Our Killarney Hotel History

Visiting Killarney’s fairs as a youth, Tim Buckley dreamt of owning the hotel that overlooked the bustling traders in the town centre. But it was more than a dream – he set off for America to make the necessary money. He returned in 1926, married Julia, bought the hotel & renamed it The Arbutus. He then set out to redefine Killarney hospitality. The Buckley family have faithfully maintained the high standards of warmth, friendliness & professionalism that Tim put in train all those years ago. There has been a hotel on the site for over 200 years but the most significant architectural aspects of Arbutus are the numerous examples of celtic deco furniture & design commissioned by Tim in the 1920s.

The Arbutus – A Family Tree.

Every landscape produces and inspires characters whose stature seems to mirror the landscape itself. Tim Buckley was such a character, raised on the borders County Cork and the ‘Kingdom’ of Kerry.

Today, Tim is remembered as the founder of the Arbutus, the unique and historic Killarney hotel. Even a glimpse of the path he traveled before establishing the Arbutus, will help to explain why it remains a distinct and remarkable place.

Tim’s parents both survived the horrors of the potato famine to raise a family of two girls and five boys, including Tim who was born in 1885, at Toorbona in County Cork, close to the Kerry border.

As a child he was bright, observant and active. Attending the local fairs with his father, he saw the wealthy farmers and the poorer farmers, he noticed the business people with their property, confidence and social standing. This made a formidable impression on him and it was from the fairfield in Killarney that he first noticed what was then Russell’s Hotel. He vowed that one day it would be his, hankering for it from the fair or eyeing it across the road from Casey’s Corner.

The hotel became his mission and his vision. At the age of 24, with little hope of raising the necessary money at home, he set off for New York where many had gone before him. What made him different was he didn’t bring dreams with him, he brought a vision.

He remained in New York for more than fifteen years. Like many Irish people, he had relatives who had gone before him. In New York, he went to stay with his aunt, who consoled his mother by writing: “he is going to a foreign country but going to his own family, always remember that.”

Driven by his vision , he worked hard at a number of jobs including on the railways, in a bakery, as a hackney driver and in a hotel. America could be a lonely place for homesick immigrants and Tim was no exception. He never forgot the feeling of being away from home, a feeling he found perfectly expressed in the poem “The Dawn on the Hills of Ireland”, which became his party piece:

“For thirty years ‘asthore macree’,
Those hills I now feast my eyes on
Ne’er met my vision, save at night,
In memory’s dim horizon,

Even so, ’twas grand and fair they seemed
In the landscape spread before me,
But dreams are dreams, and I would awake
To find American skies still o’er me.”

He had all eight verses off by heart and would recite them at gatherings for the rest of his life.

As well as building up capital, he spent those years developing his vision of what he would do when he bought the Russell Hotel.

The time came in 1924 when, unlike today, very few Irish emigrants returned and many never saw their families again. True to his rare strength of character, Tim did return to Kerry. Not only that, but he had arranged a match for himself, corresponding with a Kerry matchmaker from New York.

Julia Daly was born on April 10th 1898, the second of two daughters. Her older sister was to inherit the farm, leaving a good marriage her best option for a secure future. Julia was made of strong stuff and was ready for the challenge of marrying the aspiring hotelier. In the year before his return, she had attended Ramsgrange Cookery School in Wexford, getting the necessary skills for hotel catering.

Tim and Julia were married on the 31st of January 1925, in her home townland of Ballydaly, Millstreet Co. Cork. His savings, combined with her dowry, enabled them to buy Russell’s Hotel, which had been running since 1880. Their new endeavour would utilise their combined wealth of talents, to realise his vision for a new generation of hotel.

A new vision required a new name. Tim and Julia settled on the name Arbutus, after the tree. The Arbutus, or Strawberry Tree, is the only tree native to Ireland but not to Britain, and grows only in Cork, Sligo and, most famously, Kerry. ‘Arbutus’, therefore, represents what is special and unique about the region. But Tim was as pragmatic as he was romantic. He also settled on the name ‘Arbutus’ because, beginning with ‘A’, it would appear earlier in tourist brochures and pamphlets, not to mention listings for the telephone, which was just making its presence felt.

