By Trudy Prescott PhD
Braving nearly 140 years of the worst and best the Wild Atlantic Way Ox Mountains can hurl, the old Irish farmhouse Carrowcullen, near Skreen County Sligo, sits on fourteen acres of unspoilt mountain pastures, with Ladies Brae (a steep hill) rising up dramatically behind.
In 2016, Carrowcullen was in a sad state, due to water seeping through the failing chimney flashings, through the soil immediately beneath its wooden floor boards, and through the back wall from soil that had slid down from the upper pasture to rest against the building (evidently caused by the planting of forestry which disturbed the natural spring in the west pasture).
Inside Carrowcullen, layers of wall paper were peeling -- suspended in the air--, rotten ground floor boards, laid directly over earth, were giving way, mould and mildew gave off the overpowering smell of decay, and skirting boards’ paint was discovered holding the ‘wood’ behind, which had turned to powder from woodworm and moisture.
Carrowcullen’s exterior hardly fared better, with water ingressing to detach the lime rendering from the stonework, iron gutters sprouting veritable gardens, and original sash windows at the back doubly assaulted by word worm and damp. Carrowcullen was encircled on two sides by giant Cedar of Lebanon trees which were nearing the end of their 100 year plus lives and which, once the forestry was taken down (planned in 2017) and no longer buffering them from the ferocious Ox Mountain winds and rain, would have come down, bringing the house with them. Indeed, the storm of October 2017, after the forestry was harvested, brought down almost every tree at the south side of the west pasture and still more trees along the east pasture lane.
But Carrowcullen was not to be left to decay. Its appeal to me, a heritage specialist, was that it had remained much as it was when built in the 1880s and it had remained in the same family’s possession continuously.
The original fireplace surrounds were still in situ are were wardrobes, tables, ladies’ and parlour chairs; in the sheds were pony cart, chaise longue, the ‘good’ china, butter churner, kitchen utensils and generations of unwanted objects. No internal plumbing had been installed, although an outdoor toilet and septic tank were installed in the late 1980s/early 1990s (which I discovered under a forest of brambles). At that time, Maureen Phillips, the venerated owner (who passed early in 2018 aged 99), still went daily to fetch a bucket of water in the east pasture’s natural spring.
Bringing Carrowcullen back to life as a ‘step back in time’ unique experience, would challenge the multiple skills of the wonderful builder from Cork, D J O’Connor, and made me dig deep from my heritage training. I rejected the favoured approach of ‘new’ inside and ‘old’ outside.
We went carefully through every room and made every decision based on saving whatever was salvageable of the original, reusing, replacing like-for-like and leaving original decorative paintwork untouched. My inspiration came from my own experience visiting historic houses and locations since childhood (my father was a museum director) in the US and since 1982 in the UK, and my visiting my Swedish grandmother in 1973, who was staying in a 19th c cottage in Stockholm and had taught me to crochet lace in the 1960s.
The ‘nods’ to the 21st century were: introducing indoor plumbing for the first time (but with Victorian/Edwardian period sanitary ware, most sourced leaving their own buildings for the first time) and installing insulation, thereby satisfying both goals of sustainability and convenience.
The building works unveiled Carrowcullen’s beautiful interior and exterior stonework. Inside, in the kitchen, the heart of the house into which you first step, the original hearth emerged from beneath a wall, and the Stanley 8 stove, alas beyond repair, replaced, with an identical restored model, which runs the hot water heating, and keeps the kettle on boil and provides easy cast iron cooking. The stove now sits back into the hearth as it would have done originally. I made the decision to keep the stonework of the fire-place walls on the ground floor exposed. On the exterior when the render was removed, revealed incredibly skilled stone masonry which also was left exposed (rather than being rendered), a decision which was approved by Maureen Phillips whose grandfather had built the house in the 1880s, but in a late 18th c/early 19thc style.
