This couple bought a modern home and period thatch – but stripped away the layers to see walls made of mud

Saint Bernadette’s, Stamullen Road, Gormanstown, Co Meath

Asking price: €545,000 Agent: DNG Wall Tuckey (01) 841 8100

Seventeen years ago Dave Fennell found a house in Co Meath that represented three different centuries in Irish building as well as including bits of a famous Irish holiday camp. But it had another secret to reveal.

St Bernadette’s at Stamullen near Gormanstown comprised a traditional period country cottage with fresh thatch on top and a more modern 20th-century wing alongside.

The careful restoration work that followed revealed that the oldest part of the house was actually made of packed mud, a process known as ‘cob’ building and one recently revived and promoted by modern alternative home builders for its sustainability and durability on programmes such as Grand Designs.

There are concentrations of period cob-built cottages in Meath and Wexford in particular. Surveyors and architects brought in to help with refurbs regularly discover that 100 plus year old homes have walls made of a tamped down mud and straw mix. A recent heritage report opined that many buildings in Gormanstown may be of mud without their owners realising.

The thatched cottage was built in 1899 as the gardener’s cottage for the nearby Gormanstown Castle estate which later became Gormanstown College. A block-built extension was added in the 1970s and this in turn was renovated and added to in the early noughties.

Dave knew nothing about thatched houses except that he liked the look of them. “I have always loved old buildings, I love wood and stone and the sort of textured materials a thatched house is made of,” he says.


A side view of the thatched cottage

“You pass thatched cottages on the road, and you can’t help but be struck by them. I saw it, walked in and around and where other people might see problems, I saw solutions.” Even though the house is dated 1899, its design reflects a much older style — with a hipped rather than a gabled roof. These houses of an older cob design are almost oval in shape with a straw thatched roof that sits on the walls — much as a lid might on a roasting pot. His purchase meant that at some stage he would need the skills of one of Ireland’s oldest crafts, that of the thatcher.

The main thatcher in this area is Peter Childs, a master craftsman who grows the straw himself and sources the rest from local farmers. He is training a number of younger people in the craft.” The thatched section was in good enough shape when Dave bought it in 2006, “while the extension wasn’t falling down it was poorly insulated and in need of new wiring and plumbing,” he says.


The kitchen and breakfast bar

The thatched portion is a protected structure, and he engaged an architect familiar with conservation and heritage. “It made the process easier and when we’d come up with ideas he’d say to us ‘that’s not going to work, but this might…’ We were asked to leave as much as you can alone since it is history you’re dealing with. So, for instance the rafters are original tree branches, just as they were cut down from the tree,” Dave says.

He was not allowed to insulate the attic area above the ceiling as it needs to keep aired. “The thatcher was clear that you needed the heat to rise into the attic to keep the straw dry. The thatch is insulation in itself. In the thatched section we did very little aside from a new wooden floor and windows.


A reception room with wood-burning stove

“We were lucky that the windows weren’t the originals, they had actually been taken out of Mosney (the famous Irish holiday camp) in the 1950s. It meant we were able to put in new wooden frames with four-paned, double-glazed argon glass.”

The walls proved to be the most delicate when it came to renovation work. “There was a render on the walls and, even though it was not original, we were told we had to leave it untouched.” The expert said the walls were made of mud and removing the render could put them at risk. “The rest really was just rewiring and making sure not to damage any of the existing building or walls,” he says.

Dave, his wife Rachel and their four children (aged five to 26) have enjoyed the refurbed house for many years. The thatched block now contains two rooms and a small porch. It is entered from a hall connecting the two buildings and consists of a sitting room, which would have been the original kitchen/living area, and a bedroom separated from the main room by the old chimney breast. Dave describes this bedroom as a sound-proof space ideal for a teenager with a weakness for loud music.

“The architect also helped us with the design for the extension. We didn’t want to go too modern, but we also wanted to distinguish the old from the new,” Dave says. In rebuilding the extension, they raised the roof but ensured the eave wasn’t higher than the ridge of the thatched section. “You can’t really see the new part from the road and that was the intention,” Dave adds.

“In the extension we have two bedrooms on the ground floor and then upstairs, in the attic, we built quite a big, long bedroom, our main bedroom with an ensuite.” The new section also contains a modern kitchen, a bathroom and a utility. The building is fully insulated with a heat recovery system, a condenser boiler and a zoned heating system. “The insulation in the new part of the house is all hemp insulation and breathable membrane with a heat recovery system and a pellet stove in the new kitchen,” Given its vintage, it has a BER rating of C2 with the help of argon windows, mud and straw.


The hallway and staircase

The triangular site is somewhat less than half an acre in size and bounded by a stream and the garden is tiered to the rear and home to a polytunnel. “We’ve had a great life here,” he says, “after being completely involved in the renovation, I know the very bones of it. Like any old building it needs to be lived in and cared for but, if you mind it, it will give you everything back in return.”

The price is €545,000 through the DNG Wall Tuckey agency.

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