Tuesday 18 December 2018

Heartfelt house: inside the home of former Glenroe actress overlooking Blessington Lake

 

Miriam and Ronan in their light-filled kitchen. The units, from Ikea, have quartz worktops. The picture of poppies is one of Miriam's felt works
Miriam and Ronan in their light-filled kitchen. The units, from Ikea, have quartz worktops. The picture of poppies is one of Miriam's felt works
Miriam Brady and Ronan Smith's home on the lake at Blessingon. Designed by Michael Kelly 20 years ago, the house has views from the windows of all the living spaces. The roof is grass, "We have to get a strimmer up there every so often," Miriam notes
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Miriam in her spectacular hall with one of her two dogs, Pepsi. The old beams are from Enniskillen and the floor is granite, from a nearby quarry at Ballknocken, Co Wicklow

Miriam Brady is an actor turned visual artist; it's not that unusual for people in the seemingly more extrovert arm of the arts to turn to the more solitary, more introspective field.

Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro, Lucy Liu and Rosie O'Donnell are all talented artists. Closer to home there are a few artistic thesps too: Catherine Byrne, star of Fair City, The Tudors and Love/Hate, is a sculptor, and Adele King aka Twink is the Frida Kahlo of cakes.

All of the above combine their two modes of artistic expression, and put aside their tools when an acting job beckons.

Miriam, however, concentrates solely on her art now and her stunning house is home to many examples of her work. Still lifes, seascapes, landscapes are all captured in her chosen medium of felting.

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"I love the magic that happens when I take silk textiles and start working with them. I love the challenge of being able to create a scene from nature and to do it with materials not normally used," the genial Dubliner explains. It's a metier she found relatively late in her working life; acting took up the first 20-something years of adulthood.

Originally from west Dublin, Miriam says she had no intention of becoming an actor; she saw an ad for auditions for a theatre company and on the spur of the moment answered it. "It was pure hard neck" she says with a laugh.

It paid off. Miriam got a part - she obviously had talent as well. She worked freelance for several years and then, in her late 20s, she got a job with Team, an educational theatre company working in schools. She loved the work, particularly working with kids. In addition, it led to meeting her future husband Ronan Smith. "Ronan was the Assistant Director in Team at the time," she says. "We fell in love and got married."

Team led to one of the best jobs in the Irish acting world at the time - a part in Glenroe, the long-running rural soap that the whole nation sat down together to watch on a Sunday night all through the 1980s and 1990s. "I played one of the Travellers, Julia Connors, who was married to Johnny Connors," Miriam says. "I was in Glenroe for 11 years. I really enjoyed it. I wasn't in every episode, so I was able to dip in and out of theatre, and I was able to rear my children," she says of Brian, Hannah and Loughlin, now all grown up and pursuing different careers.

"I had a great time, we were like a big family in Glenroe," says Miriam, "I still have very good friends from there."

When Glenroe ended in 2001, Miriam decided she'd like to try something different, and she went off and studied horticulture. She worked as a horticulturist for many years and she still gives garden consultations. She took up felting eight years ago.

"I've always been very interested in art. I used to paint. Then I heard about classes in textiles and I did a very short course. The rest is self-taught," she notes. "It's not as straightforward as painting, it's a very different process. It's difficult but challenging. I'm part of Feltmakers Ireland, where members come together and share ideas; we're always learning"

Miriam discovered that she loves sharing her knowledge and she runs day courses in feltmaking from her home; her lovely kitchen doubling as a studio.

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While Miriam was pursuing her different careers, Ronan continued with his work in theatre and for many years he was production manager with Riverdance. Then, four years ago, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers's disease. "He thinks he's had it about eight years, but he's marvelous. He's actually writing a book about his journey and he works very hard at advocacy," Miriam says, adding, "You wouldn't think Ronan had Alzheimer's to speak with him, only his close friends and his family would see it."

Ronan retired in December - the Gaiety panto was his last - and now he concentrates on advocacy. He's the first member of the board of the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland who actually has the disease and he's the chairman of the dementia working group. "It's a new group set up by Ronan and other sufferers to raise awareness and funding for homecare packages," Miriam explains.

