Home of the Year’s Hugh Wallace on Irish farmers ahead of Ploughing Championships

You mightn’t expect Home of the Year’s Hugh Wallace to be a regular at the Ploughing Championships — but he’s got a message for Irish farmers, he tells Aileen Lee.

Home of the Year’s Hugh Wallace on Irish farmers ahead of Ploughing Championships

You mightn’t expect Home of the Year’s Hugh Wallace to be a regular at the Ploughing Championships — but he’s got a message for Irish farmers, he tells Aileen Lee.

We are only days away from the 2018 National Ploughing Championships, and this year, a familiar, yet unexpected, face will make his first trip to “the Ploughing”.

Hugh Wallace, who has graced our TV screens in Home of the Year and, more recently, in The Great House Revival, will be speaking at the event on Thursday.

“I’ve got my wellies and my wax jacket,” he says, “so I’m all ready to go.”

Wallace may be new to the Ploughing, but he is not green behind the ears when it comes to farming life. An only child, he recalls fondly his childhood summers spent on his cousins’ farm:

“I’d spend three months there in Newcastle, Co Wicklow. They had a mixed farm, and I loved it. I had seven cousins down there and that was great to have a big family.”

He has lots of happy memories of those months spent helping on the farm, from milking the cows to feeding the lambs. He also learnt that farm life wasn’t for the faint-hearted, with word of a foreboding presence living in a nearby well.

Wallace explains: “You’d have to put the milk into churns, and the churn would go into a well, which would keep the milk cold, but they’d tell you there was a conger eel in the well, so you’d be scared to go out.

“You’d be told in the morning to get the milk from out of the churn and I used to hate that because I was afraid that I was going to get attacked by the eel. That I’d be swallowed up by it and that’d be the end of me.”

Thankfully Wallace has not only lived to tell the tale, but he has over 30 years’ industry experience under his belt and can lay claim to a portfolio of prestigious commercial clients.

He is not one to rest on his laurels, however, and enjoys, and indeed is grateful for, the opportunities given to him to pursue the day job — with Douglas Wallace Architects — and the TV work.

He says: “I’m a very lucky man, so I don’t presume anything. I’m very lucky to be given this opportunity to go on telly and be passionate about what I love.”

He has enjoyed working on both of his TV shows for different reasons.

He says: “I love a good snoop. Home of the Year is about snooping. It is very interesting because sometimes when the audience watches, they wonder why you have a particular score, because all the houses look fabulous, but it’s about a home and a home is slightly the intangible.

"It’s about a feeling of well-being, a feeling of family, a feeling of fun, a feeling of enjoyment, a feeling of the personality of the homeowner. That’s what I’m looking for, I’m not looking for a showroom.”

His most recent TV show, The Great House Revival, has brought to life the stories of five restoration projects that show the importance of preserving elements of our country’s architectural heritage.

Praising the show, Wallace says: “It is about people taking a leap of faith that they can do what they are going to undertake, some of them on very small budgets.

"A lot of these people are learning as they go. I watched Bede Tannock last night [from episode 1] and when you think of what he did for half a million euro. That’s because he had the skillset to do it, but he saved Ballinafad House, which is of national architectural merit.”

His upcoming talk at the Ploughing Championships follows on from the ideas presented in The Great House Revival.

Wallace will be imparting his knowledge on the dos and don’ts of restoration work with a focus on what advantages there might be for people interested in restoring derelict farm buildings on their land.

Wallace believes that such restoration projects while requiring initial investment, will at the same time provide an avenue of income for farmers.

Wallace says: “In the 60s and 70s, there were so many bungalows built beside parents’ houses, but the parents died, and the buildings were just left to rot. They then built the big new sheds for today’s farming and the outbuildings were left to rot.

"That to me is a shame, but I believe it’s an opportunity for farmers to deliver a second form of income into their farm. The reality is that farm income is complicated, but I see farm buildings and out buildings as an opportunity for farmers to have a commercial income.”

Aligning with this idea of restoring old farm buildings is Wallace’s belief that there should be a rural-based incentive set up along the lines of The Living City Initiative (LCI).

In summary, the LCI is a tax initiative for Special Regeneration Areas (SRAs) in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick and Waterford. You can claim tax relief for money you spend on refurbishing or converting residential or commercial properties.

Wallace plans to meet with the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in relation to this LCI idea for a rural context. He would see it as hugely advantageous for farmers to have it.

He says: “That’s what we should be advocating in the countryside, to get people living in these buildings, to have communities again on farms.

"It’s not a grant system, it’s a tax system, and these buildings are in my view of critical importance to our country because while we are now an urban population, back in the pre-40s and 50s, we weren’t, and yet these buildings are not recognised for their importance.”

Unfortunately, initiatives like this are no quick fix and even if you have the perfect building for restoration, research is your first step, followed by lots of planning in advance.

Wallace says: “You really have to do your reading. And it’s worthwhile going on carpentry courses because if you're willing to get involved, it has a two-fold implication: one — cost, but, two: you also have the ability to put your creative stamp on it.

"The costs in renovation are very much about clearing; about taking the plaster off walls; and about digging up floors etc. The builder has to come and do the block work and the construction work but if you are willing to roll up your sleeves, you can save so much time and money.”

On that question of money, Wallace cautions against allowing a ‘passion’ project to get out of hand financially — keeping to your budget is hugely important to seeing your plan of works through to the end, as is enlisting the help of the professionals that best suit your requirements.

He says: “It’s very important you use professionals in the right way. I think people are afraid of architects and they shouldn’t be. If you’re engaging with an architect, interview at least two or three, and get references and phone up the people and ask them how did they get on with their architect.

“Ask yourself: ‘Is this an architect that understands what I want? Are they sympathetic to my requirements, and yet are they going to push me outside the box, so that I actually get more than I thought?’ That’s what the architect is there for. He’s also there to provide you with the best advice, and to contribute to how you can do all of this on budget.”

For anyone making the trip to Screggan this week, Wallace has the following ask: “I want people as they drive to the Ploughing Championships to look out the window and look at all the abandoned farm buildings and houses and school houses that need to be loved, that need a change of use.

"There isn’t a value placed on our agrarian heritage, and there must be, because that history and those buildings tell so much about our country and about our families, and it’s being lost.”

Now if that isn’t a call to a great rural revival, I don’t know what is.

Hugh Wallace will be speaking in the FBD Tent at the National Ploughing Championships on September 20 at 11.30am; 1.30pm; and 2.30pm). www.npa.ie

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