Monday, 4 June 2012

The Yank's House - The Roof

Three: The roof 2007

To say we were worried about the roof would be an understatement. We wanted to fix it before winter. It was in a very bad way. And the longer it was left the more damage was being done to the other parts of the house. It wasn’t just a patching up job that we could do ourselves. We needed a professional.

 I got a copy of the Longford Leader to see if there were any advertisements for roofers looking for work. We didn’t know anyone in the area at this stage and we knew there was no point asking a roofer to travel from Meath. Anyway, with the building boom nothing short of a miracle was needed. One roofer I phoned suggested winter was a better time for putting on roofs anyway. He was up to his eyes.

We were worried and when I am worried I usually have a chat with Saint Martin. Laugh if you like - it works for me. So one night, lying in the dark before sleep, I asked St Martin to send me a roofer. And strange as you may find this, that is exactly what he did. The very next day, I was sitting on a window sill on the top floor, paint-stripping when I heard a voice calling up to me. ‘Nice Day’ the voice said. I looked down. There was a big tall broad man standing in the yard, holding a stick that one would use to hunt cattle. I hadn’t heard him come and there was no sign of a car. He must have walked. We started to talk; he commented that it would be a fine house when finished. I invited him in to meet Pat who was working down stairs and I went down to join them. His name was Michael. He lived locally but he had never been in the house before. He walked around tapping the timber with his stick, asking the odd question and moving from room to room. It transpired that he was a carpenter. He asked where we hoped to start and we told him we were worried about the roof. He just turned round and said ‘I’m your man’. He left as quietly as he had come. I only delayed for a moment behind him to give Pat the thumbs up and when I went out to the yard he was gone. I ran into the lane, there was no sign of him anywhere.

Some days later after we had shook on it, he told me he didn’t know what came over him that day, to make him walk over to the house. I told him I knew: Saint Martin had sent him. He laughed and said ‘Now isn’t that a good one’. Never the less I was glad, when he started work, that he arrived by car. It would have been a bit too spooky even for me if he kept appearing and disappearing. 

My sister was anxious - I should get references, but sure you cannot ask Saint Martin for a reference. Four weeks later we had a lovely new roof. All the timber had to be replaced. But we saved as many of the old slates as we could and put them back on. It looked great.

One dark Saturday, when the roof was off, we had to go to the house to clean out all the rubble from the top floor. The ceilings had been knocked down. It wasn’t safe for the men working on the roof because the floor underneath wasn’t clean. I couldn’t believe how much rubble there was and to make matters worse it was lashing rain. I filled the rubble into buckets, passed them out the window and Pat took them across the scaffolding to empty them. It took us all day. We were covered in muck and dirt and very, very wet. Not wanting the situation to get us down, I stood in the roofless room and suggested to Pat, that he should come in out of the rain. We laughed. Being able to laugh in difficult situation is a great tonic. Many are the days a laugh got us through. 

One of the first people we met in Ardagh was Brendan. He is the gardener in the village. But before I tell you how we met him I have to take you right back to the start. We had just paid the deposit on the house and were waiting to close the deal. I was sent from work to a conference in Sligo. Equipped with a bundle of house magazines I settled into my seat on the train. The lady sitting beside me was writing something. She seemed busy. After some time the tea trolley came round. I had a sandwich and tea. My neighbor put away her work and had a coffee. We started to talk and she told me she lived in Ardagh. I told her about the house and my ambitions to restore it sympathetically. She told me I’d have to get to know the gardener. He was into old houses and restoration. She got off the train in Edgworthstown and I didn’t think any more about it.

However months later when we were traveling up and down to the house, I often admired a lovely restored cottage that we passed just outside the village. I brought it to Pat’s attention. I was dying to get a closer look so one evening I convinced Pat that we should call and introduce ourselves. I was very disappointed to find the gate locked with a chain and padlock. There was no one at home. However I noticed a sign in the hedge that said Ardagh Landscaping. The penny dropped. This was the gardener’s house.

