There is often a gorgeous moment on holiday when you open the curtains to reveal a view that rushes into your soul like a restorative tonic; you then sigh and wish you were waking up to it every day. Two former accountants from Dublin have made that dream come true with their modern retreat, Breac. House, which they recently opened on Horn Head, the dramatic northwestern headland in Donegal.
Starting with a dramatic site, the last thing Cathrine Burke and Niall Campbell wanted to build was "big hexagon of glass". The primary aim for its design was a balance of modern and traditional, connection to local craftsmanship, and showcasing the beauty of its surrounds.
"You see a lot of the modern design hotels and they look like the spaceship that has landed on the side of the hill," says Burke. "While they have their place, we never wanted to do that. We wanted something that was very contemporary but very in keeping with the locality, so it is designed along the lines of the old long houses that you would have seen in Donegal and Scotland in the 1900s. We took that as a launch to do something very contemporary. After that, it was all about materials."
The property is bedecked with as much local influence, material, craftsmanship and products as possible. Everything from the cup you drink your coffee in to the smoked salmon and the breakfast tray it sits upon has either been made or produced locally.
Letterkenny-based MacGabhann Architects designed Breac.House. As many local builders and tradesmen as possible were employed in its construction. The brief was to allow the backdrop of the achingly beautiful Horn Head and the richness of the Donegal landscape and surrounding views of beach, bay, mountain and forest be as visible as possible.
Where it might have been easy to put up a wall, the couple wanted to ensure that at every point in the house you could appreciate the landscape around you. So light, glass and windows show off the views at every turn.
When it came to the finishes and furniture, the aim was to highlight local and Irish design. "It was about oak, it was Ardara stone, it was about Fanad granite," says Burke. "It was about somebody coming into a room and feeling connected to what they were looking at outside; that was it for us."
For example, crisp white organic bed linens are topped with hand-loomed tweed blankets by Eddie Doherty in Ardara, Co Donegal. "He's the only one in the country, as far as I know, still doing everything by hand," says Campbell.
The bedrooms aim to reflect the morning colours of the view outside; sand in the oak, white in the dazzling white bed linen, and the sparkling turquoise blue of the sky and sea in Doherty’s blankets.
Stunning oak made by local joiners features throughout the house. Dublin-based Simon O'Driscoll built the frame for the sofa, which is upholstered with another specially made tweed by Doherty, inspired by the views, with greens and little flecks of pink, yellow and blue. The outdoor terrace features Ardara quartz. The coffee served in your room from The Shack in nearby Marble Hill and the crockery was specially commissioned from Dunfanaghy's Muck 'n' Muffins.
“Anything we could source in Donegal, we did, and if we couldn’t it was the best of the northwest and Irish after that,” says Burke.
“There have been times where we thought, are we mad? because there were easier ways to do some of this,” Burke says. “But it has already shown to be the right answer because people come in and say, ‘Oh my God, who did your joinery?’ And we tell them he’s from down the road and they think that is fantastic and you start that whole conversation.”
The couple met in university and Burke fell in love with Donegal after Campbell introduced her to the county. He had been coming to the Rosses area since he was a child but the couple often drove to Muck ’n’ Muffins for a coffee stop. “Little by little we found ourselves over on this side of Donegal,” she says.
"We decided a long time ago that we wanted to do something businesswise here that was a little bit special," Burke adds. "It needed to be close to a good town with activities and facilities, and Dunfanaghy has everything from surfing, cycling, hiking to good restaurants and incredible beaches."
After deciding the time was right to move and after some stopping and starting in the search for the right site, the couple found the property in 2014.
Breac.House is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking, surfing and cycling (they provide bikes on site). Or guests can indulge in one a complimentary seaweed bath (big enough for two) and settle in by the fire for the day in robe and slippers.
Eighty per cent of our guests have never been to Donegal before and we have also had a really positive response from the German market,” Burke reports. “We are very niche, but that’s okay because we are small and there are different elements in the house that appeal to different people. We have been accepted onto a website called urlaubsarchitektur.de, which features architecturally interesting places to go on holidays.”
Breac means “trout” in Irish, and their showstopper bathroom with sparkling shimmer and light is a nice nod to the bright, shiny trout.
Sustainability is also a natural part of Breac.House, which is highly insulated, has a rainwater harvesting system and all heating and water heated with a renewable air source pump. The fuel source is “Donegal air”, says Campbell.
One of the really special elements of this stay is the breakfast and the picnic. After waking to the heavenly views, a clever silent hatch opens with a breakfast tray. The delectable meal varies with the seasons but features treats such as The Haven's locally smoked salmon from Carrigart, homemade granola, jams, compotes and pastries, mini chocolate loaves, local eggs and honey. The couple also make their own butter and yoghurt from Donegal Creameries' organic milk.
Lunch is a small satchel with a delicious picnic, including homemade soup and bread, cheese, crackers and cake.
Although it has all the luxury touches of high-end, modern accommodation in its stunning surrounds, Breac.House is very much down to earth. The entire ethos is to make you feel at home and relaxed with a bit of “Donegal therapy”.
“There is an authentic experience to be had here,” enthuses Campbell. “You have the best of scenery, activities, the best of everything here and we want to provide guests with the best of accommodation in a relatively contemporary fashion.”