Tucked away in the wilds of Co Clare is Clooneenagh House, a former ruin which has been completely restored by its owners Nigel Barnes and Pepie O'Sullivan.
After retiring from his business as a mining engineer consultant at the age of 53 in 2003, Barnes, along with O’Sullivan, continued their shared passion for restoration of antique furniture by establishing restoration courses from their home near Kilrush.
Weekend courses include chair renovation, clock and pocket watch renovation, the art of gilding and chair making.
Barnes comes from a long line of clockmakers on both sides of his family, and has co-written a book on the subject: Maintaining Longcase Clocks: An Owner’s Guide to Maintenance, Renovation and Conservation, while “Pepie was surrounded by fabrics, sewing and knitting growing up”.
“We each have a workshop and that is the perfect arrangement” says Barnes, where he instructs on wood, clocks and French polishing while Pepie teaches about upholstery. Typically a newbie will be able to dismantle and rebuild a straightforward chair frame and complete the upholstery over a weekend.
The courses have become so popular that the couple ran 33 weekend courses last year.
“When we first started it was mainly thirtysomething professionals attending the courses, as we are only online, but now we have people attending from just about every country – with the exception of New Zealand. The oldest person we have had was 84 and the youngest were two 16-year-old boys who came to learn about old watches,” says Barnes.
While most people attending the chair restoration course bring along an old piece in need of some loving attention, it is not mandatory: “If they don’t have one not to worry, our attic is like a gravitational black hole for old chairs, strays and all kinds of stuff.”
One couple from the United States brought a stool, broken down to fit in a suitcase. But, instead of rebuilding it, they learned how to make a new one from scratch and left Co Clare delighted with themselves.
In the 17 years since the courses began, Barnes has only refused two chairs. “The first was a 1980s piece of chipboard rescued from a skip – where it should have stayed – and was pointless to restore. The other was hopeless, as it had just one leg and was riddled with woodworm, but we found old chairs here for them [the owners] to renovate instead.”
It is not just about fine pieces made from exotic woods, Barnes stresses, but also the social history of a piece, especially Irish vernacular furniture which is now hard to find.
Judging by the guest book, it appears that attendees – many of whom return – find the courses as a way of restoring themselves along with their piece of furniture.
“Forget about multitasking” says Barnes. People tend to disappear into a hole in the time and space continuum here, and don’t come out until we announce lunch is served. With the chair making courses – which is some feat for a person to make a chair in two days – there is no chit-chat as people are 100 per cent immersed in what they are doing.”
Weekend courses, which are limited to five, cost €195, including all materials, lunch and snacks, though Barnes points out that their stock of fabric is not extensive so some budding restorers bring their own.
There are two rooms in the house where the couple charge a rate of €35 for dinner B&B, and a self-catering option which sleeps 2/3 at €60 for the first night and €40 for the second. Oldchairs.ie