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From Belfast to Barcelona: A story of love and marriage

A passion for hospitality led Conor Cushnahan to work around the world, finding love at the same time, as he tells Isabelle Kliger

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Mario and Conor on their wedding day

Mario and Conor on their wedding day

Mario and Conor on their wedding day

Originally from Belfast, Conor Cushnahan can usually be found sporting a sharp suit at the luxury Spanish resort where he is the General Manager — or in the seaside town of Sitges, where he lives with his Mexican husband.

But it has not always been this way. Humble beginnings in Belfast led Conor to a high-flying career spanning some of the most glamorous hotels in Paris, the Seychelles, Dublin, and Barcelona.

Born in 1977, Conor grew up with his three siblings in the Antrim Road in central Belfast. His mum was originally from the Falls Road, while his dad was raised in Dundrod just outside the city.

“We didn’t have any luxuries, but we weren’t lacking anything. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich either,” he recalls. His father was an antique brass restorer, while his mum worked with him in the market stalls and fairs.

Whereas his parents had experienced a time when people were being burnt out of their homes, Conor mostly remembers the “fun” of playing in the streets with his friends and, beyond the daily military presence, has little recollection of a his childhood being marred by the Troubles.

“My parents are ordinary people who did an amazing job of providing for us and teaching us to grow up without prejudice,” he says.

Before he was born, when his parents still lived in the Falls Road, Conor’s father had sent his mother and elder sister away to safety in the countryside while he stayed behind to defend their home against frequent attacks.

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“As soon as he could, my dad moved us to the Antrim Road where we’d be safe,” he explains, who was not aware any of this had happened until he was well into his thirties.

“My dad wanted us to be old enough to understand and not to allow it affect our future relationships with other people or religions.”

Growing up gay in Northern Ireland in the 1980s was not without its challenges. Conor’s first recollection of understanding he was different was at the age of 10 or 11, leafing through a magazine and realising he was more visually interested in the men.

“Even then, there was no real doubt or confusion in me, I just knew it. But I still assumed I’d end up marrying a woman. I couldn’t see any other option at the time,” he says.

One day, he called a Northern Irish helpline for gay people.

“I said it out loud for the first time: ‘I think I am gay’,” he recalls. “I ended up having three or four conversations with these guys. We just talked; they couldn’t solve anything for me. But it was a big help, knowing I wasn’t alone.”

When he was 18, Conor mustered the courage to go to a gay bar in Belfast. He remembers walking round and round the block several times before eventually going in.

“It turned out two of my friends were in there too, one of whom is still my best friend to this day,” he says.

“I was so lucky to be able to latch onto them. We stuck together and became each other’s support network at a time when being gay was still very risky.”

At around the same time, another realisation was starting to dawn on Conor.

“I had to accept that, if I wanted to live as my authentic self, I probably wasn’t going to be able to stay in Belfast,” he says.

At the time, Disneyland in Paris were holding auditions. He applied and was accepted.

Conor stayed in Paris for four months and towards the end of his first summer there, finally started telling people he was gay. He met his first boyfriend, with whom he was together for seven years.

“When I came out in Paris, people were like, ‘OK’, and that was pretty much it,” he says.

“I didn’t have to explain myself. In Ireland, I still had this overwhelming fear of being found out but, in Paris, I felt just as normal as everyone else.”

Despite describing his parents as supportive, open-minded people without prejudice, he did not come out to them until he was 27.

“I should have known better because one of my sisters had married a Protestant, which was still taboo back then, and he was accepted with open arms. But I had an overwhelming fear of being misunderstood or rejected,” he admits, adding that he wanted to be in stable relationship before coming out to avoid causing any undue worry or judgment.

“I should’ve known they would be great about it — which, of course, they were — but Northern Ireland was still so closed off at the time.”

From the age of 18, Conor spent his summers at Disneyland Paris and, after completing his Higher National Diploma (HND) in travel and tourism management, he moved to Paris permanently aged 24.

“Working at Disneyland Paris was the most incredible experience of my life,” he exclaims. “France and, even more so, Disney allowed me to explore who I truly was and to be gay without anyone blinking an eye.”

Having started out working in the amusement park, performing in the shows and parades and learning French, Conor eventually moved into a front office role at one of the on-site Disneyland hotels.

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Le Meridien Ra, where Conor is general manager

Le Meridien Ra, where Conor is general manager

Le Meridien Ra, where Conor is general manager

Over the years, his passion for hospitality has taken him from Paris to Dublin, to the Seychelles and back to Paris, constantly rising through the ranks until he eventually moved to Barcelona as the Director of Operations at the city’s emblematic W hotel. Earlier this year, he became the General Manager of Le Meridien Ra, an ultra-luxe, beachfront resort on the sun-drenched Costa Dorada, or golden coast, between Barcelona and Tarragona.

“I feel very lucky to have worked in some amazing places and iconic properties around the world,” he says.

“I’m passionate about hospitality and hotels, which I view as so much more than just somewhere to get some rest, in terms the experiences we offer our guests.”

Seven years ago, Conor married his long-term partner Mario Aragón, a marketing professional from Mexico City.

“I married a Mexican in Paris, when it would still have been illegal to do so in my own country,” he explains.

“I was able to make a life in France, marry someone simply because we loved each other, and then move to Spain for work — all because I was European.

“I feel so lucky, and I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude to France and Spain. I’m Irish and Belfast will always be home, but I’m incredibly grateful for everything Europe has given me,” he emphasises.

As for what’s next, Conor admits he probably won’t be moving back home to Belfast any time soon.

“Northern Ireland is full of the some of the funniest, most positive, intelligent people I know, and part of my heart will always be there, no matter what,” he says. “I love going home and seeing my family. But, whereas here in Spain, I can be who I really am without anyone so much as batting an eye, in Ireland I still feel being gay is a topic that needs explaining.”

About Le Meridien Ra

Located right on the golden sands of the Costa Dorada, just 35 minutes south of Barcelona Airport, Le Meridien Ra is an upscale Mediterranean resort that invites its guests an ideal environment to unwind and recharge. The hotel is set in an elegantly restored former sanatorium dating back to 1929 and overlooks the Mediterranean whose nutrient-rich waters in this particular area are said to have medicinal powers. Facilities include 144 stylish rooms, two restaurants, a dreamy beach club, a kids’ club, and a state-of-the-art spa.


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