Renovated school is a class act

This impressive property in Union Hall has served as a guesthouse and a family home, writes Tommy Barker

The family here in occupation now are serial house improvers, and have left a fair few West Cork houses in finer fettle

LOTS and lots of people have dozed away the hours at The Old Schoolhouse in Union Hall. It served as a national school for 100 years, and while its early occupants nodded off inadvertently as sunlight streamed in the window, it later went to serve time as a conversion to hostel use, and later guesthouse use. Now, it’s a private home, and has possibly — most probably — the highest level of comfort since it was first built in 1885.

Given that at one time in guest/hostel use it had 12 bedrooms plus a dormitory, it’s certain hundreds if not thousands of guest bednights have been enjoyed here, but in many peoples minds it will also always be known as Maria’s Schoolhouse.

The first conversion from school use came when entrepreneurial local woman Maria Hoare from Skibbereen took it on and made it over to hostel use.

This all happened just in time (the quip is it was ‘finished for buttons’, but in truth it opened with some style and elan) to accommodate the young cast of a film being made locally, War of the Buttons, produced by local resident David Puttnam and starring Colm Meaney and, Liam Cunningham, as well as a cast of dozens of local lads.

Stories of misdeeds and pranks that early 1990s summer of filming are still recalled locally — as well as in the odd bit of furniture and panelling graffiti that surfaces nearly 20 years later, notes the current occupant who’s just recently completed a fairly major overhaul and comfort upgrade.

After a few years, Maria Hoare was joined by partner Jim Kennedy, possibly Ireland’s best-know canoeist, who started his Atlantic Sea Kayaking business from here, introducing thousands of people to the joys of coastal paddling and exploring, even doing some trips by moonlight.

After Jim and Maria’s indelible time here time, the schoolhouse changed hands a few times and continued to take in guests, and then lay empty for a period, before the current owners took it by the scruff of the neck in 2007, and got stuck into a second bout of renovations.

The family here in occupation now are serial house improvers, and have left a fair few West Cork houses in finer fettle after they worked their respectful magic on the traditional properties they’d bought.

They’ve now one small other Cork city project in hand, plus some bigger ideas, hence the schoolhouse property’s planned sale for 2012.

It’s for sale with Maeve McCarthy in Charles P McCarthy auctioneers in Skibbereen, guiding at €695,000, and that’s for a super-bright and airy large building of huge muscular personality, with its sleeping quarters now reduced to a tally of five bedrooms from the early days of 12.

Now, says auctioneer Maeve McCarthy, “It has been transformed into the most wonderful family home, sympathetically renovated while keeping all the charm and character of its previous incarnation”.

The Old Schoolhouse is on a quiet country corner roadside site of an acre, lush and green and with long distant green-washed views of pasture and field patterns. Though it’s close to the sea, there’s no sea view.

Travel virtually any lane or road from here, though, and you’ll end up at a bay, cove or secret beach, with Squince, Reen, Carrigihilly and more all nearby, as is the lure of Rabbit Island for overnight camping.

Drive or cycle a bit further on, and you’ll reach the chic villages of Glandore or Castletownshend. And, right on the doorstep is the fishing port of Union Hall itself, which so distinguished itself with a dogged and dignified search for the bodies of the five fishermen lost from the trawler Tit Bonhomme at the start of this year.

Auctioneer Maeve McCarthy says of scenic and sheltered Union Hall: “It’s a thriving community with a strong fishing tradition where there is a shop, post office, pubs, restaurants, cafe — and a replacement school.”

She rightly identifies the old school’s best features as being the sense of space and light as soon as you get to the main living area, with four large ground floor rooms on the go, along with back ups like a boot room, utility and a wash room.

“When you walk into the living accommodation, it is literally breath-taking, though never overbearing,” she enthuses, and the astute retention of many of the original features such as the lofty folding glazed partition doors and its wainscoted walls, with two solid fuel, wood-burning stove plus a pellet-fed boiler give it a very warm and homely feel, she adds.

Despite the sheer scale and size of the rooms and the soaring, oversize gable windows, there’s a homely feel kept in tune thanks to an assured decorative hand, use of colours, sympathetic materials and, well, personal style.

It’s all furnished in a mixum gatherum that works, from recycled and salvaged items to upcycled ones, jostling with some more modern and IKEA pieces, especially in the couple’s two children’s bedrooms.

It all hangs together in a blaze of colourful bits and bobs, against the more sober background of creamy painted walls, wainscoting and a stout web of retailed and exposed ceiling beams.

The owners, who know a bit about old houses, pay tribute to the Victorian era designer/architects (name unknown to them) who designed and had it built day on with some aplomb, and even romanticism, with a mix of stone, slate and brick that has just mellowed and improved visually with age. (Some of the pupils who attended here, however, may have less rosy memories of their days spent here, admittedly.)

“We often get people calling by who either went to school here, or their parents and grandparents did, and yes, some of the stories are of rough times.

“It celebrated its centenary back in 1985, and probably plans were made after that for a replacement building,” they say.

Admitting to being serial do-ere uppers, they had quite a bit of work to do by 2007 when they move to Union Hall: a number of floors had gone rotten, and after taking them up many rooms got re-ordered. Some of the better surviving floorboards got recycled to make for an old pine dresser that literally keeps root with the school’s origins, holding any amount of delph, and the upside was it allowed them to significantly increase underfloor and other insulation levels, and also adding to comfort levels was new double glazing, and some replacement windows.

There’s a nice inside/outside flow, with several access points to the gardens and there’s a lovely private sun terrace with beguiling and bucolic views down over patches of tiered green fields — enough to inspire any school pupil or hack journalist to writing doggerel.

The rest of the acre includes lawns, drive, sheltered spots, mature trees, shrubs and flower beds, with good drive and parking.

Main rooms include a dramatic 25’ by 15’ living room with its vaulted ceiling and solid fuel stove, the kitchen/dining room is 32’ by 16’, and country style in feel, with ceramic sink, range cooker and there’s another stove here for heating the volume of space on offer.

Of similar size is a third reception room, again with stove, next is a 23’ by 22’ reading room (new owners can come up with their own nomenclature!) and as there’s so much space on offer, things like the boot room and the utility room are, well, proper sized rooms in their own right.

Upstairs there’s a great mezzanine space, largely colonised by the master bedroom, which looks over the double-height living spaces, and this bedroom is en suite.

Two other bedrooms are also en suite, and the remaining two share one between them in what’s commonly called a Jack and Jill en suite.

But, given that this is a conversion job on an old Irish schoolhouse, perhaps it should be called a Seán and Máire suite?

Just about every room upstairs has a quirky feel and shape thanks to the roof profile and slope and intervening beams, giving a sense of living among old bones, updated with a funky design flair.

Every corner and niche is filled with something engaging and visual, and auctioneer Maeve McCarthy is excited about showing it off in the coming weeks and months.

It’s going to take time to view and to show, and any aspiring buyers will do well to add a half day to their itinerary to sample Union Halls surrounds.

Even the house viewing will inspire daydreams so come along, no dawdling you at the back, sit up and pay attention — this could give you the best days of your life.

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