Top of the World

John Burke Armada Hotel
John Burke at the Armada Hotel, Spanish Point.

John Burke wants to climb Mount Everest. The 30-something hotelier was unsure about discussing his secret ambition as it requires months away from his businesses, and there are as many challenges getting to the base of the world’s highest mountain as there are climbing to the top. Now that it’s in the public domain, however, one can expect to see the saffron and blue on the world’s highest peak any time in the next decade, as this Miltown Malbay man likes a challenge and is prepared to work at it.
John has dedicated his life to working at the Armada Hotel, Spanish Point, the hotel his late father built from a mere pub, with the gents outside in a galvanised shed, to one of the most popular hotels in the county.
It is this dedication and commitment that allows him to take on mountain climbing and marathon running, and also run the family business in the small community he grew up in.
Community is central to the hotel’s philosophy, he explains.
“My dad worked really hard and had incredible community spirit, but not in the way it is now where you are involved in community events. It was just small, unseen things,” he says.
As he talks, it is clear that John does not so much walk in his father’s shadow as is guided by the spirit of the man, also called John. It was in the late hotelier’s honour that the family and hotel held its first major fundraiser – the John Burke Memorial Ball – raising funds for organisations that supported him through his illness and organisations close to his heart, including the Tony Griffin Foundation and the Family Resource Centre in Miltown Malbay.
It was then that John Jnr realised that there was so much more the hotel could provide.
“All of a sudden, I realised there was a positive tool here in the hotel, to make an impact. You realise the hotel is obviously there as a business to grow and develop and to meet payroll and pay suppliers and all that stuff. But it can also have a really positive impact at little or no cost to the hotel, by using the resources of myself and the team, and the facilities of the hotel. At the end of the day, the community built up that hotel so why not let it become a real part of the community? It should be part of the community, even though 95 per cent of the customers are now coming from outside the community,” he says.
It’s not surprising then that the hotel is central to so many fundraisers in the west and north of the county. As well as providing accommodation to local fundraisers, it also gets involved in fundraising projects including the Fight For Autism project in the local secondary school and the Salty Faces 10K. There are lists of fashion shows, sports sponsorships, children’s charities and local causes the hotel also becomes directly involved with, but listing them here would take half a page.
And while John believes it is important to keep supporting these causes, he is also keen to look at other needs in the community. He is currently working on an idea to support people of his own generation and younger who may be isolated in West Clare. These are young people who cannot follow their friends to Canada and Australia due to commitments at home and, as a result, they can often feel isolated.
John has been working in the business since he was eight. Back then, his favourite job was “sorting the glass bottles” and, by aged 11, he was gathering glasses at functions.
“It was what family life was. Your family was interacting while you were working, everyone was working hard together and the customers were your friends. It wasn’t considered work. You woke up in the place, you came downstairs, the floor was dirty so you cleaned it,” he recalls.
Although he dreamed for a while of being a soldier, a career in hospitality was always on the cards for John. When he finished in St Flannan’s College, he went straight to the Shannon College of Hotel Management. During the four-year course, he spent his first year away in Brussels. At the end of the course, he spent a year in London learning more about the trade.
“By the time I had finished in London, I was 21. To be honest, I think I needed a few more years out there to learn the trade, but the hotel [Armada] was after undergoing an extension and it was time to get back. You knew home needed ya, not to save the day or anything, but everyone was needed on the floor,” he laughs.
Once back home, John threw himself into his work, living in the boxroom in the attic of the hotel and working around the clock. Since then, he has become involved in building and running Hotel Doolin with two other businessmen and, in the process, followed through on one of his father’s dreams.
“Dad always wanted a venture in Doolin. It was one of his favourite places, and one of his last trips was to see that site,” explains John.
Having focused on work throughout his early life, John has recently discovered sport.
“Up until I was about 28 or 30, I had no interest whatsoever in sport. It was all just about work and things like that – but that was great too when you enjoyed it. But you always hear ‘active body, active mind’ and there definitely is a lot of truth behind it,” he said.
His friend Cormac O’Sullivan had been encouraging him to get involved with the Clare Crusaders. Before John could talk himself out of it, his name was on a Clare Crusader list to do the Dublin City Marathon, just eight weeks before the race was to start.
“It was a very bad marathon but it got me buying a pair of runners,” he laughs. “I had set goals and then I didn’t achieve them so I came out of it saying I have to give it another go, I can do better and there is more in me than that. I felt a bit disappointed after it. So I started doing 10ks and enjoying them. That led me to Salty Faces, organised through the hotel.
“Then the 10ks went on to mountain climbing which I really enjoy now. It is so varyied and if you spend a week at it, you can get to the top of something really special and celebrate. It’s an endurance sport as opposed to an athletics sport. It’s about the long, hard slog and it suits people as they get older as it’s all about willpower and head strength and all of that. And it is a great escape because when you are away, you are away for a while.”
He admits that he loves climbing Irish mountains on routes that have not been climbed before. These are all a build-up to a goal, a trip to a higher, larger mountain to conquer. He has already been abroad, climbing some of Europe’s highest mountains, but the big one is still calling.
And John Burke likes a challenge and a goal, so even though he doesn’t want to say it out loud too often, he is now aiming for the top of the world.


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