Magnificent Marlfield at 40
In 1978, Mary Bowe realised her dream of opening a luxury country house hotel and today the thriving business is being run by a second generation. Report by Maria Pepper
Historic Marlfield House in Gorey is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year in its modern incarnation as the world-renowned country hotel and restaurant which was opened in the late 1970's by the visionary business woman Mary Bowe and her husband Ray.
Mary and Ray are now retired but their legacy is thriving in the capable hands of their daughters Margaret and Laura who added a new dimension three years ago by opening the successful Duck Terrace Restaurant in an adjoining renovated stone courtyard, using the investment from the sale of an apartment in Nice and even shipping some of the French cabinets over to add some character.
The Regency-style mansion of Marlfield House built in 1820 is almost 200 years old, and originally the Dower House of the Courtown Estate (second in command to the big house) later becoming the principal residence of the Earls of Courtown otherwise known as the Stopford family.
If the walls of this beautiful residence could speak, they would surely declare that entertaining and putting on a good show is nothing new to them, thank you, as aristocratic guests regularly visited Marlfield back in the day, coming to stay from all over the British Isles for long periods to enjoy hunting, shooting and fishing expeditions on the extensive estate.
Mary Bowe didn't expect her guests to do any fishing or hunting when she opened Marlfield House as a country hotel in 1978, after purchasing the property from the Stopford family who put the house and its remaining lands up for sale a year earlier. The present Earl of Courtown from whom the Bowes purchased the property, is James Stopford who lives in England.
A Midlands farmer's daughter from Castlepollard near Mullingar, Mary had studied at the prestigious Shannon School of Hotel Management. She met and married Ray Bowe, from County Waterford. Ray was manager of the North Slob where the family initially lived, before managing County Wexford Marts and later Slaney Meats where he was a director for many years.
Mary and Ray now live in Enniscorthy but they visit Marlfield every day and love dining in The Duck Restaurant which is a high compliment and a solid vote of parental approval for the eaterie.
The Bowes' first hospitality project was building and opening Esker Lodge in Curracloe in the early 1970's as a family home and guest house, later adding a restaurant which catered for holiday visitors to the seaside area and earned Mary a reputation for her cooking ability.
But Mary who was a contemporary of Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe, had the grand ambition of opening a country hotel and when Marlfield House with its 36 acres of gardens came on the market in 1977, it was the perfect setting as the backdrop to her dream.
The couple spent eight months renovating the house before opening with 11 bedrooms and a restaurant where Mary was the principal chef.
'She was an exceptional cook with a huge energy in the kitchen and thought nothing of catering for 170 people on a Saturday night', said daughter Margaret admiringly.
'She came from a very hospitable household. Her own mother, Granny Murphy was a wonderful cook and was very house proud and entertained a lot. We still use her jam and sago plum pudding recipes today ', said Margaret.
Marlfield attracted guests and diners from far and near including many famous people from Irish Presidents to Hollywood stars such as Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks during the filming of 'Saving Private Ryan', the members of U2 and the Cranberries, and two James Bonds - Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.
While she was busy as a bee welcoming guests and working on the finer details of gourmet menus, Mary still found time to view the bigger picture, to plan ahead and expand. Marlfield House with its relatively modest entrance was about to become even grander under its new Countess.
Four years later, Marlfield's impressive Turner-style conservatory was added and in 1989, six magnificent stately bedrooms and a grand entrance hall were built, marking a collaboration between the Bowes and the renowned architect Alfred Cochrane whose architectural contribution to the building is honoured in an inscribed plaque on a wall at the front of Marlfield.
'She never worried. She was very courageous', said Margaret, looking back on her mother's achievements in developing Marlfield.
Mary didn't just focus on the building - she developed the grounds and gardens, adding a man-made lake by damming a stream in 1990 and bringing in 32 diferent breeds of duck, teal and widgeon from the UK (the Marlfield logo has always been a gold duck, hence the name of the Duck Restaurant) and a kitchen garden for vegetables, herbs and salads, to complement the formal rose gardens and wild woodlands around the house. Ray was always very involved in the running of the business.
