Peek inside this stunning house in Yeats' country with views of Benbulben
Damien Brennan is a witty expert on Yeats, Paula Gilvarry is a superb cook, so, pooling their talents, they use their wonderful home to introduce visitors to our national poet.
Damien Brennan and Paula Gilvarry live in a house with the most stunning views. Lucky them, you might say, but most likely you would also add that so do many other people; after all, Ireland is blessed with gorgeous lakes, mountains, rivers and forests.
But Damien and Paula's aspect is extra special; they live in Sligo, within spitting distance of both Lough Gill and Benbulben, and the view from their lofty living room contains the locations and inspiration of four of William Butler Yeats's early poems. "That's the hazel wood out there; remember, 'I went out to the hazel wood/Because a fire was in my head', from the poem, The song of Wandering Aengus?" says Damien, going on to explain the other poems as he points out different elements of the landscape outside his window. "That's Dooney Rock, as in 'When I play on my fiddle in Dooney'; and see there, where the mountain dips down into the lake? That is 'Where dips the rocky highland/Of Sleuth Wood in the lake', from The Stolen Child. Innisfree is just around the corner," he finishes proudly.
Damien has had a lifelong interest in Yeats. Although he's from Dublin, he spent all his childhood holidays in this very spot in Sligo, and also had inspirational teachers - Jill Noone and Father Tom Dooley - who ignited in him a love of Yeats. However, it wasn't until three years ago that he and Paula decided to capitalise on their incredible location and Damien's vast knowledge of the poet. These days, the couple run the Yeats Experience, which involves regular Yeats lunches, dinners and even tours, but they had a whole other life before Yeats took over their thoughts and their home.
Damien is a flamboyant dresser - olive-green trousers, a green-and-white striped shirt and a green-and-red spotty bow tie would be everyday wear for him - and he'd be hard put to pick the right bow tie, as he has a collection of 125. So it's difficult to believe that he was once prepared to spend his life in black. "I studied for the priesthood with the Marists for three years," Damien explains, adding that he left for a year, then came back again, but after a further 12 months, he left for good. "As one of my superiors put it, 'A vocation is an invitation from God, you can accept, or you can decline with grace'," Damien notes, adding that he declined.
It's obvious from the way he speaks of the Marists that he doesn't regret the experience; in fact, he is enriched by it, adding that he made friends for life during his days in the seminary. "His friendship with those men is such that if we were in trouble, one of them would always turn up to help," Paula, who's a doctor, notes.
After the seminary, Damien got a job in the Sligo Park Hotel, and two years later, in 1978, he opened a pub of his own, called Beezies, which became the happening place in Sligo.
Paula, who's from a medical family in Castlebar - her father and two sisters are also doctors - was a house doctor in Sligo General at the time, and she shared a house with Damien's sister, Susan, a physiotherapist. The girls, of course, had to go in and check out Beezies, and that's where the couple met.
However, Damien was a bit slow off the blocks. "I met him in May, 1979. We started going out in June; I went to England in July. I came back a couple of times, and then on New Year's Eve of 1980, I rang him up and proposed to him. He said he'd think about it. Three days later, he rang me back," Paula says with a laugh. The marriage is still going strong 36 years later.
The pub didn't last, for various reasons. Damien got out of that business, and then went into selling catering equipment.
Paula went into community medicine and has had a long career as a doctor, but she also adores cooking, and in 1985, the couple opened a restaurant in Rosses Point, which was a huge success; it was called Reveries, after Yeats's autobiography, Reveries Over Childhood and Youth. In 1988, when the Euro-Toques movement was started in Ireland by Myrtle Allen, Paula's reputation was such that even though she practiced medicine by day, she was one of the first to be invited to join, as she was considered one of the leading chefs in the country.
The couple ran the restaurant for six years. However, when their children Sarah and Paul were born, they decided to sell it. Initially they planned to buy a country house, with a view to running it as a guest house, but instead Damien got a job with Failte Eireann, and Paula continued with the medicine.
Then in 2012, after 20 years with Failte Ireland, Damien opted to take redundancy, and that's when he decided to develop his plan for Yeats. "I knew Yeats would look after me," Damien says.
They had the ideal house, which they had built in May 2002; it's constructed on the 18 acres Damien's family had farmed since 1824. "They were tenant farmers on the Hazelwood estate, which was run by the Wynne family; we're on the tithe rolls for Elphin," Damien explains, adding that he acquired the farm from his aunt Anna - his mother came back to live in a bungalow on the land, too - and he designed the house with architect Wendy Lyons. Obviously the aim was all about maximising the views, and the contemporary-style three-storey house is designed in such a way as to have views from everywhere, including the two bedrooms on the garden level. "Even my bath has a view," says Damien with glee.
The house comprises an enormous open-plan kitchen/dining/living area, a study and three bedrooms. The master bedroom, which is en suite and has a dressing room, is on the top floor and has the best view of all. Limiting the sleeping accommodation to three bedrooms was deliberate. "I will cook for Ireland, but I'm not having anyone staying," Paula states firmly, though her friends will note that two bedrooms are empty - both children are gone; Paul is the manager at local restaurant Knox - according to his parents, it's the best restaurant in Sligo - and Sarah works with PayPal.
Though contemporary in style, the interior of the house is not minimalist. The living area is dominated by a massive table, which Damien got from the Marist seminary's refectory, and they have more than 50 chairs; their lunches and dinners are for groups comprising 10 to 50 people.
However, the atmosphere is never impersonal; the decorating style is cosy and colourful, with lots of paintings by Damien's cousin, Gwen O'Dowd, and local artists. Colour is also added with cushions. "As my mother always says, 'The homes of the Brennans are full of soft furnishings and lamps; we tend to want our homes to be like hotels'," says Damien, alluding to his two hotelier brothers, the well-known duo, Francis and John, of the Park Hotel Kenmare and At Your Service fame. "I'm the oldest and the poorest, and I taught them all they know," Damien says with a laugh.
The Yeats Experience takes place at Broc House, Holy Well Lane, Sligo, tel: (087) 232-0820. To book a Yeats lunch, dinner or tour, see yeatssligoireland.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
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