'I haven't seen the episode yet but it will be hard enough to watch' - Dermot Bannon on Room to Improve bust up with Daniel O'Donnell
Daniel and Majella O'Donnell wanted to brighten up their kitchen… but when Dermot Bannon got on board, they ended up with a whole new house! Katie Byrne meets the three stars whose project features in RTÉ's Room To Improve.
They say a house renovation always costs more than you had budgeted and takes longer than you anticipated.
Daniel and Majella O'Donnell were well aware of this when they agreed to take part in the eleventh season of Room to Improve - they just weren't expecting their house to be turned into a building site when they only wanted a new kitchen…
It all started at the House exhibition - the annual high-end interiors event presented by Independent News & Media in the RDS. Dermot Bannon, the 'starchitect' at the helm of the show, was up on stage giving a talk about "letting the light in" and Majella and her daughter Siobhan were seated in the audience.
"Our house was grand but the kitchen was very dark and the first thing I did every morning was go down and put on the lights," explains Majella. "So I went up to him afterwards and asked if he'd come and take a look."
Dermot, half in jest, asked if they'd consider doing it as part of the show. A few days later, Majella texted him to say yes.
The couple's home in the wilds of Dungloe, Donegal, wasn't exactly in dire need of an overhaul. Daniel conceded that they could "maybe do something with the kitchen", but the couple soon learned that the architect doesn't do things by halves.
"Dermot is like a wee boy," laughs Majella. "He's very enthusiastic and very stubborn. The whole house is new now."
The O'Donnells lead busy lives so the idea of getting the job done quickly and efficiently was appealing. "We don't have much time to be dealing with quantity surveyors and builders and stuff," explains Majella.
Dermot, for his own part, understood the demands of their schedules but he was wary of turning the project into a celebrity special or, as he puts it, "a pantomime".
"It had to have meaning," he says. "The challenge for me was seeing past the celebrity and past all the guff that goes with that. I couldn't design a real home for them if I didn't see past that.
"It's one thing just blinging up a house," he adds. "It's another thing doing a real project. I think the audience of Room to Improve deserves a bit more than that."
The trio initially met when Dermot and Majella were participants in a Late Late Show charity dance competition in 2015. It was only a brief introduction but Daniel remembers thinking of Dermot, "'He is someone you could have a nice evening with'. He was fun and easy to be with."
The feeling was mutual, although Dermot admits he was a touch starstruck when he met them again. "If I'm to be really honest, I was a bit nervous about working with them," he says.
"I think it was because my dad - who has passed away - was a massive fan. Daniel was a megastar in our house growing up so maybe because of Dad there was this myth around him."
The trouble with 'megastars' is that they spend most of their life on the road - this month alone Daniel plays 11 venues in the US -so the first challenge was negotiating his touring schedule.
Daniel said he'd let Majella make the decisions, but it was a different story when the blueprints were spread out across the table. He decided to Skype into the site meetings from abroad instead - even if it meant getting out of bed at 5am to allow for the time zone difference.
"He was all over it," says Dermot. "He wanted to be involved in everything. I think he found it really hard being away from home when all of this was happening.
"He took a step back at first and said, 'I'll let Majella deal with this', but it's his house, too. He's out on tour the whole time. He's on the back of a bus; he's in hotels. So his home is his refuge and his base. Plus, it's also his local village. It's where he grew up."
The next step was getting everyone on the same hymn sheet. While Majella liked the sound of Dermot's more extensive plans, Daniel didn't think there was anything wrong with the house.
"He was right," says Dermot. "There was nothing wrong with it. It was a nice big house, but it was generic... and he hates me using that word!"
With schedules and opinions conflicting, it's hardly surprising that there was a showdown early on in the process, during which Daniel became "quite annoyed".
"It happened fairly early on in the project and it slightly unnerved me," says Dermot. em ... I haven't seen the episode yet but I'd say it will be hard enough to watch."
While the architect is careful not to share too many spoilers, Majella is a little more forthcoming. "The first time Lisa [the show's quantity surveyor] came with the budget, it was one-and-a-half times more than what we said our budget was," she explains. "He comes and tells you what you can have and then the surveyor says, 'No, you can't have that'. It's like taking sweeties off a child and I know that upset Daniel a bit."
They got past it, though, and as Dermot says, it's just part of the process. "There are ups and downs on every project and theirs is no different. It's their money and it's their home."
With the budget signed off, and hard feelings set aside, it was time to get to work. Most of Dermot's clients have a need for extra space but that wasn't the case here. They had plenty of room. The problem, says Dermot, was that the house wasn't in harmony with its surroundings.
