Saturday 24 August 2019

RTE presenter Helen Carroll selling her dream home with screenwriter hubbie Peter McKenna

The award-winning ‘Ear to the Ground’ presenter is set to sell the contemporary Kilkenny home that first brought her to rural living

Helen outside her rural Co Kilkenny home. Photo: Bryan Meade
Helen outside her rural Co Kilkenny home. Photo: Bryan Meade
The contemporary property offers views of the countryside. Photo: Bryan Meade
The gallery hallway. Photo: Bryan Meade
Helen Carroll in the stone floored gallery hall. Photo: Bryan Meade
Family living space with a traditional stove
The hall space with stairs at the end which lead upwards to a double height gallery landing
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Who could ever think of Helen Carroll, the long-time presenter of RTE's Ear to the Ground, as anything less than a dyed-in-the-wool country woman? But the popular farming and rural lifestyle programme's veteran presenter was once 100pc city slicker.

Carroll first touched down on rural ground in 2001; the year that she started a family and also acquired a site at Johnswell outside Kilkenny City to build a contemporary, architect-designed home with screenwriter hubbie Peter McKenna (Red Rock, The Clinic).

At the time their choice for a new rural base was fortuitous. Because right after the Paschal Mahoney-designed home at Ballysallagh was topped out in 2003, the makers of Ear to the Ground (ETG) got in touch asking her to screen test for an anchor role on the show to replace a departing Mairead McGuinness, who later went on to a successful political career and is now an MEP.

Now after 15 years based at Ballysallagh in the heart of Irish dairy country and an equal number fronting ETG, Carroll is preparing to sell up and trade down to a more manageable house closer to Kilkenny City, where she was raised near St Luke's Hospital.

The contemporary property offers views of the countryside. Photo: Bryan Meade
The contemporary property offers views of the countryside. Photo: Bryan Meade

But back in 2001, the former sports and current affairs journalist was rooted firmly in Dublin with Howth-born McKenna; each pursuing careers that were very much city-based. They had no intention of living elsewhere.

"I was working with sports at TV3 and by that time we had already bought and restored two houses in Dublin's East Wall right in the centre of the city," she says. "Then I got pregnant with Katy (now 16) and, whether it was hormones or what, all of a sudden I just felt a deep-seated need to get back to Kilkenny.

"Peter was fine with it, which was surprising, given how much he used to hate leaving Dublin - I used to slag him that he'd break out in a rash every time he left The Pale.

"We very much wanted to restore another property - to find an old farm house or a cottage and do it up. But there was an unexpected problem. We're both just under six foot two and everything we looked at had low ceilings and low doors. We were banging our heads in every house we viewed!

"Then an estate agent asked us to come and look at a site. We said 'no' because we still had our hearts set on finding an old house. But finally we were persuaded and we found ourselves in a sloping field with trees and cows. There was me, six months pregnant, climbing over walls and ditches. We just fell in love with the spot then and there. It was away from the road and private but still had these lovely views. It was perfect."

The next step was to find a talented architect to come up with a dream home design. They didn't have to look far, as Peter is good friends with award-winning architect Paschal Mahoney of Mahoney Architecture, whose project experience had included eye-catching buildings like The Beckett Theatre at TCD.

Helen Carroll in the stone floored gallery hall. Photo: Bryan Meade
Helen Carroll in the stone floored gallery hall. Photo: Bryan Meade

Helen recalls the only real challenge as being the slightly sloped site itself, which required gradual stepping of the building to take it down the hill.

However, she admits putting her foot down with one very practical requirement at the top of her wish list: "I just had to have a utility room. In the two houses we'd had previous there was no room for one and I'm just not comfortable washing dirty clothes in the same area that you do the cooking. And I'm big on storage. So call me odd, but that's what I wanted most of all.

"We had some paintings to hang and Peter needed a good space in which to write at home, from where he would be working. Other than that, we let Paschal off to see what he would come up with. We loved the results."

Mahoney Architecture describes the finished project thus: "This single family residence is located on the high point of a meadow that falls towards a small mature wood. The house is approached by a long driveway that passes through the wood and skirts the edge of the meadow. The form has two elements: the timber-clad main two-storey block which accommodates the bedrooms, kitchen and family living and the separate 'sanctuary' room - which provides a book-lined sitting and working space.

"The home has also been carefully designed to accommodate the client's collection of contemporary art."

Helen and Peter know what they like and most of the larger paintings are on show in what she calls their "gallery hall".

