Peek inside the elegant period farmhouse of Fairyhouse manager Peter Roe
Fairyhouse manager Peter Roe and his wife, Alison, a solicitor, say their paths would never have crossed but for a blind date. Now horses are important to Alison as well.
A wonderful, almost epic scene greets the visitor on arrival at the home of Peter and Alison Roe; amid the rolling Tipperary fields, a lone russet-coloured pony stands proud under a majestic chestnut tree.
And, in a way, that scene captures everything about the Roe family lifestyle. They live in the heart of the country, in a gorgeous period farmhouse, and the three Roe children love to ride, but more emblematic still, both Peter and Alison's careers involve horses; Peter is the general manager of Fairyhouse Racecourse, while Alison is a milliner whose hats and fascinators are much sought after for Ladies' Day at the races.
Alison's work is, of course, a bit peripheral to the equine world, which is just as well, as she isn't hugely into horses. "I used to ride but I liked the horse to be brought to me, all tacked up," she says with a laugh. "I was never exactly hands-on".
Peter was different; he was brought up on the farm where their house is located; his father was chairman of the local hunt and there were always horses around. He was so passionate about them that he decided to make them his career and opted to study equine science in Limerick. He followed this course with an 18-month stint with a trainer called John Dunlop in England, and realised then that he might like the management side of working with horses. Fortuitously, he saw an ad for assistant manager of Fairyhouse and got the job. After a year and a half, he got the better position as manager of Tipperary Racecourse. He was there 10 years, when he was back as general manager of Fairyhouse in 2010, a full-on job which requires a daily round-trip commute of about 270 kilometres - something he brushes off, saying it's worth it for the pluses. These include concerts, Sunday markets and other events, but most important are the 21 race days, which have to be managed to the nth degree because of the high stakes involved.
The buzz, he says, is incredible, because things can so easily go wrong, things which would be out of his control but which could reflect on his management style. "Last month, our staff did a great job; they saved a man's life. A man had a massive heart attack in the middle of the Bobbyjo Bistro, our restaurant. We had to use the defibrillator - the man's heart had stopped, and he had heart surgery afterward. There was a doctor and nurse there as well as our own doctors to help him, and the Order of Malta, otherwise, he'd be dead," Peter explains, "but you know, you do the training and everything else, but until you see it happening . . . it really focuses the mind. However prepared you are for a race day, you don't know what it's going to bring," Peter notes.
The big day of Fairyhouse's calendar is, of course, this weekend, Easter weekend, and the Irish Grand National tomorrow is the highlight; 30,000 will turn up to watch it on the day, while 500,000 will be watching at home on TV. "The Irish Grand National will be on Easter Monday at 5pm, that's the one certainty, and for those seven or eight minutes you're the centre of Irish sport, but anything can happen, that's the great challenge," Peter says.
The horses, the jockeys and spectators aren't Peter's only concerns; he also has to oversee the state of the course - so far, this year, we've had heavier than usual rainfall, so that could pose problems - and deal with VIPs like Michael O'Leary, who sponsors the Ryanair Gold Cup. "To have the support of Michael O'Leary is great." Peter enthuses, "He's a man who loves his racing." Luckily, Peter has, he says, a small but very dedicated staff. "It's like an orchestra, it's only a four-hour event, and every section has to play its part, but of course there's a great buzz and it's very rewarding."
This year is particularly special because Fairyhouse took place in 1916 and they will mark the centenary with some interesting events. "Racegoers at Easter in 1916 would have included both British Army officers and IRA men. One particularly interesting thing we're doing is re-staging the 1916 race," Peter muses.
Both Peter and Alison are very interested in history, particularly their own family histories; Peter's family have farmed the land since the late 19th Century and have lived in the house since his great-grandparents moved in in 1896, and pieces of furniture remain in the house since those days.
Alison, who was born in Ennis, was brought up in Kilkenny, and she has mementos of her forebears around the house, too; her great-grandmother was a milliner, and one of her grandmothers was an artist. Examples of their works abound - she believes her own creativity stems from both those women.
