This two-storey penthouse apartment has views from Dalkey Island to Howth
Sri Lanka is known as the jewellery box of the Indian Ocean; apparently, it's home to more precious stones than anywhere else in the world.
Many of the most highly prized jewels - including the sapphire in Princess Diana's engagement ring - originated there, and what many people don't know is that a good sapphire can be much more valuable than a good diamond.
Helen Gallagher, however, does know this, and much else about gemstones. Helen is what's known as a gemologist, and has her own company selling her wonderful designs, which are encrusted with all sorts of semi-precious stones. Unlike most other people in her profession, she was fortunate enough to be able to study in the 'jewellery box' itself, as her husband was posted to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, as CEO of an international bank.
When Helen moved there in 2012, it was the 10th move during her marriage, and the seventh country she was to spend time in, having already lived in Hong Kong, Switzerland, Vietnam, London, Indonesia, and Bahrain.
Not that she's complaining. From very early on in her career, the elegant blonde - who was born in Cork, but moved to Kilkenny at the age of 11, when her bank manager father was posted there - had decided she wanted to travel. She wasn't sure at the time how that would happen, but an opportunity eventually presented itself.
However, first she had a bit of a false start in hotels. "I went to Dublin at 18 and worked in banqueting in the Shelbourne," says Helen. "I thought hotels were going to be my thing. Gerry Lawless, who was known as the silver fox of hotels, was the manager; Rocco Forte was the owner, and he used to fly in with his personal chef. It was great fun at one level, but it was 24/7; it was such a commitment; it was like a marriage. After two years, I thought, 'I can't do that'," she says with a laugh, adding, "I wanted adventure."
Fortunately, she had already met her future husband, Padraig - he was rooming in Dublin with a friend of Helen's from Kilkenny, who introduced them - and his job would take them all over the world. Soon after they met, Padraig got a job in a bank in Hong Kong, and Helen decided to join him. After a year there, they moved to Geneva for a brief period, and then it was back to Hong Kong, which Helen loved. All the while, Padraig was climbing the corporate ladder, while Helen worked in different hotels, as it was the industry she knew.
That period in Hong Kong was followed by six months in Vietnam in 1994 - three months in Hanoi, and three in Ho Chi Minh City. "We were two of only a handful of expats in Vietnam. There were only 15 vehicles in Hanoi, and we had one of them - an old Nissan Pathfinder. It was bizarre. I'd walk down the street and they'd say, 'It's Diana' - they'd never seen a blonde before. Of course, it all opened up shortly afterwards," Helen notes.
After that, it was back to Hong Kong for another stint, and this time she worked as an analyst with an American power-generating company. They were in Hong Kong for the handover, in 1997, from British to Chinese rule. "It was very interesting. Actually, the Chinese didn't change much. They knew they were getting the golden egg; they weren't going to mess it up," Helen explains, adding, "They didn't change any of the street names in the affluent areas, or do anything else drastic."
The couple married in 1998, and their eldest child, Ashling (now 18) was born in Hong Kong, but a move was again on the cards. "We moved to Jakarta when Ashling was six weeks old," Helen explains. And they were still there when Cameron (now 16) arrived two years later.
Their next move was to London, where they spent five years, and Robin (now 13) who was born there, completed their family.
Then it was off to Bahrain, which Helen also loved. "Obviously, we always mixed with expats, and there was a great community of them," she says, adding, "We met lovely people in the local community too; they were extremely friendly."
However they did experience another side of expat life in the Middle East. "We lived in Bahrain for four-and-a-half years, so we were there for the Arab Spring in 2011," says Helen. "We saw a lot of fighting. And we had to leave suddenly. When the soldiers were coming over the border in tanks, it was time to go. We got a call, 'The family needs to leave'. My husband had to stay, of course. It was terrifying; we didn't know if our house was going to be looted, or if we would be able to go back or not. But we did go back, and stayed another two years."
Thoughout her stints in the different countries, Helen had worked where it was possible; sometimes in hotels, sometimes in offices; when she was in London, she handled the marketing for a swimwear company. It was impossible for her to work in Bahrain.
However her husband's next move was to Sri Lanka, and it was here she realised what her dream job would be. "I was always into jewellery," she says, "and when I realized how rich the country was in precious and semi-precious stones, sapphire, amethyst, topaz, garnets, peridots, lemon quartz, citron," - she lists them off - "I decided I had to find out more."
It helped that most people speak English there, and she did her studies through English. Now qualified, she can recognize the value of a stone from its rough form, and she knows what stones are best for what designs. Once qualified, Helen set up her own company, Rodanthe. She does all her own designs, and she has a cutter and two craftsmen who make the jewellery.
As it happened, the move to Sri Lanka coincided with the need to send Ashling and Cameron to Irish schools, and while they found them boarding schools here, Helen realized that she would need to spend more time in Ireland. Over the last five years, she's been coming and going on a regular basis. People here began to admire the pieces she herself was wearing, and soon she started to sell her pieces through jewellery parties. She started doing them with her friend, Carolyn MacDonnell, from Bray, who's also a jewellery designer; and they were a great success. She's also done pop-up shops in the Grapevine in Dalkey. "I felt there was a gap in the market for affordable jewellery using only natural gemstones," Helen notes. "I wanted to create a collection women would buy for themselves. My target market is the 30-plus woman; she has her good rings, now she wants nice costume jewellery. I set the stones in sterling silver, and that keeps the costs down. If a client decides later that she would love to have the stone set in gold, that's no problem to do. I also do custom-made pieces."
With regular trips to Ireland to see the children and sell the jewellery, it made sense to Helen to find a suitable pied-a-terre. It was 2012, and there wasn't a lot on the market, but after a year of looking, she found the perfect place - a two-storey penthouse apartment overlooking the glittering sea on the south Dublin coast.
It's stunning now, but when Helen first saw it, the main thing it had to recommend it was the sea view. But that was enough. "I trawled for nearly a year. Then I saw this. When I went up on the deck, that was it. I fell in love with the view," Helen says. "The apartment itself was like a chintzy yacht. It was built 15 years ago, and because the deck is practically over the water, they wanted the effect of a luxury yacht. But it was all red-velvet curtains and brown units and floors. The kitchen was orange, and there was Italian lacquer furniture." Helen got rid of the brown floors, she had all the brown units painted white, and she sent the Italian lacquer furniture to the local auction rooms. "It's amazing how you can alter a space, and open it up, by changing some colours," she notes.
However, there were certain things she couldn't bring herself to get rid of - "I didn't love the bathrooms, but the sanitaryware was Villeroy & Boch; I couldn't justify throwing it out," she notes - while the chandelier in the living room was something she really did love.
She says the colour scheme she opted for throughout was inspired by the location. "I was going for a Hamptons look; coastal colours, so I have lots of blue, while the walls are a shade of sand," she says.
The backdrop is deceptively simple, and everywhere you look the sea is the star, but her furnishings - the sofas from Sri Lanka and the cushions from Shanghai Tang in Hong Kong - bring touches of real luxury. It's been a pied-a-terre for the last five years, but it's chic enough and comfortable enough to become a real family home.
However, that's not to be. Padraig and Helen have decided that they need to be around full-time for the rest of the children's education, so they've decided to live permanently in Ireland, and unfortunately the apartment is a tad too small for all five of them.
So they're moving on. They're staying in the area, but they know they will never get a view like this one again.
"I just know I will miss it terribly, I'll want to come back in 10 years. It is a gem of an apartment," Helen says.
Fortunately, Helen is good at finding gems.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine