'Being a Kerry man is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man… You belong to history and language and romance and ancient song," John B Keane, the 20th-Century playwright from Listowel, famously said.
Unusually for an interior designer, Michelle Keane sprinkles her conversation with literary quotes from the likes of John B; words of songs, and bits of local history - but then she, too, is a Kerry native, and like John B, is fiercely proud of her heritage.
Despite the surname, she's not related to the Listowel author, but she's from nearby Knocknagoshel, and whatever is in the water there seems to make them all silver-tongued and full of charm. It's a quality that can only have helped her become Ralph Lauren's home furnishings online representative in Ireland.
And despite having to travel all over the country for the role, as well as for her work advising clients on their decor, Michelle is based in Kerry, and she wouldn't dream of moving.
Indeed, her lovely home, which she built from scratch, is only a stone's throw from where she grew up. "It's a very historic place. The civil war started in Ballyseedy, in the field behind my house," she says, adding with a laugh, "My father, Luke Keane, is the local historian. He bate all the history of the place into us."
Growing up on the family dairy farm, - "I'm the middle of five, the one that was deprived of everything," she jokes - Michelle also learned all about local arts and crafts. "My mother, Therese, is gifted with her hands. She's from Brosna; that place was steeped in arts and craft culture; she was brilliant at crochet. Nora, my grandmother on my dad's side, was a brilliant knitter, so I have it on both sides."
With her interest in the arts, art college was an obvious choice, and after the Leaving, Michelle went to Mallow and trained as a fashion designer, then went to NCAD, where she won a scholarship to the Scottish College of Textiles. After graduation, Michelle originally designed knitwear, but with the textiles background, it made sense to her to get into interiors, and she worked freelance, mainly in Dublin and Cork.
But Kerry lured her back. "I was 24, 25, and I decided I wanted to be back home," Michelle explains. "I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and I decided if I wanted a job in Kerry, I had to create my own. So, in 2000, I founded my company, mibeau Interiors". She adds,"The Celtic Tiger hadn't started roaring yet, but in my blood I knew it was going to be good, and in those days I worked for the best in Ireland. There was a boom in hotels, and I got a lot of work in that area; and abroad, I worked for Oceanico Developments in Portugal. I never advertised - one job led to another."
Just as she was setting up her successful business, another good thing happened - she met her husband, Keith, an accountant. "I met him at a wedding, and came home and told my mother, 'I've met the man I'm going to marry'. We were engaged and married within a year and a half. It was 2003. He's my rock, and a dote," she says fondly, adding that he's quiet and reserved and very laid-back, the polar opposite to her.
Needless to mention, Keith, a Waterford man, had to come and live in Kerry, but apparently he absolutely loves it. They have two kids - Luke (eight), and Holly (two).
Despite the crash in 2008, Michelle's company ticked over, but she has actively upped her game in recent years. "Two years ago, in June 2016, I felt Ireland was back where it was where it was in 2000. I felt the Tiger was going to roar again, so I said, 'What's my bucket list; what do I want to do?'"
She decided she wanted an online business, and the local enterprise office awarded her a trading-online voucher to the value of €5,000, and that helped her to launch her website. That has been a huge boost for her business, and led to something even better - the acquisition of the Ralph Lauren business.
"A client of mine in Ballybunion wanted the Ralph Lauren Cote d'Azur collection of fabrics for her holiday home," Michelle explains. "I couldn't source them anywhere here, so I flew over to London and got them. While there, I heard through the grapevine that they were looking for an online presence in Ireland." The bubbly business woman explains that she didn't let the grass grow under her feet. "I cancelled my flight home and went into the Bond Street Ralph Lauren store and spent the day researching their fabrics and wallpaper."
A week later, Michelle was called over to London for an interview. "I beat off stiff competition," she says. "I had an advantage with my background in textiles. The head of marketing for Ralph Lauren flew over the following week, and we signed the licence agreements in my studio."
Other good things have happened since, including acquiring 20 more international brands for her website. Meanwhile, Enterprise Ireland invited her on to the New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development Scholarship Programme, in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland, IT Tralee and the Tom Crean Business Centre. "It's been phenomenal," she enthuses, extolling the talents of the people who've been mentoring her.
Needless to mention, Ralph Lauren fabrics command pride of place in the home she and Keith have created from scratch. "I drew the set of plans on the sand in Ballybunion - I drew out the sizes of the rooms, and where I wanted the furniture to be. Then I went to the architect, Michael Burke, and said, 'Get light into every room, and I want the kitchen in the front of the house’ - which is south-facing. He did it all. He was excellent."
Once the plans were in place, she project-managed the build herself and employed direct labour for every aspect of it. "I was pregnant at the time with Luke, and I got all local guys," she says. "It was ideal; it was 2008, it was quiet for them."
A spacious house set on its own grounds, she has four bedrooms upstairs, one of which is en suite; and downstairs, she has a stunning light-filled kitchen/living/dining room, and one elegant, classically furnished sitting room.
"I'm very practical, I was sick of going into houses that had dining rooms that no one ever used," Michelle says. "I didn't want a playroom. Whether you're going to the toilet or working at the sink, the kids want to hang around you - my kids, anyway. I wanted every room to be used," she says, adding, "I light the fire in the sitting room every night, and Keith and I relax in there once the kids are in bed."
There's a large studio to the rear of the house, and there's a strong sense that Michelle is up and at it early in the morning till late at night, but at least with all the new online business, there's less need for her to travel. And as she herself says, quoting her favourite Kerry man, "A day out of Kerry is a day wasted".
"I travel all over the country," she says. "I'm driving a lot, but I love to come home; I'd rather come home at two in the morning, than stay in a hotel. The savage loves his native shore; you can't beat it."
mibeau Interiors, tel: (086) 814-0354, or see mibeauinteriors.com.
mibeau Interiors will be appearing at house 2018, Ireland's only trend-led and style-focused interiors event taking place in Dublin's RDS, May 25-27, showcasing world-class design and the cream of Irish interiors talent. Buy your tickets now at house-event.ie/tickets. Under-12s go free
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Living