Many people dream about leaving the city and enjoying an idyllic life in the countryside. Few actually achieve it. But in 2013, Mags Morrissey and her family did exactly that when they moved from Dublin to Thomastown in Kilkenny, eschewing city life for farm animals and rustic charm with a two-bedroom cottage nestled on six acres of gardens, paddocks, orchard and woodland.
“We wanted to escape the orderly suburbs of Dublin for somewhere the children could slip outside unsupervised before school to stamp on frozen puddles,” she says.
“We chose this area as the countryside is unsurpassed. Above us, is sheep country and forest, while below us is rolling Kilkenny farmland which stretches down to Thomastown and the River Nore.
"Quite a few local towns are hubs of arts, craft and culture and, on top of that, Kilkenny County Council and Kilkenny Leader Partnership have invested hugely in walks through woodlands and along rivers, and also around the grounds of historical houses like Woodstock House and gardens. Plus, of course, the city is also a food hub with top-rated restaurants and cafes."
The location was perfect and so too was their dream home which consisted of Hedgehog Cottage and Hedgehog Barn, an adjacent building which was once used as a music studio.
Then just over a year ago, Morrissey, who works as a development officer with Kilkenny Leader Partnership, decided to embark on the mammoth task of renovating the outbuilding into a property which she could rent out to guests. She wasn’t the first to realise the potential of the buildings.
“The cottage belonged to a judge and his wife, who commuted [to the city] from Thomastown train station each morning,” she says.
“He had extended the 18th-century vernacular house into the adjoining single-storey farm building, creating a long high-ceilinged kitchen-living area with full-length windows.”
“The property had also belonged to an American drummer and his German partner, who had converted the stone barn across the yard into a music studio. So, when we moved into Hedgehog Cottage, the benefits of their improvements accrued to us. Since then, we have lived the life we sought. And over the years, have raised geese, pigs, bees and hens; produced vegetables and flowers for the house; and I’ve run a bakery and baking school from my kitchen. We have also planted a thousand trees on the land surrounding the house, including oak, holly, scots pine, alder, birch and hazel.
“Then in late 2019, we decided to upgrade the studio from a rehearsal space into high-quality tourism accommodation, which would provide an authentic experience for visitors who are looking for something more than hot showers and high thread-count sheets.”
The large single-floor space had a “good roof”, but no insulation and both the windows and doors were in very bad condition. It was also without a water supply, had just one single light at one end of the building and a very poor concrete floor – in short, there was a lot to be done.
Having decided to renovate the property, Morrissey and her family, which in 2013 consisted of six people but after the sad loss of her son and the breakdown of her marriage, was now reduced to four, set about putting their plans into action.
"A local architect put our ideas onto paper, with two bedrooms and an open-plan kitchen, dining and living area," she says. "The kids, Izzy (18), Tom (14) and Louis (12), contributed their own ideas and my favourite feature was a wood stove perched on a stone plinth. The other aspect of the architect's brief was to retain a sense of the building's original character, so the open living area is still rough-stone walls. The rest of the interior stone walls were limewashed in a white solution provided by the Traditional Lime Company in Carlow. And although limewashing is slow work, it retains the original appearance of the building."
“We also built a mezzanine level with one double bedroom and divided the ground floor into a double bedroom, shower room, and open-plan kitchen-dining-living space. We installed a new window at the gable end, which was a tricky job as the walls are really thick and made from large cut stone, and a new Velux window above the mezzanine bedroom.
“We also replaced all the windows and doors, had the building plumbed and wired, and installed a new ash staircase, which, like the rest of the woodwork, was made by a local tradesman.”
Other work included raising the level of the floor to install insulation and also adding insulation to the roof, fitting a new kitchen and shower room as well as a new floor, and breaking into the old chimney breast of the shed next door to install a Waterford Stanley Stove (purchased secondhand for €100).
The renovation team also installed broadband and, with the help of the family, the whole place was cleaned and painted.
“We ran into some difficulty in terms of timing as we had hoped to have it open for Easter 2020,” says Morrissey. “But, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter as there wasn’t anything we could do about it. And when the first lockdown started in March 2020, I was really glad that we had used local tradespeople for every aspect of the project as they were able to co-ordinate their work, which meant they could continue what they were doing while socially distancing.”
Although they didn’t manage to open on time, the family decided to “go with the flow” and enjoy the process as there was very little they could do to speed it up.
“Renovating [during the various lockdowns] didn’t feel very stressful as we were lucky to have some really good tradespeople on the job,” she says. “The kids, wider family and friends were also really supportive, and I just enjoyed doing it – it is a lovely space, so it was nice spending time there painting in the evenings.
“We were finished by the summer and opened in July 2020, listing the property on Airbnb and VBRO. There was a flurry of activity before the first guests arrived and it was very busy initially in those few weeks between the end of one lockdown and the beginning of the next.”
The novice renovator says lockdown has created a new market for short-term accommodation and there are always people who need a place to hide away for the winter, waiting for the world to reboot.
“Our current over-winter guests love the central heating and the broadband and they also volunteer to split logs for the stove,” she says. “So while we weren’t the first ones to believe that Hedgehog Cottage had potential, we’re glad to have been the ones who realised the vision of a traditional Kilkenny farmyard that is beautiful, welcoming and economically sustainable.”