Claudia Carroll: ‘I needed an umbrella inside the house’
After the writer’s house was flooded she set about turning a negative into a positive for her Victorian home
‘I opened the front door and I heard a whoosh like the wind makes. I thought I’d been broken into’. Photograph: Eoin Rafferty
For Claudia Carroll, the “post-Christmas blues” took on a whole new meaning last December, following a festive family vacation in Gran Canaria. On St Stephen’s night, the actor and author, returned to her three storey Victorian home in Ballsbridge, to discover that rotting water tanks had collapsed the ceilings of each floor in a devastating domino effect. Practically everything she owned was ruined, right down to her last stitch of clothing.
“I looked up at the house at 2am and saw a lot of condensation on the windows. I thought, did I leave the heating on? I opened the front door and I heard a whoosh like the wind makes. I thought I’d been broken into, and that the burglars were still here – water makes a lot of noise. Of course, instead of calling the police, I followed the noise,” Carroll says.
“I went up the stairs and the noise was getting louder and louder. I opened the bathroom door, I looked up and I could just see the skylight in the attic – the entire ceiling was down. It was like being in a rainforest. I had a pink coat on and I was drenched. I needed an umbrella inside the house – it was just gushing. The water tanks had collapsed, but the water was dripping from the eaves down onto me. It had come through the floor, onto my desk below in the study, through that floor into what was the old kitchen in the basement. I needed wellingtons to walk around. It was coming through the electrics. So I did what I always do in times of crisis – I rang Clelia Murphy (the former Fair City actor) and she just said, ‘There is no God!’ She got a plumber to come to my house the next morning.”
Since that painful experience, Carroll has worked tirelessly to put her home back together. It was originally built around 1860 by John Murphy who erected all the residential properties on the block. He gifted this particular house to his daughter Elizabeth for her wedding.
Carroll’s parents, Anne and Claude Carroll, bought the property in the early 1970s, adding a mews house to the site in 1981. The Carrolls are only the third owners in 150 years.
In the mid-1990s, Carroll, who for 14 years played the character of Nicola Prendergast in RTÉ soap opera, Fair City, bought a “shoebox” in Booterstown. Two years later her parents decided to downsize, leading to a whimsical “house swap” experiment in 1997, which saw her return to her childhood home. Her parents have lived at the mews house since 1999 and Carroll eventually purchased the main property in 2011. Once the renovations are complete, Anne and Claude will move into the basement of the main building, where they will have wheelchair access, underfloor heating and they can enjoy their retirement years in comfort under their daughter’s care.
While the road to recovery is not without its bumps, Carroll has gathered some wisdom along the way. Mercifully, she was able to salvage and re-frame their paintings, while cabinets retain treasured crockery, figurines and glassware. In a bizarre twist, a year’s worth of the London Illustrated News was discovered fully intact beneath the floorboards.
“Really, all I held on to were the summer clothes in my suitcase. I had my watch on, bits of jewellery that were my Granny’s. It’s funny the things you don’t realise are going to cause you problems, like my tax returns – try explaining that to the Revenue,” she laughs. “I had to ring my accountant and say I had no tax returns. It was a nightmare trying to get paperwork, my driving licence, first copies of books I’d written – just destroyed. Actress and playwright Isobel Mahon, who is a Buddhist, says we get so attached to stuff – it’s just stuff.”
Thanks to the work of Niall Mulligan from Urban Architecture & Construction, who also worked on Deirdre O’Kane’s home, Carroll can finally see a silver lining. Kirk McCormack, founder and director of Longform, is the architect behind the massive overhaul which began in March. Cavan-based James McEnroe crafted the kitchen, bathroom, utility room and even a wardrobe-cum-storage unit. The workmen’s project spec was very simple – light and heat.
“I never used an architect before this job, and I’m so glad I did, because they hold your hand and they act as a buffer with the builders, although the builders were great,” Carroll says. “To treat damp, they have to take up the whole floor, so there were actual diggers in the basement. They have to dig deep enough to inject the anti-damp stuff. I was pleased with the craftsmanship of the work, you would not know it was new.
She was pleasantly surprised by her experience with the builders too. “They turn up at half seven in the morning, they work Saturdays, they work bank holidays. They have pride in their work.”
Although the house is still a work in progress, with the basement only just nearing completion and a couple of understandably spartan rooms – an end is in sight. Maybe this Christmas disaster was a perversely fortuitous event? Carroll nods in agreement. The flood has led to an inevitable deep-cleanse and overhaul, albeit earlier than anticipated.
“There was an ongoing problem of damp in the basement,” she says. “I’d intended to get that done anyway. Because, all of a sudden the whole house was uninhabitable, it was like right – get everything done. There’s nothing I couldn’t tell you about flooring, sanding, electrics, plumbing, plastering, damp-proofing. Last December, I hadn’t a clue, now I could write a thesis on it. I hope this job, which will finish in a month’s time, will do me for the rest of my life.”
Claudia Carroll’s new novel, The Secrets of Primrose Square (€14.99, Bonnier Zaffre) is out now.