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‘We found our Shangri-La in Kilkenny’

The Harveys were looking for a bolthole in Ireland but the tumbledown cottage they found is now a full-time home to their extended family

Hilary and Tim Harvey with their family Leo, Alexa, Aoife and Oona, at their home in Ballymagill Co Kilkenny. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

It’s autumn, 2003. Hilary and Tim Harvey, along with Hilary’s mother and their young daughters Aoife and Oona, are travelling around Ireland in search of a holiday cottage to buy. They have a notion of what they’d like. Something away from it all, the more rural the better, a place they can get away to now and again from their busy lives in Canterbury.

They’re settled in Canterbury – both have fulfilling jobs with good career prospects. Hilary is a tourism manager with Canterbury City Council. Tim works in tourism marketing. Life is hectic, with the two young daughters in the mix and another baby on the way. They are looking for a little retreat. A place they can escape to from time to time. They like Ireland, are regular visitors to Hilary’s mother in Wexford.

It’s been a long day. An estate agent has shown them a few Kilkenny houses; none has hit the spot. They’re due to travel back to the UK on the evening ferry. As they drive down a lane to view the last, rather tumbledown property, the estate agent is hoping, rather than believing, it might fit the bill.

As the property comes into view, Hilary’s mother, in some instinctive foreshadowing of what’s about to happen, starts to say the word no.

“No. No. No,” she calls.

Her mantra, Tim explains, fell on deaf ears.

“I thought to myself, Oh bloody hell, this is it. We’ve found our Shangri-La! It was hidden, secret. It appealed to some innate feeling.”

The ‘house’ before them had not been officially declared derelict.

“It may as well have been,” says Hilary. “With the roof collapsed, doors hanging off.”

Crumbling heap

The cottage was completely overgrown, strangled with brambles, a crumbling heap that had seen better days. A mother’s dread at what she knew they were letting themselves in for, followed by the sight of an upstairs floor collapsing under the estate agent, leaving him dangling across a beam buckled in pain, was not enough to put Hilary and Tim off. Less than an hour later, they had agreed on a price. They had their holiday cottage.

By the time they arrived back to Canterbury that night, they realised it was too big an undertaking for an occasional bolthole – they were moving to Ireland! That news was some consolation, at least, for Hilary’s mother, who, aside from liking the idea of them living closer, was firmly of the opinion that they must be mad.

“Looking back,” says Tim. “We must, indeed, have been mad.”

He and Hilary quit their steady, secure jobs. They cobbled together savings and managed to sell their Canterbury home, which provided them with the funding to get stuck into the massive project. To save money on the building and renovation costs, they did as much work as possible themselves. They weren’t quite sure of how they would make ends meet, into the future. Tim recalls how the scale and work demands kept expanding.

“We started to clear the site, which was a vast canopy of weeds and brambles. That’s when we discovered another cottage. Then, when we decided later to buy some surrounding ground next door, we found the remains of two more cottages!”

Hilary, who at that stage was heavily pregnant with their third child, was undaunted by the new discoveries.

“We hadn’t bargained on ending up with four properties, but that’s what we found. Ballymagill was a cluster of 1840s’ stone farmhouses that had been abandoned in the 1970s. So while we came looking for a holiday cottage, we ended up uncovering a village!”

Hilary’s brother-in-law, anxious to learn some building skills from the now quite accomplished Tim and Hilary, came to help. A couple of caravans became their temporary homes until, months later, after hard graft and long hours, the Harveys had a habitable home. Baby Leo had joined the family by then and when Tim’s adult son, Louis, came for a holiday, he too saw something special. Louis, and later Tim’s other adult son, Rob, renovated two of the houses and moved in with their own families.

Family affair

The three Harvey families are still happily ensconced in their little village. Tim and Hilary rent the fourth cottage to holiday makers. In the past number of years, Hilary has qualified as a yoga teacher. Two years ago they renovated a stone outhouse into a yoga studio where Hilary now runs yoga classes and weekend yoga retreats. It’s an all-hands-on-deck family affair with in-house catering courtesy of Aoife, their eldest daughter, who has become a skilled, self-taught cook. The cottage and yoga studio earnings allow the Harveys to live a relatively self-sufficient life.

Hilary and Tim Harvey in their home in Ballymagill. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

It’s been a big move to come from Canterbury to their remote “village” in south Kilkenny. Has it been a good one? Tim answers with an emphatic, yes.

“It’s been an adventure. Once it became comfortable, where else would you want to be? People are very nice here. They even kindly built a motorway for us nearby, which makes it easy to get to Waterford. The airport’s only an hour-and-a-half away.”

“We’ve always gone with the flow,” says Hilary. “We arrived here and knew. It’s never been anything but right, a lovely place to raise our children. I describe them as free-range children who can roam. We’ve been able to have our dogs and cats and an abandoned foal we raised from when he was one day old into adulthood. We’ve even had pet sheep too, they went everywhere on leads!”

When the Harveys moved in they were, says Hilary, seen as something of a novelty, locally.

“They thought we were just hippies down the end of the hill, because they didn’t know us. But when I started teaching yoga I got to know everyone, which has been really nice. I even have quite a number of local farmers coming to my men’s yoga classes now. It’s catching on!”

Tim recalls the moment when he felt a real part of the community.

“We’ve been living here for 14 years, but at the builders merchants they would always say ‘that’s to be delivered to Jack Mackay’s yard’, who used to live here. But one day, recently, when they were to deliver some sand, they said ‘that’s to go up to Tim Harvey’s yard’.”

Tim pauses for effect, then finishes the merchant’s line:

“It’s to go to Tim Harvey’s yard, up at Jack Mackays! ”

That, says Tim, was close enough. It was the moment he knew he was home.