Bringing Lismore back from the dead
You know the expression, ’All to one side like Crossdoney’? Well the reason that the modest little village is all to one side is largely due to a house built it in the late 1700s by the Nesbitt family. An old stone wall, the like of which the landed gentry would erect to keep poachers and commoners at bay hides the enormous Georgian home from motorists stopped at the village’s T-junction, deciding whether to head for Ballinagh or Killeshandra. From the 1980s that stone grey edifice hid the true extent to which the proud old home had fallen into dereliction. Likewise, for the last four years it has also hidden its incredible revival under the ownership of Richard and Sonya Beer since 2014. The transformation over the last four years is worthy of TV shows Grand Designs or The Great House Revival. It’s stunning.
Over the course of two years they had viewed maybe 30 to 40 different houses around Ireland. They had even searched abroad.
“We had notions at one stage of maybe moving to France, we actually went and had a look at a few places, but we decided very quickly it wasn’t for us – you have three kids living in Dublin, what’s the point of moving to France?”
A professional photographer for auctioneering agents, Richard happened upon Lismore Lodge on the way to a job in Killeshandra, back in 2013. He stopped outside the wall to take a swift peek, and as there was no ’for sale’ sign, he didn’t pay it much heed. The listed building had fallen into ruin since Dr Hannah – a surgeon in the hospital – had lived in it in the 1980s. Two owners, but no homemakers had followed.
“We had been looking for two years probably for ’a project’ - I mean a project that needed maybe a couple of bathrooms and a new kitchen or something,” recalls Richard with a laugh. With that first glance he decided the derelict property was “too far gone”.
It was only when he saw the property online and he and his wife Sonya travelled up from their County Clare home to see it first-hand that Richard realised he’d been here before. This time he was smitten.
“I had a vision of what it would look like when it was done – and that was always the goal,” says Richard.
“But you didn’t share it,” quips Sonya, who has clearly invested just as much of herself in the project.
Did it not seem like it would be just too much work?
“Well it was too much, but the thing that sold it to us was the site, and the mature trees and all. You couldn’t buy anything like this in Germany.”
It’s understandable that Sonya was dubious considering the state the property was in.
They got an architect to give it a once over from a structural point of view, but having photographed homes all his working life, and with two renovation jobs under his belt with their Victorian period home in Dublin and cottage in County Clare, Richard was determined to proceed.
The Beers eventually bought the house for €140,000, which sounds like a steel for the stately property it is now – it seems foolhardy when you consider the state of the property back when the sale went through in late summer 2014. At least it came with 14 acres. To finance the purchase and renovation works they sold up their Dublin property, but sadly at the bottom of the market.
“We got a fraction of what we thought we’d get,” laments Richard.
Lying derelict for 30 years or more, scavengers had taken what they could - copper cylinder from upstairs, lead from windows. One of the fireplaces was found amongst overgrown grass having been dumped in the garden.
“There wasn’t one sheet of glass left in the whole house. And what happened was the rain was coming in [through leaks/holes in the roof] and it had nowhere to evaporate because all the windows and doors were sealed, so it was like an incubator for wet rot, dry rot, fungus and whatever you want.”
Did you not think Lismore was too far gone?
“The walls were two foot thick and were straight, so I mean a two foot wall is not going to go anywhere,” said Richard.
“Well we thought that,” offers Sonya, as we peer into a room which is now beautiful and airy with a view of the garden’s mature trees and the village beyond.
They had intended inserting a steel support in an upstairs bedroom wall which had a major crack running across it. However it collapsed as a builder tested the reliability of a supporting beam, with 50-60 tonnes of stone coming crashing down. Photos of the scene are truly eye-popping.
“That wall could easily have killed somebody,” he accurately recalls.
Separately a relatively modern brick chimney breast in the same room later collapsed and smashed through a section of a newly refurbished floor downstairs.
“It was like a nuclear explosion when that thing came down,” remarked Richard.
They swiftly realised that the work couldn’t be done within budget by a contractor.
“The place was atrocious,” summarises Richard.
It got worse.
“You could squeeze the water out of some of them with your bare hands,” he says of the timber supporting the roof,” says Richard.
