Ding Dong Denny: A house that brings home the bacon
BACK when King Edward sat large on the throne, those who wanted to call on the wealthy meat baron Charles Denny at Ballybrado House near Cahir in County Tipperary were first obliged to ring the bell at Ballybrado Lodge and summon the gate keeper.
If the gate keeper liked the cut of your jib then he just might send someone up to the "big house" to request an audience for you.
Ballybrado House, today the centre of one of Ireland's first ever organic farms, was built in 1879 by Abraham Denny – the second son of Henry Denny, founder in 1820 of the well known sausages and bacon empire. The house was so big that later residents had to demolish significant chunks of Ballybrado to make it more manageable.
The Denny business was obviously well able to bring home the bacon because, along with the house, Charles inherited the equivalent of e25m and a staff that included 10 gardeners and 10 housemaids. And in 1905, the sausage king decided it was time to make a grand entrance. He called back Robert Watt, the Scottish-born designer of Ballybrado House and commissioned a gate lodge that would be more in keeping with the elaborate gardens around the main house. Gate lodges and their resident gate keepers were an important function of a big country estate as they enabled the occupants of the big house to get in and out at speed in their carriages.
The gatekeeper also fulfilled a security man's role and the gate lodge was the estate's forward look-out post, particularly at night.
Aside from opening and closing the gates for the owners, the gate keeper also fulfilled the role of formally greeting invited guests.
The lodges usually included a small kitchen garden and quite large families often grew up in houses which, while stylishly and richly designed, were often farcically small inside with little more than a tiny kitchen and a single bedroom overhead.
Watt's 1905 fantasy creation, almost fairytale like in appearance, would make the gatekeeper at Ballybrado one of the most elaborately housed in the country.
"I've seen gate lodges all over Ireland but I haven't seen one as pretty as this," says Reading-born Paul Mitchell who has been the joint custodian of Ballybrado Lodge with his wife Cathleen for the last 15 years.
"We had both always loved Ireland and Cathleen's mother is originally from New Inn. Fourteen years ago we decided to move here and we'd looked at houses here and there but we couldn't find what we wanted. "Then we walked past an estate agents in Clonmel and we saw it in the window."
Cathleen adds: "We went out to look at it and Paul fell in love with it straight away so I knew we were going to buy it. It was in solid condition but it was tired, it needed plenty of care to bring it back. I wanted to live here for the location also, it's so beautiful and quiet and peaceful."
Paul adds: "We're looking at an amazing vista in front of us and we're situated on two acres of mature woodlands with oak and beech.
"The owners of the big house opened up another entrance to the estate so we don't have to open and close these huge gates for anyone but ourselves."
While the Mitchells realised that the rundown Ballybrado Lodge would need a little TLC to bring it back to habitable condition, it took more time than they expected.
"We didn't realise we'd still be working on it more than 10 years later," adds Paul.
But the first step for the Mitchells was to find a way of extending the listed but tiny house.
For help with their extension plans they took on Edward Walsh, a Cahir-based architect and then engaged directly with the local authority's conservation officer.
"The council was very helpful because they wanted houses like these lived in and kept in good condition.
"We all sat down together to see what we could do and what we couldn't do. As a result our architect soon came up with a design that would be in keeping with the original design of the 1905 house."
The extension, which increased the accommodation at Ballybrado Lodge by three quarters, has been so well done that it takes an expert eye to pick out the joins.
The sunroom, with its timber-framed windows and red-and-black tiled floor, looks like an Edwardian orangery but with a solid roof.
The end result is a pavilion-like lodge with a high, apex roof, centred by a tall chimney stack.
Standing sentinel outside on the lawn is a olde-worlde standard street lamp, straight from the pages of a CS Lewis novel.
Today the accommodation includes a very large 22ft by 15ft kitchen and dining room.
With its Edwardian-style tiled floor, it's furnished in bespoke white timber and glass cabinets.
There's a living room with an elaborate period fireplace and when guests are over they retreat to the sunroom with its high ceiling, surrounded by windows, with a brace of comfortable long leather settees facing on each side of the room.
There are two bedrooms downstairs, while upstairs includes the characteristic cottage bedroom.
"We also had to do quite a bit of restoration work on the iron gates themselves," says Paul who was brought up in a family of builders.
"But it was worth it and they came up really well."
His restoration included two rather mischievous additions – a pair of cheeky devil gargoyles attached to each of the main gate pillars which were bought at a garden centre.
"I think we've bemused plenty of passers-by with them already," says Paul.
The agent is seeking €325,000. And if you take a morning viewing, the Mitchells might just fry you up some sausages and bacon.
- Further details from Dougan FitzGerald (052-6121003)