Cheeks red, eyes bright, I caught my reflection in the old wardrobe door. I had just come in from the crisp, clean, autumn weather to put the water on to boil. It was lunch-time and after operating the cement mixer all morning I was looking forward to a mug of hot tea. As I stood there I wonder about all the different faces that looked back out of this old wardrobe mirror and wished it could tell me its secrets. This is the only surviving piece of furniture left in the old house. When we first found this place it was in a sorry state. But we could see beyond this and visualise what it could be like. This is our story – the story of a sad neglected house, built between 1867 and 1884, by James (the Yank) Kenny, its history, how we happened to come across it and how it touched and changed our lives.
Perhaps we were subconsciously looking for a project – something to stretch us, something we could do together. I don’t know, but whatever the reason once we found the Yank’s house we couldn’t let it go. This is the story of how we found it, the new skills we had to learn to save it, the people we met along the way and the joys and pains of restoring a near derelict period house. Enjoy.
One: Finding 2007
Maybe mid forties is a funny age, well when you started life early like I did, married at twenty three, a mother at twenty four… all I can say is rushes of blood to the head seem common. That’s how I explain what happened the day the Yank’s house landed on my lap. How you might ask could the house land on my lap. Well, with the aid of broadband and my son’s laptop, anything’s possible. There it was, looking back at me, crying out for a bit of love and attention – a bit like a stray cat at the back door and God knows I am always a softie for a sad little face.
Outside it was a miserable, cold, wet, dark Sunday evening in February. Inside, a warm red fire glowed. The normal Sunday sounds were coming from the TV set in the corner, Songs of Praise, Heartbeat, Antique Road Show and I could hear Pat in the kitchen getting a tray supper ready for the two of us. I had taken to searching for “country houses”. Anywhere would do. I’d spend ages working my way through the different counties, Laois, Longford, and Roscommon for value, Carlow, Kildare and Wexford, more expensive. It was just for fun. I wasn’t going to buy anything. I was comfortable as I was. Mortgage paid and nice little holiday home in the sunny South-East. The kids almost adults – if they ever take that final leap – and Pat and I with plenty of quality time to spend enjoying life. That’s how it was and sure I would be mad to consider taking on a wreck of a house to restore. No this was only dreaming. That is until I found the Yank’s house.
I cannot explain what happened that evening but I now believe there is such a thing as love at first sight. I was so excited I started calling Pat to come and see. ‘I found you a house’ I shouted. He strolled in, amused by my antics, to look at the picture. And then for whatever mad reason, he saw the attraction too. We left the search page open while we ate thick slices of homemade brown bread and drank hot mugs of tea and started to dream out loud, all kinds of plans for the house in front of us. It was fun but still only a game.
I have to explain here that the country was property mad at the time. The Tiger economy roared and we all believed we could be rich. We could see no reason not to speculate – everyone else was doing it and sure if we didn’t wouldn’t we be the fools left behind? Well that is how it felt and no one was afraid of borrowing money. We couldn’t envisage a day when our wages would be cut or taxes would rise – not to mention a day when we couldn’t give property away – never mind sell it.
No! We were well and truly hooked and as the following week rolled on, every evening after dinner we would settle down in the sitting room and bring up the page again with the image of the house on it and talk, dream and plan the impossible. By the end of the week we had talked ourselves into it – there was nothing for it but to arrange a booking to view the house. We still weren’t going to purchase – no, we just wanted to see the inside.
I phoned the agent to set up an appointment for the weekend. However the reply was that we could go to see it any time we wanted – there were no keys. ‘Just push in the back door’ I was told. The agent wasn’t going to meet us there – that’s how easy their job was - so Sunday afternoon we headed off, Pat, Daniel (child number one) and me.
The drive took just short of an hour and a half. The house was about a mile outside Ardagh village in Co Longford. A lovely listed village I had never been to before. It was another dark wet day. Pat kept saying, ‘this place will be hell round the back, a dirty farm yard and cattle feeders. You won’t be as mad about it then’. I really didn’t know what to expect.
We found the house easily enough; the instructions from the web page were fairly good and we had Daniel with us. It’s hard to lose that fellow. From the front the house looked much as it did on the internet except it had suffered another winter of neglect since the photo was taken. The damage to the roof was more extensive than we were expecting and the exterior looked grim in the rain. It’s hard to explain the position of the house. There are two lanes. The house faces onto the first lane but you have to drive down another grass centered lane at the side of the garden to a back entrance. Excitement grew when we got to the yard, no cattle feeders or modern concrete farm building here; instead we were greeted by a graveled yard and the remains of the old stone house and outbuilding that must have preceded the main dwelling. The house itself looked to me like a mid Victorian farm house, two stories over basement.
So out we climbed, no point holding back now; we came to explore and explore we would. It was great not having an agent with us. We could take our time and we didn’t have to listen to sales talk. Down four steps, Pat pushed in the back door which opened into a basement kitchen. The room wasn’t very big. There was a bright green and rust speckled range in what originally would have been an open hearth. A dirty armchair sat by the range and a topless kitchen table, legs eaten to different lengths by woodworm stood in the corner.
