Sunday 18 November 2018

Tiger and thatch in Galway

A contemporary build combines the postcard allure with modern luxury

St Catherine's House
St Catherine's House
Detail from the work of expert thatcher Chris Beaver
The sheltered front entrance
St Catherine's House
The viewing platform looks over Galway Bay
The kitchen has solid walnut units
The kitchen/dining room with a tiled floor and beamed ceiling
The 'big room' with its huge limestone fireplace
The hall staircase is hand built in mahogany
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

When builder, draftsman and Oranmore native Martin Walsh returned home to Galway in 2003 to be with his elderly parents, he had been away building houses in Wales. As the Celtic Tiger headed towards its crazy crescendo, Martin decided it was time he designed one for himself at home.

Like many who built at that time he admits he spent a tad more than he intended - "Like a lot of us, I thought I had more money than I had," he laughs.

His father had grown up in a vernacular 1823-built thatched cottage at Ballynacloughy in Maree and Martin got a site behind it. "I had seen some of the large thatched cottages that the architect Paul Power had designed in Kinvarra and Kilcolgan and I liked them a lot. I felt it would be good for developing my skills to get involved in a project like this with a bit of difference."

Historically thatch was seen as a sign of poverty, one of the reasons why so many of them disappeared from our landscape. And using soft Irish reeds or straw, it was a roofing which was often fraught with problems. The Oughterard Heritage website shows off many of the remaining vernacular thatched Galway cottages and highlights aspects of their upkeep, including unexpected problems.

It quotes islander Tomas O'Crohan discussing the vexed issue of nesting poultry: "The thatch would have been all right if the hens would only have left it alone, but they wouldn't. As soon as the rushes began to decay, and worms could be found in them, a man with a gun couldn't have kept the hens away from scratching and nesting there." This resulted in some unusual problems: "It was as good as a day at Puck Fair to listen to two of the women whose houses adjoined, quarrelling with one another about the ownership of the 'eggs'".

These days thatchers have access to tough and resilient Turkish reed which lasts decades longer than the formerly used native stock. Hens would have a bother burrowing into it. And it still fulfils its big advantage - as breathable insulation. The air pockets in the packed reeds provide perfect heat retention in the winter, a very modern need, while allowing it to breathe. Today they also attract tourists and tenants eager to rent, something Walsh has discovered when letting out rooms.

Inspired by Paul Power's work, Martin sketched out a modern take on a larger thatched dwelling - a five-bedroom home spanning 3,300 sq ft. For difference locally he leaned towards a more elaborate English Georgian thatched design and came up with St Catherine's House (named after both his mother and grandmother).

There were no problems with planning and it took 18 months to build, finishing in 2005. He called in the well known Headford-based thatcher Chris Beaver to roof it. Now Martin has turned his attention to the original cottage, Lizzie's Cottage, which he plans to restore and rethatch using the experience he built up at St Catherine's House. The newer dwelling has now been placed on the market through RE/Max seeking offers in the region of €720,000 for the house on a half acre.

Among the additions are an expansive viewing platform terrace accessed from the upstairs bedroom, and from the garden below, to take advantage of the views of the Clare Hills and Galway Bay below.

St Catherine's House is approached via iron gates through a private driveway lined with mature trees. Living accommodation comprises of an entrance hall, two reception rooms, a kitchen/dining room, a utility and a downstairs WC. There are two main bathrooms and five bedrooms while the master chamber has its own en-suite.

The windaround hall staircase is hand made in mahogany but perhaps the house's best feature is the 'big room' - the main living room with a solid oak floor, rustic wooden ceiling beams and unusual two metre-high limestone fireplace crafted in Co Clare and holding an original cast iron stove. This has the Walsh family motif carved into it and Martin says it could easily take another.

The south-facing kitchen/dining area is fitted with solid walnut units, a Belfast-style sink, wooden ceiling beams and off it is a utility room also with walnut units. The second living room/reception room also has solid oak floors, wooden ceiling beams and a solid fuel stove surrounded by an oak framed fireplace. The thatch roof contributes to its C2 BER which is unusual for a house this size. All windows and doors are in solid cedar wood.

All three bathrooms are tiled from floor to ceiling and come with power showers. All the bedrooms have high vaulted ceilings and sea views. The master bedroom leads out to the viewing deck.

To the rear of the property is an entertainment area with access from the main living/reception room There is parking for 20 vehicles and a shed provides additional storage. The site and surrounding lands have been in Martin's family for over 200 years. It's a mile from Maree village and four from Oranmore. The sea is five minute's distance.

St Catherine's House

Ballynacloughy, Maree, Oranmore, Co Galway

Asking price: €720,000

Agent: RE/Max, (091) 330 300

Indo Property

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