Ciara Bourke and her husband Kevin Doherty took a 1950s house and had everything changed, even its front. Now she’s devoting her creative side to building the art career she always wanted
As has been said many times already, the pandemic — while a disaster — forced people to take stock of their lives and, often, do things differently. Artist Ciara Bourke is one of those people. She returned to her first love — painting — after a long hiatus and, among the artworks on her wall, hang paintings by Ciara herself, just created in the last three years. She’s also busy with commissions, her work has been selected for several group exhibitions and it has raised vital funds for many charities.
“When Covid hit, I thought, ‘no one is going anywhere, this is a time for myself’ and I started to draw and paint again,” the wild-haired Dubliner notes.
She was helped in her endeavours by two almost contradictory forms of communication, the often derided social media and the old-fashioned form of letter writing. “When I was growing up in Shankill, we lived beside a Belgian family. My sister and I” — Ciara is the eldest of three — “became great friends with the daughters and kept in touch by letter over the years. Then when Covid hit, Dominique, one of the daughters, set up this challenge on Facebook. Every week, a photo would be put up. It could be anything and each person in the group would do their own interpretation. There were about 15 in the group. I loved it, it was like art college in lockdown,” Ciara notes with a laugh. It got her back on track, having been preoccupied from the time she went to college, despite the fact that as a child it was taken for granted by herself and everyone around her that she would do art.
“At school, it was like my destiny. The teachers used to say I was brilliant, and I was expected to do anything art-related in the school, like paint the windows at Christmas in the kindergarten. In 1978, I was on the Draw Near programme on RTÉ with artist John Skelton and my painting was in the RTÉ Guide. When it came to a college course, I never thought of doing anything else so I went to what was then Dún Laoghaire School of Art and Design [now IADT].”
At the time, however, few people made a living out of art and most artists only painted part-time and that influenced Ciara’s choice of subject. “There was a feeling that you’d never make a career out of painting so I thought I’d do graphic design. I did the foundation year, decided graphics wasn’t for me and left to do fashion design.”
She went to the Barbara Bourke College of Fashion Design and loved it. As well as studying fashion, she did a lot of fashion illustration and afterwards worked freelance, designing debs dresses and a range for a boutique in Dublin city centre. During her time studying fashion, she had become great friends with fellow student Don O’Neill — who afterwards went on to become an award-winning international designer in New York but who had first gone to London after graduation. “Don rang and said, ‘there’s a room in our house, come over’.
The invitation was irresistible and she had a wonderful time in London over the following 18 months. “It was Don’s birthday three days after I arrived and we had a big picnic with all his friends in Battersea. Living with him and other friends was great, Don used any excuse for a party. We had been thick as thieves in college and London cemented our friendship,” she notes.
She worked in retail to pay the bills until she suffered a knee injury and had to return home. Once she recovered, she got jobs in fashion and interior design and enjoyed both. It was during that time she met her husband, Kevin Doherty.
“My sister moved into a house on Leeson Street and Kevin and I met at her moving-in party. The funny thing is, he and I knew many of the same people and went to the same places but had never met. We had even lived in Wembley at the same time — 1988/89 — and even went to the same pub there and never met there, either. So meeting at my sister’s party must have been fate.”
They married in 1996 and their three children, John (23), Sarah (21) and Adam (also 21) arrived within the same two-and-a-half years. “It was like having triplets. Sarah and Adam are Irish twins, born within the same year. It was hectic; there were a lot of nappies, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
While the couple were going out, Kevin, an electrical contractor, bought an old house on Tivoli Terrace in Dún Laoghaire. They did it up together and lived in it until after the children started arriving, when they realised it was too small for the growing family. They loved the period house and had applied for planning permission for an extension but when it was turned down, they realised they’d have to move. Ciara found the ideal house a short walk away. “We wanted to stay in the area and I only found this road when I was walking the baby in the pram. It was 2006, boom time, we had put in offers on loads of houses and were outbid but we were successful with this.”
While the house, which dates from the 1950s, lacked the period features of their previous house and was in poor condition, it had many other advantages, including big gardens front and back which meant they could extend out both ways while, at the same time, renovating it. They got architect Gerry Hynes to do drawings and applied for planning permission, which was successful. They rented in the area while the work was being done. “We completely gutted it. I remember at one stage it was like a bomb hit it, no roof, no walls. It was the end of the boom when we were doing the building and it was difficult to get plumbers and other tradesmen. Kevin project-managed it himself, which was great. In our relationship, I’m the creative dreamer and he’s the practical, dependable one so we complement each other perfectly,” she notes affectionately.
They made several changes to the house, removing a horrible conservatory and tiny kitchen, adding a large kitchen extension, turning the garage into a playroom, and adding bathrooms. They converted the attic and put the master bedroom en suite in that space.
The most fundamental change was the architect’s idea of pushing out the front of the house and adding a porch that is open right up to the roof. It meant losing a room from the upper floor but it’s a great feature and fills the rest of the house with light both upstairs and down.
The other big change was the addition of a large, open-plan dining/living/kitchen but after it was done, they had second thoughts about the open-plan aspect of it and changed it to broken plan.
“We realised it didn’t work with the three young kids. Everyone had different needs, so we added doors dividing off certain areas. The great thing is you can open them up and the whole place is great for parties and celebrations.”
The colour scheme throughout the house is quite muted and Ciara depends on lighting and lamps to create mood and atmosphere — Kevin, of course, did the lighting design. Colour and contrast are added with interesting pieces of furniture, paintings and cushions. “I’m not one for going to a shop and buying a room, everything matching. I prefer to bring different pieces together. I’ve eclectic taste so I have modern pieces like the console and coffee tables from Vobe, and old things like my grandparents’ nest of tables.”
Now that the kids are all off doing their own thing — John is doing accountancy, Sarah is studying psychology and Adam is doing an electrician’s apprenticeship — Ciara is able to concentrate on her art, much of which she does at the moment in her kitchen. “I work at the kitchen table. It’s solid oak and seats 14. When we bought it, we thought it was too big, but everything happens at this table.”
She works mainly in watercolours, which are quite portable, so if the table is needed, she moves to the playroom. When it’s a day that she decides to paint, she says she gets fully immersed in it. “Time disappears when you’re right in the work, you’re enjoying it so much. At the beginning, it was hard to get back my confidence. Talking about your own work is difficult and believing in myself is hard but I’m getting better at it.”
The positive response has been a great help. She has sold works on Instagram, and she has had many commissions. “My niece got married and I did a drawing of her first house. That led to several commissions.” She exhibits in the group exhibitions in Walter’s pub in Dún Laoghaire and then there’s her social media presence. “That’s done a lot for me.”
She was also approached by Máire De Leastar of the Narrow Space Gallery in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, and several of her works are on view there.
She’s delighted that she was able to help several charities, including The Irish Cancer Society and the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation. “I also took part in Pluid, which was a project set up by artist sisters, Claire Halpin and Madeleine Hellier.
“The brief was to create pieces of art, six inches by six inches, that showed what gave each person comfort during lockdown. Over 1,000 unique pieces were created and shown together in the Cowshed Gallery in Farmleigh and afterwards auctioned for Pieta House.”
Ciara’s work is inspired by nature, particularly the sea, which is only minutes from her home. Her work is semi abstract and evolving all the time.
“I feel very happy about it. It’s not so much that there was a sense I’d forgotten who I was but when I do paint I feel ‘this is me’. You give a lot of time to your kids, so, OK, this is my time.”
Instagram and Facebook: @ciarabourkeart