Ballybrannigan, East Cork
250 sq m (2700 sq ft)
BALLYBRANNIGAN, as it reaches the sea, is a great plane of sloping fields, through which a road cuts down to the beach.
Tucked in off that road behind tall trees is a house not visible to passing motorists, but hinted at by a well-tended roadside verge, driveway gateposts and a separate entrance guarded by a farmgate. From the farmgate, a carpet of grass, lined by hydrangeas and other shrubs, curves up towards the house.
The house only comes into view when you round the curve. Mary, the current owner, recalls this was what sold Ballybranagan House to her, even though they weren’t in the market for buying at the time. She had spotted it in a newspaper – the Irish Examiner – and decided to come have a look.
“I came through the gate and around the curve and I caught a glimpse of something different. There was a magic to it, it felt like a very special place,” she says.
When they delved into its history, she and her husband Brendan found that it had been a working farm, where Hilda Smyth, “from the next beach” (Ballycroneen), had lived with her British husband, Benjamin, who predeceased her by 30 years. Hilda remained on there with her sister Majorie, two hardworking women, beloved of their neighbours, particularly the children, who appreciated their endless supply of treats. Hilda and her sister, both deceased, still have a place in Ballybranagan House, in a framed photograph inside the porch. It’s a fabulous photograph, full of sunshine and merriment.
Mary cherishes the house’s 200 year history - it was built in 1820 - and was mindful of its heritage, after they bought it in 2008. The original farmhouse was solid and they kept it true to its original form, retaining old floorboards, doors, fireplaces and the original staircase.
They knew what they what they were doing - they had renovated previous homes, in St Lukes Cross in Cork City, and in Whitegate in East Cork. They had the help too of local builder Ben Langsley.
The annex to the rear of the house, was another matter entirely. “The walls were rubble,” Mary says, and they had to knock and rebuild it, from the footprint up. While working on the house, they found documents which indicate the land on which it is built was at some point gifted to a British Army member, with whom perhaps the Smyths (Benjamin) had a connection.
Excited by the find, they had the documents valued, but in fact the Fry’s Chocolate box they were stored in was worth more. Believed to date back to the mid-1800s, such chocolate boxes would have been imported (Fry’s was in Bristol) and rare at a time when households were struggling to recover from the Famine. Some of these boxes are collectors’ items.
A far less inspiring find was the crumbling wall in which the Fry’s box was found.
Replacing the annex was a major job. There was no heating in the house, so that was installed (oil fired) and solar panels were added. The thick walls keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter, the owners say. The energy rating is a remarkable C3.
The couple consulted a number of architects before doing any renovations but were disappointed by those who suggested modernising the property. As Mary points out, the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage describes their home as a “well-executed house of modest architectural detailing and pleasing proportions, retaining its early form and character and pleasantly located in the landscape”.
It adds that “Such traditional houses are fast disappearing from the architectural record and hence the Irish landscape.” Anxious to preserve Ballybranagan House, Mary says they ignored an architect who told them to knock the front porch. “I think you have to be very careful about changing the front of a house, especially something that is 200 years old. It’s all about proportions and the porch looks just right,” Mary says.
The porch floor is the original black and red Victorian tiles and the photograph of the Smyth sisters hangs from its thick old walls, The front door, between porch and hallway, is also the original. It’s not as tall as the doors we have today, which probably reflects the smaller stature of our ancestors, but it has a magnificent, ancient wooden bolt.
At the back of the house, in the rebuilt annex, the bright kitchen diner is a fine size, a combination of fitted and free standing units, with a Stanley Range taking centre stage.
What looks like a vintage drying rack is suspended over it, but in fact it’s a very good impersonation, made by Brendan from broom handles.
They installed patio doors too to an outdoor deck in an area that was once the piggery, when Ballybranagan House was a working farm.
“The sisters had no aspect outwards, it was a blank kitchen wall. It was an inspired place to put the double doors and the deck, it gets the sun early in the morning,” Mary says.
The annex also contains a utility room, and beyond it is a quirky bathroom, and beyond that again, the main bedroom, part of the modern build, a room with lots of natural light and with double doors to the side garden.
There’s a generous ensuite too. Overhead, in the new section, there are two more bedrooms, one of them ensuite, and a main bathroom.
The link between the original house and the newer section is via a duck-your-head under-stair passageway, which brings you back to the hallway and the original staircase, with its carpet from India, brought back by Brendan from the time he was involved with Cork charity, the Hope Foundation.
At the top of the stairs is a fine landing, with extra wide floorboards and a window looking down that green avenue and on towards the water at Ballybrannigan Beach (yes, two ways of spelling Ballybrannigan/Ballybranagan).
There are two more large double bedrooms either side of the landing. Both have unusual ceilings but just one has a quite unique window, recessed deep into the thick wall.
It is one of Mary’s favourite features, along with the avenue, which she deliberately allowed to grass over, restricting cars to a separate entrance, for greater privacy. Best of all though, she says, is their proximity to the sea – it’s a five minute walk to beautiful Ballybrannigan Beach. She can hear the sea, she says, when she opens the windows in the morning.
“All I hear is the sea and birdsong,” she says.
The 1.4 acre garden, spread across several levels, is a haven for wildlife: families of hedgehogs, foxes, badgers. It’s tame in some parts andwild in others. There’s an old orchard in one sectiont, with apples and logan berries, raspberries and gooseberries. A beech tree, Mary’s favourite, is 200-years-old.
There are several outhouses scattered around the grounds, five in all, housing items such as coal and a water pump – with potential to convert to other uses. There’s a beautiful old private well on the property too. And adjoining the main house is a coach house, with an upstairs.
“Our plan was to renovate it, but we use it as a shed now. It has huge potential though,” Mary says.
Ballybrannagan House has been a terrific home for Mary, Brendan and their children and the backdrop to many celebrations, but with their children grown up and 1.4 acres to maintain, they’ve decided it’s time to move on. Mary, who works with young film makers through Cork County Council, and Brendan, a former steeplejack, who later trained as a psychologist, say it’s “a hard spot to leave”.
“I feel we’ve been custodians of this house and we’ve done our bit and now it’s time to move on,” Mary says. She will miss the house “but even more so the beach – it’s a luxury to be this close, a five minute walk, we’ll never get that again”, but adds that “the time is right and I feel we are doing the right thing”.
Handling the sale is Adrianna Hegarty of Hegarty Properties and she has first hand knowledge of the charms of Ballybranagan House, as she lives locally.
She is guiding the 2,700 sq ft five-bed at €720,000. Ms Hegarty says the location of the house is outstanding, with almost instant beach access. It’s also just a 10 minute drive from lovely Ballycotton and about the same from Ballymaloe and Midleton. Ms Hegarty thinks there’s a good chance the house will go to an overseas buyer (or perhaps actor Paul Mescal could be tempted to try East Cork, instead of West, where he is rumoured to be buying?).
Equally, a local might see it as a good business venture, with lots of AirBnB potential in the main house and/or converted outhouses.
A truly special property that deserves to be preserved. Its outhouses hold additional potential. The garden is glorious and the beachside location is a gift.