As architect Hugh Wallace, a judge on RTE's current series of Home Of The Year, noted in a recent interview, the winner of the competition to find Ireland's home of the year will be a particular type of home. "It's not about architecture per se, it's about family, functionality, good design, and the personalities of the people who live in the home, and how that comes through." Hugh enthused.
The home of artist Paul Gregg is one of the homes featured, and even on first impressions of the house, it's obvious it will be a strong contender. It's not edgy, it's not minimalist; however, it has good design, functionality, and, woven throughout the whole in an almost inextricable, tangible way are Paul's sense of humour, sense of tradition, and love of family and friends.
Everything in the house has a story - from the mechanical train set which belonged to Paul's father; to the fish tank housing a host of goldfish as well as a replica of Liberty Hall; to the kitchen cabinets that came from an American navy hospital; to the dining table that seats 40 every Thanksgiving - and every story reveals something of Paul's creativity, his ability to problem-solve, and his sense of fun.
Paul lives in the house with his charming Italian wife, Lucia, and their adorable baby, Paolo, but as Lucia says, the house is very much Paul. It was almost complete when she and Paul - who's originally from the States - met seven years ago; at that stage, Paul had already been here 13 years.
Paul arrived here in 1995, having completed his studies in sculpture, armed with a Fulbright scholarship which funded him to travel. "I had this romantic notion. What do you do when you finish your formal education? Come to Europe, of course, throw yourself into another culture," he says. "At the time, Newsweek was voting Dublin 'hippest city in Europe'. In America, Dublin was just all the rage and I thought it would be much nicer to go to this place with this great emerging art scene, than London, which would be the more expected place to go."
Paul says he had a brilliant year, and because of the explosion of building development at the time, there were great opportunities for artists under the Per Cent for Art Scheme. "I thought, 'I'll stay a second year as I'm starting to get some commissions' and then I got teaching and it all snowballed, and then I needed a better and better reason to leave," he notes. "I love America, but I also enjoy Ireland, and I'm very grateful I've been able to make a career here, which, in art, is always tricky," he says.
He got a job lecturing in Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT) and, over the years, he's been commissioned to create large sculptures for many public places, including schools and hospitals; anyone who's visited Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin over the last 10 years will know his fascinating Subaquatic Dublin. It's the capital city in a giant fish tank, complete with Liberty Hall, Croke Park, the Spire, Georgian terraces, and lots of fish darting in and out of the buildings. "The fish are the citizens," Paul explains with a laugh, adding "The kids love it, but older siblings, and the doctors and nurses all have to look at it, so I wanted to make something that would appeal to them as well. I think it gives a very contemporary interpretation of Dublin city, and I'm interested in being a contemporary artist, not just a 'I'll do anything you tell me to do' artist. I'd love to go to cities all over the world and build replicas of their landmarks for their children's hospitals."
The continuous supply of work was one reason Paul kept putting off a return to the States, but love cemented his decision to stay, and our low-fares airline played a valuable role in his love story; Paul and Lucia met on a Ryanair flight returning from Bologna. "I was on a city break. I saw this woman in the airport and I thought she was lovely," he recalls. "But I was tired; I was going home and I forgot about her." That is, until he was seated in the plane and he saw her board. "One of the last people to get on was Lucia, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, it's the woman'," he says. "The seat next to me was free. She came closer and closer and sat down next to me. She had a Dunnes Stores bag, so I knew she actually lived in Ireland, so my opening line was, 'So are you coming home?'"
They chatted the whole way home, exchanged numbers and were soon an item. They got married three years ago in Lucia's home town, and, as a memento, Paul created a wonderful sculpture for each of the 72 families at the wedding - each sculpture features a globe, a plane and plays the American national anthem and Santa Lucia, a traditional Italian song.
Lucia, who's on maternity leave from her job in Google, is beautiful, charming, intelligent, and she's also a great cook, as Paul discovered early on in the relationship. "We met at Tesco. She said, 'I'll cook you a meal' and bought smoked salmon and an onion - and that was it, yet she whipped up this amazing pasta. I was sitting here thinking, 'This isn't so bad'," Paul recalls with a laugh.
At that stage, he had, of course, created a wonderful kitchen to cook in, having bought his terraced period house in 2000 in Dublin 7. "Everyone loves a view of the sea, or a lovely cafe next door. I wanted a lot of space to have a studio as well as a house," he says. "I looked at a Georgian house back in the days when the starting price at auction was already at the top of my budget. I was naive and went thinking 'maybe no one else wants it', but it went for three times the price!"
However, he then got a stroke of luck. "It was another auction - I was away and my solicitor bid for me. It was withdrawn, having failed to achieve its reserve, but we were the highest bidder and they negotiated with us. The solicitor called me and said 'Let's offer a thousand more to show we're totally at our limit' and they took it." he marvels.
The house, a red brick built in 1903, was in need of complete renovation, which suited Paul because he wanted everything to be a particular way. He did much of the work himself, including the carpentry and paintwork. He did it over time - he rented rooms to pay the mortgage, and whenever he got a chunk of money from a commission, he did another bit of the renovation. That way, he built his studio and fitted out the kitchen and bathroom.
The house had five bedrooms including an attic room, but he turned one into a spectacular bathroom; the attic became an office with a glass roof affording views over the city; and two bedrooms became one guest room.
Downstairs there is a living/dining room to the front, a library to the back and a wonderful kitchen, which is a great combination of tradition - exposed beams and brick, all done by Paul himself - and modernity, in the form of stainless-steel worktops shipped for a song from America.
A combination, you might say of the old world and the new.
Paul's house will feature on 'Home of the Year' on Thursday, at 8.30pm, RTE One.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin