‘In an orderly country,’ chided the German travel writer and ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl after a visit to Ireland in September 1842, ‘ruins should really not be tolerated. They should be demolished either in order that the material of which they consist can be availed of in constructing new and more useful buildings, or the site that they occupy can be put to different use, or because they threaten to collapse completely and endanger human activity, or because they present an unpleasant sight.’
Kohl believed that members of ‘an orderly, vigilant and progressive human community’ should eradicate all ruins, before he went to note that, ‘In Ireland, the opposite to all this has happened, as it is unique in all of Europe for its many ruins. One finds here a plethora of ruins from all periods of history, like in no other country.’ Furthermore, he remarked, this melancholy condition was not unique to ancient buildings since ‘down to our days every century – one could say every decade – has deposited its ruins on the land. For everywhere one sees a multitude of dilapidated houses that have only recently fallen into ruin but yet seem also to have been built only recently.’
More than 170 years after Kohl made his observations, they remain pertinent: Ireland continues to be a country of ruins, many of them of recent vintage. Indeed in the last decade we have acquired a fresh crop, so to speak, of ruins thanks to the advent of ‘ghost estates’, those ill-planned, ill-sited and incomplete spatterings of houses begun during the badly-managed economic boom and then abandoned at the onset of the downturn. They join the throng of architectural decrepitude which has been so noted by visitors to Ireland over hundreds of years and yet seems to pass unnoticed by the indigenous population.
What is especially noticeable is the gratuitous abandonment of buildings for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose. This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Hence throughout the countryside one comes across a superabundance of farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness and panache could be given a fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate, which is to moulder into ruin.
Such might well have been the fate of the house seen here today, had it not been discovered a decade ago by the present owner. Located in a remote part of County Cork and originally lying at the centre of a 100-acre holding, the building dates from the late 19th/early 20th century and is in a style that had remained almost unaltered over the previous hundred years. As the American historian Kerby Miller has noted, such houses which belonged to relatively affluent farmers, tended to be ‘well-built – perhaps two-storied, with stone walls and roofs which were slated rather than thatched – and well furnished.’
Whatever furniture it once contained had long since disappeared by the time the house was rescued and restored. Unoccupied for more than half a century since the death of a previous owner, its isolation seems to have discouraged anybody else from settling there. Today that remoteness gives the place romantic appeal, as do the surrounding vistas of rolling fields on three sides of the property, the fourth offering an uninterrupted view of the Irish Sea several hundred feet below: during the summer months, the owner has been known to descend to the shore for a swim.
Aside from inaccessibility, another reason why the building would not have won widespread favour is its understated design: unlike smaller and more overtly endearing thatched cottages, the average Irish farm house was never known for superfluous embellishment. Indeed this particular example possesses an unpretentious simplicity typical of the genus. It rightly celebrates the virtues of clean, unfussy composition.
But before these could be celebrated an extensive programme of refurbishment was called for because at the time of purchase the building was close to collapse. The roof demanded immediate attention, as did walls, doors and windows. Internally the main feature to be salvaged was the old staircase although even here sections required repair and replacement. While this was going on, changes were made to the south, sea-facing front with the three existing windows lowered to create a trio of double doors opening onto a terrace flagged with limestone. More recently the terrace has been enclosed by a full-length conservatory that now serves as sitting room, dining room and, as we Irish like to say, whatever you’re having yourself. In addition the first floor plate-glass windows were changed to double sashes with glazing bars, a modification which immediately softened the house’s unadorned exterior. As was the custom with such properties, the walls are cement-rendered and then left without even a lime wash but weathered by time and exposure to the elements. Several out-buildings have also been restored, a vegetable garden created and a secure area for hens and geese devised. Otherwise the rest of the 20 acres acquired by the owner has been left in its familiar state of fields interspersed with copses of trees.
The same low-key approach has been adopted inside the house. The kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. The diningroom opposite is equally understated, with clay plaster used to cover the walls, an old oven used as open fireplace and the furnishings of plain pine. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of the two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the pictures were acquired in the same way or were painted by friends.
The result offers a model of how to convert an old farmhouse into a comfortable, smart private residence. In every county throughout Ireland, there are many similar properties sliding into what looks like inexorable decay and thus adding to our already ample list of ruins. Were Johann Georg Kohl to visit our island today, he would find little had changed since the last time he was here – except in this little corner of the country. Here, for once, a house has been saved from ruin and its character improved rather than destroyed in the process.