Thursday 14 December 2017

Castle of dreams: How these Irish artists transformed this castle into their fairytale home

Thinking of buying a fixer-upper? That's what artist Eavaun Carmody and Emmet Sexton did - and after much blood, sweat and tears they now have a fairytale home in Co Tipperary. They tell Fran Power how they captured their castle.

Killenure castle and house.
Killenure castle and house.

Fran Power

Most people dream of buying a place in the country at some stage, maybe doing it up over the years and enjoying something of the good life. Usually, this reverie concerns a small cottage, perhaps with a garden, and a nice view. Now meet Eavaun Carmody and Emmet Sexton. They dream big. We're talking castle big.

"It was very much in the eye of the storm, 2007, when we bought Killenure Castle," says artist Eavaun. They had been looking for seven years and must have visited a hundred properties, but "they were either too derelict or we hadn't the money".

The opulent formal dining room.
The opulent formal dining room.

They took a long, hard look at the property, which is near the village of Dundrum in Co Tipperary, before they committed to buying. "We had a lot of surveys done because I didn't want to go into such a huge project not having really educated myself on the building first," says Eavaun. "We got a building survey, we got every room measured, we got the land measurements done - a complete condition survey done at a cost of €30,000 before we ever signed on the line. I felt that was a very important exercise to do."

They paid €2.25m for the castle, which included a 10-bedroom period house and 16 acres of land. Over the course of the renovations, they ploughed nearly the same amount back into it.

It wasn't their first refurb. They had done up their two previous houses, one in Phibsboro and the other a four-storey Victorian terraced house on the North Circular Road, so they had a good idea of the difficulties that lay ahead. Still, says Eavaun, "we had never taken on a programme of works like this, it was so extensive".

The turreted castle dates in parts from the 1560s when it was first built on land belonging to the O'Dwyer clan. It was burnt out during the Cromwellian wars and had been without a roof since then. One of the towers had been absorbed into a later house, part Georgian, part Victorian, built on the footprint of an old thatched cottage. In total, when the sprawl of outbuildings was included, the property extended to 16,000 square feet. "There was no difficult work, there was nothing to be underpinned, no rising damp or anything like that, but it was difficult because it was so extensive," says Eavaun. "We had to replace half the roof, the services were very antiquated and had to be replaced, from the plumbing to electrics, everything."

The elegant Georgian proportions on display in a view facing the hall.
The elegant Georgian proportions on display in a view facing the hall.

The work took two years, and the pair threw themselves into it. Both have a background in art and design - Eavaun studied Fine Art in Dun Laoghaire and worked as a professional bronze caster. She also owned Greenwood Antiques in Dublin, which she sold in 2005 when her eldest child was born. Emmet is a lecturer in industrial design at Carlow Institute of Technology. "Both of us had a vision for the place," says Eavaun. "Mine would be more fine art, his would be more linear."

Emmet took 18 months' unpaid leave to project manage the works and the paperwork involved - as a registered monument, Killenure required archaeological digs and all the planning rules and regulations pertaining to protected structures had to be followed to the letter.

It was painstaking work because they were determined to preserve the character of the building but add some 21st century luxuries. "We stripped it down inch by inch, inch by inch. It was very tired, very unloved," says Eavaun. "It had no heartbeat, was completely flatlined."

She remembers one winter restoring the floor in what had once been the servants' outbuildings and became the kitchen. The flagstones had no foundations and were made of limestone, so they soaked up water. "They were super-saturated. You were nearly, in areas, wading, depending on the gradient, you were wading through water."

They photographed the flagstones, numbered them and then had them taken up one by one. Then they laid down the damp-proof course, put in underfloor heating and replaced the original flagstones at exactly the same gradient. "If you didn't put them back the same, you would have compromised the architraves around the doors, and the doors would have to be changed and cut, so you'd take the honesty out of the space," says Eavaun.

Moving to a rural area from Dublin also meant they had to assemble a team of builders in an area where they didn't know a soul. "We started from scratch and that was a huge, huge challenge," says Eavaun. But luck was on their side - they found local builder Eugene Maher, who had worked on the house in the past and knew its quirks, but also had the patience and same approach to restoration as they did.

