Visual feast at Kinsale convent conversion where apartment prices run up to €1.2 million

Built in Famine times, now ‘feast for the eyes’ Gourmet town Kinsale's ex Mercy Convent is born again with truly sublime accommodation, writes Tommy Barker
Visual feast at Kinsale convent conversion where apartment prices run up to €1.2 million

Holy smoke: Kinsale's your oyster at Cumnor Construction's Convent Garden where apartment prices quoted by Savills go from €640,000 to €1.2 million

Convent Garden, Kinsale, Cork

€640,000 - 1.2 million

Size

1,286 sq ft -  2,648 sq ft

Bedrooms

2/3

Bathrooms

2/3

BER

A2/A3

IT has been a long, long road to conversion, getting the old Mercy Convent building in Kinsale back to life. But, it’s well on the home run anyway.

Now a visual feast for architectural and interior-design eyes, in an integral part of a hot-spot heritage and tourism town, the complex dates back to Famine times – 1844 — and it opened with 700 pupils and six Mercy Sisters in 1845, heading into peak times of poverty, misery, and starvation.

Views from the heavens to Kinsale's  Convent Garden and harbour
Views from the heavens to Kinsale's  Convent Garden and harbour

The former Convent of Mercy and Technical (and industrial) School ended its education days decades ago. The 19th-century buildings, school, convent, chapel, and gardens went up for sale, selling some 20 years ago to Cork developers Cumnor Construction, who had to dig in for an unexpectedly hard call, including a five-year site shutdown post-economic crash.

But, lead developer Eddie O’Mahony kept the faith, and stayed true to a masterplan vision he’d worked out with Haroldo Olivera, director of architecture with JCA (Jack Coughlan Architects), a firm with skills across conservation architecture, and the sharpest of 21st-century design output.

Cool, calm and collected at Convent Garden
Cool, calm and collected at Convent Garden

They’ve previously collaborated on schemes like Altus, on Wise’s Hill by Sunday’s Well in Cork City which is arguably the very best apartment development in the city – looking great on the outside, and supremely well designed within, with south-facing views over the city and its steeples and spires.

As the latest phase of Kinsale’s Convent Garden comes to market this June bank holiday weekend, it’s almost as if the design nous that characterised Cumnor and JCA’s fully realised Altus apartments in Cork City centre has been taken up, moved 20 miles towards the sea, threaded through a complex of 170-year-old buildings, and grounds, then spread along a ridge on the western side of Kinsale, with those all-important harbour views getting all the better with each new phase.

Rear with view of landscaping, and podium level car-park on right behind curving screen
Rear with view of landscaping, and podium level car-park on right behind curving screen

While “the best has yet to come” — ie, the final conservation and conversion push into the listed building (inc the chapel) and the best of the quite limited interior detailing, plus eight very large multi-million euro villas of up to and over 4,000 sq ft, is yet to start on site — there’s a continuity of vision, and delivery, that’s pretty unique.

That’s down to a firm partnership between developer and designer, O’Mahony and Olivera, with the latter’s firm, JCA, given an almost unprecedented amount of leeway to go the extra yard, metre, or millimetre, almost uncompromised by price and cost.

Contemporary flourishes
Contemporary flourishes

To have come through the pain and tumult of the crash and the banking crisis (Cumnor escaped the Nama fate of fellow developers of the 2000s, part due to its strong civil engineering business wing) is pretty remarkable. To have a scheme like Convent Garden march its way through the ups and downs is even more remarkable, not having been compromised.

Mezzanine rooms behind old convent front wall and tall sash windows
Mezzanine rooms behind old convent front wall and tall sash windows

Much of that has to be down to the premium location, Kinsale; the heart and history of it, a place with an international reputation, which has proven pretty resilient to the ups and down of fickle and fated markets, where property prices have been – and continue to be – stellar.

That master plan from two decades back envisaged reducing density from about 160 units which Cork County Council had wanted at the time, to about 96 by the time this is all wrapped up — a mix of townhouses, terraces, villas, and apartments, in a blend of old and brand-new buildings.