Family living space with a traditional stove
Family living space with a traditional stove

Helen adds: "We ended up with this great big hall space with a really clever door that slides all the way out to close off the kitchen from the hall; or you can make one great big space by sliding it all way back so it completely disappears. In summer we leave it open and the hall space becomes part of the kitchen area. In the winter when you want the kitchen to be more intimate and cosy, you just slide it back out again."

From planning to completion, the project took nearly two years. Helen adds: "What I really love after all these years is the drawer window in the bedroom. The site is private but when the leaves are off the trees in winter and you're lying there in the dark in bed, you can see the lights of Kilkenny twinkling through right there at the end of the bed. All my family are still based there, so that's always been sort of reassuring.

"When we moved here and I started the show, I did have an idea about farming through my dad, who came from a dairy-farming background and worked for ACOT, the precursor of Teagasc." To the rest of us, Ted Carroll would be best known for his hurling: the Kilkenny centre-back with three All Ireland medals.

"When we moved into Johnswell, I found myself down at the school and making friends with parents involved in farming. Having that connection would turn out to be very valuable for my television work. Johnswell is perfect for ETG because you can get to anywhere in Ireland pretty easily." The M9 is nearby linking Kilkenny with Dublin/Waterford and Carlow.

The other advantage for Carroll, who has also worked with Prime Time and Kenny Live, is that she's just five miles from her extended family along with the shopping, pubs and restaurants Kilkenny's thriving tourist city has to offer.

Co-presented by Darragh McCullough and Ella McSweeney, Ear to the Ground has just celebrated its silver anniversary 25th season and shows no sign of falling in popularity. Helen's role has seen her covering all aspects of rural life, from big farming to cottage enterprises. "One of the most humbling experiences for me was milking two goats at a farm in Romania, and these two goats were pretty much all the farmer owned."

And it seems goats particularly like her hair. "They really like to eat it, for some reason. I've loved my work on ETG but the downside is that over the years I've been kicked and bitten by; pecked by, pooed on, peed on, sneezed on, spat at and chased by everything that's been farmed. I am particularly weary of horses because I've been bitten by them. Geese are the most formidable because of the speed and ferocity at which they can attack you. There's a good reason why they were used as guard dogs."

She adds: "In the period I've been presenting, I think the biggest change has been experienced by women. In the past, women were very much involved with the running of the farm itself, but today they bring in non-farm income. More educated and qualified, their earnings very often exceed the farm income. Without them, a lot of farms would just be gone.

"We've really enjoyed this house but now that Katy is 16, we presume, she will be moving on in the next few years to college. And with Peter working increasingly in England, it will be just me and Luke [her six-year-old son] a lot of the time. At 2,500 square feet, that's a lot of space. It's what you'd call a 'half-empty nest'. So we're trading down to something smaller and a bit closer to Kilkenny."

The house is approached via a sweeping wooded driveway through raised beds and the family's bee hives. In the grounds Peter also tends a polytunnel that has produced home grown tomatoes, chillis, courgettes and salads.

The distinctive L-shaped gallery hallway with guest WC off has double-height ceilings and a natural stone floor with recessed lighting and full-length dual aspect windows. It gradually steps down into the kitchen and to the sitting room. The latter is entered by double doors from the hall with a parquet floor and full-length windows with light-sensitive glazing. There's a homely cast-iron stove with a granite hearth, bespoke shelving and a lot of storage. This dual-aspect room also has a feature double-height pyramid-style ceiling with a skylight fitted overhead. Double doors open out onto the patio outside.

The hand-crafted kitchen was installed just two years ago and has a natural stone floor continued in from the hall. Aside from eye and ground level units, it comes with an integrated gas hob, two electric ovens, a grill, dishwasher and an integrated tall fridge. The countertop and splashback is Quartz. There's a living room with a cast-iron stove and granite hearth and the sought-after utility and laundry room, which also has a door to the garden.

There's a guest WC. The house has underfloor heating at ground level. A smart stairs rises to a gallery landing with a double-height ceiling. The main bathroom is marble-tiled from floor to ceiling and includes a free-standing Triton power shower. Three of the bedrooms are double-sized while the master suite is triple aspect and includes an en-suite shower room and a walk-in dressing room with a large fitted mirror along with that drawer window. Outside is a bespoke Shomera garden office for writing in peace.

ETG fans will be delighted to know that Helen is moving house only and hopes to remain in front of camera for some time to come.

"What I really enjoy about it is that you go out every day to meet ordinary people who have never been on television before and they have these amazing stories to tell," she says. But what will viewers of her home find hidden away under the stairs? It's a spare second utility room - just to be sure, to be sure.


Johnswell, Co Kilkenny

Asking price: €450,000

Agent: DNG Ella Dunphy (056) 778 6000

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