My favourite room: The Sloan rangers
Shirley O'Donohue and her husband John fell in love with a derelict former mill. To her parents' horror, Shirley and John bought the property and set about renovating it.
The world of interior design and, in particular, paint, is full of terms that people have no need for -- unless they happen to be in the house-decorating zone. Stippling, dragging, marbling and colour-washing are terms that are used a lot, but Shirley O'Donohue has an unusual one -- 'Sloaning'.
As she gives the grand tour of her converted miller's house in north Dublin, she points out various pieces of painted furniture and explains that they have been 'Sloaned' by her husband, John Connolly.
It transpires that this is the couple's shorthand for the way they update old, distressed pieces of furniture. The paints they use are from a range called Annie Sloan. "They're great because you don't have to strip back the furniture. You just paint it directly on," Shirley enthuses.
In fact, she's so committed to the paint range that she sells it, along with soft furnishings, lamps, mirrors, and all the other accoutrements needed to make a home beautiful, in her gorgeous interiors shops, Out of the Blue, in Malahide and Monkstown.
Fabrics, for curtains and upholstery, are also an important part of the business. Fabrics are something Shirley knows inside out, as she had a career in a different type of fabric before she got into interiors 10 years ago. Prior to that, Shirley had her own uniform business, selling uniforms to banks, airlines and restaurants.
The business of designing and selling uniforms is not something you would imagine people would have a yearning to get involved in, and, according to Shirley, she just fell into it.
"I'll tell you what happened," she says. "I had no grand plan. I left school and worked in a travel agency for a while, then I went to Spain for a year teaching English and, when I came back, I got work as a sales rep, selling uniforms. After a while, I said, 'I'll do this myself' and I went out on my own."
Comparing herself with her only sibling, Shirley comments that her sister, Carol -- the first ever female police officer in the airport -- is "the brave one. I was always the fluffy one." But, beneath the fluff, there is obviously a lot of creativity and business acumen.
Shirley ran her uniform business extremely successfully for more than 12 years, supplying uniforms not only to top companies, but also for prestigious events. When that business ran out of steam, Shirley took time out to take stock, which led to the next phase of her life.
"My father died 11 years ago and, after that, I took six months off to assess my situation. I knew I definitely didn't want to work for someone else," she says, adding that she had a few ideas.
"I always loved antiques -- I think I got that from an aunt who was an antique dealer in Spain. Anyway, I decided to open a shop. John said, 'What are you going to sell?' I said, 'I haven't a clue', but I always loved Skerries and I drove around looking for a premises." Shirley was just about to leave when she saw what she says was "the tiniest shop in Ireland" and decided that it was the one for her.
Because she had no plan, initially, she just stocked it with eclectic, one-off pieces. She liked both antique and new, and mixed them all together. "That's why I called it Out of the Blue," Shirley explains. It was an immediate success, and she won countless awards for her shopfront, her stock, and the shop in general.
After three years, Shirley decided it was time to grow, so she closed Skerries and moved to Malahide in 2005, where she continued to win awards for best shopfront and best customer service.
In 2012, she also opened in The Crescent, in Monkstown, and it, too, is going from strength to strength.
Big sellers include Biggie Best fabrics from South Africa, where Shirley and John spend a lot of time as they love the lifestyle there. They also continue to sell one-off pieces and antiques.
"We have clients from America, we've sold chandeliers to Buenos Aires; you don't know who's going to come in," Shirley says. "We get loads of celebrities -- particularly in Monkstown. They might be looking for the curtain service, reupholstery, anything."
They come, too, for the Annie Sloan paints, which are so popular that John did a course with Annie Sloan herself in Oxford, England, and learned all of the paint techniques.
This genial couple met in Ashtons pub in Clonskeagh, Dublin, in the late Nineties. "He proposed on Sandymount Beach after seven weeks," Shirley recalls. "I said, 'Ask me again in six months, if we're still going out together.'" Six months later, John brought her to Ballymaloe and, needless to mention, she said, 'Yes'.
John is a property developer by profession and, in fact, developed the complex of houses and apartments from the old buildings alongside their home, which he also renovated -- though Shirley takes credit for finding it.
"We were both into horses and we did a lot of horse riding. I spotted this old mill while out one day and told John about it," she explains. "It was derelict -- there were cows living in it -- but I could see it was a beautiful setting, down in a hollow, and I love that about old things; they have hidden stories. There's great history in the area. It's full of castle ruins."
Her parents weren't as enthusiastic as she and John were, and her dad's reaction, when they saw the mill, was "Sweet Jesus! I know John has vision, but I just don't get it." Shirley reassured him that it would be gorgeous -- and it is. John, of course, did all the work. "I'm a seventh-generation carpenter; my dad was a builder, so it's in the blood," he says, adding that he had worked on lots of period houses in Dublin 6, so knew what he was taking on.
"This is all an old flour mill, with outbuildings and stables, and our home would have been the miller's house," John explains. "We had to take down what was not structurally sound. I had to take the roof down and all we were left with, really, were the four walls."
He kept all the old bricks and reused them and, where possible, he sourced salvaged materials -- the floorboards are from an old house in Rathmines, the doors from the living room to the kitchen are old shop doors, and the fireplace beams were also salvaged.
They also extended the house, and the extension includes the cosy, welcoming kitchen and a dining room.
There's an extra living room, which was part of the original building, and John and Shirley designed the whole layout so that it is seamless.
"It's a great party house," Shirley says. "It flows from one room to the next."
John built the stairs leading to the bedrooms -- some of which are original and some new -- and, for added visual interest, he put in reclaimed church windows. The ground floor is covered in Portuguese limestone flags, while the upstairs is carpeted.
While John was rebuilding the house, which was back in the early 2000s, the couple lived in a mobile home on the site. Once it was ready for decoration, Shirley created her magic, and, over the years, has furnished it with curtains and sofas from Out of the Blue.
Most of the fabrics are Biggie Best, while there are lots of lovely pieces of furniture -- some of which have been 'Sloaned'.
The restoration of the house was truly a joint venture, and it worked so well for them that, when the property development sector went quiet a few years ago, Shirley was delighted when John joined her in the business and is now expanding it with her. As one of their joint projects, they run day courses in how to use the Annie Sloan furniture paints -- while Shirley makes a delicious lunch for the students, John tutors them in the different techniques.
"I love it, it's very therapeutic," says John. "And, because I went over to Oxford to learn the techniques, I tell everyone I did my degree in Oxford," he adds with a laugh.
Degrees or not, these are two very qualified people.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Out of the Blue, 2 Bisset's Loft, Strand St, Malahide, Co Dublin; tel: (01) 845-5596; 7A The Crescent, Monkstown, Co Dublin; tel: (01) 202-0752, or see www.ootb.ie, or email email@example.com