I grew up in Belfast. My dad was an optometrist and my mum was a solicitor. We lived just outside the city centre in a wee place called Dunmurry.
I wasn’t very well when I was 16, I had mental health issues. I’m not ashamed of it.
I actually go out and do talks in schools now to teenage girls, about how growing up isn’t always easy and it doesn’t always have to be a physically tangible thing to affect them.
I went through a very bad, very serious period of depression. I was actually in hospital for 10 weeks with it. What that did teach me was: I got better again – when you get better once, you know you can get better again.
I come from a family of lawyers, doctors and business people, but I was more practical as opposed to academic. So I went to catering college at 16 after my bout in hospital and did the equivalent of my A-Levels there. Then I went on to do a degree in hotel management. I took a different route to a career.
I met my now-business partner, Colum, on the first week of catering college and we’ve remained very good friends since. We co-own the Marine Hotel Ballycastle and run Rule of Crumb, a gluten-free food business, together. We were on Dragons’ Den before with Rule of Crumb.
The first year of catering college, Colum, I and some others went over to Edinburgh. We lived in a caravan outside the city centre. I worked as a chamber maid and Colum worked as a porter. That was our start in hotels.
After uni I managed a restaurant for a few months and then left to become a rep for Brita water filters. At a show in England in 2003 I saw Toastabags, where you put the sandwich in the bag and then in the toaster.
I packed in my job and decided to sell these for a living. In the early years of Toastabags I had them in lots of the supermarkets north and south.
I went to shows to sell them as well, which is what I focus on now. When they’re on I would go to the Dublin Horse Show, the Ploughing Championships, the Puck Fair, the Bannow & Rathangan Show and loads more. Where I can, I sleep in the back of the van. So it’s as far away from owning a hotel as you could get.
It’s an amazing building in one of the best locations anywhere on the Causeway Coast
In 2013 I was still selling Toastabags. Colum and I were still good friends. The hotel in Ballycastle was derelict for about three years at this stage. It’s near where I live with my husband Brian and four kids in Armoy, Co Antrim.
We used to say: “God, I wish someone would do something with that place.” It’s an amazing building in one of the best locations anywhere on the Causeway Coast, where millions of tourist would come every year. We looked into further and bought it on 13 March 2013. We reopened on 14 June.
Recently we remodelled the ground floor to be more COVID friendly. We’re open for takeaway now and we’ll be looking forward to welcoming guests back in whenever we can.
My business philosophy is pretty basic: you buy things for one price, you sell them on for a higher price and you make a profit. You also look after people along the way. I’m not a highflyer, I’m not a property tycoon, I’m not an academic.
You show the people who work for you there’s nothing you wouldn’t do. I’ve been there with an AI glove on and my hand down a drain many a time.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of in trying something new. If it doesn’t work out, you get up, you brush yourself off and you move on.
City to country
In Armoy, Brian milks 210 cows and holds a few lambs for fattening and a few beef cattle. The farm is spread over 170 acres and it’s right next to the Dark Hedges, famed from Game of Thrones set.
I met Brian in 1997 in The Box in Belfast. It was quite funny, I must have been going through a phase of, ‘boys don’t phone’. You always give them your number and they never phone. Anyway, he asked me for my number and I wouldn’t give it to him. I told him my dad was an optometrist in Belfast and he could go look it up in the Yellow Pages.
There’s a girl from Belfast trying to find Brian
So he did. He looked up “optometrist Belfast”, phoned one evening, but didn’t leave his number. So then I tried to look him up in the Yellow Pages.
I rang and I got his aunt’s house. This was whenever you were sitting with the wired phone in your lap, waiting for somebody to call. The aunt gave me his phone number and by the time I phoned him, his line was red hot with the aunt phoning his mum to say: “There’s a girl from Belfast trying to find Brian.”
The transition to the country was hard. The reason we went out with each other for so long was because I didn’t think I could ever come second to 200 cows. That just wasn’t me. I was used to going and seeing my friends, getting a taxi or the bus into the city centre.
But now, I couldn’t be happier. I used to think, I’m never going to see you, you’re never going to get a weekend off and being married to a dairy farmer is really hard.
He said: “But you’ll see Claire, I’ll actually be around more.” I never did understand then, but I married him anyway. And he was right and I was wrong. He is around more. He is a wonderful father and he sees a lot more of his children then many other fathers I know.