My Granny loved a wee meal in the Charlemont Hotel. We celebrated her 80th birthday there and a few years later celebrated her life with a meal there after her funeral. It was also where we celebrated my nephews' christening. I have fond memories of dancing with My Dad at credit Union AGMs. He was great at the jiving and taught My Sister and me how to dance in our kitchen. Nearly 10 years after his passing, I was back dancing in that same room, this time to the Celtic Rock Legends, Horslips at the John O Connor Writing Festival.
Last August, I was sitting in the queue one day in Argos in Armagh when a woman sat down beside me.
"I know you don't I?" we said to each other at the same time. It took us a few moments to place each other's face.
"I was talking to you the other night," I said. "I was in the Charlemont. You work there don't you?"
I'd had my hair cut that morning, and she said that was why it had taken her a moment to recognise me again. Turns out, Helen doesn't just work there, she and her sister, Judith, own the hotel. It didn't surprise me one bit to learn that The Charlemont was a family run business. It had always had a warmth to it, a sense of comfort and home that comes from family. Helen's friendliness was typical of what I've come to associate with the Charlemont Hotel. She was happy to sit down with me recently and tell me about her family's history at the hotel.
Helen's grandparents, Robert and Elizabeth Forster, bought the hotel in 1934. Her mum came to work in the office at the age of 14. As we chatted, I mentioned how romantic it must have been for this young woman going to work and meeting the hotel owner's son, catching his eye and falling in love. Helen gave me a look that told me I might be over romanticising things (as I am prone to doing) and said with a laugh, " Let's just say, love blossomed."
When I pressed it by saying that they probably went to the City Hall dances together Helen nodded and told me that the Charlemont had done the catering for those dances. My own parents had gone to those dances too.
Helen's parents took over running the hotel. In those days a lot of travelling salesmen and company reps stayed in the hotel. Her mother tells of how they used to leave their shoes out by their doors and the staff would take them away, polish them and return them before morning. There is still a room at the hotel called the "boot hall" where the shoes where polished. Often the reps would get up to high jinx, doing things like swapping around the shoes. I can imagine the temptation that would be after a few pints of Guinness in the bar!
That was all before Helen's time but she remembered the tea - loose tea, no tea bags - for the hotel arriving in big tea chests. I knew the type of thing she meant. We'd had one that we had stored old toys in. She also remembers coin operated heaters in the rooms.
There had been 18 rooms but some shared bathrooms. After renovations to give each room an ensuite there were 12 rooms. In 2000, the Charlemont bought Turners, the builders merchants next door and extended to 30 rooms, all with ensuite.
The hotel weathered the good times and the bad and throughout the years both sides of the community were welcomed and supported the hotel. Helen says she really appreciates that. I liked to hear it too. It gave me hope for a future where we can all live and work together here.
I asked Helen had she ever considered not going into the family business. She shrugged and said she'd spent a year in Boston, but even that was hotel related. She'd had worked in the 1000 room Boston Park Plaza which was, as Helen put it, "a bit different."
And indeed it is because the Charlemont Hotel has a good, comfortable vibe. It's an institution of old Armagh and has an atmosphere of home. People make friends here. There's always a log on the fire and the kettles always on the boil. Even when working during quiet times, when the place is empty, Helen says she never feels lonely or afraid in the hotel.
Helen did her degree in hotel tourism but says she learned more in the day-to-day running of the Charlemont when she and her sister took over the running of the hotel. She has certainly endeavoured to provide a cosy home-from-home experience for the people who frequent this much-loved establishment at the heart of the city.
The Charlemont Hotel is the pivotal venue of the John O Connor Writing School and Literary Festival held every year in November. Robert McCrum, Associate Editor, The Observer and author summed it up nicely when he urged the festival organizers,
"Don't get bigger, get better! The Charlemont is key to your success - such a great vibe..."
Come see for yourselves. Grab a good book and have a drink by the fire - I can suggest a few good ones - both in books and drinks!