Owen Curry is modest about the acclaim he’s received since taking over the former Barry’s site in Portrush, writes Margaret Canning
Appropriately, he met his wife when they were teenagers on a Big Wheel at a funfair in Buncrana, Co Donegal.
And 30 years on, Owen and Jacqueline Curry, who live in Eglinton, are working together more closely than ever after the takeover of the former Barry’s in Portush by the family business.
Curry’s Amusements has stayed a family company since it was founded in the 1940s by John and Caroline Curry, now 96.
But even more of the family circle has been drawn in since its much-publicised takeover of the former Barry’s Amusements in Portrush, says company director Owen.
“My sister had worked in Altnagelvin Hospital as an administrator but she’s now joined up since we took over Portrush. She’s on board now, and her husband as well.”
The first season of Curry’s Fun Park in the north coast seaside town is now in full swing, and it marks a big evolution for the company. It moved into fixed-location funfairs in 2014, taking over the amusements in Salthill, Co Galway.
“My grandfather John and my grandmother Caroline used to travel all over Ireland with the amusements.
“It’s progressed to what we are today, pretty much from that.
“My father and uncle and some of my aunts are also involved, and their families. I have two brothers and a sister, who are also all involved in the business.”
The Curry family is leasing the site from its present owner, the former KFC tycoon and property magnate Michael Herbert.
There had been disappointment when former owner, the Trufelli family, announced in 2019 they were putting the site on the market.
It had enchanted generations of Northern Ireland kids, but until the Curry-Herbert partnership was announced this year it felt like the spell had been broken.
Now Owen Curry is the hero of the hour in Portrush, though he’s modest about the acclaim.
But with his own children showing a deep interest in the business, it looks like the Curry’s business will easily make it into a fourth generation.
“I don’t really know what the recipe for success is. We’ve been born into this business and it’s always been our way of life, I suppose.
“We quite enjoy meeting people and entertaining people. That mixed along with the other aspects of it — the engineering, the movement of big pieces of equipment and so on — all of that has always interested me.”
Owen and Jacqueline have four daughters and one son, aged 8, 10, 13, 17, and 23. “Even my own kids are interested in it today, so that’s the fourth generation.
“It is a huge team effort. Jacqueline, who wasn’t born into the business, plays a huge role in it, too, alongside looking after our kids.
“She does a lot of the accounts and ordering and things like that. She’s really hands-on, more so now that we’re in Portrush.
“Our eldest daughter and the second daughter are very hands-on, too. So when they’re not in school or studying, they’re heavily involved.”
John and Caroline Curry built up the business as a travelling fair around Dublin and Louth, and mobile equipment is still a big part of it.
“We rent out equipment such as the Big Wheel to events, and we run things like fireworks displays and Christmas lights switch-ons.
“So Salthill and Portrush Fun Parks will be on from March through to October, but off-season there’s still a lot of events to attend.”
His eldest child has become involved with the events side of the business by helping transport equipment. “She has a HGV licence. So she works in a primary school in Eglinton, looking after children with additional needs.
“But in the evenings, weekends and holidays, she works in the amusement parks. She got her HGV licence as we have a lot of trucks and moving equipment.
“She showed an interest in that and did her HGV test and got it first time, so she’s able to move equipment around the country as well.”
He acknowledges it’s not the easiest business to be in. “At times, it is a difficult way of life but I don’t notice it as much as others.
“It’s your hobby, it’s your pastime — it’s everything from morning to night. I was in Galway yesterday. We closed the park in Galway last night and I left from there at 5.30am to come to Portrush and I’ll be here for the next couple of days. It’s just a way of life and I don’t know anything else, really,”
Taking over Barry’s this year was a different experience to taking over the Salthill funfair in 2014.
“Salthill never closed and we just took it over from someone else. Barry’s obviously closed in 2019, and then no-one really knew what was going to happen to it.
“The fact that something you took for granted for so long was potentially going to end, and not return, there was a lot of focus on it.
“People at one stage thought that would be the end of it and there’d be no more amusement park at this location in Portrush.”
He says he’d long day-dreamed of owning Barry’s but never imagined it would be put on the market.
“We didn’t know Michael Herbert but we had an interest in Barry’s when it went up for sale. Covid had then knocked it for six but it took somebody like Michael Herbert to be able to come in and actually purchase it outright. Then he put it up for long-term lease.
“He had other options but luckily enough he went for us, a local family, and chose us to take on this lease long-term and we’re really happy to do that.”
The lease is for 10 years and the rent is a six-figure sum, though he won’t give any more detail.
But he says the idea of a break clause in case either party wished to walk away after five yeas was never on the table.
And it will be financially worthwhile. “I wouldn’t say we’ll make that back easily but we do expect to cut the cloth to suit in order to pay the rent that we’ve agreed and still invest heavily in the amusement park.
“We’ve invested quite heavily already. We had only a short window in terms of getting in so we have a lot more work to do on the premises, to make way for new rides and different rides.
“But we’ve made a huge investment in this because we are so local, we know that this will work. We’re really confident and we’re getting huge support from everyone in NI.”
He says the amount which will be invested in the amusement park will be “the upper side of £5m”, with the company taking out finance agreements for three years which will then be reviewed.
Owen says investment will include modernising some parts of the building, adapting rides so that they can go inside, and adding some new equipment.
“But we’ll keep the same idea and concept for the atmosphere and its mix of family entertainment. Hopefully people will see that and appreciate what we’re doing.”
Equipment will also be rotated between the two fun parks — and already, he’s seeing some people move between both of them.
“We have customers every day in Salthill from around the north Antrim coast who tell us that they’ve been in Portrush in the days leading up to that.”
But he says he doesn’t see the former owner’s decision to give up the park as a failure.
“I don’t think it’s a matter that they couldn’t but that they chose not to continue on with their business. Some families after so many generations get tired of it, they don’t continue it on. I don’t see the level of business affecting their decision.
“Over the years Barry’s was always very successful. For them, they may have felt they’d had it for long enough. And it’s not just a straightforward job, it’s tough and it’s very tiring.
“You do need numbers and you do need the support and that’s why in a big family like ours, you do have the support.”
Around 12 family members are now working in the business, and in total, Curry’s Fun Park in Portrush now has around 150 directly-employed or indirectly-employed staff.
But he insists the family has never developed a Messiah complex about coming to the rescue of Barry’s. “It didn’t cross my mind even though when we first mentioned it, people said, ‘do you what you’re doing and what it means to people?
“Of course we realise how important it is for people to come here and for families to come and have somewhere to go. Regardless of the weather they can come in here.
“Now that we’re up and running and we see all the appreciation and customers, they’re so thankful and supportive, It’s only really now you see how important it is for the area. It was never on my mind that we’d be saving something. That’s not the way we think.
“But it is nice for people to show their appreciation, if I’m out on the floor or around the park almost every day several people would come up and thank you. It is really nice to hear but we have a job to do and we enjoy doing it and we can’t see past that.”