History and heart in this one-of-a-kind country home
Highlake House, Ballinaheglish, Co Roscommon: €545,000
Ewoud and Jantje Van Den Berg - known as Ed and Jane to their Irish friends - first came to live in Ireland in the 1970s.
"I remember arriving at Dublin Port off the ferry in the early hours of the morning in 1974," recalls Ed. "We got lost in the city centre and came across a herd of cattle being driven down the street. Those were very different times, and it felt like a very different place."
The couple spent six happy years living near Mullingar with their two daughters, before Ed's parent company called him back to Holland. When it came to the time for him to retire in 2001, though, he and Jane made the decision to return to Ireland.
"The thing about Holland," explains Ed, "is that it's half the size of Ireland and now has a population of 17 million people. It's very crowded. There is nowhere that you can find the complete silence that you have in Ireland. You can always hear roads or radios or people, whereas here there is complete solitude and tranquility."
"'Here' is Highlake House in Ballinaheglish, Co Roscommon, a former Franciscan monastery dating from 1857, which has been home to Ed and Jane since 2001.
It is a fine two-storey, four-bedroom period residence, centrally situated on 20 acres of elevated land. In contrast to other, larger monasteries, Highlake was only ever home to 14 brothers, and its relatively modest scale has adapted well to being used as a private residence.
The foundation stone for Highlake was laid in 1857, when Co Fermanagh man Brother Hugh Farmer was given 40 acres of land by Lord de Freyne. Continuing a monastic tradition that had existed for centuries, the Franciscan monks worked as educators, providing local children with training in farming, horticulture and woodwork, until the last ties with the religious order were severed in the late 1960s when the monastery and nearby school closed, with the monastery being sold to a local farmer keen to acquire the land on which it stood.
In 1996, Highlake was sold to a couple who embarked upon the process of renovation, before coming into the ownership of Ed and Jane in 2001.
"We set about continuing the renovation with a keen eye to the history of the buildings," says Ed.
The work involved the re-plumbing, re-wiring and insulating of the main house, and - after a discovery of dry rot - the virtual re-building of the stable wing, where there are a series of rooms on the first floor above the stables. In the end, the work turned out to be much more extensive than the Van Den Bergs had originally envisaged.
"At one point," says Ed, "I did ask myself what on earth we were doing! But now the house is very liveable. Of course, new owners may want to do more, but it works well as it is and we find it very comfortable."
Among the many unusual features of Highlake House is its private chapel, or Great Hall, with frescoed walls featuring a unique Celtic serpent motif that is an ancient symbol of healing and wisdom, and an altar salvaged by Ed from a church in Holland that was bombed in World War Two.
Ed and Jane hire out the chapel for private ceremonies - weddings, baptisms, blessings and the like - and say that they enjoy sitting there for a quiet half hour on Sundays, listening to chanting on the sound system.
"The acoustics are enormous," says Ed.
Although the chapel is listed, it does not have to be used as a chapel and there is permission for a change of use to a drawing room.
A tower room and bell room date from the 1900s - the bells are set to ring on the hour but can also be rung manually - and a 36sqm double-height studio with a catwalk and large Georgian window facing south to the formal inner yard is where Jane, an artist, likes to paint.
In total, the main house has 277sqm of living space. The living and dining room both have working fireplaces and, adjacent to the kitchen are the pantry, laundry, flower room - every civilised home should have one - and office, ancillary spaces that make the business of living comfortably so much easier.
There are four bedrooms, two of which are en suite; the main bedroom also has a dressing room.
A plethora of outbuildings includes a workshop, store-rooms, barn and stable. An orchard with teahouse extends to over an acre, and there is plenty of room to grow vegetables, keep chickens and achieve a good level of self-sufficiency.
The rest of the land - an 8.8 acre field to the west of the house, a 1.8 acre field to the north and a 3.5 acre field to the east - is rented out for grazing to a local farmer on a month to month basis.
A further 6.7 acres located opposite the main entrance has full planning permission for a four-bedroom bungalow and garage and is available by separate transaction.
Ed and Jane have two daughters, one living in Cavan and the other in Holland, and they are selling Highlake with the intention of buying a smaller house in Ireland and an apartment in Holland, allowing them to have a foot in both camps.
"One of our favourite things to do is to drive on the back roads through Connemara and stop and picnic on the side of the road," says Ed. "Often we never see another person. That's one of the reasons we love Ireland so much."
New owners could of course continue to enjoy Highlake as Ed and Jane have done for the past 17 years, as a private residence, but the property also clearly has the potential to be used as a wedding venue, boutique hotel or guesthouse, or as a base from which to grow an equestrian business or stud farm.
Agent: Sherry FitzGerald P Burke (090) 662 7200
Viewing: Strictly by appointment
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