However, there was law in the family too, and that was Alison's first choice of career. The eldest of three girls, she trained initially as a solicitor - as did her two sisters - and practiced for 15 years. "I was very creative as well, but you know the way it is, the career guidance would be 'don't waste the points'," the engaging brunette says with a laugh
Under normal circumstances, she says she and Peter would never have met. "Our worlds would never have collided only we met at a blind-date charity event, for Cheeverstown hospital," Alison recalls with a laugh, going on to describe the circumstances; her sister was one of the event organisers, all the ladies had to meet at one venue, and all the men at another.
"At the venue I just got this envelope saying a table was booked, that I was Miss White and I was meeting Mr Black at Les Freres Jacques at a particular time; the charity had restaurants booked all over Dublin and put couples in each. I walked in the door and my Mr Black was Peter. He must have seen the menu, because, practically as I sat down, he suggested that we'd go Dutch," Alison claims with a laugh, alluding to the fact that Les Freres Jacques was an expensive restaurant, while the affable Peter says sheepishly he had been stung a few times before.
As it happened, they lost each other at a club later that night, but Alison had told Peter she worked in a solicitors' firm in Ennis, and, the following Monday, resourceful Peter phoned around the different companies there asking for her. Alison says when she heard Mr Black was on the phone, her first thought was 'which client is that?', but soon it all became clear.
They married two years later and they have three children - Robert (11), Isabella (9), and six-year-old Charlotte. Alison continued working as a solicitor until Charlotte was nine months - then the baby suddenly developed kidney failure. "She was in Temple Street for a month," says Alison, adding, "we were the lucky ones; she recovered fully and has been fine since. The staff at Temple Street were amazing. We never discovered what was wrong. They say it may have been some virus and the nephrologist, who has been marvellous, calls her his little conundrum. Temple Street keeps a close eye on her and she has annual check-ups."
However, Charlotte's illness was a game-changer for Alison. "Being there was like a cocoon and it changed my perspective; you can get very bogged down in the details of the rat race," she says. One of the things she decided was to give up her job and become a stay-at-home mum. "It opened up a whole world of possibilities. I always had a very creative streak, which was caged in me while I was a solicitor," she says. "When I decided to stay at home, I started sewing and suddenly the genie was out of the bottle and I was off."
Alison did a course in millinery and turned the coachhouse behind the farmhouse into a studio, where she works out her designs, makes her hats and meets her clients, who include women looking for hats for weddings as well as the races. "Starting the millinery was like an explosion in my mind. When I worked as a solicitor, I used to lie awake stressing about house contracts, now I'm thinking colours and materials, and all the possibilities they conjure up," Alison notes, adding "my clients are mainly word of mouth, but I'm on Facebook too."
She works mornings after delivering the kids to school. The afternoons are spent with the kids in the house.
They moved into the farmhouse seven years ago; Peter's parents, who had been living in it, decided to downsize and built their own, more modern home - complete with underfloor heating - nearby. Peter and Alison updated the farmhouse, which has six bedrooms and four reception rooms, and put their own stamp on it, but didn't do a major overhaul. They changed the functions of some of the rooms - for example, the old dining room became a kids' playroom as it adjoins the kitchen - but they kept most things the same, as they like the character of the house and the many nooks and crannies. However, they did major redecoration, with Alison making most of the soft furnishings herself. "I did all the cushions. I went on a sort of cushion bender at one stage," she laughs.
The one area they did change dramatically was the kitchen - they doubled its size and now, though the windows are the same, they seem to have a better view of the surrounding countryside. Alison worked with a local carpenter and together they designed the country-style, butter-coloured, painted units, topped with black granite.
However, it was all planned around the Esse range, which has been in the house for over 80 years and which works perfectly. They had to move it a few inches and they got Esse's service man - whose father had serviced it in past years when Peter's parents were in situ - to do it.
While he was at work on the range, Alison asked if he thought it would last much longer. He said tartly, "It'll be here and working long after you, missus."
The thought delighted Alison - five generations of Roes have already dwelt here and she and Peter love the thought of this elegant house becoming a happy home for many more.
Fairyhouse Racecourse, see fairyhouse.ie
For Alison's hats, see her Facebook page, 'Alison Roe Millinery', or tel: (086) 232-0601
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin