A Sligo woman is building on the proud tradition of Irish farmhouse accommodation, with plans for expanding the enterprise established by her parents as she continues to work alongside them.
Oriel and Nicholas Hill-Wilkinson have been welcoming guests into their home for almost 60 years and now their daughter, Gemma, is taking over the running of Ross House, a 19th century farmhouse.
After returning from Gurteen Agricultural College where she had been studying horticulture and domestic science, Oriel was approached by a member of Irish Farmhouse Holidays, which was just starting up, to provide bed and breakfast (B&B) accommodation for a few months. Nearly 60 years later, she is still going strong.
“At that time there were very few places providing accommodation in the area and Sligo was then becoming a popular destination, particularly for fishing,” Gemma said.
“Mum ran the B&B as well as working on a busy beef farm alongside my grandfather, Sam Patterson. After a few years, she married a Tipperary man Nicholas Hill-Wilkinson whom she had met in college.
“Together, they set up a garden centre and glasshouse company – Ross Garden Centre – which was very successful for many years but closed in the early 1980s due to the workload involved in running several businesses side-by-side.
“The farm is a beef farm now on approximately 55ac of land which is rented out,” said Gemma.
Initially, we offered accommodation for about six people and my Mum would provide an evening meal also. Now we can cater for up to 12 people, although we no longer provide an evening meal option as there are so many fantastic places to eat in Sligo; it’s a real foodie destination.
“I have been involved in the business from a very early age, helping out at weekends and summer holidays. I moved to Galway after school and did Montessori teaching and worked in childcare.
“During college I worked in the hospitality sector and always enjoyed meeting new people. I particularly enjoyed the food service side of things so it has been a natural progression to move back into the family business,” said Gemma.
“After meeting in Galway, then living in Mayo for a couple of years, my partner Simon and I, along with our daughter Lola, moved back to Sligo in 2013. Simon still commutes to Mayo for work in his family business Cashel’s Engineering, but even he would say that Sligo is home. It’s such a beautiful part of the country and an idyllic place to raise a family,” she said.
“I really enjoy meeting people from all over the world. Every day is different and there are so many elements to running a small business from sales and marketing to accounting, as well as cooking, bed-making and cleaning. It’s certainly not a nine-to-five job and the hours are long, particularly during the summer months.
“Saying that, I feel extremely lucky to be able to work alongside my mum. We’re a great team and my dad, my nieces and my daughter all help out too so it’s a real family affair which I think is part of the attraction of a traditional B&B.
“Over the last number of years, I’ve taken up the challenge of renovating most of the rooms and giving them a modern twist, which I really enjoyed as I love interior design,” said Gemma.
New breakfast menu
“I’ve also introduced a new breakfast menu offering a wide range of options, but the traditional ‘full Irish’ is still there. We try to use as much local, home-grown produce as possible including our own eggs, laid freshly each day by our six beautiful hens,” she said.
“The farmhouse market is quite good at present. Many of our guests enjoy the personal touch you get from a farmhouse bed and breakfast.
They enjoy the peacefulness of the countryside and a more relaxed pace. We have a lot of repeat guests who have been coming for years, since I was a child actually, and it’s just like having an extended family.
“We now have the children of families who used to stay with us coming back wondering what all the fuss was about, from all over Ireland, the UK, France, Germany, America and Australia to name several. It’s really special to have that connection with people.
“Being based in Sligo, we straddle both the Wild Atlantic Way and Hidden Heartlands and this has been crucial in growing our business in recent years; it really has put Sligo in particular on the map.
“Most of our visitors are from abroad and many are booked through B&B Ireland. We also have our own website which we update regularly and we get a sizeable Irish clientele due to our close proximity to popular wedding venues such as Markree Castle and Castledargan Hotel.
‘Maintaining our standards’
“Being registered through Failte Ireland is vital as it ensures we maintain our standards and also gives confidence for anyone booking accommodation with us that they are using a professional organisation.
“Being part of the B&B Ireland family is important as it gives us great support as an existing business and it also offers support to new entrants like myself.
My dream is to restore the traditional stone farm buildings we have on site into self-catering accommodation to give us another string to our bow, both for the local and international markets.
“This is a medium/long-term project due to the significant cost involved, so in the meantime I’m happy to build on the reputation my parents have developed in delivering an excellent personalised experience to our guests.
“I want to put my own stamp on what we already have and look forward to seeing how I can develop this business further,” said Gemma.
“Ultimately, we’re selling a product and we have to compete with other areas of the country as well as more centrally located hotels in the area. It’s important to offer something unique and I’m confident we do that already and will continue to expand on that in the future.”