Renovating a dilapidated barn

Peggy McConnell and Tony O'Hanlon converted a derelict barn into a two-storey home with a stylish and modern interior

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The most surprising thing about the Victorian stone barn conversion that belongs to Peggy McConnell and Tony O’Hanlon is that it is within Galway city limits. Peggy’s pony Molly grazes behind the house and countryside stretches as far as the eye can see, but it’s within walking distance of the city centre.

A work move from Kilkenny to Galway meant that the couple had to search for a new home. ‘We were looking for a project that we could get stuck into, but it had to have enough land for both a garden and somewhere to keep animals,’ says Peggy. ‘At the time, the choice in Galway was either to go for an old cottage or a typical bungalow, neither of which we wanted.’

Fact file

The owners: Peggy McConnell, a graphic and exhibition designer, and her husband Tony O’Hanlon, a graphic and book designer. Daughter Holly, 19, is living in Lonon while studying

Having renovated an old cottage in Kells, County Kilkenny, the couple liked the idea of updating another period property. ‘When this site came up for sale, we instinctively felt it was the place for us,’ says Peggy.

The two-storey Victorian farmhouse was for sale along with a stone barn and some land, but the whole place was in poor condition. The house hadn’t been occupied in years, except as a holiday home, and the barn was completely derelict. It had been some time since the farm had been a viable agricultural venture, as development of the city of Galway had swallowed up the surrounding farmland. ‘Friends said we were mad to consider buying it,’ laughs Peggy.

Having bought the farmhouse and barn, the couple first turned their attention to making the farmhouse habitable, and several years later, in 2009, started thinking about how to use the derelict barn. Peggy’s father lived on his own in Dublin after her mother had passed away and Peggy hoped that he might be persuaded to move house to be closer to her and her husband. ‘It got us thinking about how we could rescue the beautiful stone barn before it fell down completely, and then turn it into a wonderful home for my dad,’ she says.

The roof of the barn was mostly still old-fashioned corrugated iron and the openings in the walls were disintegrating, although there were still some lovely old stone sills and lintels in place. Parts of the building had been strengthened or filled with odd bits of concrete and the exterior had been covered in render. Upstairs, any timber flooring that might have existed had long since disappeared.

Tony set to work on the project, sourcing materials, designing and calculating spaces and new rooms, and doing a lot of the non-skilled labour himself, only hiring skilled tradespeople as and when they were needed. ‘We quickly found out that creating something “authentic” takes time and money,’ says Peggy. ‘On the plus side, doing a renovation project of this kind slowly means you have the opportunity to learn from the building, rather than imposing your own ideas on it.’

One of the first things the couple had to tackle was the damp in the building. As it is set into a hill, the ground level is much higher at the back than the front, causing rainwater to run down towards the barn. To solve this, the earth was excavated at the rear of the building, before a new French drain was built to help collect the water and divert it from the property. New decking was then added at the rear of the barn, in order to access the garden from the living room door. ]

The building itself was stripped back to the stonework by the builders, then re-pointed and re-roofed with an updated version of the traditional corrugated iron sheeting that used to be common on rural buildings of this type. Bricks from a demolished Garda [police] station and original lintels were guided into place over the openings, where new windows were then fitted. Tony discovered a great supplier of recycled timber and had it shipped over for milling in Ireland and turned into roof trusses and floorboards.

‘We wanted to create something that would respect the rural vernacular of the west of Ireland, but it also had to be easy to maintain and not be an imitation of an Irish cottage look,’ adds Peggy. ‘The overall look is quite eclectic, with some beautiful old salvaged treasures unearthed by Tony really inspiring the finished appearance.’

The open living area on the upper level is very simply finished with recycled timber flooring, rough whitewashed walls and exposed beams, but Peggy felt it needed a focal point. ‘I spotted the antique 1920s French stove online and fell in love with it,’ she says. ‘I was bitterly disappointed when the company told me that it was already sold and I would have to choose another. Luckily, they had a similar one which had yet to be restored. Magically, it was rebuilt and re-cast, and I love the restored design.’

Although the finished barn is in keeping with the period style of the space, Peggy took a more light-hearted approach to the furnishings, which are a collection of new and upcycled buys, mixed together with an eye for colour and comfort. Nothing matches, but everything blends, to create a very inviting, interesting space.

The kitchen and bathrooms are deliberately simple and contemporary. ‘I didn’t want the house to be a pastiche of Victorian living, so we chose very simple, unobtrusive fittings that would blend into the spaces,’ she explains.

The two bedrooms are also restful and uncluttered, both featuring an unusual small shuttered window overlooking the staircase at the front of the house. From the stairs, the shuttered openings give a hint of the building’s agricultural origins, creating the feel of an old grain loft. ‘I drew out my ideas on the wall and asked the carpenter to make up the frames and shutters to fit,’ says Peggy. ‘I found that quite a useful way to explain to various tradespeople exactly what I wanted.’

Peggy got the idea for the panelling in the twin room when she was browsing images of old French beds on the internet. ‘They had such beautiful headboards,’ she explains. ‘I thought that some sort of panelling behind the beds would add interest to the space. I’m a big fan of painted timber, but I didn’t want tongue-and-groove panels.’ She discovered her inspiration in a book of Caribbean interior style, and copied it out on the wall for the carpenter to reproduce.

With the conversion finished in just under one-and-a-half years, Peggy’s father moved in to the renovated space. ‘Sadly, dad’s no longer alive, but he loved living here as it was such a simple, manageable home for him,’ says Peggy. ‘It’s such a welcoming space and I love spending time in here, too, often with a cup of coffee looking out at the garden, or curling up with a book by the stove during the winter months.

‘Creating a home for dad is what kick-started this whole process, but in doing that, it meant that we were also able to rescue this beautiful building,’ adds Peggy. ‘We now use the barn for when friends and family come to stay; it’s perfect, as they have their own space to relax in, but are right beside us, too. It’s great that we’ve again found another use for the warm and welcoming space that we worked so hard to create.

The costs

Structural work£20,000
Plastering£10,500
Stairs/joinery/panelling£10,000
Furnishings and finishings£9,000
Windows/doors£8,000
Plumbing and materials£6,000
Electrics and rewiring£5,500
New roof£5,000
Salvaged stone and timber£3,500
Kitchen£3,500
Bathrooms£3,500
Tiles and tiler£2,000
Demolition and clearing£1,000
TOTAL£87,500