It may have caught the eye of a Hollywood A-lister, but a lighthouse cottage got its new lease of life from a local woman, says Eve Kelliher.
Actor Matt Damon was rumoured to be a potential buyer when the lighthouse keeper’s cottage in Youghal came on the market but it was a young local woman whose bid on the property was successful — and life-changing.
The Bourne Identity star revealed his dream was to live in a lighthouse in Ireland. Speaking to the Irish Sun, in February 2017, he said: “How awesome would that be?” He added: “I just have this image, this dream, of sitting atop the lighthouse, looking out to sea, and how beautiful and peaceful that must be.
I don’t know if you can buy those, wouldn’t they be state-owned? If you could, I’d do it.” It was another newspaper article that caught Saoirse Fitzgerald’s eye the previous July. “I stumbled across an article with the headline: ‘The most spectacular lighthouse lodgings on the market in Ireland’,” she said.
One of these was the lighthouse keeper’s cottage in Youghal. Saoirse had grown up just 15km away, on a farm in Claddagh, Co Cork, and gone to school close to the lighthouse. “I used to to see the lighthouse from my childhood bedroom window,” she said.
Describing herself as part of a generation that is choosing to not settle, but travel and learn, Saoirse said: “I entered the third decade of my life and suddenly had an urge to find a little corner of this world that would be mine,” she said.
Based at the time in London, working as brand director for LinkedIn for eight years, Saoirse had spent 10-plus years travelling. She had lived in cities for most of her adult life, so “the idea of a house on a cliff, looking out at nothing but sea, drew me in”, Saoirse said.
Weeks later, Saorise won the bid on the lighthouse keeper’s house and collected the keys. She had been told the competition was a wealthy American — who may or may not have been Matt Damon.
Youghal Lighthouse, still operating and owned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, was not included in the sale. Saoirse’s renovation of the 200-year-old building took five months — and the whole project opened new doors in a metaphorical sense also as Saoirse followed another dream and retrained as an interior designer.
Saoirse enlisted the help of her family, including her dad, and you can see the stunning results this Tuesday, March 17 on RTÉ One, as judges Deirdre Whelan, Hugh Wallace, and Peter Crowley visit the East Cork abode in their hunt for Home of the Year 2020.
This cottage was the residence of every lighthouse keeper at Youghal Lighthouse since the 1800s. “It is the only lighthouse keeper’s house in a town in Ireland,” said Saoirse. “The house has retained its character and heritage but yet has a modern twist.”
The renovation introduced open-plan living downstairs, a sea-facing bathroom and bathtub, underfloor heating, new electrics and plumbing, insulation throughout, and a 20-foot conservatory complete with hanging chair, and new windows throughout.
“The walls are three-feet deep, the old windows have been restored, the old fireplaces take pride of place in each bedroom, and it sits under the watchful eye of the lighthouse which is in the garden,” added Saoirse.
“We converted the old coal shed into the mainly glass bathroom as I wanted to have a bathtub and shower that looked out to sea. I have installed an outdoor shower now too, so you can come straight up from the beach and have a warm shower outside!”
The renovation encompassed making downstairs more open-plan, making the most of the views. “We took 100 tonnes of rubble out and access is tricky there so everything that was brought in or out of the home had to be done so by crane over the wall!” said Saoirse.
The work was overseen by the conservation officer for County Cork, Mona Hallinan.
“For me, I wanted to keep as much of the character of the house as possible ( that’s what made me fall for the place, I guess), but the views weren’t being maximised and the electrics, plumbing, windows and heat system needed replacing. It was freezing!” said Saoirse.
"I used two conservation architects and a structural engineer to advise on what I could and couldn’t change, went for planning through them and they oversaw the entire renovation as it was totally new territory for me!"
The renovation was considered a green one.
The lighthouse itself became automated in 2007, and flashes each night at an interval of 2.5 seconds. Finding the logbooks unearthed much to interest the new owner, including correspondence relating to a previous resident, one Brendan Behan, who worked for a short period as a lighthouse keeper.
Youghal Lighthouse was the first lighthouse in the world to be overseen by women lighthouse keepers, added Saoirse. “It was a group of nuns called the Chapel of st Anne’s and they ran the lighthouse here until the reformation in the 1530s,” she added. “Overall what strikes me and anyone who enters the house is it gives a real feeling of safety. The energy here feels safe. It’s a haven of peace.”
Home of the Year is screened on RTÉ One on Tuesdays at 8.30pm