Sliding screens
Sliding screens

Even having a developer seek to reduce an indicated or favoured density, not to want to ‘up it’ and seek more, is fairly remarkable in the property market. That is according to estate agent Catherine McAuliffe of Savills Cork who’s selling the first 16 of what will be 31 apartments by wrap-up time, in one end of the very long and linear old convent/school building.

Thirteen of those 16 are up for sale in the protected and now-rescued structure (wait, wait, the price details are coming!), and the three others, which are finished as show units and revealed here, will come along anon. Nearly all have views down to the water, harbour, the town, and Scilly’s modern multi-million euro homes. Some views are better than others, clearly, several have terraces, two of the very best have very large balconies. Notably, no two are identical: even ones that could have been replica copies are made individual.

This foyer serves just three of the 16 apartments
This foyer serves just three of the 16 apartments

On a visit this sunny week as major parts of the site and enclosed gardens were being cleared for showing, Savills’ Catherine McAuliffe recalled her very first visits here, back in the early 2000s as a junior estate agent (with Hamilton Osborne King, as it was then). She told the Irish Examiner she had to prepare the convent for sale and description, and recounted having to climb through windows to access portions, up and down makeshift steps, in pre-health and safety standard days.

It sold for circa €4m at the time, according to Examiner records, after doughty negotiation with the nuns of the Mercy Order, who pored over the plan of the day with particular interest.

File photo from 20 years ago
File photo from 20 years ago

Fast-forward 20 years, and today, the windows here look out on the likes of Kinsale’s harbour, marinas, Ardbrack, and Scilly, where a waterside house sold six months ago for €4.75m – a new local record, in a town that can boast (as it does) over 40 €1m-plus property sales. No other town has that record.

Grimmer days: the portion on the right will be next to be tackled
Grimmer days: the portion on the right will be next to be tackled

Some of those same windows are now expensively crafted replacement sash windows – double glazed and high performance by a company called Signature.

Others are conserved, graceful nine-pane-over-six and arch-headed ones. The old window hurdle onto Kinsale’s historic ramparts which caused access tremors back then, is now open to one of the stunning show apartments within, where a set-back mezzanine-level device in a couple of the units is a very clever way of not interfering with the window opes. It allows light into two levels, and views back out too from separate function rooms in what would have originally been unremarkable, high-ceilinged classrooms.

Private rear gardens
Private rear gardens

The old classrooms, dormitories, and long corridors of yore are gone, to be replaced behind the quite stern original rendered facade by Cumnor’s high-end apartments, overlooking the harbour and town to the front. There are private communal gardens to the back, with very clever concealing of a podium-level car park under another section, of seven 1,500 sq ft townhouses (sold and fully occupied, at prices from €440,000).

So, at last, it’s the convent’s time to shine, the first half of the star turn, and the name for this is the Spanish-sounding Avila, picked by developer Eddie O’Mahony, and vaguely indicative of Kinsale’s 400-year history with Spain, armadas, and fishing fleets, with tapas bars and three Michelin-recommended spots also on the Gourmet Town’s wide grazing menu.

A bedroom with a view
A bedroom with a view

Sizes across Avila range from 1,277 sq ft up to 2,648 sq ft (118 sq m to 246 sq m), the largest being the yet-to-be-priced show unit, No 6 in an Avila sub-section called Beacon Wharf.

Prices, then, via Savills’s Ms McAuliffe and a mega-impressed new homes agent Elizabeth Hegarty range from €640,000 through to €1.2m for a 230 sq m/2,480 sq ft three-bed duplex, 4 Beacon Wharf. Six of the 13 are in the €600,000-€700,000 price range, and there’s a couple each in the €800,000s and €900,000s: you pay your money, and you make your choice?

Mezzanine finance: living is luxe
Mezzanine finance: living is luxe

Apart from uniform high standards of fit-out and finish, vast sums have gone into the landscaping, screening, privacy measures, and common areas.

One foyer, finished outside with buff brick and pressed metal trim – for just three apartments – is almost show-standard in itself, with organ pipe-like metal features hovering around a stairwell, and wood-textured shuttered cast concrete walls, plus a banana tree. You might see this in a gallery, or a State building, or a library, but in a spec apartment development? Seldom, if ever.

