Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sparkling like a jewel in the West

Romantic Phyllis MacNamara tells Mary O'Sullivan how she found her real dream home


'BRIGHT is the ring of words when the right man rings them," said someone terribly wise like Robert Louis Stevenson back in the 19th century. And his sentiment still applies today.

December is a time when a lot of right men ring out four very little and, to the appropriate woman, very bright words: will you marry me? The consequence of an answer in the affirmative is of course an actual ring, preferably one of large, very sparkly diamonds.

In Galway, if the proposer really is Mr Right, he will take his intended and head immediately to Cobwebs at 7 Quay Lane, because it's the most romantic jewellery shop in the West, if not the whole of Ireland. And Phyllis MacNamara is possibly the most passionate jewellery shop owner. She understands love. Young impossible love, comfortable love and indeed enduring love. She's been there, still is. "My husband is gorgeous. We're married 27 years and I still always smile when I see him."

And of course there's a great love story. "We met in my parents' house when I was 14 and Michael was 15. His parents were Irish but he was brought up in England. We met again in Trinity and became best friends. Then the day his father died I needed to be with him, and suddenly I realised, to my horror, I was in love with him. It was unfortunate, because I was engaged to someone else."

Only a very romantic woman would furnish her bedroom with a four-poster bed. Indeed only a very romantic woman would choose as her favourite room her bedroom, but Phyllis has always been that romantic, ever since she was a child, when at the age of nine she spotted the rambling old house she decided she would like to live in when she grew up. "We lived in the city but I used to keep my pony at my uncle's in the country. I always remember one summer's day riding through the woods around this particular house, and whatever way the sun shone it made the house seem magic and I wanted to possess that magic. I used to say to my mother, 'I'm going to live in that house when I grow up."'

Romance, creativity and art were words stamped all over the young Phyllis, yet she almost didn't find the career which would encompass those qualities. The daughter of the well-known Galway businessman James Lydon, she decided after finishing school to go to Trinity and study business. "My father had a catering firm and he gave me the feeling that business was exciting and fun. But I hated studying it. I knew I was more artistic, so I gave it up and studied fine arts and English instead."

After her studies, Phyllis planned to go into radio production, and when her sister, who had started an antiques business in Galway, asked her to work with her, she would only agree to give her a week. "But I stayed, she left shortly after, and 29 years on I'm still here," says Phyllis with a laugh.

There was a period of four years when she and Michael (yes, dear reader, they got over the obstacles and married) lived in England. However, as well as buying and selling antiques and jewellery there, she held on to the shop back home. Michael is a solicitor and they had no plans to live in Ireland except in the very distant future. Then a certain house came up for sale.

"This is a true story. My sister Nives and her husband were house-hunting and they went to see this rambling old house. They immediately saw that it wasn't for them but they told my parents, 'It's got Phyllis and Michael written all over it.'

"My parents realised it was 'my' house, the one I'd always talked about when I was a child . Daddy persuaded us we should buy it, if only to have for the future. He made a low offer on our behalf and to his amazement it was accepted."

Shortly afterwards, Michael was offered a job in Galway and everything slotted into place. The MacNamara family (Phyllis, Michael and their only child James, now 25 and an investment banker in England) moved to Galway. Michael took to Galway life, and Phyllis, as well as rearing James, continued to study antiques and jewellery and built up her business. The ground floor of 7 Quay Lane is an Aladdin's cave of jewels and old gold, while the first floor is sleek and chic and houses all sorts of gifts and interior items.

"I do deal with some very expensive things but I don't think I'm materialistic. I can get as much pleasure from a very expensive diamond as a bunch of primroses. What I love about a good diamond is that it's nature's best, fashioned by man. Some of my own favourite possessions have no value at all."

As well as expanding the business there was also, of course, the small matter of restoring the house. "It was seven years' hard labour," says Phyllis, laughing. She groans at the recollection. "I stitched and sewed, Michael tiled, plastered, painted, papered. We were the real hippie couple. We had the worst cars, no holidays, no clothes," says the now extremely chic Phyllis, dressed from head to toe in designer clothes.

It's a stunning house set on spacious grounds with a wonderful tree-lined avenue leading from the gate to the front door.

The house was built in 1780, and the front has all the qualities of a typical Georgian house of its time large rooms, high ceilings, sash windows but when Phyllis and Michael took it on, the back, she says, was all higgledy-piggledy little rooms. "There was an egg room, an apple room, a pantry, a scullery. Three small bedrooms at the back. It was as if the builder went to Dublin, saw the Georgian houses there, came home, was determined to build a similar house but got it all wrong. The right Georgian proportions are in the front and the back was like a country farmhouse. But that's part of its charm. I adore this house."

HAVING been restored lovingly, it now emanates a warm welcoming glow, from the sunny yellow on the exterior of the house to the peachy, wide hall, through to the reds, greens and blues throughout the house.

"I called the paint specialist Christopher Moore and said, 'I want you to imagine Lake Como in September, it's seven o'clock, the sun is falling, you're squinting up your eyes and looking at the village of Bellagio. That's the colour I want in the hall.' He said, 'Fine,' and that's the colour I got."

Complementing the hot Mediterranean colour scheme in the hall are two enormous Mick Mulcahy canvases, which, if not exactly sexual, are certainly erotic.

"I went to his exhibition and I found my heart beating much too fast at the paintings. I decided I wanted some of them so I went to his studio and bought two. They just made my heart go boom-budy-boom. I paid for them over a very long period, and one day I went to pay him some more of what I owed him and he said, 'I have enough, I don't want any more.' She laughs, adding, "Michael loves them too, but when I first bought them I was worried, so I hid them under the bed."

Big pictures but even bigger bed. And very cosy bed, hung with luxurious red and brown chintz. The same fabric was used in the curtains. "I used to have the most divine antique curtains, which I bought at one of these secondhand shops in France brocante I think you call them anyway they literally fell apart and I got an interior designer friend to source similar fabric and it's almost identical."

Apart from the bed there's little need for furniture; adjoining the bedroom, which is carpeted in sisal and papered in a wide blue stripe, are her dressingroom and bathroom.On either side of the mantelpiece (which sits over a real fire) are what seem to be bookcases. But one is a trompe l'oeil and is the door to the dressingroom. The other is real.

The room also houses a music centre reading and music are two passions. As is her dog Ross, who also sleeps in the bedroom.

"A lot of people don't think the bedroom is important, but it's about the quietest, most important moments in your life, and I think it should be your favourite room.

"And of course it's where I see Michael last thing at night and first thing in themorning."

Robert Louis Stevenson also said that marriage is a field of battle and not a bed of roses, but he didn't know Phyllis. Yes, lovers both young and old are guaranteed a welcome at Cobwebs.

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