Architect owner transformed this rotten farmhouse into a beautiful home
Goretti and Eric Foreau lived in a stylish Victorian home in Dublin 4 for 10 years. Then a series of journeys that Goretti took through the Irish countryside led them to reassess their lifestyle
On a recent edition of RTE's The Great House Revival, presenter Hugh Wallace turned up at Goretti and Eric Foreau's renovation in County Wicklow only to find that, since his previous visit, a huge part of the front wall of the house had unexpectedly fallen in - the onlooker could see right through to the wall at the back.
It was a dramatic sight, yet Goretti, the prime mover behind the renovation, was seemingly unfazed. Indeed, as the programme went on, and any progress, or lack of it, was marked by Hugh's visits, it became obvious that that's Goretti's default position; she just seems to take everything in her stride. It transpires that it was a quality noted by her teachers when she was at school.
"My primary teachers used to say, 'The house could fall down around her and Goretti would keep going'," she laughs. "I always believe you can't look at the big picture, you take it problem by problem, and you solve it. I believe in short-term goals. Nothing is insurmountable, you have to break it down."
Of course it helps that since those primary school days, Goretti has gone on to become a very successful architect, specialising in the conservation of old buildings, exactly like the 19th-Century farmhouse they have taken on.
Originally from Killarney, where her parents worked at Liebherr, Goretti is from a family of high achievers. Her brother, Paul Murphy, an engineer, was a scratch golfer at 10, and went on to play for Ireland; her sister Martina is a doctor, and her other sister, Elaine, a psychologist.
Goretti could have opted for any career; she got eight honours in the Leaving Cert, including honours maths, though only six subjects counted - "I was a geek," she notes - but she had loved art, which she studied for the Leaving Cert independently of school, so architecture was an obvious choice.
She did her five years in UCD and once qualified, at 21, she got a scholarship to study the planning system in Cyprus. That was followed by a job lecturing in Dundee, but a better avenue soon opened up. "It was a bit too cold in Dundee," Goretti says. "One of the friends I had made in Cyprus was beckoning me to come to Paris where she was, so I headed over to her."
Within two weeks of arriving there, Goretti met Eric, her future husband, in the legendary Parisian Irish pub, Kitty O'Shea's. "He told my friend that he saw me across a crowded room and he wanted to meet me," she says, adding with a laugh, "Allegedly."
Eric insists that it's true. He did have the advantage of a car, and was able to show Goretti his native city, and they were together from then on.
In those days, Eric worked in finance, but after two years in Paris, Goretti persuaded him that they'd be better off in Ireland. She continued to work as an architect, but on arrival here, Eric had to switch careers. He did the HDip in UCD and began to teach French in a Dublin secondary school, as well as to lecture in business and French in UCD.
"Eric is different to most other French people. The French are cautious - if a French person is buying a fridge, they will look at 10 fridges. Eric is open to challenges," Goretti says fondly.
Some years into that career, Eric got frustrated with the system whereby at the end of each academic year there would be uncertainty; he wouldn't know until the following autumn how much work awaited him, so he decided to look at other options. His interests included food as well as business, so he opened a restaurant, La Med.
"It happened by default," says Goretti. "I was doing a restaurant project in Temple Bar for a group and drawing up the lease, but the group wasn't working out, so I asked the guy in Temple Bar Properties if anyone could get that lease.
"We saw the opportunity. At that time, it was egg mayonnaise on every menu; we saw an opening for Mediterranean food. Eric was front-of-house, I used to go down on a Saturday night, that was my night out; there was a great buzz."
Goretti worked in a big architecture firm in the early years, but as soon as their sons arrived - Daniel (now 22), Nicholas (now 19) and Sebastian (now 13) - she continued on a more freelance basis, tailoring her workload around their school days.
She headed up the interior architecture course at Griffith College, and progressed her interest in old buildings by doing an MA in conservation architecture and one in business, so she is keenly aware of the money side and keeping within budget. They also moved several times, doing up old properties and selling them on, though they stayed 10 years in their last home, a big Victorian property in Dublin 4.
Then, about three years ago, they got the urge for a change of lifestyle. The restaurant was successful, but it was a tough business. The hours were dreadful, admin was taking up more and more time, and it was hard to get good staff. "People were pretending they could cook; they couldn't," Eric says in his charming Kerry/French-inflected English.
Fortunately, they got an offer they couldn't refuse, and sold up. Meanwhile, they were becoming disenchanted with the big-house lifestyle in Dublin 4. "It was very big; we weren't using all the rooms," says Eric, while Goretti adds, "There were loads of steps; it had a north-facing garden; parking was restrictive. If it was just one niggle fine, but four or five... I try to limit stress."
Several personal events occurred around this time, too. "Eric's father passed away, and also a good friend of ours. Eric is quite the philosopher. He said, 'We're not here forever, we must make the most of it'," Goretti says.
They decided to look for a place in the country. They didn't just want a house. They wanted a whole new way of life. Goretti is a bit of a philosopher, too; she says she had no fear of the unknown. "We said we'd give it a lash. There's nothing wrong with failure. You can analyse the risk ahead, of course, but, sure, life is a journey."
They briefly considered west Cork and Kerry, but realised they were both too far away; they needed to be relatively near the two older boys, who were both at college at the time - Daniel has since qualified as a valuation surveyor. Then Wicklow seeped into their consciousness. "I was doing my master's in conservation architecture. As part of it, I did a project on Arklow, and every time I drove down, I took a different route. I got interested in the history of the area - Parnell; the old Famine road; the different villages," Goretti says. "I used to go on to a website, Trovit, and put in key words, like 'period property', 'Rathdrum', and, one day, this house came up. I had a map on my desk to show everything that was an hour from Dublin, and this was perfect."
So they came to look at the property, which was a farmhouse dating back to 1840, set on 15 acres. It hadn't been lived in for 10 years and was in very bad condition. As far as Goretti was concerned that wasn't too much of a worry, and there was a great bonus.
"We could see the farmhouse was rotten but it had water, a septic tank and electricity," Goretti says. "And we were blown away by the location. It sits beautifully in the landscape, it has uninterrupted views, and then there are the outbuildings. Marvellous stone buildings - we could see they had great potential." Goretti has already done up two of the outbuildings, and hopes eventually to have eight separate units, which could potentially sleep 30 people; ideal for weekenders to shrug off the stresses of city life and embrace the bucolic.
When the couple sold their big house, they bought an apartment for the two older boys, who weren't too happy at the beginning. "They were like, 'You've dumped us', but I'm not a helicopter mum. I'm not like my own mum, who indulged my brother Paul, packing his case for his golf tournaments, and even sending him off with a blank cheque in case he ever got into trouble," she volunteers with a laugh.
She goes on to explain her philosophy: "I was independent at 17; my attitude is 'let them do their stuff'. They fight of course, but it's working - one cooks, one cleans, and they both have part-time jobs. And we have a nice relationship; we go for coffee or lunch and catch up."
Meanwhile, back in Rathdrum, Eric has a whole different way of life working on the land. He has planted 6,000 Christmas trees on three acres; they will mature in seven years. He also has some sheep, and a vegetable garden full of courgettes, peas, red currants, cabbages and rhubarb.
Thirteen-year-old Sebastian has also embraced country life. He was named student of the year in his new school, and he has his own little brood of hens.
Goretti is running her architectural practice from the house, and she plans to concentrate on jobs which require her experience of old buildings; she's already involved in the Church of Ireland church in Rathdrum. She loves the village, and says it's really going to be on the map in the near future; it's an hour from Dublin and the train stops there, and plans are afoot to restore the main square.
She's involved in another project in nearby Laragh - she says the county is full of wonderful old derelict buildings, which could make great, inexpensive homes. "People think rural Ireland is dead; it's not," she says. "The problem is there's no joined-up thinking. There are existing buildings which could be done up, and regenerate communities."
When it came to renovating the house, which they bought in 2016, the couple hired a builder, but did a lot of the work themselves, and, of course, Goretti designed the whole project, retaining any old features that were worth it and putting in new ones where necessary, changing the purpose of the different spaces as needed. As well as underfloor heating, new floors, and some new walls, she added windows where possible, and tons of skylights.
The collapse of the wall was, by the way, a godsend; in its stead, Goretti put in enormous windows, which provide ever-changing vistas of the amazing landscape.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Living