West Cork's rockstar retreat hits all the right notes for hospitality

Tommy Barker visits 18th-century Dunowen House and is impressed with its five-star hotel vibe and music memorabilia
West Cork's rockstar retreat hits all the right notes for hospitality

Bedrooms at Dunowen House have a luxury yet laidback vibe.  This one even has a tonnes’ weight spoon-shaped bath carved from exotic, pale stone in pride of place in front of Dunowen’s exposed rubble stone internal wall.

It's a long way from the electric rock and roll hedonism of the 1960s, to a rustic-chic country retreat in West Cork in the 2020s. Or, is it?

The peninsulas west of Kinsale, sticking out into the wild Atlantic, have woven a spell for decades for locals, visitors, seekers of beauty, artists, writers and musicians.

Music industry memorabilia is to be found throughout Dunowen House.  Pictures: Dan Linehan
Music industry memorabilia is to be found throughout Dunowen House.  Pictures: Dan Linehan

One of the earlier visitors to appreciate it as a retreat was UK-born guitarist Noel Redding who came to live on the Irish coastline, six miles out of Clonakilty way back in 1972 after some wild years of rock’n’roll, long before the Wild Atlantic Way got branded.

Redding’s arrival to Cork was just three years after he had walked out of the Jimi Hendrix Experience band, on its US tour in the summer of 1969. It was just weeks before Hendrix and a string of backing musicians (and, a replacement bassist!) lit up Woodstock, playing to hundreds of thousands in a festival field in upstate New York.

Regrets ensued, surely, for one David Noel Redding, and the loss of a share of a €300m Hendrix Experience estate added financial injury to insult.

But, life for the Kent-born bass-meister took a turn for the calmer and more balanced when he visited Ardfield, near Clonakilty, and while on Christmas Day (his birthday, hence the Christian name "Noel") walking the beaches with his then-partner Carol Appleby decided he wanted to put down roots thereabouts.

 Dunowen House, West Cork. 
Dunowen House, West Cork. 

They bought the sizeable 18th-century Dunowen House, which already at that stage was over 200 years old, originally associated with a Co Kerry-born Captain Sandes, whose name is still recalled at Sands Cove beach 500 metres from this long, long, L-shaped Georgian home.

He set up the Noel Redding Band (Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell was in it for a period too) and, over decades, the gentle rocker was a stalwart in the local music scene, with years’ long residency in De Barra's and other venues, while local bars like The Mountain and Fishers Cross proudly displayed photos of the loved-up Redding and Carol Appleby walking on their beaches.

Later, after Appleby’s death in a road accident, Noel Redding shared Dunowen House with North American artist Deborah McNaughton, and they rented out a small cottage on the ground for additional income.

By 2002, they had decided to sell Dunowen, to "trade down" to something smaller in the area: as Noel Redding put his then fairly–faded and scuffed home of 30-years’ residency on the market, he told this Irish Examiner journalist at the time “My lady, she’s into the garden; I do the hoovering, but we don’t need a place this large,” surely a droll insight to the later domestic life and times of one of the 1960s’ biggest rockers.

Life and death, intervened though as in 2003, Noel Redding died at his beloved home in Clonakilty. His c 5,000sq ft home, on four acres with walled garden, guest cottage and ruined coach-house, consequently had its ups and downs on the property market.

It was eventually bought by a consortium of three of four investors, including the 1980s musician Nik Kershaw (“Don’t let the sun go down on me” was Kershaw’s biggie) and, between purchase and indulgent renovations (which included 2kms of CAT5 cabling, for sound and images), it saw nearly €2m sunk into it by the UK/Irish/Welsh grouping.

A painting of Noel Redding and friends now hangs in pride of place in Dunowen’s entrance hall. 
A painting of Noel Redding and friends now hangs in pride of place in Dunowen’s entrance hall. 

The plan, after years of work, loosely seemed to have been boutique guesthouse/luxury accommodation, deeply conscious of the Noel Redding link with Nik Kersahw’s input as a side-bar line of interest.

But, it was only after the consortium sold-on, in 2013 that Dunowen House found its rhythm, under the now ownership of Kela and Stephen Hodgins. They, similar to Noel Redding 40 years before them, had their own Eureka’ moment while visiting the Clonakilty hinterland and beaches from their home in Dublin’s southside.

The couple, parents to three children, had already a series of house renovations to their credit, were confident in their skills and decided to career and lifestyle shift, to engage with the guest business, in the hospitable and suitably ‘chilled’ Dunowen House which they reckoned from their first glimpse was “the place” for their great escape to the country.

