and this at these set times. It’s up to you to decide what way you want to celebrate your day,” Kela says.
The ethos and service that Kela and Stephen have embraced at Dunowen House is one of “laid-back luxury that’s exclusively yours”.
It’s what they want when they travel – the perfect compass for their own business.
So, what’s Kela’s golden nugget of advice for budding hoteliers?
“Be true to yourselves, don’t overthink, and ask for advice,” she says.
“We didn’t have any experience, but a lack of experience doesn’t have to be a barrier. You can learn on the job, but you must be committed to quality and always delivering a really good service to your guests.”
Ultimately, if you feel what you have is the basis of a good idea, then just go for it, because, Kela says, “Life is too short!”