Saturday 24 June 2017

For the birds - peek inside this stunning restored cottage

When American couple Jane and Brian Wright bought a derelict cottage in Leitrim, locals thought they'd never turn up to renovate it. They did, and it's now a gem.

Brian and Jane in the kitchen area. The table was left in the house by the previous owner. The chest of drawers and the hatbox were bought at Stuart Auctions in Enniskillen. 'Stuart Auctions is a whole other world;we're addicted to it,' Jane notes with a laugh
Brian and Jane in the kitchen area. The table was left in the house by the previous owner. The chest of drawers and the hatbox were bought at Stuart Auctions in Enniskillen. 'Stuart Auctions is a whole other world;we're addicted to it,' Jane notes with a laugh
Jane and Brian Wright outside their home - the stone schoolhouse where an Irish hero began his education. The fish was made by David Ferro, famous in the States for his weathervanes
Jane likes to do her fabulous botanical drawings in the conservatory as it's full of light and she is inspired by the wildlife around her - badgers and pine martens, among other species. The rug is from eBay
Builder Pat Slevin made the stairs to the mezzanine. The church window, which was bought at McKenzie Salvage in Enniskillen, looks into the master bedroom
Jane bought the stunning sink on eBay for just $20
It was Jane and Brian's idea to add another layer of living with the mezzanine, and they’re thrilled with the result. The floorboards are from a lumber yard in Sligo, the alcohol containers are from Stuart Auctions and Jane made the bed for Maddie. 'I sawed up some wood and got some screws. I'm very good with a power tool; it’s a thing,' she says with a laugh
This side of the chimney with its open fire looks into the living area. The other side houses a stove, which warms the kitchen
The mezzanine houses the dining table, which is mainly used as a work table
Jane in the living area. They brought the leather seating from the States and bought the rug on eBay for $100. Jane plays the harp, but insists she has never become any good at it

We've all got pretty used to some aspects of buying online - from airline and train tickets to hotel rooms.

However, many of us still balk at the purchases that are likely to hold an element of uncertainty, such as clothes, so if you're considering your first venture into the unknown and are tentative about pressing 'buy' on a new dress, be emboldened by American couple Brian and Jane Wright, who went on the internet and bought a house in Ireland, from their home in Westchester in the US of A. This is a house they had never seen in the flesh, even from the outside.

As can be seen from these photos, it's a magnificent building, and not only is it an architectural delight, worthy of inclusion in RTE's current series of Home of the Year, it is of huge historical significance, as one of the heroes of 1916 attended school within its stone walls.

However, it wasn't quite like this when they bought it. In fact, it was a bit of a wreck. The couple hardly knew Ireland - they'd only ever been here for short holidays prior to their purchase - yet Brian and Jane weren't in the least bit daunted. But then, as can be deduced from their description of the way they had first met, they are adventurous types.

Jane and Brian Wright outside their home - the stone schoolhouse where an Irish hero began his education. The fish was made by David Ferro, famous in the States for his weathervanes
Jane and Brian Wright outside their home - the stone schoolhouse where an Irish hero began his education. The fish was made by David Ferro, famous in the States for his weathervanes

It was 26 years ago, and they were both divorced. "I was working in a lingerie store in the West Village; most of our clientele were transvestites - I quickly learned that human sexuality is a moveable feast," Jane says with a laugh, adding, "I was bored one July 4, and I placed a personal ad in the Village Voice. I never did anything so crazy in my life." Brian, who worked in advertising, takes up the story. "Jane is a very exotic woman, always dressed in black and lots of silver jewellery. If there were goths at the time, she was a goth. I saw her in the street and thought, 'She's very interesting; she'd be perfect for me', then forgot about it. Then I saw this ad and answered it, and the woman I'd seen on the street was the woman in the ad."

"It was nuts," says Jane. "The initial conversation was on the phone. You feel your mother is in your ear, saying, 'He could be an axe murderer', so I didn't say where I lived. It was chit-chat and tremendously awkward. Brian asked what I did; I said that I illustrated children's books, but I had a part-time job in a lingerie store, and he said, 'Oh my god - you're very tall and wear black and work at Saturday Night Lingerie'."

