Thursday 22 February 2018

The perfect getaway

Jill and Cyril Forbes ignored other people's pessimism about their country retreat, says Mary O'Sullivan, and flooded it with life and natural light. Photography by Tony Gavin

Cyril Forbes outside his 19th-century cottage. Photo: Tony Gavin
Cyril Forbes outside his 19th-century cottage. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

When Cyril Forbes and his wife Jill first viewed the riverside house that was to become their country retreat, they met a man outside the property who was full of doom and gloom. Cyril recalls his exact words. "Yes, it's a lovely house, but unfortunately it's subject to flooding." "Then when we went inside," says Cyril, "and I remarked on the lovely fireplace in the front room. He agreed, but added: 'When it smokes, open the window'." As an amused Cyril reminisces about the stranger, who had no vested interest in dissuading him and Jill from buying the house, he is making a point about how some people just cannot help being pessimistic.

We have plenty of reasons to be pessimistic at the moment, but people like Cyril, who are relentlessly upbeat, have lessons to impart. A successful businessman with his own insurance agencies, Cyril is a great believer in giving something back to society by getting involved in charities and public-service bodies.

"People put air in my tyres. Now it's my turn to put air in theirs," he notes. Cyril has been chairman of the Crafts Council of Ireland, has sat on the board of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, and is on the boards of the Don Bosco Teenage Care Housing Association, and the Green and White Benevolent Fund, the society that assists past pupils of Gonzaga College.

His most recent mission is Sutton2Sandycove -- a campaign to get a new promenade and cycleway, linking Dublin's Northside and Southside.

It would be much easier for Cyril to relax and enjoy the fruits of his business, but he feels he can't, mainly because when one of the worst things in the world happened to him as a child -- the death of his father -- there were people there willing to pick up the pieces.

"I was brought up by the bounty and goodness of Dublin. In September 1954, the day I was due to start school in Gonzaga, my father, who was about to take up a position as a high court judge, died. He left a widow and six children destitute. She got nothing from the State except a bill for £2,500 in back tax -- but Dublin looked after us," Cyril recalls.

He goes on to list the acts of kindness: the family got a house in Wellington Road, Dublin 4, the identity of the benefactor remaining a mystery; his mother got a pension from the Bar Benevolent Society: there were shoes from Boylans, meat from Mullans; and the five boys went to Gonzaga College. "We paid no fees. It was without compliment, no one knew," says Cyril.

The good start proved beneficial: when Cyril got a job in the Insurance Corporation of Ireland, he was immediately earmarked for management. He soon branched out on his own, establishing Kennedy Forbes Ltd, which specialised in legal professional indemnity. He set up the business after meeting Jill, who was born in Zimbabwe, where her father was a tobacco farmer who later decided to relocate his family to Wicklow.

When the couple met, Jill was working in customer relations at Xerox. "She came in to my office one day. I saw this stunning blonde and thought, 'I'll never land her'," Cyril recalls. Apparently, at first, Jill thought he was pompous and arrogant, but later when they met again in a pub, she realised he was good fun. "That's what you want, isn't it?" she remarks. Cyril and Jill married in 1970 and have two grown-up sons, Robert and Jason.

Cyril's work means that they live mainly in Dublin, but they have always loved getting out of the city and opted early on in their marriage to co-own with friends a house in Oughterard. However, they found the long journey from Dublin to Co Galway too much, and decided to look for another property closer to the capital. So one day in 1982, Cyril fired off a load of letters to auctioneers and estate agents. Their house on the River Nore in Kilkenny was the result. They fell in love with it and its idyllic setting on the tree-lined river bank the minute they saw it. They make frequent use of the boat moored at their private jetty. The house has the distinct advantage of being within minutes of the scenic village of Instioge, and a short drive from the bustling city of Kilkenny.

A typical double-fronted cottage dating from the early 18th century, the property was semi-derelict when they acquired it. Back then, it comprised four rooms, two-up, two-down. "When we first bought it we were here one day when an elderly couple staggered up to the door -- he and she had confetti in their hair. They had just got married and were taking a walk down memory lane. She told us that she had lived here at one time and that there were only walls and an earth floor, nothing more," recalls Jill.

While Cyril and Jill kept the front of the cottage intact and merely decorated the room with the fireplace as a sitting room, and the other front room as a bedroom, they did a lot to modernise the rest of the house. They added three bathrooms, and a balcony to the master bedroom to make the most of the river views from upstairs. Their most dramatic alteration was carried out in 2000. This was achieved by removing the back of the house and adding a two-storey extension, comprising the open-plan kitchen/dining/living room and a mezzanine.

This double-height, open-plan room enjoys lots of natural light with the semi-circular living area punctuated by six full-length windows overlooking the patio and the river beyond.

It's a modern space, floored in limestone, but extensive use of local oak ensures a rustic, organic feel. "The oak is all from Ballaghtobin," Cyril says, referring to a local estate owned by their friends, Catherine and Micky Gabbett.

Other materials sourced locally include the Kilkenny limestone used to cover the worktops on the white-painted units. "The kitchen was made by Tom Fitzpatrick of Carrick-on-Suir; it must be the fourteenth kitchen Tom has made for me, and every single one is as strong and structurally sound as the day he did them," says Jill, whose work involves renovating houses. The centrepiece of the kitchen is the Stanley, which Jill calls her "bestest friend" -- which she insists is no exaggeration. "It runs our underfloor heating, all the radiators, the hot water, and you can turn it on and off. And it's brilliant for cooking. It has dug us out of so many situations." The couple also love their Anki wood-burning stove. Given that the house is surrounded by woods, the Forbes are unlikely to ever run out of logs. "It's fantastic," Cyril says.

The couple's art collection is also impressive. It includes a life-size warthog in the garden by Anthony Scott; ceramic wall hangings by a great friend, the local artist Michael Jackson; and paintings by a host of other artists and craftsmen whom they met through Cyril's work on the board of the Crafts Council of Ireland. The pair often buy pieces of glass and other objects on their travels abroad. "I see and Jill decides. I know my place," Cyril says with a laugh.

They have furnished the house with love and it shows. Unfortunately, due to the pressure of work they cannot spend as much time there as they would like. They used to worry about the house sitting empty but have resolved this concern by renting it out when they are not using it.

By the way, what about those gloomy predictions? "The river has never flooded and the fire has never smoked," Cyril confirms.


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