House of epic influence
Coolmore House, the Donegal mansion that is thought to have inspired the iconic Tara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, has been fully restored and is on the market for €850,000, writes Susan Daly
WHEN Barry Sharkey first saw Coolmore House about 10 years ago it was "dark, dingy and depressing" and had been uninhabited for several years.
"I shook my head and walked away," said the Co Donegal businessman. In 2005, he took a second look and this time decided to buy and restore the Georgian mansion.
His initial cold feet were understandable. The house had never even been connected to a water supply -- the previous occupants had simply drawn from a freshwater well in the back garden.
"It was a lost property," says Sharkey, "You couldn't even see it from the road."
Even so, Coolmore exuded considerable charm. The interior of the house had not been modernised at all, a fact which Sharkey and his partner Susanna Friel found "quite wonderful".
It meant that all original features such as fireplaces, ornate plasterwork, sash windows and shutters were intact.
Friel saved samples of the original wallpaper in each room. "They were badly damaged, but I thought it would be a nice record," she says. "That file will remain with the house -- it's part of its history."
The house also has a literary history. Irish-American author Margaret Mitchell is said to have stayed there in
the 1920s when she visited Ireland to research our Civil War experiences for her bestseller, Gone With The Wind.
"The story is that she came here to do research and to look for her family roots," says Sharkey. "Coolmore was owned by the Mitchell family and she came to see if she was related.
"She supposedly got the inspiration for Tara, the big plantation house, from here. I can't say how accurate the story is!"
The project of restoring Coolmore to the grandeur Margaret Mitchell would have experienced was an epic one.
It took two years to complete structural restoration on the house, and another year to bring the garden and interior décor up to scratch. The ground level around the house was lowered to flood what was originally a half-basement with natural light. External walls were rendered and blue Bangor tiles used in extensive re-roofing.
Sharkey, who is from nearby Killybegs, describes himself as a "serial restorer", having previously returned to glory three other period properties in the area.
The interior has been sympathetically redecorated. "I had the tiles from the original fireplaces to work from so I took my inspiration for the colour scheme from them," says Friel.
Elegant sash windows dominate the main reception rooms and four airy bedrooms to take advantage of panoramic views of Donegal Bay, Slieve League and the Bluestack Mountains.
Sharkey was also keen to take a view to the future. The house has been connected to the main water supply, but also to that old freshwater supply outside the back door, a boon at a time when domestic water charges are proposed. Solar panels have been installed along with a commercial-size wood-pellet burning boiler and 600-litre hot-water storage tank.
"Insulation-wise, it has been dry-lined on the inside so it's a very easy house to heat," says Sharkey. "People are afraid of old houses because they think they can't keep them warm." There is even a prepared site for a residential wind turbine on the hill behind the house.
These facilities make the house a comfortable residence, but also open up possibilities of making commercial use of the site.
The house comes on four acres of land, but there are another 10 acres available for sale alongside.
"The site has been selected as an opportunity site for a local enterprise," says Sharkey. "We have structurally finished the outbuildings and have planning for the coach house to be two self-catering apartments.
"I could see it as a small hotel, a holistic centre, an outdoor pursuits centre."
The proximity of blue-flag Rossnowlagh beach is a fantastic amenity -- Sharkey and Friel had friends over for horse-riding parties on St Stephen's Day and New Year's Day to ride the 10 miles of perfect, sandy coastline.
"It was intended to be my permanent home and we will miss it," says Sharkey. "But we have some properties in Italy that we would like to restore and my five children are adults now.
"I have just completed the sale of my marine engineering business so now is the time to go."
It may also be the beginning of a new chapter in the story of Coolmore.
Colliers Jackson Stops (01 6333700), Henry Kee (074 9732323) and Denis Keown(048 68658814) are joint agents