‘I can’t believe we’re living here’: Historic Wexford cottage that was at risk of falling into decline is restored

It’s been 11 years since the previous resident, my great aunt Kitty, drew her final breath, but after two years of effort, we’re finally in

So… we’re in, pretty much.

The builders have cleaned up and cleared out after unsnagging a not too lengthy snag list. The taps run, the toilets flush, and I need to install a phone app to control the heating.

Seeing the house with the heavier work finished, and less the stacks of tools, wood, ladders, flooring and whatever else that filled up space at points throughout the project, is great but also daunting.

The place feels a hell of a lot bigger than at the height of the job, not to mention if you compare it to back in my great aunt Kitty’s day when it was cluttered with all manner of furniture, bric-a-brac and nostalgia.


There’s no fooling ourselves, we still have a long way to go, and it is down to us (and those people who naively offered to help with painting and the rest) to see it through now.

The next round of progress doesn’t have to be immediate, but paint colours have been chosen in the main, and even applied in a few places, after a lot of wading through charts, web pages and many rounds of solicited and unsolicited advice from others.

The whole experience has been an education, naturally enough, but this part in particular feels that way. It comes down to our choices after what went before was generally driven by practicality. Home decor is another world, but we’ve read up on and sampled lime washes, distempers, mineral paints, you name it, and appear to know where we’re going.

Tackling the shutter boxes around the old sash windows will be a serious undertaking, as will livening up the black beams on the kitchen ceiling, which seem to take their colour from being tarred at some point. Furnishing it out will be a stinger, too, given everything costs far more than someone who’s never had to buy these things would ever imagine.

Aside from the demolition of the front porch and raising of the rear extension roof, not much in basic terms has changed. We kept the floors and woodwork we were able to, the windows were restored rather than replaced, the internal doors are back where they were before, and the old kitchen table sits where it always did.

But as much as it remains the same, you can’t help but notice that the house feels different.

The fact it is now OUR house (there’s a mortgage to prove it) is a blatant driver of that. There are functioning plug sockets where you might expect them to be, central heating, you can have a properly nice shower, there’s wifi in spite of those thick walls and the lightbulbs aren’t all blaring out 100 watts.

I also learned of an unfortunate (and quite treacherous) historic love story which, if it had got the romantic ending it merited, would have put my family’s story on a very different path

Having more modern conveniences makes a big difference, but it is simpler things such as the air inside feeling drier and warmer that stand out the most. We also have an understanding about the house and its history now that never would have been there without going through this process of taking it apart and putting back together.

As we emptied drawers and chests I read through copybooks and papers showing the progress of three children, who were taken in here from London during the second World War, as they got to grips with Latin, Catechism and Irish in local schools.

We found labels for preserves sold from the place under the name “K Brand” (K presumably for Keating), apt given it was also something my mother did from here generations later. I also learned of an unfortunate (and quite treacherous) historic love story which, if it had got the romantic ending it merited, would have put my family’s story on a very different path.

There is no shortage of older items and nostalgic touches that we intend to reintroduce once we properly get a feel for the place and find the time to finesse and fix them, but will be some time yet given that there’s plenty more to do.

The war in Ukraine has affected the price of most things for almost everyone over the last 15 months, but it is an earlier geopolitical crisis that is inflicting bother on me as we prepare to redo the roof during the summer – Brexit.

Some of the material the thatcher requires is coming from Yorkshire, which sounds straightforward. Having found a haulier and a customs agent, registered as an importer with Revenue, been passed between several of the tentacles of the Department of Agriculture – was it the Plant and Pest, Cereals or Straw Importation section? – to eventually get the appropriate clearances, the not-inexpensive load’s destiny is entirely out of my hands as it still awaits phytosanitary clearance on the British side. The trade has been anything but frictionless.

Retrospect is an interesting thing, be it around political or personal choices, and while there have been times that led me to question why I ever decided to get involved in this renovation, you eventually realise that it could have been a lot worse.

I’d only ever rented before the middle of March, so sweating over things like mortgage drawdowns, grant applications, engineers’ reports, securing house insurance, and choosing sanitary wares was totally alien to me. But thankfully there was no shortage of help.

The support, reassurance and grounding provided by Amanda were crucial in keeping things afloat, as was my mother, Katherine, who was on hand to help manage and drive things on while I wasn’t nearby. My father, Denis, came with his digger and dumper to help us sort out the site, his wife, Yvonne, was a great help in gathering the essentials for moving in and my brother, Ross, offered a bailout when things got tight.

Doing up a property changes your relationship with money. Before this, a sum like €1,000 was something I’d seldom have had reason to spend at once. But when you get into a renovation, you soon realise it is but a drop in the ocean.

While there have been a few more drops needed than anticipated to get close to the finish line, it hasn’t been all that many. Our contractor has run a tight ship and his initial estimates have largely been borne out. The bit of bloat has come from intangibles such as the cost of pretty much every material rising, skips not holding as much as you’d have imagined, or situations where one person involved deems something necessary and that creates more work for someone else.

We were fortunate that the Croí Cónaithe grant scheme, aiming to get vacant homes back into use, came along when it did. While the funds haven’t come through yet, we will be glad when they do, given the thatching, the most expensive part of the entire job, still needs to be covered before the last tranche of the mortgage pays out. A final gap to bridge.

I still struggle at times to believe we’re living here now. Amazing how a pandemic changed the way many of us work and some of us think or live

There was an excitement when cancelling the direct debit to the landlord of almost eight years, packing up and leaving Dublin to move to a place, albeit one that wasn’t yet ready, of our own.

There’s an adjustment to come. I’m going from living a short walk from the city centre to facing a near 10 minute drive to a shop. The closest pub is a manageable 1.5km stroll away, the same distance as from my old flat to our old local, the Kings Inn. On the rural stretch, you pass 11 houses, a former national school and a church, and are guided at night by the line of grass growing in the middle of the road instead of street lights – a serious departure from Dublin 1 hubbub.

Being further from friends, the office and family (in Amanda’s case) is not ideal, but we’re fortunate to have received great support for the move and to already have a steady stream of people coming to visit.

There have been periods of stress, doubt and pessimism, but we’re lucky (and a little surprised) to have made it to this point without having had any major rows or dust-ups. Credit for that goes to our conscientious contractor Greg, the multitalented Pat, our lime specialist Alan and the great work of Cory, Tom and many others who chipped in along the way.

I still struggle at times to believe we’re living here now. Amazing how a pandemic changed the way many of us work and some of us think or live.

It is 11 years since my mother, aunts and I sat with my great aunt Kitty as she took her last breaths. I wouldn’t have believed you then if you’d said I would end up taking on this house, a little piece of history and a significant part of her legacy. But we’re lucky to have had the opportunity.

Death brings life, and it is great to see it back in the place again.

Steven Carroll is an Irish Times journalist