The both lived in the West Village at the time. Needless to say they met up, and hit it off. They were married within months, and within three years they had three children, Quinn (26) who works in TV in New York; Morgan (25) a frame designer in Brooklyn; and Maddie (23) who is doing a master's in criminology in Trinity College in Dublin. Brooke, Brian's daughter from his first marriage, is an assistant attorney general in Washington.

As the kids grew, the couple felt the West Village wasn't ideal for raising children, so they moved to Westchester, and built a house on land given to them by Brian's father. Brian continued to work in the city, and Jane worked freelance as a children's-book illustrator for 35 years, before the industry died due to digitalization, and she became manager of a framing factory.

In recent years, they began to feel that they were just running to keep standing still. Brian's industry had changed, too; he was doing more web design and he wasn't enjoying it any more; he notes advertising is a young person's career. "I had got old. I worked in advertising for nearly 40 years and had already overstayed my welcome by about 25 years," the charming 60-something with a look of Roger Sterling in Mad Men says with a smile. Jane adds, "For Brian, it went from the days of the Mad Men and a three-Martinis lunch and expense accounts, to seven days a week, working with 20-somethings. I have a very clear memory of a particular product launch he did. It ran 14 days in a row - I was picking him up at the train station at 3am, and I'd go, 'We're going to die'."

The couple had been on a few short trips to Ireland and their thoughts turned to the idea of buying a property here. They hadn't actually explored the country very much, but both had Irish ancestry. Jane had quite an illustrious Irish forebear, Robert Finney, who was wounded at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and left for dead. "The legend is he woke from the battlefield with a vision of the land he would buy, and the farm he would build in the New World. He was from Derry; he and his wife landed in Newcastle in Delaware; their grandson went on to become a signatory to the Declaration of Independence in 1776," Jane says, adding she still hasn't been to Derry.

Builder Pat Slevin made the stairs to the mezzanine. The church window, which was bought at McKenzie Salvage in Enniskillen, looks into the master bedroom
Builder Pat Slevin made the stairs to the mezzanine. The church window, which was bought at McKenzie Salvage in Enniskillen, looks into the master bedroom

Brian's grandfather was in the Royal Irish Constabulary and his father was born in Strabane in 1921. When partition came in 1922, his grandfather took his family to New York, to join his brother Danny, who was in the police force. Brian's father became an accountant - he had fought in the war and got his degree through the GI Bill (The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944) - and he brought up his family of three boys in Dobbs Ferry in Westchester.

Neither of their families ever came back to Ireland, even on holiday, but both Brian and Jane had been once separately; then, a few years ago, they came over on a bed-and-breakfast break and did the Ring of Kerry. "For our third trip, we said, 'Let's rent a house in Donegal', and we got a little house outside Killybegs, where the Brodericks live - Matthew and Sarah Jessica. We kept passing them on the street. We thought, 'This is pretty nice. Do we really need Westchester?' Because my father was born in Ireland, I had an Irish passport, which gave us an advantage and a destination," says Brian, adding, "and we started looking online at cottages like the one we stayed at."

The first house they looked at online was in Co Clare, but they were told it wasn't sound, so they rejected that. The second was the schoolhouse in Co Leitrim, which didn't look great either, but it had one advantage in the couple's eyes - it was owned by an architect. "It was covered in white render and it was looking scabby and mildewy and the roof was leaking, but we figured, 'It's gonna be sound, because an architect wouldn't buy it if it wasn't sound'," Brian notes.

They did realise it was all small rooms and low ceilings, but that didn't put them off and they made an offer, which was accepted. "We thought, 'We stay here and it's killing us, or we take this incredibly ridiculous jump and reinvent'. We got on to the realtor and said, 'We'd like to make an offer' and we gave a figure and we said, 'What do you think?' The realtor laughed and said, 'I think the owner would be overjoyed to get that'," Jane recalls.

They got an engineer to check the house and he declared it sound enough. Through him, they got a builder, Pat Slevin, and between their vision and Pat's considerable skills, they've created a stunning home.

