Talking Property


Big houses have gone out of fashion, says ISABEL MORTON

THIS WEEK, Adam’s of St Stephen’s Green sold off a number of paintings and prints which were the residue of the late Charles J Haughey’s estate. Many of these pictures are considered of little value other than their provenance: they once decorated the walls of Haughey’s home.

Flicking through the brochure, I started to think back to when it all started and, more importantly, to wonder where it might all end. I am referring, of course, to the Irish obsession with property.

If it weren’t for our former taoiseach’s desire to live like a country squire, the Irish tigers may never have caught on to the idea of living in vast country piles. His purchase of Abbeville in Kinsealy, Co Dublin in 1969 was one of the first examples of the new breed of successful Irish who bought stately homes and country mansions.

Since then, of course, it became the thing to do for many of Ireland’s rich list to buy dilapidated period piles, modernise and renovate them within an inch of their lives or build mock-Georgian mansions, which they then tried to “age” with the addition of rich furnishings and art on the walls.

But it wasn’t until the millennium, when Ireland was in the grip of the Celtic Tiger, that it became apparent that we were obsessed with property and its ownership. The new Irish aspired to owning what the agents and these pages described as “trophy homes”.

These trophy properties were not just private homes, but also a clear and obvious sign of financial success.

The property disease spread fast and soon developed inside the pale, where period properties in Dublin 2, 4 and 6 were bought to provide their owners with city centre seats. Meanwhile, the wealthy bohemian set avoided the city and sought out period villas along the south Dublin coast.

Once we had bought into the correct location we then became fixated with size. We extended up, out and to the side, doing whatever could be done to up the size of our property, thereby increasing its value.

Across the countryside, vast lumbering newly-built mansions appeared to have been dropped from on high into open fields beside four-lane motorways. Lacking proportion and style, they took full advantage of having no size restriction imposed upon them and include at least five vast bedchambers with en suite bathrooms and dressingrooms plus an additional two-bedroom suites on ground floor level to house the au pair or granny who might find the Gone With The Wind staircase too much to climb.

Heretofore unheard of rooms, such as media rooms, home offices, gyms, games rooms, computer rooms and wet rooms were included, plus an additional few which are as yet unnamed. Plus, of course, the six-car garage with three separate remote control doors, one of which is designed to accommodate the tractor.

At the start of the boom the average three-bed semi boasted around 1,000sq ft of living space and 2,000sq ft was considered a large house.

At the peak of the property frenzy, planning applications were regularly lobbed in for houses of 8,000, 10,000 and 12,000sq ft – monsters with underground swimming pools, staff quarters and media rooms. Houses were no longer bought as homes but as investments. Many looked for properties with “potential”, developed them, sold them and moved on to start the process all over again. We all became mini property developers.

So, here we all are now, a nation of property owners, wondering what all the fuss was about.

We’ve bought, extended, renovated and decorated. And now we are holding our collective breaths as we speculate about what might happen next.

What will we do with our mega mansions, now that we are all living in underground bunkers?

Will we find ourselves huddling together to keep warm in our sleek designer glass-box kitchen extensions? Will we seal off the doors to our games rooms, gyms, libraries and formal diningrooms? Rooms, which we once thought we could not live without, then found we rarely used, and now find we can no longer afford to heat.

Perhaps we should rent out our numerous bedroom suites as studio flats or move granny, the in-laws and our entire extended family into one property.

We could, of course, look to China and Japan for inspiration, and live simple uncluttered lives in tiny spaces. Small may become the new sexy.

Perhaps, as has happened before in the 1950s and 1970s, large homes have, quite simply, gone out of fashion again, as we can no longer afford to decorate, maintain, heat or staff them.

Perhaps we should avoid buying property altogether and follow the example of our German neighbours, who just move from one rental property to the next as their circumstances change.