‘A place in the country’: Getaway where Colm Tóibín and Maeve Binchy were entertained on the market for €435,000

Laois home of late Irish Times literary editor Caroline Walsh and writer and professor James Ryan

The Old Schoolhouse, Aghaboe, Co Laois
Address: The Schoolhouse, Aghaboe, Co Laois
Price: €435,000
Agent: Sherry FitzGerald Hyland Keating
View this property on MyHome.ie

The village of Aghaboe in Co Laois, which takes its name from a monastic site, saw its fair share of plundering over the course of its tortured history, since its original abbey was first constructed in AD 576.

It served as a centre of learning, commerce and agriculture, despite being burned to the ground on three occasions, and was also the place where noted Irish geometer and astronomer St Virgilius was abbot before becoming bishop of Salzburg in AD 766.

Twelve centuries later, an old schoolhouse in the village – translating from the Irish “field of cows” – caught the eye of James Ryan and the late Caroline Walsh, and over the years became the couple’s home, described by Ryan as “a really enriching experience”.

Despite both working in Dublin – Ryan as a writer and the director of creative writing at the school of English at University College Dublin (and now professor emeritus) and Walsh as a journalist, author and literary editor of The Irish Times from 1999 until her death in 2011 – the pair embarked on an adventure to make this part of the country their home. “Long before we’d even bought a house in Dublin, we’d decided we wanted a place in the country,” says Ryan. “So we bought here in 1990 when we’d two small children and a clapped-out car.”

Climbing hydrangea and Albertine roses frame the original front door
The hall is panelled with yellow overhead
Book-lined corridors serve as a reminder of the house's literary alumni
The statinless-steel kitchen has an almost commercial feel to it

Doing the house up in two stages, including a large extension, the couple were really hands-on with its renovation and the creation of its now magnificent gardens. Ryan restored all the original windows, and the couple developed an edible garden along with the introduction of some fine specimen trees.

Now occupying 260sq m (2,799sq ft) and draped in climbing hydrangeas, Chinese wisteria, variegated holly and Albertine roses, it’s a charming spot full of colour and character.

While the three bedrooms upstairs have simple white decor allowing bucolic views of rambling countryside to take centre stage, downstairs is packed with colour: “Caroline felt primary, or Montessori colours of red, blue and yellow, used in children’s building blocks were important to use here, rather than ‘oatmeal’ or ‘magnolia’. It was really against the grain at the time.”

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Main livingroom
A second livingroom off the hallway
Old fireplace in the second livingroom

Along with four bathrooms, two livingrooms, a diningroom and pantry, there’s lots of space for entertaining inside and out as the pair loved to do.

A bit like the adjacent abbey serving as a centre for learning and agriculture, this schoolhouse was where the couple penned five books, edited a “mountain” of them, while son Matt Ryan, co-founder along with Paddy McKillen jnr of Press Up hospitality group, “apprenticed himself” with “any agricultural contractor who would have him on board”.

It was also the place where daughter Alice Ryan – whose novel There’s Been a Little Incident won the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award at the Irish Book Awards in 2022 – got married, in a marquee on the grounds.

The stainless-steel kitchen paints a picture of great culinary exploits. Almost commercial in stature, it’s where bounty from the gardens has produced pickled cucumber, lots of chutneys, preserved apples, while the house was noted for its red onion marmalade, popular with numerous literary guests that have included authors Colm Tóibín and journalist Catriona Crowe.

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Paulownia tomentosa or foxglove tree
Gardens are one of the selling points of the property
Rosa Gordon Snell, commissioned by the late Maeve Binchy

Rosa Gordon Snell grows to the rear of the house. It serves as a reminder that the late author Maeve Binchy – who had commissioned the rose for her husband, Gordon Snell – were regular visitors here. Binchy had also been Walsh’s teacher in school as well as being a colleague and editor in later life.

Besides cucumbers, tomatoes, a fine asparagus bed and a trailing vine, Babington’s leeks grow here in this little slice of Laois paradise. Native in the wild mainly on the Aran Islands, this statuesque and rare plant was gifted by the noted garden designer Arthur Shackleton, who lives locally. Another specimen from Shackleton’s gardens is a Mulberry tree, while well-established lime trees frame the striking leaves of Paulownia tomentosa or foxglove tree, a plant that holds the RHS Award of Garden Merit.

It’s not hard to see why Ryan refers to life here as being harmonious. Besides the charming house, an abundance of bounty from the 0.7-acre garden, the place is just a 10-minute drive from the heritage town of Abbeyleix. With a Ber of C1, the lovely spot is now on the market through Sherry FitzGerald Hyland Keating, seeking €435,000.

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about property, fine arts, antiques and collectables