As soon as I got home I was back on the internet. As luck would have it Brendan had a web page. I phoned him later that evening and that was that. He was so helpful and supportive. His name will pop up again and again in this story. He recommended different people to us when we needed help and was invaluable when researching the history of the house because of his local knowledge.

We had arranged one day to call to Brendan’s on our way home from the house, to meet him in person and to see his cottage and garden. Michael the carpenter was working on the roof the same day, so I told him where we were going and asked him if he knew Brendan. He said he didn’t but he warned me to be careful. ‘That fellow might lead you astray with his ideas on restoration’ he said. We headed off and to our delight Brendan was a lovely fellow and we got on straight away. He had a great handshake. I told him my story about Saint Martin and about Michael calling the following day. He looked grave and said ‘Now Catherine, just be careful’. I said ‘I only know two men in Co Longford, and they have each warned me about the other’. Brendan threw his head back and laughed a great big hearty laugh. But I was left to wonder, do I come across as a dizzy sort of woman or are Longford men very suspicious of one another. It may take time to work this one out.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Yank's House - Starting

Two: Starting 2007

It was mid July when we got the house. I don’t work July and August and Pat had saved all his holidays. We were very excited, dying to get started. That first morning we were up at seven. We filled the flask, made the packed lunch and were on the road by eight. We hadn’t been to visit the house for many weeks and we were not prepared for the sight that greeted us. The lovely graveled back yard that had impressed us so much in winter was now an over grown jungle of tall grasses and weeds. I’d never seen anything like it. The grass was up to my elbows and I couldn’t even see the back door. I knew Pat’s heart had sunk but he pushed forward making a path for me in his wake. Inside, the house was much damper and dirtier than we remembered.

On the old range sat a milk-can lid containing syringes and needles. I hadn’t noticed them on earlier visits. There was a bad smell coming from the stair well and dairy. We had had a visitor. What looked like human excrement lay on the floor. Further up the house was more as I’d expected and remembered. Pat went back to the car and returned with shovels, buckets and gloves and the cleanup began. He assured me the syringes had been for animal use and nothing more sinister. Once we started we threw ourselves into it. After a hard day’s work things looked better. We returned home that evening dirty, sore and exhausted.

It took two days to clean the rubbish out of the house and it was tough. But day three was worse. We didn’t know where to start. There was so much to do. We stood in the dairy, looked at each other and around us and we were totally lost. I could see Pat’s resolve was ebbing a bit so I needed to come up with something. I suggested we could start stripping the plaster off the dairy walls—it might help them dry out a bit. 

We got too lump hammers and started and by evening we had two of the four walls stripped back to the stone. They looked great and the room started to take on a charm of its own. With every bit of plaster we removed I felt the house was revealing it secrets to us. The following day we finished the other two walls and the room we had found least inspiring in the whole house became our favorite. Pat told me I had worked as hard as any man and my elbow seemed to be telling me the same thing. It was on fire. The pain was unreal. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t lift the hammer. I couldn’t lift my arm. I thought that was it. I wouldn’t be able to help anymore. I didn’t have an arm support but I had two elastic stockings from a previous hospital stay. I started putting one on my arm when going to the house. Eventually my arm did get stronger and in the end I could hammer walls all day long without pain.

These first weeks were spent removing all the plaster off the walls, inside and out. In the basement the plaster was wet with damp. In places dirty moisture splashed our faces when we struck it with the hammer. However, the stone was in good condition underneath. Further up the house the walls were dry. In places the plaster was hollow and coming away from the walls. Here large slabs of plaster would fall off at a time. 

Other places it was dry and powdery. Where repairs had been done over the years was worse. Here concrete had been used. This was impossible to remove and when it did come off it brought the surface of the stone and brick with it. Work was slow and we soon realised we could do with some help. Pat asked his brother Brendan and he started coming down with us any time he was free. Pat is good with his hands. He is goods at fixing things. Brendan is a great worker. But I think he prefers to knock thing down. He was great at stripping off the plaster and he also took down all the old ceilings, pulling all the thousands of nails that held them up. 