Though Kerry had been an important tourist destination for wealthy travellers since the 1750s, Tim created the Arbutus as a destination in itself, a place of distinction to which travellers would return and recommend to others.

In a practice that would later become a norm among quality hotels around the world, he arranged for guests to be picked up at Cobh. Two uniformed Arbutus drivers, drove guests back in Tim’s pristine Buick and Dodge limousines, imported specially form the USA. On their arrival at the Arbutus guests would be met by a welcome which combined local charm and international standards of hospitality.

Tim Buckley saw the Arbutus as much more than a building. He saw the hotel holistically, as a place where the hospitality experience merged seamlessly with location, structure and detail. He commissioned the interior design himself, overseeing everything down to the smallest detail. Much of the work was undertaken by Dan Connor, trained by a master carpenter from the famous German village of Oberammergau, who had been brought back to Ireland by Lord Kenmare. To this day, Tim’s collection of specially commissioned ‘Celtic Deco’ furniture, fittings and tableware can be seen throughout the Arbutus – probably the only collection of its kind.

Known affectionately as ‘The Boss’, Tim Buckley was admired and respected in Killarney, both as a businessman and a family man.

A vision for Killarney Hotels Hospitality

In establishing The Arbutus he set a benchmark for hospitality in Killarney. As well as managing the hotel, he was a leading figure in the growth of Kerry tourism. In his lifetime he saw tourism in the area grow from a random array of hotels, to a world class, highly organised business valued in the hundreds of millions. Indeed, some have called Tim Buckley “The Father of modern day Irish tourism”. He was, for example, the first Irish hotelier to promote package holidays in Britain

Contrary to today’s perceptions of arranged matches, Tim and Julia had a strong, loving marriage made of complementary skills and interests. He was the face of the hotel, the negotiator and strategist. As to the actual day- to-day management of meals, housekeeping and staff, she was the boss. Despite his forbidding presence, she could always get her way in the end. As a Cork man, he had a superstition that the colour green was bad luck and wouldn’t allow it in the house. If Julia fancied something green she’d tell him, with a twinkle in her eye, that it wasn’t green, it was ‘duck egg blue’ and it would be allowed, reluctantly into the hotel.

A year after their wedding, the Arbutus bore fruit when Julia gave birth to Dan, who was followed by Kathleen and Pat. Though he was forty years old when he started his family, Tim was only beginning to put his plan in place. In 1951, he helped settle Dan in a hotel of his own, in Macroom, Co. Cork. They renamed it the Castle hotel and it remains in the family to this day.

When Kathleen’s turn came, he bought the Kenmare Arms Hotel, adjacent to the Arbutus. The Kenmare Arms, which was the only three storey building on the street, had been run as a hotel since 1827. O’Donovan Rossa is known to have spoken to a crowd there, from the same famous window through which Tim would later observe the world and conduct his business. When Kathleen died aged only 41, the two hotels were merged under the Arbutus name.

Tim’s youngest son Pat, and his wife Norrie, took over the running of the hotel in 1960. At least they did, in theory! Tim continued to live and work in the hotel, overseeing every deal and chore. Indeed, Tim worked at the reception desk until four months before he died, aged 93, in December 1978.

The Arbutus is a unique hotel built on the vision of a unique character, a vision kept very much alive today by Norrie, her son Seán and his wife Carol.

But Tim Buckley’s legacy is more than the Arbutus, he was one of the great forces behind the development of Kerry as a quality, modern tourist destination. His high standards of hospitality and his deep passion for Killarney live on in the town.

In Buckley’s bar, as the fiddle bows fly to the bodhrán’s beat, it would surprise no one to hear him break into his favourite song, ‘Dawn on the Hills of Ireland’.

“Now fuller and turner the coastline shows
Was there ever a scene more splendid!
I feel the breath of the Munster breeze,
O! Thank God my exile is ended,

Old scenes, old songs, old friends again
There’s the vale, there’s the cot I was born in
O! Ireland from my heart of hearts
I bid you the ‘Top o’ the morning’

A historic Killarney Hotel.