The little house that actor Eilish O'Carroll bought in West Cork in 2000 has, she says, "saved my life, literally".
Eilish is perhaps best known as Winnie McGoogan, long-suffering bestie to Agnes in Mrs Brown's Boys, which is written by her younger brother Brendan. Back in 2002 and 2003, Eilish, like many an actor, was underemployed and hard up for cash. She fell into arrears on her mortgage. "I had no way of paying the mortgage so I sat down one day and thought I'm going to lose this house. Simple as that."
Then she realised that she had one useable asset, her house - a cute two-storey pin-perfect cottage a few kilometres from Castletownshend. Just two minutes from the beach, it had buckets of holiday rental potential. "I went and bought two big tubs of paint and I decorated it from top to bottom. It took me two days and two nights. I put an ad in the paper on Wednesday and I had my first taker on that weekend for rental."
Eilish, meanwhile, moved into her car. "I'd come back, do the changeover and as the summer developed, it got busier and busier." Luckily, friends insisted she sleep on their couch and she survived. In fact, she rented the following summer and the one after that, making enough money to pay the mortgage. "That house saved my life, literally saved my life at a time when I had nothing."
She bought the cottage almost by default. She had been looking for a Dublin property for three years but prices were beyond her budget. She was spending Easter with a sister in Bantry when she decided to try West Cork. "I said if I don't find a house this week, I'm not buying in Ireland at all. I'll buy a house in the UK and travel back and forth for work."
She visited a Skibbereen agent and asked to see what they had available for €80,000. They showed her the cottage. She put in an offer and had moved in within six weeks. It was, she says, "kind of liveable. It had one radiator in the kitchen and an open fire, but beyond that it didn't have central heating. But it had a gorgeous feel to it."
However, she remembers that first winter: "I thought, 'What am I doing? I don't know a soul, I've no friends, I'm a people person. Here I am sitting in the middle of nowhere.'"
"If I'm really, really honest," she says, "it was at a time in my life when I was running away to hide. And this was an amazing hideaway, this was like manna from heaven," she says. She had been happily married for a second time when she fell in love with a woman and they both left their relationships to live together. In her 40s at the time, she had had no idea she was gay. Sadly, the relationship didn't work out. It was at that low point that she decided to buy in West Cork.
"My plan was, I'll live here for a year and start inching my way back up to Dublin." Instead, she has spent 16 happy years in the cottage. "It became a safe place and it also became the place that gave me the courage to actually go, 'I don't need to hide, I don't need to feel bad about my sexuality. It was almost like you had to go back to your roots in order to confront your demons. I mean, who comes back to Ireland in order to come out?"
In 2003 she met her partner Marian O'Sullivan, and the pair have been splitting their time between Cork city and West Cork.
Over the years, she has transformed the cottage. It has a new roof, it's been rewired, re-plumbed and insulated "within an inch of its life". It has a large living room with a wooden beamed ceiling and a wood-burning stove. The country-style kitchen has integrated appliances and plenty of counter space for food prep as well as a table to provide the stream of callers with cups of tea. The bathroom with walk-in shower is on the ground floor, with two bedrooms upstairs. The half-acre gardens have a lovely stone-flagged terrace and barbeque. "It's in turnkey condition," she says.
It's a good place to work. It was here that Eilish penned her one-woman show Live Love Laugh, which goes on tour again in September. "I'll miss the silence, the tranquillity, I'll miss the culture," she says. "When I first moved everyone said, 'God, you'll die alive down there, there's nothing to do.' In fact it's a busier place to be, winter or summer, than Dublin could ever be."
She's off to Dublin, where she has bought a house on the North Strand. It is, she says, a refurb job but, true to form, she's already moved in. "I'm indoor camping," she laughs. Herself and Marian will escape to Cork often. "We can rent a cottage by the sea, we can spoil ourselves."
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