Style guide - eye for fashion sees creation of gorgeous home
Carmel Brennan loves her business - selling style to women of substance. The elegant retailer also applies her sharp eye for style to her gorgeous home in Howth. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Clocks are not something you see much in modern homes; to find out the time nowadays, we depend instead on smartphones.
However, clocks of all types are a strong feature of fashionista Carmel Brennan's elegant house - lovely old clocks hang on the kitchen walls, sit on mahogany side tables and adorn various other spots around the house. It turns out that Carmel's late father collected clocks and passed them on to her and her four younger brothers, so they're there purely for sentimental reasons.
Yet, somehow they're a fitting motif for Carmel's life. She has made such good use of her time, fitting in a couple of years as a banker, 24 years in Aer Lingus, a teaching degree, an interior design qualification, and for the last 13 years, a career as a fashion retailer.
She now has two extremely successful boutiques on the northside - one in Malahide and one on the Clontarf road, near where she grew up. Both stores are called ellen b, and, as she says herself, owning her own business is a long way from the secretarial course she did after her Leaving Cert.
"When I left school, I didn't want to go to college, so I did a secretarial course for a year. At the time, the two treasured jobs were the Bank of Ireland and Aer Lingus, and I got into Bank of Ireland," she notes with a laugh.
She must have been good even then, because two years later, when she was 20, she got the other coveted job - Aer Lingus - and obviously preferred it, because she stayed with the airline for 24 years, starting as an air hostess.
It was shift work and she was able to build up masses of unpaid leave; enough to go off at 24 and become a teacher, while continuing to fly during the college holidays.
"I just decided I wanted to study English and history. I thought I'd like to be a teacher, so I did the B Ed and the H Dip in St Pat's in Drumcondra. It was hectic, because I was studying during term time and flying at Christmas, Easter and in the summer," she says.
"Then I taught for a year in Darndale and - nothing to do with Darndale, the kids were lovely - I just decided no, I'm not ready to give up Aer Lingus, and I went back.
"I got promoted - maybe that was the attraction, I was promoted to operations supervisor, which was working with the cabin crew, and briefing them before flights. My job spec was 50pc flying and 50pc office work and I loved it."
The work combination - flying and office - particularly suited Carmel, as by then she had married and divorced, and was a single mother to her daughter, Erica, from the time Erica was two.
When Erica - who's now 25 - was eight, Carmel met Brian MacDonald, the man who was to become her second husband, in the well-known Dublin pub Doheny & Nesbitts. "Would you believe, I rarely went in there - I just happened to go in that particular night, and we ended up chatting," she recalls.
Carmel and Brian - he also has a grown-up daughter, Laila - married in 2000. Carmel decided to take redundancy from Air Lingus in 2002 and go into retail. "I always loved fashion, always liked shopping and I was exposed to a lot of it when I was flying, and I started a shop in Malahide with a friend.
"After four years, I went out on my own, also in Malahide. Then, just over two years ago, I opened in Clontarf. When I think of it, I went into retail having no experience of it whatsoever," Carmel says, aghast at the naivete of her younger self. It paid off, however, probably because of her work ethic, something she says she inherited from her parents.
Her father was a guard and her mother, after whom the shops are called, was a nurse; they worked hard to give Carmel and her four younger brothers a good education, and when they retired, they bought a pub.
"They were real grafters, never afraid of hard work or a challenge," Carmel says admiringly, adding that because of them, she's not averse to taking risks.
Sadly, both her parents died in 2009, but she's comforted by the fact that she and her brothers were able to help take care of them. After their deaths, she had more time on her hands and opened her second shop.
"When they passed away, I thought carpe diem - seize the day - and, as it happens, there was an opening for a good boutique in Clontarf," she says.
Carmel says that much of her success is down to the staff - Vera, Ger and Marian in Clontarf, and Kay, Isabelle, Mary and Jill in Malahide - and her ranges, which include both international and Irish labels.
Fabiana Filippi, which is what Carmel calls good-quality casual, is very popular with the clientele, as are Annette Gortz, Sian Jacobs, Schumacher, Robert Clergerie, Twin-Set, and a recent addition to her stock - Antoni & Alison.
She also stocks costume jewellery by Irish designer Vivien Walsh. "I've learned what the customers like. And when I go buying in Milan, Paris and Copenhagen, I bear them in mind," Carmel says. "I love the buying, I'm energised by it - you have to have a passion for it."
Old houses are another passion of Carmel's. It's a passion she shares with Brian, and they bought their lovely period home in 2005; it's their second home together. "Funnily enough, we knew the previous owner, she emigrated. Actually, we had no intention of moving, we had just renovated a period house in Clontarf. We saw the house was for sale on the back of the property pages, and I decided to come and look at it, and fell in love with it, and Brian did the same, and we went for it."
Her late father wasn't too impressed when they bought the house in Howth. "He nearly had a heart attack," Carmel recalls with a laugh. "My parents lived near us in Clontarf and loved having us around the corner. He said I might as well be moving to Hong Kong."
But of course, he came round and was a great help when they had to work on the house.
And it did need a lot of work. They put in a new kitchen and doubled the conservatory and made it their dining room, but the major work involved converting old stables into residential spaces - a very large office complete with two old partners' desks, a bathroom, a utility room and storage areas - and linking them to the main house, which dates from 1850.
While they updated large parts of the house, they retained, where possible, the period details - the sash windows, the shutters, the old oak beams, the original flagstones, the old floorboards and the marble mantelpieces.
The house, which is set on half an acre of gorgeous grounds, has four bedrooms, a dressing-room and two bathrooms upstairs, while downstairs, as well as the office, the kitchen and the conservatory, there's an elegant drawing room and a room they call the piano room, as it houses a baby grand. The house also boasts a spacious, elegant hall, which is really welcoming.
In putting her stamp on the style of house, which could be summed up as casually elegant and cosy, the glamorous fiftysomething was helped enormously by Emer Kelly of The Drawing Room.
"Emer is a terrific interior designer and she helped me with colour schemes and furnishings. I go for a neutral palette and add colour with paintings," Carmel says, adding that she loves Irish artists, including Sarah Longley, Ken Hamilton and Robert Ryan.
"Emer also came to the auction of the contents of the house and bought some of the furnishings from the previous owner, like mirrors and lamps," Carmel says. "I also got a lot of the rugs and lamps from The Drawing Room. I don't want everything to be old, I like a mix."
Carmel loves her home and is particularly fond of its location. "Howth is a marvellous place to live, with great restaurants and shops and lovely cliff walks, walks on the pier, and the mountains," she says.
Despite being extremely busy with her successful boutiques, Carmel makes a point of making time for such activities.
And she has the clocks to help her.
ellen b, Maurice Mahon House, Main St, Malahide, Co Dublin; also Mount Prospect House, Clontarf Rd, Clontarf, D3, see ellenb.ie
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