Romancing the stones
The Mill House Naul, Co Dublin
Asking price: €750,000
Agent: DNG McKenna Healy (01 8491510)
In 1999, whilst out riding on horseback with her husband, interior designer and some-time retailer Shirley Connolly came across an 18th century former mill in the Naul in north County Dublin, along with an adjoining miller's house and surrounding land.
While many would have noted the fascinating stone ruins and moved on, Shirley saw the potential in the old house and knew it was exactly what the couple were looking for to create a dream home. So she and John bought the lot.
The house was a shell with no roof and cows were living in it at the time of purchase. "My father said at the time, 'in the name of Jaysus, what are you buying here for'," laughs Shirley. "Of course, when it was finished, he couldn't believe it. He died a couple of years later, so I was so glad he saw what we created."
The couple then resurrected the mill building itself and converted it into five houses and three apartments. "It's such a unique little enclave," says Shirley. "There's our home, and the five houses and three apartments in the mill, with the River Delvin running through it. It's a very private area. You drive down and see the old mill, but it's like a secret place that nobody knows about because we're tucked away from it all."
As an interior designer and builder couple, the Connollys were the perfect partnership to take on such a massive project. At the time, Shirley had two interior shops - Out Of The Blue in Malahide and Monkstown - so certainly had the know-how when it came to putting a house together.
The early days were tough though, with plenty of ups and downs. As the buildings that date back to the 1700s are listed, they had to have archaeologists out to comb through the site before they could get planning permission.
"There's an old stone bridge on it and we were so worried they might find bats living there and stop the whole thing to protect the endangered species, but thankfully we got the all clear," recalls Shirley.
The transformation from cowshed to a contemporary home is quite an achievement. The couple didn't use an architect because they knew exactly what they wanted to do with the old building themselves. The build took about a year and the couple says they put the best of everything into the house, from underfloor heating throughout downstairs to the hardwood double-glazed sash and reclaimed church windows.
The house is full of wonderful contrasts, like the detailed staircase, which was handcrafted by John himself, up against the exposed stone of the original walls. Or the Portuguese limestone floors that come to an end at the office on the ground floor when it meets up with the dark parquet. Likewise, in the living room, where the couple laid salvaged pitch pine that leads into the kitchen with its Spanish terracotta tiled floor.
With a generous floor area of 3,100 sq ft, the Connollys have created a home that is allowed to breathe.
The living room, kitchen, dining room and sitting room all flow into each other, which is why this house is the perfect party pad.
"It's such an entertaining house," agrees Shirley. "The layout is perfect for it. We love having people over. Every weekend we've someone here. The laughs and parties and fun that we have from this house will be with us forever. Everyone is going mad we're selling. We really lived in it. Every room in that house is used."
Instead of towing the line and putting an ensuite bathroom into every bedroom, the couple put everything into two big bathrooms and left the bedrooms alone so guests could have a great big room to enjoy.
Upstairs, there are four bedrooms and two bathrooms. One bathroom has a circular Jacuzzi bath and a double shower, while the other has handcrafted units that Shirley painted in an Annie Sloan paint. She's a firm believer in bringing colour in where you can.
"I'm sick of grey," she laughs. "I always wonder why clients want grey in their houses when we live in a grey world. I love white walls so you can show off artwork and bring in colour through furnishings."
No expense was spared when it came to the outdoor areas either. There is a composite deck at the side of the house that has a 12ft black limestone chimney with a built-in firepit, a seating area and retractable awning, which means the rain doesn't have to dampen the party.
It may feel like country living, but Naul is only 15 minutes from Dublin Airport, or 20 minutes to the southside of the city through the Port Tunnel.
The Connollys just got planning permission to build a house at the entrance to the mill site and so are heading into a whole new project.
"The old mill house is so full of character and I just love it. I feel so sad leaving it. I feel part of my soul is there," laments Shirley. "We've made lifelong friends here though and will never leave the area."