Wednesday 28 September 2016

An AGA saga - peek inside businesswoman Caeva O'Callaghan's home

Caeva O'Callaghan's house is perched on a height, and has extensive gardens as well as spectacular views of the mountains and sea - yet she was reluctant to move in. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Published 18/01/2016 | 02:30

Co Louth businesswoman Caeva O'Callaghan in her country-style kitchen with its Art Deco chandelier. Her Siamese cat Tingaling loves the AGA almost as much as Caeva herself; she had loved her grandmother's range and was determined to have one herself. Photo
Co Louth businesswoman Caeva O'Callaghan in her country-style kitchen with its Art Deco chandelier. Her Siamese cat Tingaling loves the AGA almost as much as Caeva herself; she had loved her grandmother's range and was determined to have one herself. Photo
The French-style furniture in the master bedroom is from Arnotts in Dublin
The floor in the elegant drawing room is fitted with reclaimed oak and the wallpaper is from Laura Ashley. Caeva loves green and uses the colour throughout the house
The black and white tiles add drama to the spacious hall
The dining room is only used for big family events, fitting given that the furniture belonged to Caeva's mother-in-law; her husband, Connor, is the youngest of eight. Photo: Tony Gavin

In the pages of My Favourite Room over the years, people have waxed lyrical about many elements of a house, but the one that's been most consistently praised is the Aga.

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It is only a stove, but people seem to feel it has human, even super-human qualities. "Like a member of the family," one homeowner enthused; another said, rather brutally, that if it came to it, she'd choose her Aga over her husband.

Louth woman Caeva O'Callaghan doesn't go quite that far, but she is another big Aga fan - and she used it as a bargaining tool when moving house. "I was fixated on having an Aga; no other cooker would do me," Caeva recalls, adding that she had first seen her grandmother cooking on one.

Caeva and her husband, Connor Connolly, used to live right in the middle of the seaside village of Blackrock in Co Louth, but Connor wanted to move into the house he had grown up in, just outside the village. Caeva reluctantly agreed - and one of the conditions was a new Aga. It's usual to be excited when moving up the property ladder to a larger, grander home but Caeva says she just wasn't feeling it; she liked her old house, she liked living in the village, she was pregnant with her second child and about to pop, and even though she had made changes to Connor's family home, it didn't feel like it was ever going to be her home.

Then, suddenly, she fell in love. "Three days before the baby was due, I came into the house; it was a lovely summer's evening, the Aga had been switched on, an old chandelier I had bought was hung, and suddenly I thought, 'This is so lovely'."

Happily, she settled in and went on to have her third child; all three are boys - Jack (15), Timmy (13) and Theo (10). The house exudes a happy family atmosphere, an atmosphere enhanced by the many pets - Bono the dog, and cats Basil, Tingaling and Annabel.

It's hard to believe that as well as managing the house, the three boys, and their intense sports diaries - the two eldest are heavily into rugby, while Theo loves horse riding - Caeva is also a high-powered businesswoman. The glamorous blonde runs a successful insurance company in Dundalk, O'Callaghan Insurances, which was started by her grandfather in 1949 and continued by her father during the 1970s. "I'm the eldest of three girls and I was always interested in the business; I always wanted to take over," she notes.

But first she wanted to see the world, and to start her odyssey, she opted to go to university in Boston. "I went over for a summer, liked it and decided to go back to study," she explains.

University fees in the States are notoriously expensive, but Caeva dodged them by working beforehand for 12 months; by doing so, she became resident, and was then entitled to tuition at a reduced fee at the University of Massachusetts.

When she went over initially, she washed dishes and waitressed, but during her college years, she worked part-time in an office, and so was able to put herself through college. Caeva graduated summa cum laude and got a scholarship to do an MBA, so she enrolled immediately at Clemson University in South Carolina. The MBA involved a stint in Italy, giving her the chance to experience the Italian way of life as well.

After graduation, she was almost ready to come back to Blackrock and settle down, but first she wanted an adventure. "After the MBA, my head was fried. I had this dream that I wanted to do a bit of sailing; I had sailed as a child in Carlingford and then in Massachusetts. So I was walking along the docks in Newport, Rhode Island, and saw a boat on its way to Grenada. The crew of five men were looking for someone to cook. The pay was $50 a day, so I signed up," says Caeva.

Within days, the adventure turned slightly sour.

"We made a stop at Bermuda and the authorities wanted our passports and weapons. Weapons? I didn't know there were weapons on board, but suddenly the crew produced all these firearms. We stayed two nights in Bermuda and then the passports and weapons were returned. Once we left Bermuda, the guys started messing with the guns and I was freaking. A week later, we docked in St Martin and I said, 'I'm out of here'," Caeva recalls with a laugh.

By way of total contrast, her next job was in St Martin, teaching sailing and snorkelling to elderly American holidaymakers - a somewhat safer option. She had got the desire for adventure out of her system, and after a few months was happy to come home and work with her father in the insurance company. That was in 1994, and she became MD in 2011.

There are two main arms to the company - O'Callaghan Insurances deals mainly with farmers, pharmacies, hotels and other businesses, while quoteme.ie is for car, holiday and home insurance.

Our perception of the insurance industry may be that of a dry and stuffy numbers game, but Caeva insists it's challenging and rewarding. "Insurance is a grudge purchase, no one wants to buy it, but they're very glad [they have it] when something goes wrong. I like trying to sort people out; my team are like that as well. I want them to have the right cover, the best deal." Her customers must like the way she works, because the company has expanded hugely since she took over - she has a team of 50, spread over two offices in Dundalk, and a branch in Navan, Co Meath.

Caeva isn't the only entrepreneur in the family; Connor also has his own business, which he, too, took over from his father, though his business - also based in Dundalk - has changed completely in recent years.

"Connor's family business is Blackthorn Shoes. They used to manufacture in the town, but that stopped and now it's import only," Caeva explains.

The couple, who had known about each other all their lives, met at the local rugby club a few years after Caeva returned to Blackrock, and they hit it off.

They moved to their current home - Connor's family home - 13 years ago.

Connor is the youngest of eight, and the house was built for a large family, with extremely large reception rooms and bedrooms. The couple undertook two major jobs when they moved in - the roof and the kitchen extension.

To make way for the kitchen, they knocked down a series of garages and Caeva installed country-cottage-style units, which she had painted cream. She also had reclaimed oak laid on the kitchen floor. "I got the floor in the North, I like to do business locally, but this kind of oak was only available in the North," she says.

The combination of the country-style units and the oak flooring gives the kitchen a nice cosy feel; Bono, Basil, Annabel and Tingaling certainly seem to think so, as all can be found enjoying different parts of the kitchen, especially the Aga.

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