He adds: “The roof was still on it when we got here and then about two weeks after we arrived there was an unmerciful bang at one stage.”
They discovered the roof in the downstairs dining room. They had hoped they could salvage more of the roof, but they finally retained approximately 15%. Original floors of only two rooms upstairs remain. Lismore Lodge was literally caving in around them.
“We couldn’t go into the building upstairs for the first nine months or something like that – there was a carpet upstairs and that was holding everything up basically,” he says with a laugh, that suggests he’s only slightly exaggerating. “It was just ridiculous, and all the plaster was off the walls.”
Such perilous support structures where common place: a central heating pipe alone was holding up a collapsed support beam for the floor above the kitchen.
“Until you clear everything, you don’t know what’s underneath,” adds Sonya. In the ’Morning Room’, the plaster was still up on the walls, it still had fantastic cornice going around. We came in one day and the whole thing had slid down onto the floor - in one piece!”
It quickly emerged that they would be unable to afford a contractor to carry out all of the necessary works within their budget, which they prefer to keep to themselves. Richard took on the role of project leader and employed what tradesmen their endless to-do list demanded first. The couple eagerly took a hands-on role in the work they could manage themselves. While the crash undermined the value they got for their previous home, it helped in that under-employed builders were available.
“I wouldn’t want to start it now because you could be waiting months for some people – we were lucky with the plumber, the electrician – the fella who did the roof – they were all really good, and they didn’t mind that I mucked in as well,” says Richard.
Whilst he who modestly thinks of himself as “an amateur”, he came up with the solution to supporting upstairs floors when you already have standing walls. They cemented in re-bars where the old joists were, and welded angle iron on top of that to provide a ledge and laid the new floor on the ledge rather than trying to bore huge holes into stone walls.
“They were all very doubtful about that, but touch wood, that all worked out really well, because the floors are absolutely level upstairs.
“It’s the only thing that’s straight,” add Sonya.
Life on a building site was especially difficult in the first winter.
“It was a bit of a challenge,” says Sonya, who admits to having been “fed up” at times.
“The first nine months we were living in a caravan. It was very cold that winter.”
They were constantly removing plaster, which is a particularly messy job, and could only wash up in a basin. “We used to drive to Dublin to one of our kids and have a shower in their house,” recalls Richard.
They first concentrated on renovating a secondary home on the property, a little ‘Peacock House’, so called because Dr Hannah kept the flamboyant birds there. That gave them a “very cosy” base from which to attack the main home.
Eventually the rebuild started to come together.
“About a year ago, once we were fairly sure that we would be able to finish the house and not fall flat on our faces, we started to call the whole enterprise the Lazarus Project - back from the dead,” quips Richard.
Walking around the Lismore on one of the most glorious days of the year confirms that all the Beers’ efforts in resuscitating this great house were rewarded. Entering each of the nine bedrooms, you have expect to hear the crescendo of the big reveal music you hear on TV renovation shows. The dining room, where they celebrated their first Christmas dinner having moved in last December, is truly amazing.
The rustic kitchen is the Celt’s favourite. Stoves and ovens of varying sizes dominates an entire red brick wall of the kitchen. The internal walls of no less than seven flue had all collapsed, and had to be rebuilt by craftsmen. Richard shows the Celt a beehive bread oven behind an industrial metal door, before his excitement overtakes him as he brings us to the other end of the kitchen.
“There’s a three quarter inch steel plate there so you can actually cook on that if you want to,” he enthuses.
“Not that we’re going to,” adds Sonya.
As the couple have blown their savings on restoring the home, some of the rooms are sparsely decorated, so there’s not quite the opulence you might expect of rooms of such proportions. They are no less stylish for their modesty of furnishings. Richard estimates that they are 97% finished the restoration, with painting and priming certain areas, and carrying out work in the woodland gardens, amongst the few jobs on the dwindling to-do list.
Asked if he has any advice for someone thinking of taking on a renovation project, without hesitation, Richard replies:
“Do it – its definitely worthwhile. If you can see – that you can come out the other end without either killing yourself or financially destroying yourself altogether, then I would certainly say do it because you get great satisfaction when you see it finished.”