Friday 23 June 2017

For some of us, home is where the work is

It used to be commonplace - your house came with the job. In today's market, should we be returning to that perk? Caroline Allen asked three householders about the pros and cons of the arrangement.

Matthew Jebb, Director of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, at his home in the Botanic Gardens. Photo: Frank McGrath
Matthew Jebb, Director of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, at his home in the Botanic Gardens. Photo: Frank McGrath
Nóirín Ní Riain at her home beside the grounds of Glenstal Abbey, Murroe Co Limerick
Rev Alec Purser outside his home in Stradbally, Co Laois

Caroline Allen

Most of today's hard-pressed house-hunters can only look on in envy at the notion of a house coming with their job. Commonplace in 19th and 20th century Ireland, the practice has embraced everyone from prison officers to lock keepers; lighthouse keepers to station masters. One covetable example of a scheme of workers' houses is Talbot's Inch, Co Kilkenny.

While some people - such as clergy, the staff of some educational institutions, ambassadors and, of course, the President - continue to avail of the perk, it's less prevalent at a time when it would be seriously sought after. While those struggling to secure a mortgage may only see the positive side of living on-site, there are downsides too. That easy accessibility may blur the boundaries between work and personal life, and children can find it difficult to be uprooted to fall in with a new parental role.

However, for Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, in Dublin, there are only upsides. As far as he's concerned, when it comes to workplaces, few are more idyllic than the National Botanic Gardens. And having a family home within the grounds is a real bonus. It's a benefit fully appreciated by Matthew, his wife Serena and three of their children who still live at home, Theo, Rose and Philip.

They moved into the house, which was built in 1740, on Matthew's appointment as director six years ago. The house, which was extended in the 19th century, is surrounded by a beech hedge, so intrusion isn't a problem for the family.

"People always say you must feel very surrounded by the public but visitors have always respected our privacy. It's no different to living on a street," Matthew said. "Living on-site, you do get to know people and I chat to a lot of visitors on a daily basis who come in for their constitutional walk and a cup of coffee."

Some visitors exchange pleasantries as he goes to and from his small vegetable garden. "There's some 50 acres of fine gardens beyond the hedge, so I don't compete with that," he added.

"One of the great things about horticulture and plant sciences in general is that you live and breathe your work all the time. To me, I don't see a separation between my working and personal lives - I'm just focused on the living world. I'm very fortunate that I don't find work a drudge and have been lucky to have always earned my living in this way."

Matthew's wife Serena and their youngest child Philip, who is still at school, revel in the beauty of the location. "They have a lot of local friends and a lot of their social lives revolve around people coming for a walk around the gardens," Matthew said. "The advantage of having people you know well over is that they feel free to express their opinions on things they would like to see here and offer feedback."

The family enjoys the character of the house. "It's got both an 18th century and a 19th century front, as it was built in two different phases. It has had four front doors and a peculiar architectural progression over the years and we have to accept it as it is as it's a protected structure," Matthew said. "The advantage of that is that it doesn't put pressure on you to change things - it's out of the question, which is not a problem for us."

A strong sense of history is evident in the house. "One of the former directors of the gardens, Frederick Moore, was born here, and his father, David Moore, died in the house. It's got a real sense of family and continuity, and it's a very happy house," Matthew added.

Another benefit is that, after 14 years of commuting, Matthew no longer has that daily grind. "I have an arduous trek of 100 paces to work. I literally walk through the garden," he laughed. Matthew and his family have their own home in Greystones, Co Wicklow, but when the time comes to leave the house in the National Botanic Gardens, they plan to base themselves nearby.

"On retirement, we hope to continue living in the area," he said. "We have a very strong attachment to it. It's a remarkably green part of the city."

Matthew feels "incredibly privileged" to live at his workplace but it's not the first time he has done so. He said: "In my early career I lived on-site at a research station in Papua New Guinea, in a lovely house on the beach on the north coast, surrounded by tropical ocean. To have lived in such spectacular workplace locations twice is truly remarkable."

n Alec Purser, priest-in-charge in the Stradbally union of parishes in Co Laois, and his wife Gillian, left their small farm in Carlow to move into a newly built two-storey rectory in the village of Stradbally two-and-a-half years ago. The couple who have a daughter Emma (21), who is a student at Trinity College Dublin, and a son Sam (14), who is in boarding school, enjoy the comfort and convenience of their newly built home, which has a small garden. "It's a lovely house; so easy to heat, with all modern technology," Alec said.

"We were allowed a lot of leeway with the decoration and Gillian worked with the vestry in picking paint colours and curtains - they allowed us to put our own stamp on it and were very good to us," he added. "Stradbally is a lovely place. We are next to the church and school, and it's a wonderful community. People have been so kind and generous and have been willing to help us in any way they could.

"Because it's a new rectory, we don't feel part of the history of the house the way we would if we had moved into the old rectory. We are at the beginning of the line of history here."

Leaving their home in Carlow was a wrench. Alec admitted: "We still own that house, which is important because if anything was to happen to me, the house would have to be made available to the next person.

"Sam misses the wide-open spaces of the farm but then he likes being near shops. Emma was also very attached to the house in Carlow as it was where we spent most of our time together.

"We built the house in Carlow and it's where our family grew up but it's an anchor that will always be there. When you make memories you stay attached to the place, but we are also making memories in this house. The important thing is that we are together as a family. You could be in any part of the world, the important thing is having friends and family."

n Singer, writer, theologian and teacher Nóirín Ní Riain has lived in the grounds of Glenstal Abbey in Murroe, Co Limerick, for 16 years. "I moved in first to finish my doctorate in theology, and have lived in a total of four houses in Glenstal, three of which I renovated," she said.

Since her marriage to composer Mícheál O Súilleabháin ended, she has moved house eight times. Four of these homes were in the beautiful grounds of Glenstal, where she followed the monks' routine of matins at 6.30am followed by Mass at noon, vespers in the evening, and night prayers, which she found gave a rhythm to her days. She continues to offer chant and retreat workshops there.

Now she has just bought a house on the edge of the abbey, so she is in a good position to compare the advantages and disadvantages of both types of household.

Her new house was built in 2000, and she said that she finally feels rooted. "This is my own place," she added. "In Glenstal, I was a caretaker. I have always been very strong about where I live. From the time I was a young girl, I spent a lot of time creating my own space.

"Unless your home is your refuge, your job is going to be affected. Whenever you step inside your own home, the weight of the world can fall from your shoulders. There's the beautiful Irish tradition of the hearse pausing outside the home of the deceased, which allows the deceased to show gratitude for the shelter provided and to say a final farewell to its resident of many years."

She felt a pull towards Glenstal long before she married and had children. "It was always a second home for me," she recalled." From the age of seven, I felt drawn here - it always provided shelter for me in a way that my own home sometimes didn't.

"I now have a new role in ministry where my singing, theology, my life and my whole past has caught up with me for a new phase and I see Glenstal as continuing to give me shelter.

"When I was living in the house owned by Glenstal, anybody could knock on the door - you always had to be present and correct.

"Now my relationship there is on a different wavelength but the signal is still strong and I'm on to the final chapter of my working life at the age of 65.

"I see it as very important to keep your home alive - I'm constantly moving around lamps and chairs. A rolling home gathers no moss."

Sunday Independent

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