Peek inside Irish artist Polly Minett's renovated 12-bed period home
Polly Minett's work life has been varied, and everything she does is imbued with colour and high drama, including the creation of her lovely period home in the country.
Published 02/05/2016 | 02:30
There are very few women who would model the colour scheme of their living room on a pair of orange and purple velvet bell-bottoms they owned when they were 13 and also proclaim that fact proudly, yet that's exactly what Polly Minett admits to.
But then, there aren't many women who would look at a 12-room, dilapidated period house on two acres in Ireland's countryside, far from her cosy home in England, and take it on. Polly Minett did that, too.
The same Polly, in her 20s, left the comfort of her family base in Oxford and headed off to Japan for five years; no doubt you're getting the picture of an adventurous, colourful person uninhibited by fear? And you'd be right.
Polly is also a highly-respected educator, and under the aegis of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, she's developed and run a programme called Crafted for the last five years - it runs in partnership with education centres and promotes using creative craft and design skills to support teachers with integrated learning in primary schools.
She is passionate about education and feels very strongly that children need to learn in a different way these days.
"They need to learn how to problem-solve, how to work in groups, how to negotiate, how to use information, to be self-empowered," says Polly. "We need to do research on the voice of the child and marry that to the skill-sets they need."
Into the bargain, she's a working artist, who uses paper made from local plants and vegetation to create stunning artworks, several of which adorn the walls of her richly decorated, highly eclectic, warm and welcoming home in Co Kilkenny.
Polly, the eldest of three, probably inherited her creativity from her father, an architect who lectured in urban design at Oxford Brookes University - her mother was a paediatric nurse - but she had no obvious interest in visual arts or architecture when she was a youngster. "I opted to study drama at Exeter University. I was the 'showy-offy, put me in a corner and I will perform' type," the bubbly 50-something notes with a laugh. " I was very involved in the theatre as a teenager and a young one, and then I went on to study drama."
Even then, Polly was also the adventurous type and, after graduation, and a short stint working in theatre and education in England, she departed for Japan. "I was an economic refugee," she says rather dramatically, then qualifies it by adding, "I think some of it is you get itchy feet, and you say, 'I want to go off and see what's going on'. But also, working in theatre and education, you're earning nothing. You're so poorly paid - you get tired of your mum fixing your car and buying you things."
It was a good time to hit Japan; it was the early 1980s, Japan was a very wealthy country, and was determined to be seen as kokusaika, or international. "Kokusaika was the buzzword of the 80s in Japan. Japan was determined to be seen as a cosmopolitan country on the international stage; the Japanese wanted to travel, and they didn't want to be seen as unsophisticated," Polly explains.
For the Japanese, being able to speak English was an integral part of that, and Polly cleverly did a very good Tefl course before leaving England, so she got an extremely well-paid job at the technical university in Hiroshima, and also became something of a TV star. "They were going to hold the international Asian games and they decided that all locals would need to be able to speak a few key phrases, so they devised these little two-minute scenarios for local telly - about food, the weather, local attractions - that they would film. They would run each scenario again and again, before the news, the Sunday-evening soap opera, whatever," Polly reminisces.
"I was the foreign woman on them. It was very embarrassing; when my sister saw the clips, she said Exeter University would demand my degree back if they ever saw them. But it was amazing; they ran for a year and everywhere I went, I was recognised as 'the television person'. As soon as it was over, no one ever recognised me again; my moment of fame was over."
Polly enjoyed Japan and immersed herself so much in the culture there that she learned paper-making, which has become a huge part of her work since. However, she came back to England to do a master's in applied linguistics at Birmingham University and specialised in task-based learning - learning through doing, which has informed her work ever since.
Shortly after returning, she also met her Irish husband, businessman Ivan Powell, who was working in a packaging company in the British Midlands at the time; Polly was creating artworks out of paper, while paper was his business.
"I was contemplating becoming an eco-terrorist at the time. Ivan always says he saved me from going to live in a bender and going seriously down the environmental route," Polly says with a laugh. "We got married after two years, and our children were born in Oxford - Max, who's 19, and Eloise, who's 17."
The couple renovated and lived in several old houses during their time in Oxford, but in a way it was inevitable that they would end up in Ireland. "Ivan's dad, who's an absolute sweetie, was really keen for us to come and live in Ireland, and for Ivan to get involved in his company, The Packaging Centre. We lived in the centre of Oxford and, when you've got small children, the idea of them growing up in the middle of the city didn't appeal," Polly explains.
