Eighteen years after he first bought Charlestown school house in Ardee, Co Louth, Paul Boyle's renovation of it is finally complete – well almost. For Paul and his wife Ciara the ultimate 'doer-upper' has been a tough but invaluable lesson in patience, planning and sheer good will.
Theirs is a shining example of how passion and a lot of elbow grease can transform even the most down-at-heel properties (read derelict) into a family home.
The renovation was fun, and challenging," says Paul, who is a professional theatre nurse as well as a seasoned house renovator. He encourages others contemplating buying the proverbial 'wreck with potential', but also cautions that patience and expert advice are key to success.
"Along with the dilapidated, derelict buildings that can be snapped up, you will also see plenty of half-completed projects that people have abandoned. Whether it's through lack of funds, or lack of will, it's very easy to get discouraged."
When Paul bought the Victorian school house in 1990 time had taken its toll on the old building; the windows had been bricked up, an apple tree was growing through the roof, plaster was peeling off the walls; the floorboards had all rotted – it was essentially a shell with four walls and a very bad roof.
The schoolhouse was built 1885 for the princely sum of £110. It stopped being a school in 1935 and was rented out briefly by the church until the 1950s.
"I have the whole history on it," says Paul. "Our neighbour was one of the last children to be taught here. It consisted of one large classroom, a kitchen, scullery and teacher's kitchen on the ground floor. The upstairs, which had a separate entrance, was the teacher's living quarters – two bedrooms and a living room."
It was a project most people would have walked away from but Paul knew he was in it for the long haul and could see it had potential, even though that potential wasn't immediately apparent to everyone else.
"The educational board in Armagh was selling the school house at the time through an estate agent in Newry. I think he was quite sceptical about me being this young 20-year-old. He asked me what I planned to do with the place and I said I'd re-roof it, weatherproof it, close it up, go to England to earn money to fund the restoration, and then come back and live in it.
"So we shook hands on it there and then and the schoolhouse was mine," says Paul.
Paul fulfilled his promise with the initial roofing work, 'keeping an eye' on it on trips home. Then in l996 when he met his wife Ciara, the decision to undertake the project fully became even more prescient.
In 1999 the couple approached their bank manger for a loan of ¤100,000, He didn't quite give them the full amount, but near enough to fund the restoration.
The renovation is meticulous with every effort put into getting the details just right. Paul insisted on replacing everything as authentically as possible.
This meant sourcing traditional stone bricks from a derelict cottage and outhouse (the transportation of which cost more than the actual bricks), granite sills from Kilkenny Limestone, reclaimed Bangor Blue roof slates from a house in Dundalk and handmade ridge tiles. The original window frames and fireplaces couldn't be salvaged but Paul still has these in his garage, waiting for an opportunity to use them.
Most of the building work Paul has done himself, although not entirely. For the more skilled work he hired in professionals including Peader Crossan from Corduff who helped design and make the stairs, doors, skirting and architraves.
Paul admits that there were some tough times along the way, including when he and Ciara spent St Stephen's Day trying to dig out the foundations for the chimney, in the freezing cold with the wind whistling through the windows. Also for the first four years of the renovation the couple had no holidays.
For the most part Paul and Ciara have stayed faithful to the original layout of the schoolhouse. The original classroom is now one large airy living room with 11ft high ceilings. The kitchen is equally generous in size. They built an extension to the rear for four large bedrooms and a pretty enclosed verandah to the front.
Along with its many positive characteristics, Paul says the finished house is also all calm and serenity – or as much as the couple's young sons Seán and Rory will allow. "We could never leave here; we have put so much of ourselves into it. Besides we're still not finished. With an old house you never are."