'We were teenagers here at the time, going to school in Bray and at weekends and during the summer, we helped out in the restaurant and in the hotel. We weren't allowed to take summer jobs anywhere else', said Irish Film and Television Award winner (for Brian Willis movie Short Order) Laura, a former film industry production and set designer who worked on the Oscar-winning movie My Left Foot. She recalled being asked to bring home fresh fish from Mulloy's fishmongers in Baggot Street while studying History of Art in UCD.
She later enrolled in the Chelsea College of Art in England and worked as a set designer in London for several years, a career she was introduced to by the sister of Josie McAvin, the Oscar-winning set designer for Out of Africa, who used to visit Esker Lodge. Laura was a set decorator on The Tailor of Panama, the 2001 film directed and produced by John Boorman.
Margaret studied marketing at the College of Marketing in Dublin and worked in conference management in the UK for a number of years, taking time out at one point to travel around the world while freelancing, and eventually returning to Marlfield in the mid- 1990's to assist her mother.
When it came to taking over the reins of the business, however, Margaret decided she would only do it if her sister also came on board and after some discussion, Laura returned to join her 14 years ago.
The sisters have been managing Marlfield since 2009 and found themselves with the initial challenge of weathering a recession before the economy started to pick up, finally allowing them to bring their own influence to bear.
In 2015, they converted part of the courtyard buildings where they lived as children, into The Duck Terrace Restaurant,opening onto the beautiful kitchen and rose garden and offering a more casual bistro-style experience than the formal restaurant of the big house.
'I live over the shop' joked Laura who resides close by with her teenage son Beau (16) and daughter Hannah (11) while Margaret lives a short distance away in a neighbouring house with her husband Brian Dowley and daughter Ava (11). 'When I came home, the house next door was on the market and I bought it', she said.
Outlining the initial challenges they face, Margaret said: 'We wanted to put our own stamp on it but we were held back because of the recession. It was a difficult period but we got through it by paying attention to every single small detail and we learned good lessons from that.'
This year, the pair continued their investment by renovating the gate lodge into a luxurious two-bedroom cottage (with fabulous interior design by Laura) overlooking the grounds which offers guests a different kind of hotel experience. Marlfield is a longstanding member of Ireland's Blue Book (a collection of unique Irish country and historic houses) and Relais et Chateaux (an association of gourmet restaurants and boutique hotels and villas around the world). 'We have maintained the character of the main house and the core business but we are attracting a younger crowd an attracting a lot more people who enjoy a more relaxed style of eating out and at the same time giving our hotel guests a choice of different dining experiences when they come to stay', said Margaret. 'We knew that food tastes had changed and we wanted to bring change into the place. When we started out, we thought The Duck would be a daytime restaurant only but we found the demand was there for the evenings as well', said Laura.
It is not difficult to see why, under Laura and Margaret's stewardship, Marlfield House has also become a favoured wedding venue, providing the most romantic setting imaginable for marriage celebrations and photographs, and wedding are now a large and welcome part of the business. 'There are so many people who got married here and keep coming back,'a said Margaret.
Having grown up with Mary Bowe as their mother, Margaret and Laura couldn't escape becoming firm foodies. They love food, eating it and talking about it and The Duck serves the food they love, a fusion of world tastes using garden to table ingredients. 'Food is a passion. The menu at The Duck is representative of the food we love and that we know the public want. We both cook but while don't cook here, we're very involved', said Laura.
'Food was a huge part of our lives growing up. Our whole family is obsessed with food', added Margaret. The sisters are both General Managers while the Operations Manager is Greg Murphy, former owner of Taste Restaurant in Wexford town.
Up to 70 people are employed in Marfield at the height of the summer including the veteran head gardener Sean Kehoe who formerly worked with Ray Bowe in Slaney Meats and joined Marlfield 15 years ago at the age of 72. Today, the guests who stay at Marlfield House predominantly come from around Ireland whereas 24 years ago when Margaret returned to Gorey from London, about 60% of the guests were American.
Taking a leaf out of their mother's book, Margaret and Laura are not resting on their laurels and their next plan is to build a 'pod'
overlooking the lake, incorporating treatment rooms for guests.
Heaven knows what the landed gentry who visited the Stopford family for parties at Marlfield in the 1800s and 1900s would have thought of all that.