Mill conversion sees the light for 21st century

Location: Dromore, Bantry €1.25 million

Mill conversion sees the light for 21st century

DROMORE Mill has had almost as many lives and incarnations as a cat — but, now, in its current guise, it is the cat that got the cream. Think retired West Cork Victorian mill meets New York loft-style conversion — with the emphasis on style.

Adapted, re-adapted, renovated, converted, then stripped out and renovated once more to exceptionally high standards (the camera and its images here by snapper Denis Scannell don’t lie) it’s one of the most surprising finds in the current Munster property market.

We featured it back here in 2001, when it was last for sale, and when its interior was Tudor in style, done with old materials, wood, oak and brick, and decoration was a mix of old agricultural implements, a mounted boar’s head and its BER — if such a thing had existed then — would have been on the cold, old floors.

Now, it’s seen the light, has been redone from top to toe, and has a remarkable C1 energy efficiency rating, which has made it a comfortable, contemporary family home for the 21st century. About the only thing left to do is to get the old, late 19th century mill wheel turning and “this was to be our next job,” says owner and interior designer Catherine O’Connor. If reinstated, the wheel by some dramatic, fish-favoured falls and steps on the Owenashingaun river (it flows to the Ilen River near Skibbereen) could generate 5kw of hydro power — endlessly renewable energy.

In previous centuries the mill here first ground the mineral barytes, quarried north of Bantry and which was used in sugar refining, and as a white pigment for textiles, paper, and paint. Later, it ground grain, and during the ‘Emergency years’ in the 1940s it was converted to generate electrical power to light local houses.....possibly making the hinterland one of Ireland’s earliest rural electrified districts. It went back to grinding corn up until the 1960s.

Current owners Rory and Catherine O’Connor, with their four children, first bought here in the early 2000s as a holiday home as they were then based in the US, and had also lived and worked in many other countries. “We were living in New York, and wanted a holiday home in Ireland and wild and rugged West Cork base for our four young children, to spend their summers at and get to truly understand their Irish culture and heritage. We came upon and fell in love with this old Victorian water mill, in 2004, and it’s the most idyllic hideaway, a child’s paradise with waterfalls, ponds, streams and beautiful river walks where the children could watch for the salmon jumping up the salmon steps, see trout swim idly by — or, observe the heron, as he sat waiting for a catch,” says Catherine.

After five years of bliss, albeit in what had been a more basic home, the family was able to relocate full time to Dromore and in 2009 commenced a major reordering, opening it up and upgrading it to what’s “a comfortable and practical dream home.”

Five years on, work once more demands a move back to the US, and so the mill is for sale. It’s listed with country homes specialist Michael H Daniels, who guides the 4,300 sq ft, six-bed mint-order property on four and a half acres plus two-bed guest cottage at excess €1.25 million, or excess €1m for the mill on 3.5 acres, minus the cottage on an acre. The river, as the song goes, runs free.

Conservation engineer Chris Southgate advised on structure, merit and maximising original features and proportions in the three-storey property, while co-owner Catherine O’Connor did the interior specification and space planning, having studied interior design while living in New York.

She admits the Victorian industrial building was in a poorer condition than they’d anticipated, and done around the 1970s in a Tudor/faux English pub sort of look, dark and not very well utilised. The O’Connors removed inappropriate additions and restored and exposed remaining original features, putting their own stamp on it, making it airy and efficient.

The front of the three-storey mill faces south to the river, a feature pretty much overlooked in previous incarnations, with its living space mid-level, facing away from the river.

The middle floor is supported by four steel stanchions or pillars with uplighting, with the top-most floor suspended from four large roof trusses — all beautiful retaining features that had been all but overlooked, according to the owners who’ve now made them such a feature of its new, open lofty interior, with feature central stairs.

Out went single-glazed Tudor windows and external doors sourced from UK prisons and churches, and back in came more relevant Victorian-style hardwood double glazed casement windows with a six-over-six pane design “a scholarly restoration of the original windows, based on recorded evidence, as directed by our conservation engineer” and simple hardwood framed glass doors added to the light and life of the new approach, especially on the southern approach to the main hallway.