Two years later, in 2009, the family moved in - as Eavaun says now, "prematurely". Their children -Dylan, Rowan and Charlotte - were only four, three and six months and the place was still in upheaval as the builders worked their way through the snag list. It also had to be scrubbed from top to toe.

Looking back on the process now, Eavaun says: "You have to have a bit of naivety to go into something like that or you'd never do anything experimental. You'd never really do anything if you knew the pitfalls. It's better not to know."

And elegant sense of design is carried through the extension, the kitchen and the main bathroom suite.
And elegant sense of design is carried through the extension, the kitchen and the main bathroom suite.

Now the house is a delight. The 10 original bedrooms have been reduced to eight and have what Eavaun describes as "an eclectic mix of personalities". One former bedroom was converted into a dressing room and another into a den for the children.

The many layers of history are still evident - there is a magical bedroom in the 16th century turret. The two elegant reception rooms have early Georgian fire surrounds and are built on the footprint of the original thatched cottage.

The house had six bathrooms and they added two more, converting the original storage area for the copper water tanks into a guest wet room with an over-sized, heated wall mirror that never fogs and an underfloor heated mat. Another bathroom, housed in one of the converted outbuildings, has a rolltop bath upholstered in cowskin and an old sign on the wall advertising "Manure for Sale".

Some touches are irredeemably modern - the main bathroom suite has a huge egg-shaped bath of reconstituted stone. A modern extension - a glass box structure which, says Eavaun, is temporary and reversible - has been added to the rear of the kitchen and provides an bright family dining space that overlooks the bustle of the courtyard hub.

Eavaun's creativity is also on display on the walls. "The house is really unusual because I'm influenced by my life as an artist so I have a really eclectic collection of art in the house from 200 to 300-year-old Dutch paintings to a Geraldine O'Neill bizarre painting with a split pig's head in a balloon," she says.

The idyllic courtyard.
The idyllic courtyard.

True to form for this whirlwind of energy, Eavaun and Emmet had barely settled in before she decided to open the house and grounds to the public. "I was sitting in all this history, older than the introduction of the spud to Ireland, and I thought this is mad, I've got to let people in," says Eavaun. "I own the house but I don't own the history. The history belongs to the parish."

She launched an indoor/outdoor art exhibition, OAK, that is now staged every three years. And then she stumbled across a piece of edible history, the Dexter cow, a cross between a Kerry cow and a Devon cow that originated in the local parish of Dundrum. Small and tough, it was bred to be the poor man's cow and was in danger of extinction.

"I'm always very much attracted to the underdog," says Eavaun, "so if it's a story, whether it be a building or a piece of art or the Dexter which nobody is loving and it needs to be helped, I'm the woman for it. I love an orphan."

Two years later, she is the owner of a herd of more than 400 cows, employs 11 people and the humble Dexter beef appears on the menu at the country's most exclusive hotel, Ballyfin. Next up? She has set her sights on bonehandled cutlery made from, yes, the horn of Dexter cattle.

Think before you buy: Eavaun's tips

  • Calculate how much the programme of works will really cost you. If tight costings for renovations and continual maintenance of the buildings are not put in place from the beginning, your  beautiful old home will become a  financial vortex.
  • Get the building surveyed first and get the quantity surveyor in.
  • Employ a team of builders who are used to working on period buildings and possess the same convservation approach as you.
  • Check out their reputation with at least three previous clients and be wary of the lad who adds another nought to the potential bill with every 50 yards he approaches up the drive.
  • Try to retain the integrity of the buildings by reusing and recycling as many materials from the site as you can during through the works.
  • The bigger the building, the bigger the problems and the bigger the cost — develop patience and a sense of humour as practically every week some problem will pop up.
  • Try to integrate into your new community as soon as you make the move – I found having children in the local school was a good ‘in’.
  • Immerse yourself in community activities — it’s a great way for both you and your children to make friends.
  • If you’re moving to a rural area from the city, give serious thought to the cultural change; think of the social side. There’s no clicking your fingers on the street for a taxi anymore. Every outing needs serious planning.

Eavaun Carmody and one of her Dexters at Killenure castle
Eavaun Carmody and one of her Dexters at Killenure castle

Sunday Independent

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