It didn’t take long after starting work in the house to discover we had company. In particular we had a mother and three babies and she was anything but pleased with our intrusion. Before your imagination runs away with you I better explain. I am talking about a family of swallows. She swooped around the house with such accuracy, never crashing into windows or wall, and always at high speed. The adult swallow would fly through a broken pain of glass in the basement and up the stairs to her nest, which was over the front door. She had three little babies in the nest, mouths constantly open. If you met her on the stairs she would do a swoop, turn and fly off in front of you. Many times she soared in through the broken glass only missing me by inches. One particular day when Pat and I were working in the front hall near to her nest she insisted on flying in and out the open door. I think she was keeping an eye on us. At one stage we were standing talking to one another and she passed between our faces. We stripped the plaster off all the inside walls but left the area around her nest until she was ready to leave. Then one day in September we came down and she and her babies were gone. The place seemed very quiet without them. 

Now I cannot go on without warning any of you girls out there that might be thinking of getting into restoration work. I soon discovered that just because I worked like a man didn’t mean I could eat like a man. I know this is cruel and unfair but I was under the illusion that all this work was like going to the gym. I couldn’t possible put on weight. So at lunch time ravished by fresh air and hard physical work I would sit down to lunch and match Pat bite for bite. You can imagine my distress when clothes started to get tight. Reluctantly I stood on the scales. I had put on a half stone over the few weeks we had been working on the house. To my utter dismay Pat had lost weight. It just goes to show how unfair this world is to us women. Anyway I had to adjust my eating habits while Pat continued to eat what he liked.

 I have a question for all you girls out there. How would you describe a romantic man? Someone who buys you flowers and chocolates and sends you valentine cards perhaps. I always said my fellow hadn’t a romantic bone in his body. For instance for our first Christmas together he gave me a frozen pizza. Point taken, I hear you all say. I used to get upset about it but then I discovered that he knew how to turn on the washing machine and he knew his way to the clothes line, and he was very good at grocery-shopping even if he would never be seen dead in a shop that sold lingerie. After all, flowers die and chocolate makes you fat. No girls, my Pat is very romantic. It just took me a while to appreciate the fact.  Breakfast in bed is common, especially on mornings after a hard day’s work at the house. Buying the Yank’s house was more my dream than his, but Pat always strives to makes my dreams come true. I told him this one day when we were working hard at the house, tired sore and covered in dust. He laughed and said he was sorry. ‘Sorry for what?’ I asked. ‘For giving you night mares’ he replied. I had to laugh, but he made a good point. This restoration work is not for the fainthearted. And if you are not prepared to get your hands dirty and break a few finger nails than I hope you have plenty of dosh.

We didn’t have, so we had to learn. Once we had made the decision to purchase the house we started to take books out of the library and to search the internet for any help we could find on restoration work. We loved the house because it was old and we wanted to keep what we loved but also to update the house for twenty-first century living. Many of these old vernacular houses in Ireland have been stripped back to the stone rubble and pointed with concrete. We had seen plenty of examples and to be honest I really liked how they looked. Our house was built of random stone rubble. My first instinct was to follow the same trend. However the literature strongly advised against this and the more I read the more convinced I became that the Yank’s house had to be restored using the same materials that had been used to build it in the first place. I started to read about lime mortars and stone wall building. Pat got engrossed in this research too and the stack of books grew on the coffee and bedside tables. Anytime we found something new and interesting we would share it. We talked for hours. One evening Pat asked me what we used to talk about, before. I couldn’t remember. It was great to have a new interest, new things to learn and we both felt so energized.

I had access to a wonderful library at work. One day when I was picking up a book on Victorian houses the librarian asked me if I owned an old house. I said I did and he laughed and asked how I could afford that on our wages. I’m sure he had a vision of a beautiful Victorian house in the city. What I had was a bit different.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Yank's House - Finding


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.