"We got on to Pat and we said, 'Gut it, and put on a new roof with antique slates'," says Brian, adding, "as they were working on the house, Pat came back to us and said, 'Underneath all this render, there's some lovely stonework', and that was our first clue that it was going to be great."

It was Jane and Brian's idea to add another layer of living with the mezzanine, and they’re thrilled with the result. The floorboards are from a lumber yard in Sligo, the alcohol containers are from Stuart Auctions and Jane made the bed for Maddie. 'I sawed up some wood and got some screws. I'm very good with a power tool; it’s a thing,' she says with a laugh
It was Jane and Brian's idea to add another layer of living with the mezzanine, and they’re thrilled with the result. The floorboards are from a lumber yard in Sligo, the alcohol containers are from Stuart Auctions and Jane made the bed for Maddie. 'I sawed up some wood and got some screws. I'm very good with a power tool; it’s a thing,' she says with a laugh

The builder had started taking off the render and repointing all the stonework when the couple finally arrived to see their new property in the summer of 2015. "I don't think anyone believed we were going to show up. There were wires hanging down from the ceiling; there was no floor; there were pipes sticking out; there was a cement mixer right in the middle of the house; it was a construction site," Jane says, adding, "and we moved in." Brian adds, "We lived here with the birds; there was a swallows' nest in the rafters and we looked up at them every morning."

They stayed there for a month until Pat threw them out, saying that it would get too dirty. Meanwhile, he got on with the work, renovating the house to their design. "It was a wonderful collaborative experience. We knew what we wanted. We knew we wanted the ceiling taken out; we knew we wanted another level of living. Pat was able to deliver that by reinforcing the roof with steel. We knew we wanted a bedroom, and Jane had this idea for the sliding barn door, which enabled us to cut off the bedroom from the rest of the house, and by the luck of the draw we found the church window, which we put into the door," Brian says.

The end result is a traditional schoolhouse from the outside, while inside, it's a double-height stone box, divided into a kitchen on one end and a bedroom on the other, and in between is a cosy living room. The living room and kitchen are separated by a stone chimney, which was discovered underneath the plaster; there's a stove on one side, and an open fire on the other. The kitchen leads to a conservatory with lovely views of the countryside. Jane has her studio here and in it, she creates the most wonderful botanical watercolours filled with little country creatures dressed in Georgian costumes, which, no doubt, will soon form the basis of a delightful children's book.

According to Brian, it's not unusual to see donkeys, horses and sheep from the windows, while badgers and pine martens are regular visitors, too.

Pat put in the other level of living by encircling a mezzanine above and around the living area, and building a staircase to access it. Up on that level is Brian's office and a guest bedroom, where their daughter Maddie sleeps when she comes to stay. "We bought two trees, and, from the timber, Pat made the staircase, the kitchen units and the wardrobes in the bedroom," Jane explains.

These rough-hewn pieces work beautifully with the exposed stone walls and their furnishings - antiques from America, colourful rugs and wonderful paintings that they had collected over the years.

Jane in the living area. They brought the leather seating from the States and bought the rug on eBay for $100. Jane plays the harp, but insists she has never become any good at it
Jane in the living area. They brought the leather seating from the States and bought the rug on eBay for $100. Jane plays the harp, but insists she has never become any good at it

Needless to mention, Brian and Jane were thrilled that their gamble paid off and revealed such riches as the stone chimney.

Giving them additional pleasure is the discovery that Sean Mac Diarmada, one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation - executed when he was 33 for his part in the 1916 Rising - had actually gone to school in their very schoolhouse. "As we were doing the work, we discovered that this hero of the revolution was taught here. He went on to become one of the architects of the revolution, he helped to create modern Ireland and he went to school here," Brian says, adding "for us, the house became a whole other story."

The couple adore living here; they have everything they could need, including the company of their four dogs - two pit bulls, Jack and Watson, and two bull mastiffs, Barnum and Bailey - and, of course, they have the internet. Though they won't be using it to buy any more houses. They're happy to stay put.

Brian and Jane's house will feature on 'Home of the Year' on Thursday, March 23, at 8.30pm on RTE One

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

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