We lost our dream home in the recession but it came back to us

The bank took the McGillycuddys' Kerry house after they went bust in the 1980s but then fate took a turn

Patrick and Margaret McGillacuddy at their home in Glencar, Co. Kerry. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

It was on Christmas Day 1969, at a dance in the Eimer Ballroom in Glenbeigh Co Kerry, that Margaret Murphy's eye was caught by a tall, handsome young man. He had a girlfriend. Margaret pushed the thoughts of him from her mind.

Months later, she was at one of the local "Biddy Balls, " a traditional gathering at a private house. She was sitting on a windowsill, getting a bit of air between dances when, suddenly, through the open window behind her, a pair of strong hands clenched around her waist and before she could react, she was being dragged backwards out through the window and into what turned out to be the arms of that same young man - Patrick McGillycuddy.

The rest, as they say, is history. They dated, fell in love, married and, in 1972, built their dream home close to Caragh Lake in Patrick's birthplace of Glencar.

Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

As an architect’s-technician-turned-builder, Patrick had strong ideas about the house, which was modern and challenging in design – an octagonal-shaped structure topped with a copper-clad roof. Margaret had her own strong ideas and between the arrivals of babies one, two and three, and all the way to six, she was instrumental in developing and finishing the home. The McGillycuddys had created something very special in the wilds of Glencar. They were happy and looked forward to the future.


The idyll was not to last.

Debts are personal

Now, in 2018, as the couple look back, it still pains them to remember what happened next. Like many in the building trade in 1980s Ireland, Patrick's building business struggled to survive. It all went belly-up in 1981. The couple lost everything, including the house. Patrick was forced to leave Margaret behind with the six children (and another on the way) as he set off for London to work as a builder's labourer.

“I had to get money together to get the family over. I had to pay off our debts. And I did. Every one of them. Debts around here are not corporate, they’re personal.”

Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

The bank sold their house to the German family of Werner and Elfreda Kuhn. The McGillycuddys settled in London. They made good and over the years, got back on their feet and managed to do well. They were regular visitors to Ireland, and would pass the beloved house, trying to avert their eyes on their way to visit family nearby. Time passed, and in 2000 on one of their visits home, there was a knock on the door of Patrick's mother's house.

"It was Michael Kuhn, " explains Patrick. "The son of the German man who had bought the house from the banks."

Michael had a key in his outstretched open hand.

“My father made a promise to your mother,” he said as he handed the key to Patrick. “He said he would sell the house back to you one day.” Patrick was taken aback, was holding in his emotions as they shook hands. The next morning Margaret was at their former home with paintbrush in hand.

Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

From wilderness to beauty

“What are you doing, Margaret?” said Patrick. “We’ve no contract signed, we haven’t even agreed on a price yet!”

“If you think anyone will ever take this from me again, you have another thing coming,” said his wife, with an expression Patrick knew better than to challenge.

Margaret and Patrick brought the whole family back the following Christmas. And so began their back and forth existence between two countries.

“The house was cold and damp at the start,” recalls Margaret, “but we didn’t care. We had lots of laughs. We started remodelling. The garden was particularly challenging. There actually was no garden, as such.

“The laurels were so thick and high you couldn’t see the house. There was just a path cut through to the front door. It was a massive undertaking. I took great pleasure in it though. I love taking a piece of wilderness and turning it into something beautiful.”

“There was one day I was down by the entrance trying to dig out this big, big rock with a crowbar”, says Patrick. “‘Now, Patrick, Margaret said, come on, get out of my way.’ And she lifted the rock and threw it out across the road!”

“Oh that was not what I would consider a big rock,” says Margaret, chuckling to herself.

The remodelling turned into a much bigger project and they decided to build a second house on the site.

Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

“It was all family and local labour worked on it. That’s a principle we’ve always followed,” says Patrick. “In building the second house, and in major recent renovations on the first house, the design and procurement was carried out by Rory McGillycuddy Associates and was delivered by our fantastic Glencar crew.”

Force to be reckoned with

The second house follows a similar design and the idea was to make a separate space for their seven children and the 16 grandchildren that had joined the clan over the years. With so many people to accommodate they designed one of the bedrooms on a particularly large scale.

Eighteen years after buying back their house, the couple are in the process of making the move home, permanent.

Patrick and Margaret McGillacuddy’s guest house. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus
Patrick and Margaret McGillacuddy’s guest house. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

Now, in 2018, as Margaret looks out at the garden she has honed from the rugged land by her own hands, the same hands that have dug the soil and hauled rocks that Patrick describes as boulders he’d collapse under, you have a sense that her determination is a force to be reckoned with.

And she’s not alone, of course. With Patrick’s recognisable surname and the family roots that go back to a hardy branch of the McGillycuddys who escaped into the wilds of Kerry and progressed over generations with the grit and determination to survive against the odds, you have a pair to be reckoned with.

“We’ll have a cup of tea,” announces Patrick as he gets up to put on the kettle. He takes out the bag of loose leaf, scalds the pot and goes through the ritual. After 46 years of marriage they’re still the real deal. Their home is the real deal too. And it won’t be slipping from their grip again.