Brrrr... how a cold old cottage, and decent broadband, inspired a brand new business
Inspiration from her traditional home in the Waterford countryside helped Emma Penruddock set up her Irish crafts websites and shop
Emma Penruddock’s west Waterford home
Emma Penruddock and children in the snow
This week businesswoman Emma Penruddock put the day job on hold to join her kids, who have been enjoying the first real snowfall of their lives. Her youngest, Oscar, was only a baby when the last fall happened in 2010. This will be the first year he has been able to build a snowman, she says.
Like many parents across the country she woke up on Wednesday to text messages telling her that the schools would be closed. So her car is parked at the end of the boreen, waiting for the thaw and for now she’s downed tools to enjoy the days off. Yes it’s cold, but nothing like when they first moved in.
She grew up in the Buckinghamshire countryside but became acquainted with the hinterlands of the River Blackwater, the natural boundary between counties Cork and Waterford in the mid 1990s when the family moved to Lismore, so her father could take up a job as land agent at Lismore Castle and she spent her holidays in this part of the country.
After living in London for a decade she and her then husband were tempted by Ireland and sold up and moved in with her parents in Lismore while they home hunted.
They lived there for “precisely 18 months”, her father takes pleasure in recounting, and the duration of their stay prompted her mother to visit an estate agent in the nearby town of Youghal, in Co Cork, to say that the young family was looking for “a pile of old stones” to renovate.
“He had just the thing,” Penruddock recalls, and at the height of the property boom they paid about €270,000 for a three-room, tin-roof cottage, surrounded by sheds and set on an acre of land. The surrounding views were spellbinding – you could see all the way to the Blackwater and to the same mountain range she could see from the windows of the wing at Lismore. “This lovely idyllic cottage was a mirage of a home,” she recollects.
“In reality it was horribly damp and impossible to dry clothes in. There were cobwebs everywhere and when the wind blew it went through the tin roof and out the other side.” It is worth pointing out that two eldest children, Lyra, now 13, and Honor, now 11, were just two and a baby at the time.
The family remedied the chimney and hearth, installing a Charnwood stove where the original griddle iron still stands and the niches, originally used to hold snuff, matches and clay pipes, perhaps even a crucifix, remain.
The builder, who sourced the reclaimed oak beam that is the mantle, was so pleased with his find that he sat down on the stairs for about 10 minutes to admire his own handiwork, she says.
And they lived like that for a year, the only other heat source a plug-in oil-filled electric radiator, before they did any work to the property.
There was no bath, only a leaky shower room with a basin where only one of its two taps worked – no prizes for guessing which one. An immersion heated the hot water and Penruddock recalls waking in the middle of the night in a panic wondering if she’d left the device on. Baby Honor was washed in a small plastic bath set on the shower stall.
“It was very, very difficult and when it rained the outdoors would turn into a mud bath.”
A year later they upgraded the house, moving into a friend’s stable yard while the original three-room long house was extended into the cart house, adjacent to the main property, installing the kitchen here and pushing out the original footprint to build a second double-height gable, mainly made of glass, with double doors leading from the kitchen to the yard. They also installed central heating which put an end to the kids having to wear bobble hats to come down for breakfast.
The kitchen, which runs the width of the house, was now toasty, warmed by an oil-burning Marshall range. Its painted white units with wooden countertops have been set off by a large island topped with marble, set beside a well-worn butcher’s block – all furniture from her parents, who had moved out of Lismore Castle into a smaller house. A long dining table – big enough to seat 10 – is covered in an oil cloth.
The following year, 2008, she had her third child, Oscar, who is now 9. With her husband working in England and three children to look after, she had to find work she could do from home so she set up I Am of Ireland. The online shop originally sold the hand-knitted Donegal wool jumpers by Ros Redingham – that her kids pretty much wore all the time – and then she expanded the range to sell the best of Irish craft she had discovered while exploring the countryside. The name was inspired by a poem by WB Yeats of the same name. Also a short story writer, she liked the literary reference.
Penruddock was lucky enough to pick a part of rural Ireland that had good broadband – that, and money from the local enterprise board, were fundamental in getting the business off the ground.
The front door and windows are painted a Farrow & Ball-inspired shade of blue grey. The original front door opens into a small hallway, painted a daffodil yellow, where there is a kilim-style rug atop its grey slate floor, and a small Irish pedestal table laden with ceramics by the makers whose work she sells.
To the right is the sittingroom, the focal point of the house, a room where the hearth still dominates hundreds of years after it was first built and the original, uneven limewashed walls have been painted a pale lichen green that have a chalky feel.
The dual aspect space has two windows on one side that are set at different levels, further adding to its character. Underfoot is a pitch pine floor, sourced from Dungarvan. Its two velour sofas were bought in Youghal from Lucey Furnishings and the country feel extends to the tongue and groove vaulted ceiling. A blanket box, made to keep the moths from eating the bed linen, doubles as a coffee table.
While some of the cottage’s original z-frame doors remain, she had doors for the remaining rooms made to match.
Above the kitchen is the master bedroom, a room that can be rented on AirBnB from €55 per night. From its brass bed, bought off a shop floor at less than its asking price as it was missing parts, you can see the patchwork of fields and the dairy herds whose milking schedule you can set your watch by in summer. “Every afternoon at precisely four o’clock they troop into the milking parlour.” On either side of the chimneybreast are alcoves hung with paintings and knickknacks. The scrubbed pine dressing table was another gift from her parents while the upholstered chair was given to her by friends.
Her daughter’s share the other upstairs room. Set under the eaves, each of their beds has been built into the triangular sloping shape of the roof and can be closed off from the rest of the room by drawing the tweed curtains, custom made from Studio Donegal blankets, to give each of them privacy, like the old-fashioned sleeper cars on couchette trains, Emma explains.
Measuring only about 4.5m / 15ft wide you can look from one end of the house to another, something she factored into her choices of paint shades, to ensure that the rooms offer a visual smorgasbord of shades as you view the layout.
But even after the renovations the house was difficult to live in. It still had a tin roof and on occasion a gust of wind would blow down one of the bedside lamps. It was only in 2013 when her father offered to pay to upgrade it to a slate roof and for the renovations to the barn, that she felt the place could be put on show. “Your environment is fundamental to how you feel. The minute he did that I could then show in the house and barn.” She then started hosting exhibitions.
Guests staying at the Cliff House Hotel in nearby Ardmore are just some of the visitors that make appointments to visit the site where some of Ireland’s top makers are on display, including ceramicists Derek Wilson and Andrew Ludick, local glass studio J Hill Standard, sheepskin stools with greenwood legs by Alison Ospina and furniture made from Irish whiskey barrels by Bill Faulkner.
The shop turns over about €45,000 per annum and relies on her local post office, in Youghal, a 12km drive of about 20 mins, and Fastway Couriers, to service her customers.
She now operates across three platforms. She opened a shop in Doneralie, Co Cork, about an hour’s drive away in January, in a space owned by painter Conrad Frankel, who asked her to bring items from her house to show. And that is her unique selling point. You can shop in a store, browse the collection online or go and see the Irish-made paintings, ceramics, glass and textiles and other lovingly arranged creations in a real home, by appointment.