Turtle Bunbury: ‘The only place I can achieve peace is in the bath’

An Ikea world map and an acrylic table containing 1,000 pool cue chalks are among the writer’s favourite things

Turtle Bunbury is an author, historian and public speaker whose books include the Vanishing Ireland series, The Glorious Madness and, his latest book 1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery. He lives on the Lisnavagh estate in Co Carlow with his wife Ally and their two daughters, Jemima (9) and Bay (7).

Describe your interiors style

I grew up in a big, old house (Lisnavagh), which was stuffed with old portraits, books and bizarre curiosities gathered by ancestors on their world travels. Some of that has rubbed off on me. Our house, which we built eight years ago, is definitely old style. We cook on an Aga. The kitchen floor has an old parlour-tile ambience. All light switches are Bakelite, surmounted on Lisnavagh timber; all the sockets are of a glitzy bronze hue. We’re both hopeless optimists so the walls are painted in very bright colours. Some are lined with books, glorious books, and others are bedecked with as many of our old prints, maps and paintings as we’ve managed to hang. Neither of us are particularly handy at hammering in picture hooks so quite a lot are still resting against walls upstairs.

Which room do you most enjoy?

It sometimes seems a little OTT to call our sitting room the library, but the fact is the room is stuffed to the rafters with books. Most rest on shelves made of redbricks and oakwood planks. A wondrous Iron Dog stove at the heart of the room radiates great volcanic waves of heat through the house. However, the truth is I rarely read in the library. The only place I can achieve the required peace for such a pastime is in the bathtub where I like to read aloud so that I can properly tune in to the lyrical beat of the author’s words. To this end I am blessed by what I call my wife’s dowry – a magnificent, giraffe-length bathtub. It once belonged to a bishop and Ally’s mum had it ferried down to us from Co Monaghan while we were having the house built.

Who is your favourite designer? Do you own any of their work?

I'm heavily biased but I have a huge admiration for my sister Sasha Sykes who is a designer of ceaseless creativity. I can't even draw the curtains myself but there is a strong artistic streak in my family that goes back at least to our great-grandmother and encompasses some extraordinary art deco and sculptural ingenuity along the way. When I see Sasha's work, I can't help but view it in terms of that lineage but she absolutely makes her own mark. She has gifted me a few fabulous gems, the pick of which is an acrylic boxtop table called Signs of a Misspent Youth. It contains over 1,000 pool cue chalks that she and some pals collected in New York and is set on a cruciform of sturdy slab legs. She gave it to me as a memento of the bold and happy days she and I spent in pubs during our 20s and of the so-so skill I finally acquired on the pool tables therein.


What would you save from a fire?

I'm in two minds about whether I'd rescue my diaries, which I started at the age of eight and which now lie neglected upon a shelf in the library. Maybe it would be better if they went up in smoke and took their cryptic contents with them! I think I'd ditch them in favour of the four extraordinary albums that my great-grandmother Sylvia Drew created a century ago. Bound in burgundy calf leather, they provide an exceptionally vivid portrait of the life of a well-to-do family from the last days of the Edwardian age to the economic doldrums of the 1930s. Each page combines watercolours, ink drawings and silhouettes with autographs, postcards, sketches, telegrams, photographs and other printed souvenirs. But it is the actual design, the audacious layouts and the gung-ho panache of the whole thing that commands my absolute respect.

Do you collect anything specific?

Aside from the endless books that slide onto our shelves, and the habitual coffee mugs I pick up on holiday, the thing I collect most is other people's memories. I spend a significant portion of each year talking to people, generally of a senior vintage, about what they did with their lives or piecing together their family history. Once I have captured these memories, I convert them into stories – sometimes for the private consumption of the family and other times to go out into the public domain, as with the Vanishing Ireland series.

Which artist do you most admire?

I'm not particularly fixated by any one artist although I do have a strong soft spot for William Orpen, not least after I delved into his wartime experiences for a book I wrote about the Irish in the Great War. In terms of modern art that we actually own, and leaving my sister aside, I love a work called Palomas by Daniel Shaw-Smith, painted in Seville in 2003. We picked it up in an auction at the much lamented Flat Lake Literary and Arts Festival at Hilton Park, Co Monaghan a bunch of years ago and it remind us of that zany era of our lives.

What is the biggest interiors turn-off for you?

I'm pretty at ease in most set-ups although my heart does sink when I arrive into any house where the only cultural or artistic outlet appears to be a giant plasma telly. The photographer James Fennell and I once scored a magnificent job producing a book on the best-looking old-style pubs in Ireland – we fetched up with 40 crackers but if your pub had a TV presiding over the bar, there's a strong chance it didn't make the book.

What is your favourite travel destination and why?

I lived in Hong Kong for a while and worked as a travel writer for about a decade. That took me to many amazing places such as Mexico, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. You must travel as much as possible when you are young. You cannot travel too much. I'm less inclined to head too far just now, mostly for familial reasons, but normal service will resume in due course. That said, we are so enormously lucky in Ireland in terms of the immense peace, beauty and positivity that surrounds us. Ally has travelled a lot too and it was she who arranged for the large Ikea map of the world to hang over our stairwell so that our young daughters would grow up knowing that we live not in a small green field in Co Carlow but in a great big world full of islands and mountains, deserts and oceans, cities and coasts. We have a morning ritual where I stand in front of the map, the girls choose a specific spot and I tell them something riveting that happened there. I have to cheat and use Google quite a lot but I'm learning as much as they are.

If you had €100,000 to spend, what you would buy?

I’d be strongly tempted to challenge JP McManus to a game of backgammon. If gambling is off-limits, I’d ideally spend it on something that would reignite the spirit of the homeless, or else I’d like to use it to somehow revolutionise the way history is taught. It drives me mad that children can find history boring. How can the history of everything that’s ever happened, starring everyone who has ever lived, be boring? I’m pretty sure a hundred grand would inspire me to come up with ways to make history the class that every kid longs for.