All walls were insulated internally, leaving the exterior stone and brickwork intact, so now the comfort factor was going up the scale as well, in preparation for the new interior fit-out.

Central features are the apex/ridge double glazed roof lantern, and the large open-tread staircase to the middle level, made by local craftsmen in reclaimed oak and stainless steel: it replicates an earlier stairs seen in old photographs found of Dromore Mill.

Off to the right of the entry point is a very large, open plan kitchen and dining room with cabinetry and island by Nick Moody of Coachouse Kitchens, Coachford, with a walnut and painted finish using Little Green Paints, in a colour called slaked lime. Worktops are honed marble and walnut, with glass shelving and stainless steel appliances such as Wolf, Fisher and Paykel, Grohe taps, etc.

The American-style kitchen’s ideal for casual entertaining and family dining, and for more formal gatherings there’s a 10-person dining table made from a single section of Asian acacia wood, sourced as was an acacia sideboard from Mango Crafts, Killarney. Mango also made a large mirror in the entrance porch, reflecting the river flowing outside, designed by Catherine O’Connor.

Across this lower level is a south-west facing living room with focal-point Nordica inset wood-burning stove, from Drimoleague’s Wood Burning Centre, West Cork, and nearby is a hot design classic, a Le Corbusier chaise longue set between the south- and west-facing doors for views of the stationary water wheel and gardens.

North-facing rooms are confined to prosaic purposes like utilities, walk-in pantry, laundry, machine room, WC and boot/mudroom to house all family outdoor and sports goods, a cubby hole per person.

Main room is the cathedral-ceilinged 32’ by 16’ drawing room/library, with overhead gallery, and the stone chimney breast runs almost 30’ to the roof, done to draw down light from the roof ridge windows. Heavy woods got banished, save for oak bookshelves — made by top joiner Michael Joe O’Sullivan from Adrigole — and walls were painted white and a grand piano brings an extra top note to the scene. The result? “An oasis of calm, a wonderful place to retire to and lose yourself in a book or two,” says Catherine.

Also up here, at the house’s centre, a home office sits in the centre of the house with oversized glass doors and an external balcony overlooking the river, a wonderful place to work, linking into family life, yet d able to be insulated from its noise and babble.

This same level has three individually decorated children’s bedrooms with a sense of fun and connectivity forged by internal balconies, each connecting to the next room, accessed by ladders and great as play or sleep-over spaces. Balcony level doors allow each room privacy as required, each room has a river view, and the two outer ones have a dual aspect.

Go up to the top level (an old oak stairs has been replaced by a narrower one to let light flow unimpeded, yet aid privacy), and, phew, you’re at the breathtaking master bedroom, with two galleries, one overlooking three floors, with sky above, and a second set into one of the four great roof trusses.

There had been more bedrooms up here in the previous renovation, but now the master suite runs the width of the building, with a half-wall separating the bedroom from the dark-tiled en suite bathroom (large, open shower and Kohler River Jacuzzi) under a sloping roof, allowing the shape of the room and its trusses to be seen in their entirety. Catherine, who trades under her company Impact Interiors and Design, pays tribute to contractor Joe Downing of Adrigole for much of the work and finishes.

Floors are stained dark oak, sanded and oiled, and other natural materials include other timbers, glass, stone and steel, and in the hall and kitchen, the flooring is Jura beige limestone. Most wall are white, with Farrow and Ball drainpipe grey for contrast, and lighting is a considered mix of contemporary pieces, up-lighters, down-lighters and LEDs.

Separately, the restored, stone-fronted guest cottage behind the mill has a ground level garage and sitting room, with overhead kitchen/dining room with balcony, two beds, bathroom and laundry.

Pitching it primarily to an international audience, estate agent Michael H Daniels sums Dromore up as “a Victorian water mill of immense character in a delightful riverside setting. It has been comprehensively restored and converted in recent years with imagination and flair to a spectacular hideaway home on delightful riverside grounds with woods, pools and waterfalls”.

VERDICT: West Cork mill takes a turn for the better.

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