Real home: be inspired by this idyllic 1950s Irish coastal cottage

After visiting Ireland on a painting holiday, Sue and Mark Gilkey decided to buy a traditional cottage there with an inspiring coastal setting

Exterior of Irish cottage
(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

Charmed by the landscapes and coastal villages she saw as she toured Ireland with a group of fellow artists on a painting trip, Sue realised there was something very special in the light and the way of life there. After renting a local artist’s cottage, American born Sue was totally won over by the house and its surrounding area.

Find out how the couple found their dream home, then browse the rest of our real home transformations. Read our guide on renovating a house, too, for more guidance.

irish coastal cottage

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

Blue door on exterior of Irish cottage

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

‘Everywhere I looked, inside and out, I saw a painting. So from that point on I started painting Irish landscapes and interiors,’ says Sue. ‘The paintings turned out to be really popular back in the States, so I knew a few more trips to Ireland would definitely be on the cards.’

Hallway with blue carpet, desk and chair

The spacious entrance hall is flooded with natural light from a newly fitted gothic window, that replaced the original front door

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

Owners Sue Gilkey, an artist, and her husband Mark live here. The couple are originally from Stowe, Vermont, in the United States.
Property A two-bedroom cottage built in the 1950s on the Iveragh Peninsula, Co. Kerry, Ireland.
What they did French drains were dug around the house. All the windows and doors were replaced. A new gas heating system was fitted along with new stoves. The whole cottage was redecorated.

Sue planned a second trip the following year, bringing husband Mark with her this time to see the landscape she was so inspired by. Fortunately he loved it too and on their next trip they decided to buy a place. ‘I had always been charmed by this cottage and had driven past it many times in order to paint, so when I saw it was up for sale I knew it was meant to be,’ says Sue. 

The couple completed the sale in 2013, when buyers were ‘as rare as hen’s teeth’ according to their solicitor. Having spent just 20 minutes inside the cottage they admit they were a little nervous about buying it and did have a few sleepless nights. Despite this they embraced the decision and with great enthusiasm they booked a container to bring over their things, scouring the States for items that would suit the property. 

blue door in hallway with window and flowers

It was important to celebrate the ecclesiastical influences of the house

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

‘I went all over New England to my favourite antiques shops,’ says Sue. ‘I found the table and chair in Essex, Massachusetts. They were made in Iowa in the 1920s and set the tone for the American Gothic style I tend to gravitate towards.’

living room with armchairs and stove in Irish house

The living room décor was inspired by the coastal location. Calm touches of blue are introduced with Sue’s paintings and accessories. The rocking chair was found on the roadside in the States, and is now painted in Annie Sloan’s Old White Chalk Paint 

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

When Sue and Mark arrived in April, as the new owners, they were a little fazed by the amount of work that needed to be done. The property needed a complete overhaul, and there were damp problems stemming from the old stone structures, which needed urgent attention. The couple had to install French drains around the house to help dry out the walls, and all the doors and windows needed to be replaced.

kitchen with stone fireplace, cabinets and checkerboard tile floors

The striking chequerboard kitchen floor was painted by the couple using Hague Blue and Off-White, both by Farrow & Ball. The fireplace was specially built to copy an old stone window of a local church, and fitted with a Henley wood-burning stove. The feature wall surrounding the fireplace is painted in Apple by Little Greene

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

irish cottage kitchen

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

‘The first night we stayed in the house the rain was driving in under the doors and windows and we hadn’t brought enough warm clothing,’ recalls Sue. ‘The old Stanley boiler took three days to warm up the house and our container hadn’t arrived. All we had was a mattress and blankets, two chairs, two plates, a saucepan and some cutlery, lent by kind neighbours.’

Bedroom with blue bed and wooden storage

A pretty mural inspired by the Celtic tree of life adds individual character and visual interest to the bedroom. ‘The birds are swallows that swoop along the lanes here in the summer,’ says Sue. The bed is dressed with bedding that Sue made and the chest of drawers and side table are antiques from the States

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

Period Living June 19 cover

 Period Living is the UK's best-selling period homes magazine. Get inspiration, ideas and advice straight to your door every month with a subscription.

Undeterred by all this, they set about getting advice from the locals on the best tradespeople to use and while waiting for their belongings to arrive started painting the downstairs rooms, creating a light, tranquil interior.

‘I love Little Greene paint and I have used it in most of the rooms and on the exterior, which I painted in Loft White. It reflects the light and shines like a gem on sunny evenings.’ says Sue

‘This year we painted the kitchen floor in a diamond pattern with Farrow & Ball’s Hague Blue and Off-White. It took us over a week to do with seven separate coats of paint, but was well worth it.’  

Next they turned their attention to the bathroom. They have kept the décor simple with white tiling and installed a wet room shower with a heavy glass partition. In the living room they removed the old Stanley stove and had gas central heating installed.

‘We put in a small Henley wood stove and hired a local stonemason to build the fireplace. We asked him to copy the shape of the old window in nearby Kilcatherine Church, mirroring the shape of our arched windows,’ explains Sue. 

The front door of the cottage had a similar arched shape when they bought it. It has since been replaced by a bespoke window inspired by a painting by Grant Wood, appropriately entitled American Gothic.

bedroom with floral bedlinen

 Sue made the bedding, teaming it with a throw from Cleo Gallery, a local art gallery 

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

Over the years, Sue has filled the cottage with her still lifes and paintings of the surrounding landscapes, and the couple have gradually added furnishings that they have sourced locally or brought from the States. ‘I found the chandelier in the kitchen in the nearby town of Bantry, for just 35 Euros. We often go to Bantry’s Friday market, where we have picked up some great bits. Each little town has a market and we have found some interesting pieces in the different villages.’

bedroom in loft conversion with bedlinen and skylight

Mark made the bed in the guest room so it fits neatly under the eaves, making the most of all the available space in the room

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

With the major renovations now complete, Sue and Mark are delighted with how the cottage has come together. Everything they have done has been carefully considered, as they have tried to reflect the colours surrounding them and the traditional feel of the local vernacular.

Blue windows on exterior of house

 The windows are uPVC, so Sue added character by spraying them with a paint from the German firm RAL Colours. ‘I had to have some colour on the exterior and I’m really drawn to blues inspired by the coastal location, so this prompted me with my choice,’ she says.  

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

‘Among the best things about living here are not only the spectacular coastal views but also how welcoming our neighbours have been. We both
feel really connected to our Irish life,’ says Sue. ‘I enjoy painting in my studio and meeting up with friends to paint outside, and Mark spends a lot of
his time cycling through the countryside with the local cycling club, so our lifestyle here is idyllic.’

Alfresco dining in irish countryside with landscape view

Sue fell in love with the little whitewashed cottage by the sea and the unspoilt landscapes of the Iveragh Peninsula in Co. Kerry, before eventually buying the cottage and converting an outbuilding into a painting studio. The cottage’s seaside patio is surely one of the most idyllic places to enjoy a spot of lunch 

(Image credit: Philip Lauterbach)

Words and styling Penny Crawford-Collins | Photographs Philip Lauterbach


Penny is an established interiors stylist and writer. She is also the founder of ChiqueChaque, a company specialising in Swarovski jewellery and lighting design.