As it is now, Carrowcullen draws gasps from visitors – ‘it’s just like my grandmother’s house’ as they step over the threshold. Furniture in the house was dried out, cleaned, treated for woodworm, and restored to the rooms (where possible) from which they came; (more furniture awaits for my ‘rainy day’ jobs). Additional furniture and furnishings were sourced to suit the Carrowcullen’s dating and the stature that it once had, as well as to reflect my own family’s journeys and heritage interests. Fabrics used for the soft furnishings were sourced on principles of sustainability: roll-ends vintage fabrics, and fabrics from charity shops, which I had collected from the 1980s. ‘My’ addition to the ‘look’ of Carrowcullen’s interior was the decision not to reinstate the suspended ceilings in the main bedrooms, but to leave the full height of the rooms’ space visible.
If you are seeking an Irish experience that is memorable, unique and a talking point, then experience Carrowcullen. At this old Irish farmhouse, you can engage with fascinating objects in a breath-taking location, set within fourteen acres unspoilt pastures, with the Sligo walking trail starting on the doorstep.
Here’s what Carrowcullen offers the adventurous as a unique Irish experience:
• Discover the ever- changing local micro climate and views of the Ox Mountains, Ladies Brae
• Take a steep hike up Ladies Brae and engage with peat bogs and forestry, Ox Mountains and incredible views to the Atlantic Ocean, and of iconic Sligo landmarks including Knocknarea and Benbulben
• Cook in cast iron and copper pots on a refurbished Stanley 8 stove
• Serve your cider from copper and brass measuring ladles
• Pour your claret/red wine from silver and pewter jugs
• Watch the daily counting of sheep: Plunkett and Brian McDonnell and Glynn
• Feed the ducks
• Discover the two natural springs in the east and west pastures
• Climb into a 19th c pony cart which took local children and the neighbouring nun to school each day
• Experience flushing with a pull-chain cast iron or wood toilet cisterns
• Relax in a Victorian cast iron bath
• Sleep in the late 19th/early 20th c beds.
• Engage your clothes with 19th century wardrobes and chest of drawers
• Write letters to family and friends on dressing tables original to the house
• Iron with a cast iron flat iron
• Spin your own yarn
• Grind your coffee beans in brass and wood grinder
• Eat your breakfast at an oak round table original to the house, with the tuck-under chairs
• Wash dishes in a salt glaze butler’s sink
Drop in on the ongoing restoration of the ‘nook’ shed with original turf hearth where the farm labourer/additional family members lived alongside their livestock
• Examine the cobbler’s boot and frame, supplementing labourer’s wages in the ‘nook’
• See how (and if yet!) the restoration of the Carrowcullen butter churner is proceeding
• Chop turnips with the Scottish turnip chopper to supplement the livestock’s grazing
• Wash your clothes in a tub using a washing dolly
• Assist in creating a vegetable garden in the location where it supplemented the labourer’s diet or chopping wood for the log burners in the fireplaces
• Engage with each other! (no TV, but lots of books and puzzles!)
And from Carrowcullen’s base:
• Explore a traditional cottage, late 18thc farmhouse, a village street, agricultural artefacts at the Sligo Folk Park Riverstown, Co Sligo (18.5m, 27 min drive)
• Explore your Irish ancestors life 1850 to 1950 through agriculture, fishing and hunting at the award winning national Museum of Country Live in Turlough Park, Castlebar Co Mayo (41m, 57 min drive)
• Visit the Knock Folk Museum, Drum, Knock Co Mayo where late 19th c Irish rural life is explored and which is also the site of the 1879 apparition to 15 people, and which retains records of pilgrims visiting the shrine subsequently (43m, 1 hour drive)
• Experience the American and Irish immigration links and origins of the Carnegie family: Visit the Ulster American museum (87m, two hour drive)
• And when you return to Carrowcullen, you will re-engage with objects seen in these museums
Easy accessibility to Sligo/Ballina/Castlebar/Lough Key/Easkey/Talt and Slish Wood, inspiration to WB Yeats; Fishing, surfing, golf, hiking, biking all nearby.
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