In the early 1970s in Killiney, Ireland—a town just south of Dublin and near the Irish Sea—young John Fitzpatrick wasn’t like most of his grade school friends.
While they spent their free time at local playgrounds building sand castles, Fitzpatrick played in an actual castle. He practiced hurling, a Gaelic game most Irish kids play, on the castle’s sprawling green lawn. He dodged the chef after grabbing a few sausages or a piece of chocolate cake off a plate while he ran through the massive kitchen.
Fitzpatrick wasn’t royalty. His parents, Paddy and Eithne, owned Killiney Castle, a property they bought as a small guesthouse and turned into a 20-room hotel when Fitzpatrick and his three siblings were growing up. “Some of my earliest memories are running around that hotel,” says Fitzpatrick. “While other kids my age were hanging around playgrounds, I’d be up in the corridors with my dad, watching walls come down for an expansion. The hotel was a big playground for me. My whole life has been the business, really, and I knew from an early age this is what I wanted to do.”
And so even before Fitzpatrick was old enough to work, he was doing what he could to help his parents around the castle. He cleaned. He mowed the lawns. At 16, he landed his first real job in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, washing dishes, and causing the same kind of trouble he did as a 7-year-old. “John was just like all kids who’d rob the sweets shop; you had to keep a close eye on the food once he started working in the kitchen,” says Sean Dempsey, who was a junior chef when Fitzpatrick worked in the kitchen and who’s still with the hotel (now called Fitzpatrick Castle) to this day, as executive chef. And while a sausage or two might’ve gone missing when Fitzpatrick was working, he was a great help, says Dempsey. “In the evenings, John would work at the hotel after school. I think he worked every job there was.”
Fitzpatrick was carrying on a family tradition. His father worked in hotels all his life, taking his first job at the Gresham hotel in Dublin when he was 17 and climbing the ranks quickly. After managing hotels in County Clare and in Wexford, he headed back to Dublin, where he managed the Doyle group of hotels. “My father started his career in the hotel industry from the ground up and insisted the rest of the family do the same,” says Fitzpatrick. “Dad always told us, ‘You can’t ask someone to do a job you haven’t done yourself.’” The advice Fitzpatrick’s father gave him as a boy growing up in a hotel has helped John in his current role, running the only two Irish-owned hotels in New York City: the Fitzpatrick Manhattan and the Fitzpatrick Grand Central. These are hotels in which everyone from Irish dignitaries to Irish rock stars have stayed. They’re hotels where the Irish in New York City—whether visiting or living there—know they can get a decent pint of Guinness, real sausages, and brown bread, which Fitzpatrick ships over from Ireland because, he says, the U.S. versions just don’t taste the same.
Perhaps that’s why in the aftermath of 9/11, the Fitzpatrick hotels became a refuge for stranded Irish travelers and even the Irish looking to locate relatives living in New York City. In the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, calls from Ireland poured in to the Fitzpatrick hotels from Irish parents with children working in New York. When they couldn’t get in touch with their kids because cell phone service was out, they knew they could call the place where their kids would go for a drink or two after work. Likewise, regulars rushed to the Fitzpatrick hotel bars, asking Fitzpatrick to take their names because they knew their worried families would call. Fitzpatrick then worked with the Irish embassy, exchanging lists of people who were accounted for and helping to put many Irish mothers’ minds at ease.
It’s something Fitzpatrick says his father would’ve done. “From a very early age, my father said to me, ‘Remember, no matter how big you get or how many hotels you own, you’re still an innkeeper. If you remember that, you’ll never go wrong.’” Fitzpatrick says he owes much of his success to the influence of his father, though he’s quick to add that his mother Eithne was also an important role model and driving force in the growth of Fitzpatrick hotels. “My dad wouldn’t have been the success he was without her,” says Fitzpatrick. “Dad would bring her into the final deal at the last minute and she’d clinch it.” When his mother died in 1994, Fitzpatrick founded the Eithne Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund in her honor, with the mission of making a significant impact on the lives of those in need. When his dad died in 2001, the fund became the Eithne and Paddy Fitzpatrick Memorial Fund. “I didn’t want my parents to be forgotten.”
Fitzpatrick says he’ll always admire the guts it took for his parents to build their first hotel. “After my father had a row with his boss at the Doyle hotel group, my parents decided to branch out on their own,” says Fitzpatrick. “They mortgaged everything to buy the castle guesthouse that my father turned into the Killiney Castle.”