Kilkenny is often referred to as the "creative heart of Ireland", and it is not hard to see why. Not only is the county home to the internationally acclaimed Butler Gallery and the National Design and Craft Gallery, Ormonde College – which itself is based in one of the most historically important buildings in the county – has full-time arts programmes, based at its Visual Arts Campus.
Back in 1963, the government decided to help develop novice Irish craft makers into self-sufficient entrepreneurs, to create a sustainable design industry in Ireland. Designers and craftspeople from all over the world relocated to Kilkenny where they shared their skills and helped put the county to the forefront of Irish design.
Kilfane Glebe in Thomastown, which is home to the famed Grennan Mill Craft School, and nearby Jerpoint – which is one of the few hand-blown glass studios in Ireland – is a charming Georgian house dating from 1807.
It was built by the Board of First Fruits, which is an almost artistic way of saying funds collected from taxes. These were levies on incomes from Church of Ireland clergy, in an effort to build and improve churches and glebe houses in Ireland.
Today it is home to the Oakley family, who purchased the 426sq m (4,594sq ft) Georgian estate from artist Hughie O’Donoghue about 15 years ago.
O’Donoghue, whose seminal work, The Owl Run, set a world record for the artist when it achieved €109,557 through Sotheby’s in 2019, was the first artist in a decade to receive a stained glass commission from Westminster Abbey, London whose original windows were destroyed in the second World War.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, O’Donoghue said: “The way I draw, is to draw on the place, to literally draw on the sensations of the place, like Turner, who strapped himself to the mast of a ship to experience what the sea was like.”
Describing Kilfane in another interview, O’Donoghue remarked: “It’s a very special place – not only the house – but the grounds. There are great mature trees here and every day I walk the place so I’ve got to know it very well, and those kind of things inevitably find their way into your work.”
O’Donoghue more than left his mark on Kilfane having lived there for 13 years. He constructed a studio to a design that many an artist would give their eye teeth for, as it measures 338sq m (3,638sq ft) and rises to 8m (26ft) in height. It is built to a domestic standard so it has a multitude of potential uses.
For the Oakley family, who now called Kilfane home, the studio was used as the venue for son Johnny’s wedding, where 150 sat for dinner and later danced on the granite quadrangle outside.
"It was just a super wedding, lots of the guests camped on the grounds for the weekend and I made the bouquets from flowers in the garden," recalls owner Maire Oakley.
In addition to the five-bedroom Georgian pile and O’Donoghue’s studio is a postcard-perfect one-bedroom cottage with lattice windows and a bubble-gum-pink door. A suntrap courtyard is home to a stable wing with a lovely carriage house, which has overhead exposed beams and a mezzanine, where Johnny has a music studio.
The gardens, extending to almost nine acres, have paths that meander through mature woodlands and paddocks set around a walled garden. and the house and courtyard are swathed in wisteria, clematis, roses and Virginia creeper.
The basement in the main house – which itself has five bedrooms and retains all its lovely period details – is laid out as two workshops and storage. This is where the late Bob Oakley, a graphic designer who died in 2016, enjoyed his hobby of restoring old furniture and designing craft items.
“He used to spend about four hours a day there, where he loved to make leather goods and knives, he refused to have anything with a plastic handle so would make a wooden one instead,” remembers his wife, Maire. Their son Johnny has just finished making a wooden canoe and oars in his dad’s workshop.
It appears that creativity is part of the fabric of everyday life in the county of Kilkenny, and Kilfane Glebe is now on the market through joint agents Sherry FitzGerald Country Homes and Sherry FitzGerald McCreery seeking €1.25 million.