Keeping her eye on Ireland’s historical and grand properties

Mary Heffernan says the interiors she looks after differ from hers and her small budget

An assistant principal officer of the OPW with responsibility for many national historic properties, Mary Heffernan has been with the State agency for 25 years masterminding and managing many major projects. A native of Clonmel, Co Tipperary, she followed an economic and social studies degree with one in art history both from Trinity College Dublin and went on to do a further degree in design history at the National College of Art and Design while working at the OPW.

She has responsibility for among others, Dublin Castle, Farmleigh Gallery, Rathfarnham Castle, parts of IMMA, the Glebe Gallery Donegal and the Casino at Marino. Her first managing role was Farmleigh when it was acquired by the State and she has organised many successful exhibitions there and more recently Meditations on Plates at the Casino in Marino, Playing with Tradition at Dublin Castle and last week, CASA, a major exhibition of paintings by Richard Gorman at Castletown House in Celbridge, Co Kildare, which continues until September 30th. She is married with two children.

Describe your interiors style?

My style is quite austere, juxtaposing finely wrought well-designed objects with simple, natural materials – silver with sheepskin! My study is cream, black and white, but the living room is more colourful with brighter shades and materials.

The kind of interiors I look after are opulent and grand and are a complete contrast to mine and my small budget, but although I live in a Georgian house it would be completely fake – and impossibly expensive – to furnish it with furniture of the period. I am into the 21st century and not afraid of new styles and designers, which are a lot more me.


Which room do you most enjoy and why?

I would say my study because it is where most of my work is carried out and where I spend most of my time. I can really concentrate there. It is very spare with a few favourite artworks, my computer and my children’s musical instruments. We don’t have a television and it is peaceful and quiet.

What items do you love most and why?

Some of the houses I work in have 18th-century Georgian candlesticks, but mine are 20th-century century silver by the Czech architect and designer Borek Sipek. I got the first one in Equinox in Belfast 10 years ago and five years later the second. They are investment pieces. I also have an urn by the Italian architect and industrial designer

Gaetano Pesce

, who has given this classical item a contemporary twist. He was part of the

Playing with Tradition

show at Dublin Castle last summer.

But I adore the pair of portraits of my two children which I commissioned from the young Irish artist Siuan McGann. I save very hard to make the purchases I want and would rather have far less than more but of good quality.

Who is your favourite designer?

Mariano Fortuny

. I first came across his work more than 20 years ago in his house in Venice which is now a museum. His textiles, his wall hangings and silks are wonderful. We got one of the silk chandeliers for Farmleigh in 2001 and they are spectacular. I find, for instance, Pauline de Rothschild’s interiors inspiring and those of French designer

Andree Putnam

, who designed the interiors of several hotels in Paris.

In my work I am drawn to the ideals of Luis Baragan, the Mexican architect who believed that many words like beauty, inspiration, magic, enchantment and mystery have disappeared "in alarming proportions" from architectural publication and said that "all of these have found a loving home in my soul".

Which artists do you most admire?

One artist I love is

Elizabeth Magill

and I have coveted her work for years. She has shown in the Kerlin but produces very slowly. Her subject is nature – a lot of forests and mountains, but always with something unexpected and magical. And Richard Gorman whose show I have organised in Castletown. It is the first exhibition of a major Irish living artist in one of Ireland’s greatest Palladian mansions.

Biggest interior turn-off?

House interiors that are spartan and spare and without any personality. I would prefer to see more of their owners’ particular style rather than a sterile magazine look.

Which travel destination stands out?

It has to be Sicily. We have been there twice and just adore it. The country’s fusion of culture, art and tremendous beauty is so captivating and the decorative elements of those crumbling mansions are perfection.

If you had €100,000 to spend on anything for the home, what would you buy?

A wonderful house in Henrietta Street [in north inner city Dublin] and then have the millions to restore it. In my dreams!