There was a door in the room that lead out into a hallway with the stairs running up to the next floor. A second doorway from the hall revealed another room, same size as the first. Later we were to discover that this room was always referred to as the dairy and indeed there was still an old butter churn sitting in the middle of all the rubble. Daniel and I were taking our time looking around the basement. Pat on the other hand preferred to whiz around at speed and had left us so he could explore the next floor.
We heard him calling us to come up stairs and I could sense excitement in his voice. Carefully I started climbing the stairs. They didn’t look too safe. There was a door at the top of the steps which Pat had left ajar.
This floor was laid out the same as the basement, except the front door was off the hall. Prising it open revealed a drop to the ground where once steps and handrails would have stood. There was a room to the left and one to the right and stairs ascending to the third floor. Pat was excited by the grandeur and the period feel of this space. The ceilings were much higher and the two doors leading off the hall were tall and had lovely white door knobs. The room to the left must have been the drawing room. It had three lovely big sash windows with shutters, one facing east, south and west. The floor boards looked good but sadly the fire place was missing. The matching room on the other side only had two windows but these were of the same grandeur. Again the fireplace was missing. We could see this floor had the potential to be a very special space.
The next floor was laid out the same as below, two rooms, one either side of the stairs. This is where we noticed major problems. In the middle of one room there was a half barrel, brown with rust and half filled with water. Above it a massive hole in the roof revealed the bad day outside, the gray sky and lashing rain that dripped from the rotted timbers into the barrel below. Under the barrel the floor boards were rotten and broken.
It was magic! Romantic and blind, I hear you say. But I could visualise it all finished and I standing on the steps, lady of the manor in my summer frock and straw hat. My garden a wonderful wild flower meadow full of butterflies and bees, in the warm summer sunshine. I loved it. I was delighted the house wasn’t too big. All the rooms were the same size, about fourteen feet square (I never upgraded to metric). The basement was the biggest problem – its ceilings were low and the walls were wet, but we are not very big in our family and if we had tall visitors, I could send them around to the front door! As for the damp, there must be a solution. Lots of people live in old houses with basements. I remember reading once, in a woman’s magazine – I think I was visiting the hairdresser at the time – that symmetry is what makes the human face beautiful. Most of us are a bit lob sided, but not the Yanks house. No! The Yanks house was handsome. Now I hear you say, what about the comfortable life, the easy option. I know, I know, I was getting carried away.
It was so wet outside Daniel and I got back into the car. Pat had rubber boots with him so he went off exploring the grounds. When he came back to the car I asked ‘Well?’ He didn’t answer, just shrugged his shoulders. He was very quiet.
Were you ever so giddy that you were on the verge of hysteria? That was me all the way home in the car that Sunday. I’d look at Pat but he would have his eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead. I’d look away and back again and catch him having a little sneak at me. Then we would both laugh. I’m sure Daniel was wondering how to handle parents once they have lost the plot. It must have been forty minutes before I asked the inevitable question. ‘Pat, can I have it?’ He didn’t answer so I had to ask again, and again and then I had to include a few pretty-pleases followed by a few pretty, pretty-pleases and I reached over and tickled the back of his neck. You’d think it was an ice cream I was looking for. I was so giddy it was childish. Eventually he said ‘You better see can you get the money first’. ‘He speaks’; ‘He wants it just as much as I do’, I thought. Daniel on the other hand wasn’t over excited. He said its ‘okay’, ‘nice’, but he was probably worried we were planning to spend his inheritance.
I rang the bank first thing on Monday morning. She took my details, she could see no problem. We’d be good for the money. I followed up with the paper work and within a few days we were told we could make an offer on the house. Still, not wanting to be too impulsive we decided we better have another look. After all this was going to be a major life change. So the following Sunday we were on the road again. This time we brought Theresa (child number two) and boyfriend, David, six foot four, currently tallest person visiting our house.
For me this second visit only confirmed that I wanted the house. Pat made a much more thorough examination. Stern faced, he studied every detail only to confirm the place was a total wreck. Common sense should have told us to walk. But our hearts were in control not our heads. To my surprise Theresa loved it. Romantic like her mother, she even picked out her bedroom. She told us to go for it and her boyfriend could stand up in the basement without banging his head. We were onto a winner.
That was it, decision made. We never let doubt creep in. Bidding started; there was a second interested party. A late call, Saturday evening, the house was ours. Get the brandy bottle down!
This first flurry of excitement was followed by weeks of paper work and phone calls with the bank. Talk about jumping through hoops. Of course the problem was they thought we were mad and mad people are not a very good investment. They wanted an engineer’s report. Who needs an engineer to identify a great big hole in the roof or little wood worms marching forward in attack eating all before them? We paid to have a professional valuation done. The evaluator loved the house, but this still wasn’t enough for the men and women in suites. They would give us 75% of the value but that left us using our savings to make up the purchase price and nothing left to start the renovation. In the end we decided to re-mortgage our home—no risk to the bank 100% risk to us. We were now able to move forward with the purchase.
I couldn’t believe how long it all took. It was a sign of the times we were living in. As a result of the property boom (this was before the recession) solicitors desks were piled high with brown cardboard files, well ours was anyway and I think our file kept hiding under all the others. Eventually it climbed its way to the top. Papers were signed, money paid over: the house was ours.