"They have a really special site," explains Dermot. "It's spectacular, but there was nothing that said 'I'm in the middle of Donegal here'. The house could have been anywhere. There was no soul to it.
"That part of Donegal is incredibly rugged and wild," he continues. "It's like a moonscape. There are these big rocks and lush heathers and they have these massive boulders that come up like wild animals at the back door. I wanted to bring that into the plan and make it feel that this was a Donegal house."
But first, he wanted to get a sense of the couple's lifestyle and understand exactly what they needed from a home. Daniel and Majella own a cottage on Owey Island. Daniel's mother Julia was born on the once-abandoned islet and, in recent years, it has become Majella's summer retreat. "That was the clincher," says Dermot. "When I saw how she lived on the island, the real Majella just came alive. Her eyes lit up.
"There's no running water, no electrics. It's really primitive. I realised that Majella is as happy feeding chickens and hens and cleaning up after them as she is in a ballgown going to a celebrity event.
"It's no secret that she suffers with her mental health. Here she has found that the solution is not through having loads of stuff. It's being one with nature."
Back in Dungloe, Dermot began to think of ways that he could imbue the project with the serenity and seclusion of Owey Island. "What I've tried to do is balance dramatic spaces with smaller, intimate spaces," he explains. "So when Majella needs quiet, there's smaller, enclosed spaces that almost wrap her in a blanket. Hopefully it finally provides a backdrop to their lives."
It's obvious that Dermot grew very fond of Majella during the project. "She's amazing," he says. "She wears her heart on her sleeve."
The couple, he adds, are a pairing of opposites: "She energises him and he calms her down." Yet while he found Daniel to be more laidback and, at times, quiet, it was a different story when there were fans to meet.
"When it comes to his fans, he won't be rushed," says Dermot. "We went to a show with him in Bundoran and he stayed up until 3am signing autographs. I had long gone to bed!
"There were times when we went out for lunch and a queue of people formed for a photograph. I'd be telling him that we had to get back to the house for filming but he insists on giving everyone time.
"He strikes me as someone who sees what he does, and the position that he is in, as very privileged and he doesn't take it for granted. I think that's the secret to his success."
Dungloe is home to the Daniel O'Donnell Visitor Centre, and with a population of just 1,400 people, it's hardly surprising that the whole town knew the O'Donnells had the builders in. "Everyone knew how far along the building was," laughs Dermot. "I'd arrive in Donegal and a local would say, 'I see the gutters went on this week'."
There were visitors, too. The architect remembers the doorbell ringing during one day of filming. Majella answered it and introduced Dermot to the house caller, who explained that she was just looking for an autograph. Sure thing, said Dermot, before reaching for his pen. "No!" she cried. "Not you! I'm looking for Daniel's autograph." They haven't let him live it down…
"Daniel is incredibly witty," continues Dermot. "I didn't expect him to be as witty as he was."
Neither did viewers of the couple's first TV outing - Daniel & Majella's B&B Road Trip. The hugely popular reality TV programme showed the pair getting up to all sorts of mischief, and put paid to any preconceptions that the public may have had about them.Daniel O'Donnell admits he 'blew a gasket' when Dermot Bannon revealed cost of Room to Improve renovation
"That's what we're like all the time," says Majella. "Before we did that I knew that people would be surprised. Not so much with me because I'm quite open and chatty, but I knew they would see Daniel in a different light: the light that I see him in all the time. He is funny, and he is bold at times."
At the time of writing, Majella is "living out of a suitcase" between her mother's house and her daughter's house. "I can't wait to get home," she says.
Daniel, who is on tour, is looking forward to getting home, too. "I actually haven't seen the house for a wee while," he says, "but Majella is thrilled with it. The ideas that Dermot has we would never have dreamt let alone imagined."'Dermot told us we'd be in our house by Christmas... it'll be February now', says Daniel
Dermot is proud of the renovation but he doesn't want it to overshadow the rest of the Room to Improve series. The O'Donnells' home is just one of seven "incredibly diverse" projects that include a house with a swimming pool in Fermoy, an old farmhouse in Tipperary and a tiny garage conversion in Killester, Dublin. "There's also the funniest episode we've ever filmed," he adds. "Two sisters living with their mother in Portrane. It's comedy gold!"
Room to Improve is one of the most popular programmes on Irish television and, like every series, there'll be plenty of memorable moments.
But we all know the one we're most anticipating…
'Room to Improve' returns to RTÉ One on Sunday, February 18 at 9.30pm
Photographs by James Connolly