To help him cope, Ronan came up with his own three mantras. "I wanted to make sure I've a plan," he says. Number one is 'prepare for the probable'.

"The disease will progress," Ronan says, "so I've had to look after practical matters like power of attorney, bank details and so on."

The second part of his mantra is 'work for the possible'. "I focus on behaviours that will hopefully hold back the development of symptoms, these include diet, exercise and meditation", he explains, adding that "number three is 'hope for the future'. I keep an eye on all the medical journals and I can see it's not looking good at the moment.

"There was talk of different cures and they came to nothing," Ronan says, "but a cure will come in time, so I feel it's important to be as positive as possible."

Obviously it's not an easy diagnosis and Miriam doesn't put a gloss on it. "It's horrendous," she says. "It's like a nightmare you hope to wake up from. There is a phenomenon that happens around bereavement and illness. It's strange, but those you are closest to can walk out of your lives. It's common with bereavement and it has happened to me.

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"You are then dealing with grieving for your husband and grieving for someone you thought was a close friend," she confides, "I couldn't fathom it. I work a lot in mental health as a volunteer. I understand the fear of illness; people don't know what to say. People are not driven by malice; they are driven by fear."

Miriam is keen to get across the message that it's best to be as normal as possible. "It's OK to stop in the street and say, 'Did you see that documentary the other night?' Or, 'Did you watch the match on Sunday?' That's all the person who has the disease needs; to be treated with respect and normality. We need to educate people that it's OK to be normal, but not to exclude the question: 'How are you doing?' To ignore the diagnosis is insulting, but to organically incorporate it into a chat is fine," Miriam says, adding that it's very important for the carer to live every day for that day.

"I always was that type of person, but now more so," she says. "If you can, it's really important that you don't throw yourself into the future or into the past. It's important for all of us, but especially in this situation. There is only now. And see the joy in everything. I manage to do that, through the pain. Even during something like the snow. You can decide, 'I'm in a crap situation, I'm snowed in,' or you can go out and slide about on a coalbag.You can make your own destiny, up to a point."

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Miriam says she and Ronan are surrounded by very good friends and especially very good neighbours. "I don't need a lot of support at the moment but they are always there for us. That keeps you going as a carer. Being married to someone with a disease like this is so frightening, having the comfort of good people around you, I feel very privileged," she says.

These people are her neighbours in the idyllic spot overlooking the Blessington Lake where her house is situated.

They've been there for 18 years. "We were living in a beautiful Edwardian house in Rathmines," says Miriam, "but I just always had a yearning for the countryside. Of course, I had to get around Ronan. He was very urbane, he loved the city. We started looking at sites in Wicklow. Then we saw this site, on six acres, and within two weeks it was ours. We hired a wonderful architect, Michael Kelly, and he designed our house."

There was a chalet on the site and they lived in it for a year while the house was being built. "The build was extremely stressful," Miriam says. "The first builder walked away, leaving a shell, so we had to source another builder."

The second builder was a tad better but things came to a standsill with the snag list and they had to hire tradespeople to finish the job. "Once a floor went into the building I said to Ronan, 'I don't care, I'm moving in.' There was plastic on the windows, no glass, we had one sofa and one bed, but we were so happy."

The brief was as much light as possible through the whole day. "I'm a light freak," she says. "I'll put up with cold as long as there's light. Michael gave us light from early morning till late in the evening. The living room has a wall of salvaged bricks. That wall lights up from the sun in the summer evening like Ayers Rock. He designed it so that every room to the front is a picture with different views."

To the back of the house are the bedrooms - as Miriam says, they don't need the light or the views. There is a lot of brick and wood. The whole hallway is brick, the floor thoughout is maple and the doors - there are sliding doors between the rooms - are beech. The centre of the house is a new Ikea kitchen with quartz worktops. The living room has a feature granite fireplace with a mirror in the centre.

The palette of the house is neutral so as not to upstage the art, most of which is Miriam's - delicate, joyful creations, which lift the heart. "I get lost in my work," she says. "I feel privileged to have a creative skill, I can bolster myself in the face of adversity. Not everyone can."

Tel: (087) 784-9031, email hanlock99@gmail.com, or see loughannadesign.com

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan

Photography by Tony Gavin

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