Together for 25 years, they reckon they’ve at least eight renovations under their belt and Dunowen sort of complicates the picture as they not only finished off the main, six-bed house for luxury vacation rentals, but then, they did up the old Orchard Cottage, which had been rented in Noel Redding’s time, for their own family.

Then, when they realised the winsomely-set cottage, by spreading apple and fig trees, with chickens pecking at the half-door was too compact for a family of five, plus pets, they cast their eyes over the ruined stone-built coach-house over the garden wall.

They next did that up as their own home, with design input from Clon-based Edge Architecture, and a remarkable turnaround by CHOM Construction (the coach-house featured here in Home in 2018.) Between Orchard Cottage and the main six-bed, all en-suite Dunowen House, they can accommodate up to 23 guests, have done small functions and even weddings, hosted the rich and famous, media and show-biz type, but regrettably are too professional to publicly reveal names.

One recent visitor they can identify, however, with some rock and roll pride, was that of Marsha Hunt, a friend of Noel Redding’s, a model and writer, mother of Mick Jagger’s first child Karis and a biographer of Jimi Hendrix: she rocked up for a look-see at Dunowen House, for old times’ sake and a look-see.

Music industry memorabilia is to be found throughout Dunowen House.
Music industry memorabilia is to be found throughout Dunowen House.

What she must have seen is a respectful, not-overly "worshipful" shrine to Redding and many of his 1960s and ‘70s heyday contemporaries, complete with rock’n’roll memorabilia, vintage posters of the Jimi Hendrix Experience glory days. There are framed albums, vinyl record players, plus some scattered instruments, and a painting of Redding, friends and lovers, understood to have been done by his final partner, the artist Deborah McNaughton. It now hangs in pride of place in Dunowen’s entrance hall, along with some bright, pop-art style imagery, and posters.

Also abundant are framed covers of old Hot Press and Rolling Stone magazines and other images, many of which were just left in a stone outbuilding since Redding’s death in 2003. That they find a place on the walls of this former home of chilled ‘60s cat is, well, cool, and apt.

Hippest image of all is a B&W "Experience" photo in the music room of the diminutive musical giant Jimi Hendrix, bassist Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, all in the coolest "threads" and heaps of hair, on an airport apron, in front of a gleaming, silver TWA airliner.

“Guests love the laid-back, luxury vibe and always say they feel so relaxed when they stay. It’s the sort of place you can just chill in and feel at home, with lots of space for everyone to spread out,” says owner Kela in one of the two large reception rooms at Dunowen House (see www.dunowenhouse.ie).

 Dunowen House, West Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan
Dunowen House, West Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan

Each accommodates several sofas and easy chairs, a mix of shabby and chic, books, magazines and memorabilia. “They love the history without it feeling stuffy or old-fashioned,” and like us they love the coastal location too. We spend so much time in Sands Cove and Red Strand all year round. Guest love the beaches too.” Dunowen’s cluster of buildings is genuinely historic, with roots to the 1700s, preceding the American War of Independence (1776) by quite some years.

She points out a timber roof beam, now in the restored coach-house, which came out of the main house when it had been re-roofed in 1843 — two years before the Irish Famine: elsewhere in Dunowen’s elaborate, double-hipped roof, another exposed old beam is rounded, an indicator that it quite probably had served time as a ship’s mast on the Atlantic before finding terra firma at Ardfield.

Bedrooms at Dunowen House have a luxury yet laidback vibe.  
Bedrooms at Dunowen House have a luxury yet laidback vibe.  

Apart from the rock’n’roll pedigree, and the setting, most visitors to Dunowen get a kick out of the quality of the bedrooms and bathrooms, very five-star hotel in their vibe, and one has a tonnes’ weight spoon-shaped bath carved from exotic, pale stone in pride of place in front of Dunowen’s exposed rubble stone internal wall.

Visitors to Dunowen House enjoy a five-star hotel atmosphere in the bedrooms.
Visitors to Dunowen House enjoy a five-star hotel atmosphere in the bedrooms.

Those retreat rooms are variously under roof slopes and wings, and two of them have quite elaborate barrel-vaulted high ceiling, including one which was the late Noel Redding’s own bedroom, while the gardens (ever view is Instagram-friendly) slow the pace back down.

“The walled garden was our saviour during the lockdown months of Spring and early Summer. We worked in it every day, growing new vegetables, fruit and flowers - it’s learning by doing and we’ve made mistakes but it brings us such joy,” say the industrious owners, and caretakers, of an Irish home of note, which hits a perfect hospitality chord.

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