Mixed materials, quality everywhere
Mixed materials, quality everywhere

Adding to cost too are things like the many lifts – most serving just two or three apartments, as units are front-to-back within the old convent walls, so there are no, long, hotel-like corridor runs inside. This all adds to costs, as do secondary stairs and lobbies to meet fire regulations and protected structure strictures.

Architect Haroldo Olivera was, again unusually, given a prettyfree rein over the interiors.

“I trust him completely, he’s so good and has such a vision for it, from the very start, I just let him get on with it,” says Eddie O’Mahony for whom the buck stops (or starts) at a development like Convent Garden and its latest iteration, Avila.

Also sharing in the trust and delivery at Avila is overseer and foreman, Anthony Ahern, coping with things like a (possibly obsessive) architect, supply-chain and logistics nightmares, long lead times, and the serious task of making clean lines and hidden hinges and secret doors look easy.

“Simple” does not always mean “easy”.

So, there’s a long roll call of suppliers, mostly European design leads, sourced through the likes of Minima Home in Dublin, which did kitchens, lighting, and soft furnishings for the show units. Other lighting comes from Lightplan, including lots of minimalist fixtures, integrated LED strip lights, and foot-level lighting in the landscaped grounds (banks of ferns, birch trees, lawn, etc are all done by Charlie O’Leary at The Pavillion, Ballygarvan) and limestone paths.

It’s kind of a trope in high-end schemes like this to have a roll call of familiar design brand names to signal “special” and “luxury”.

Here they are more exclusive, and a spelling test of European niche makers, such as kitchens by Arrital Srl, appliance by De Dietrich and Nordmende, and bathrooms by Ceramica Gallasia, Italy and Becrisa, in Spain.

Mirrors and glass abound
Mirrors and glass abound

The interiors are unabashed contemporary, a delivery made easier by the fact this convent section had no internal period-era fine details – such as those that distinguish the also-top-level Ursuline Convent apartment conversion (now Blackrock House) in Cork City – so it’s stripped back, cool, mirrored, smokey, sleek, not afraid to use dark colours and a masculine sensibility.

Laura Ashley it is not.

Services are well-hidden in these house-sized A2- and A3-BER apartments. Doors are too, in some disappearing or concealed cases, with hidden handles and hinges and swivel and pivot mechanisms.

There aren’t too many developer-delivered homes you’d rave about the wardrobes in, but here main bedroom wardrobes designed by a Belgian architect, Vincent Van Duysen for Molteni&C, are a blend of form and function, hide and reveal, glass, silk, and silica.

Real smoke and mirrors.

Power couple? Shower for two super-soakers
Power couple? Shower for two super-soakers

Ceramic ware is from Ceramica Galassia in Italy; marble basins are by Spanish designers Stone Compact; slate shower trays come from Becrisa, Spain; and one apartment has a 12-foot long “shower for two” with two individual shower stands. Who’ll be first to say “So very Kinsale”? (cue Reggie.)

While the on-site build crew of about 30 under Anthony Ahern’s steady gaze are mostly Irish, and talented, Avila’s latest units avoid any “Oirish” airs and graces.

Bedtime prayers answered
Bedtime prayers answered

Its buyers are going to be fly-in, fly-out or cruise-by national and international, as Kinsale’s high-end buyers tend to be. Early inquiry names already registered are from Cork, but more so Dublin, UK, Europe, and further afield say Savills’ Liz Hegarty and Catherine McAuliffe.

So, back then to international names. Bells and whistles, such as taps and showers, are from Milan’s Daniel Rubinetterie SPA; bathroom tiles, floors, and walls are Italian, from La Fabbrica; and some select wall coverings include Airslate Graphite by Porcelanosa, also in Italy.

It’s nearly a shock on the tour to hear Brazilian-born architect Haroldo Olivera let slip that his firm JCA also does the European store fit-out for Penneys/Primark.

In for a Penney...
In for a Penney...

Might JCA get to do Penneys new St Patrick Street store expansion too, if the former convent and school at Avila Kinsale/Convent Gardens is a local calling card?

VERDICT: Kinsale gets to coin a new phrase for elite design: here goes with Cumnor Garden.....

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