During their search for a new home six years ago, it was Roisin and Finbar Murphy-Smith’s love of walking that led them to stumble upon their 19th-century cottage next to a river on the edge of a quiet village in County Carlow. ‘We are both keen walkers,’ explains Roisin, ‘and the house is located at the end of the Wicklow Way, a 127-kilometre trail across the mountains that finishes in Clonegal.

‘One weekend we decided to start our walk with a drink in the village pub. We didn’t get very far, however, as on our way out of the door, we saw a “for sale” sign on the little house opposite. There was something so appealing about this tranquil cottage, with its pretty windows, lovely stonework and idyllic setting with the river running behind it. We couldn’t resist ringing the agent to view it straight away.’

The project

Owners: Roisin Murphy-Smith, an art teacher, and her husband Finbar, a freelance set designer, live here with their son Lorcan, three
Property: An early 19th-century two-bedroom stone-built cottage in Clonegal, County Carlow, Ireland
Essential repairs: The cottage needed rewiring and the windows repairing. Wooden panelling was added in the bedrooms and the staircase widened
Layout: The ground floor has been opened up to create a large open-plan kitchen/living area, with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs

Although picturesque from the outside, the interior of the house was run-down, as it had been owned by an elderly man who had done very little to it over the years. The décor needed updating, the electrics required attention and the cottage had been divided into two rooms downstairs, with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs.

The property was structurally sound, with the roof and chimneys in good condition, and the couple could see its potential to be turned into a characterful family home.

Period restoration of a house exteriors

Roisin and Finbar Murphy-Smith’s 19th-century stone cottage has a picturesque setting on the edge of the village of Clonegal, backing on to a river at the end of the Wicklow Way walking trail

Renovation work

‘As we were first-time buyers living in rented accommodation, we had no furniture and were on a very tight budget,’ recalls Roisin. ‘So we decided to do the work gradually, planning it in order of importance.’

Husband Finbar, a freelance set designer, is both creative and brilliant at carpentry, so the couple decided to tackle most of the work themselves. ‘We were keen to maintain the integrity of the house, so kept all the original features and ripped out anything that we didn’t feel was in keeping with the period of the property,’ says Roisin.

Dining area in Irish stone farmhouse
The large dining table was picked up from a sale in Clonegal castle, along with the chairs. The couple sourced pieces in house sales or auctions, and were also given furniture by friends

Restoring features

This meant that all the lino and carpet tiles had to be removed, along with the electric heaters that sat in the fireplaces. ‘We hacked rotten plaster off the walls and cleaned, sanded and varnished all the original floorboards, which, luckily enough, were in very good condition,’ says Roisin. ‘We also repaired all the old windows, which would have been very expensive to replace. We lived in a basic shell of a house for months and spent evenings and weekends replastering and restoring, gradually making it more comfortable.’

Decorating detail

The kitchen has a traditional country-style look, with a lovely mix of furniture that creates a space full of personality, with old and new working in harmony

Open plan living

The dividing wall between the two downstairs rooms made the whole space dark and poky, with no view of the garden. The couple decided to remove the wall to create an open kitchen/living area, opening up the narrow doorway leading out to the garden, which made a huge difference.

‘From the kitchen, your eye is drawn through the garden to the river,’ says Roisin. ‘We kept the original Aga, old plate rack and Belfast sink, and Finbar built some simple rustic-style cabinets using reclaimed wood.’

All the fireplaces have been opened up and fitted with salvaged fire surrounds. The couple also sourced some old pot-bellied stoves, which, along with the Aga, are now the main heat source for the house.

Traditional bathroom in Irish stone cottage

The bath was found in a local salvage yard and the couple have painted it in Bronze Red by Little Greene

The staircase

Roisin and Finbar wanted a spacious landing area, so decided to replace and widen the staircase. ‘The existing staircase was very narrow and dark, but now light from the upstairs windows floods the downstairs,’ says Roisin.

The rest of the upstairs layout was kept the same, with Finbar making new doors and fitting insulated wide-planked tongue-and-groove panels in the bedrooms to make them cosier. In the bathroom, a bath was sourced to work with the original taps.

Bookcase in Irish stone cottage

An eclectic selection of books and a vintage working radio add decorative touches

Interior design

The décor has been kept neutral and the couple has filled the house with an array of finds. ‘We both have a thrifty and discerning style and have taken our time to buy things we love,’ says Roisin.

To give this endearing riverside cottage a new lease of life, Roisin and Finbar have cleverly combined modern-day living with vintage and salvage finds, meaning they’ve been able to achieve a lot on a tight budget. ‘It took a bit of planning, imagination and patience to transform this house, but it was definitely worth it in the end,’ says Roisin. ‘We now have the perfect base for walking the Wicklow Way.’

To allow more natural light into the kitchen and make the most of the garden views, Finbar enlarged the archway that leads through to the back of the house