Caraiosa Centre – holistic cottage renovation in Co. Westmeath
It is the dream of many cottage lovers to be able to live and run a successful and rewarding business from their cottage and recently I had the good fortune to meet with a couple who have done just that. On one of the hardiest days of the year my fabulous Focus ice-skated cross country from Carlow to Moate in Co. Westmeath to visit the cottage of Helen and Brendan Doherty – better known as the Caraiosa Centre.
Everyone automatically thinks of the coastal regions of Ireland when speaking about its scenery but the midlands truly have a gentle beauty of their own. Long meandering lanes of roadways hugged by leaning trees, abundant hedgerows and scattered remnants of history – autumn is bliss in the midlands but equally on this frosty morning it was enchanting.
Moving from the City
Coming from a background in nursing and massage therapy respectively, Helen and Brendan took the plunge to relocate their entire family from their suburban lives in Bray to the wilds of Westmeath in 2005. Many people thought they were crazy, both were born and bred in the town but the idea to move had been in their minds for some time. As both were involved in very caring professions they were determined to find a space that they could live in and which would also serve as a peaceful retreat for guests. They viewed and fell in and out love with several properties before finding their ideal home in this pre-1830’s cottage.
The Urban Rural adjustment
On the first night they arrived at the cottage having packed up their lives, sold their house in Bray and landing in relative obscurity – they got their real first lesson in rural life – darkness. Unable to locate her glasses to turn on the light, Helen found that she was still wearing them but didn’t realise it as it was so dark – a stark change from the constant artificial light of suburban living. However, along with the darkness came the stars, the sound of the birds and the natural stillness of the air – something they are still intensely appreciative of today.
Another hurdle was the level of personal responsibility you have to take for your utilities in the country, from foul waste to water and rubbish disposal as all this is taken care of by urban district councils in the cities and towns. In fact even to this day the only refuse services they can access involve having to bring their bins a quarter of a mile to the top of their road for a private waste removal truck to collect. Instead they have gone back to basics – recycling and reusing most refuse and landfill for a few non recyclable items – an altogether green alternative.
Mobile phone coverage has been a major issue – the traditional deep stone walls were not designed to allow phone signals through so they have to go outside to make phone calls. Even internet access is difficult; they can only access it via satellite in one room throughout the entire centre – a small price they consider, for the peace, quiet and history that those walls bring. To be fair the last thing you want in a retreat centre is someone in the room next door shouting down a mobile phone so this issue actually adds to the natural stillness and order of the place.
What would any move to the country be without country folk yet what surprised the Doherty’s was that none of their new neighbours visited to introduce themselves in the first few weeks. They soon learned that the locals thought since they obviously came to the country for some peace and quiet and that they wouldn’t want to bother them. However, I’m sure that every detail was known about them within a day of arrival. They have since been pulled into the fold of the community as happens in rural life, though they will always be known as the Dubliners.
A work in progress
The cottage had been a work in progress for a wood craftsman before they bought it and he endeavoured to sympathetically restore the structure while adding his own craft to the mix. When the Doherty’s arrived there was still a good deal of work to be done but evidence of his creativity adds an extra special charm to the cottage. Another original quirk of the property is a stone face high up in the walls, the Doherty’s are unsure of its meaning but if anyone could help them – I’m sure they would appreciate it! Their take on him is that he watches over and protects the cottage. However, exposed pipe work, uneven flag flooring, whistling wood windows, foundation issues and an exceptionally low roofed kitchen were just some of the issues they had to deal with to get the cottage up to their standards.
After dealing with the living quarters they quickly turned their hands to the outhouses converting them into charming and character laden meditation, relaxation, advice and accommodation spaces. I loved how everything on the site was re-purposed rather than discarded from old Belfast sinks used as flowerpots to the slates with the hand drawn Irish names on every doorway. The location and shape of the buildings form the old Irish cottage farm yard – the outbuildings create a courtyard effect with the water pump in the middle – you can almost see the horse and cart pulling into the yard.
A space for reflection
Everything about the place has been carefully thought out from the ancient pagan symbolism of the St. Bridget’s Cross (very relevant today!) in the garden to the soothing flow of the fountain in the little meditation garden. The meditation room is located in one of the converted outhouses and the windows are the traditional narrow slots typical of their time and use and often used as a home for nesting birds. It is a space to relax, unwind, think and meditate. There is also a counselling room should you wish to talk, as Helen is a registered counsellor. And after you have taken care of your mind – take a trip to the massage room where Brendan offers a range of therapies.
The core ethos of the centre seems to be peace, quiet and reflection in old Ireland with comfortable modern self catering accommodation onsite. Far from only catering for individuals, they also have a cosy loft style apartment and a charming gathering room for group activities. Brendan also provides guided tours of the local historic and interesting sites.
Spiritual centre of Ireland
The eye of Ireland has long had spiritual connections and I got the feeling that the cottage has absorbed this, situated as it is ‘at the foot of Cnoc Aiste, ancient royal burial site, and close to Uisneach Hill, the mythological centre of Ireland’. The centre itself is non-denominational but to me the shapes, location and Brendan himself with his depth of knowledge on old Irish myths, traditions and stories bring you back to old Ireland. In fact the Caraiosa centre would be the ideal place to stay to experience the newly re-kindled Bealtaine festival – the Festival of the Fires on the hill of Uisneach. For more information see my earlier article on the Festival of the Fires.
I have to say a big thanks to Helen and Brendan for opening their door to me and showing me such great hospitality so that I could tell their story here. They followed their dream and didn’t let excuses like – we’ve lived in the city all our lives, we can’t uproot the children or we can afford to do something so risky. What is actually risky is never taking the chance to live your dream.
I finally set about leaving as night drew in under a broad, bright moon. Driving back around the winding country roads I was half mesmerised by the frost bitten, shimmering scenery and I could almost hear the ancient drums on the nearby hill of Uisneach. There’s definitely something magical about the midlands!