When Max was four, they made the move. "You fantasise about having space and the idea of country living. We didn't want to live in Dublin, so we looked everywhere outside it," she says.
They looked in Blessington, Co Wicklow, and various places around it as Ivan, who had to commute to Dublin daily, needed to be able to get to the Naas Road. In the end, they found the property - Donaguile House, a period farmhouse in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny - on the internet and bought it immediately after looking at it.
It was huge, with bits dating from the 17th Century, while it was mainly early 20th Century, and it had eight bedrooms, four reception rooms and some stables, plus two acres. "Coming from sterling, we thought, for the price, it would only be a facade or a set - we couldn't believe we'd get a place such as this," Polly says.
Polly had just finished a residency in the Botanic Garden in Oxford, and one of the special features that sold it to her was the walled garden - although it was completely overgrown. That's according to Polly, who says that her father-in-law, who comes down from Dublin every second week, has, almost single-handedly, restored it.
So they got a substantial house for their money, but it was not in good nick. It needed reroofing, rewiring, and many new windows; nonetheless, Polly was not daunted in any way. "My parents were always moving and renovating when I was young. Ivan and I had already renovated a couple of houses in Oxford . . . I never had any fear of moving. You just have to have vision, you have to believe you can do it, the rest doesn't really matter. You have to be able to camp for a bit, though," she explains.
They loved life in Kilkenny from the get-go, and have always got involved in local community matters. Coming from cities - Ivan from Dublin and Polly from Oxford - they've made the most of the countryside around them and the land that came with the house, and for a while, they even had farm animals.
"We both would have The Good Life vibe; we used to be teased about that by our friends. We had pigs here when the kids here small. I always remember we roasted one for Ivan's 40th; his name was Rasher. Max was about 10 at the time and people said to him, 'Don't you feel bad about eating him?' and Max said, 'I fed him, now he feeds me'," Polly recalls with a laugh.
Black Pudding was the name of the female pig and she had 10 piglets. "The wood for the dining-room table came from the stable, which we turned into a cottage; and our brilliant builder, Martin O'Neill - the only man in Ireland you should clone, because everyone should have a Martin O'Neill in their life - made the table in a swap for two piglets." The Good Life still persists a little in the form of the four hens - Sophie, Sylvie, Francesca Frittata and Muriel - who provide them with eggs. They also have a cat and two kittens.
Over the last 15 years, they've been tipping away at the house, which is listed, repairing the roof, fixing the windows, and, in some places, putting in new windows. Fortunately, many lovely features were intact, including the floorboards and all the mantelpieces.
Six years ago, the couple did major work and added a conservatory. They simplified the living spaces and now have three reception rooms, a playroom, a kitchen, five bedrooms, a study, and an office. They put in some lovely new bathrooms, but didn't make all the bedrooms en suite; Polly sees no point in that. "If we had made all the bedrooms en suite, think of all the cleaning. I thought, 'I'm not doing that'," the feisty Polly notes. "Also, it would be awful to carve up all these beautiful rooms."
There was an Aga in the kitchen, and that is still the centrepiece of the room, but Polly had new units installed, and she loves the fact that they are made of old shutters. "They are from a Georgian house; a friend of Ivan's was throwing them out," she explains.
She loves to find a new use for things others have no purpose for, but she's not averse to old auction finds or Ikea. "I'm the Ikea queen," she says with a laugh, pointing out some of her purchases from the Swedish giant, including lots of lampshades. She and Ivan are also huge fans of Irish design and craft and like to invest in works that they love; among their collection they have several ceramics by Andrew Ludick, and inlaid chairs designed by Garry Marcham of Goose Island Workshop, which Polly bought for Ivan for his birthday.
Ivan has given Polly some imaginative gifts, too, over the years. There's a painting in the dining room of all their family and friends from Oxford, which also includes a frog-eye Sprite sportscar given to Polly by him for a wedding present.
He's also given her a baby grand for her 50th - she hasn't yet had time to learn to play it, and, given her passion for education and her artwork, it doesn't sound like it will happen anytime soon.
Instagram: @donaguilehouse See learncraftdesign.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin