The house whisperer: 'I sit down alone and I ask the house to tell me what it wants'

A Galway businesswoman and interiors expert has an unorthodox method of designing a room, and it works brilliantly

Easter McDonagh. Photo by Peter Harkin

48 Shrewsbury Park off Shrewsbury Road, Ballsbridge

The conservatory room leading to the garden

The exterior of 48 Shrewsbury Park off Shrewsbury Road in Dublin’s Ballsbridge

A view of the main reception

One of the double bedrooms

A view of the hallway from the balcony

The garden with patio

Another view of the stairs and balcony

One of the bathrooms

Mark Keenan

48 Shrewsbury Park, off Shrewsbury Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4

Asking price: €1m Agent: Owen Reilly (01) 677 7100

Easter McDonagh has an unorthodox take on interior design: “I sit down alone and I ask the house to tell me what it wants. And I listen. Eventually it tells me.

“I’m a firm believer that every building has a spirit and that every room can tell you what is needs. The problem with many interior designers today is that only a handful of them actually listen so they can get that benefit.”

48 Shrewsbury Park off Shrewsbury Road, Ballsbridge

Easter (born on Good Friday and christened on the Sunday) has been an on and off interior designer for hotels and grand homes around Ireland for decades.

While most of her design projects have related to the Galway City based McDonagh family’s hospitality and property interests, many more have been undertaken following requests from those who have encountered the former and decided they wanted the canny designer’s eye cast over their private homes.

The conservatory room leading to the garden

Today McDonagh’s rooms can be found all around Galway City and throughout Dublin’s leafier lanes. Meantime she has also been sought out by corporates like Guinness. Right now however, she’s preparing to head to Florida with her son Cormac in search of a large private house with a difference. “I’m going to turn it into a unique country house boutique hotel. I don’t have any particular properties in mind just yet. I’ll know the one when I find it.”

And she admits that spending a few months house hunting in Florida might not be too much of a trial. “I plan to move out there eventually to manage it.”

The exterior of 48 Shrewsbury Park off Shrewsbury Road in Dublin’s Ballsbridge

Easter hails from the business family which developed the Spanish Arch Hotel (now The Residence), a scheme which preserved the site’s medieval convent frontage which is an integral characteristic of the city’s renowned Quay Street stretch.

Easter designed all its interiors from its 20 guest rooms to its two bars (for one, she sourced jaw-dropping antique panelling that once stood in the boudoir of the famous royal mistress Lillie Langtry).

A view of the main reception

The shopping haul back from the UK trip alone undertaken to decorate the Spanish Arch filled two 40-foot lorry containers. The hotel and bars were later sold on by the family.

Awarded a scholarship to a prestigious London interior design school back in the day, she returned to Ireland after whispered advice from its principal who asserted that formal training would jaundice her unusual natural eye.

One of the double bedrooms

And while it might sound esoteric, McDonagh’s ‘house whispering’ philosophy pares down to a baldly practical tenet: each home is different and has its own unique features and requirements. Therefore you’re much better off starting with what suits the home — and then try to marry this with what suits you; rather than do it the other way around.

“Otherwise you’re just wasting your time, the whole lot is forced and it doesn’t ever work or sit well,” says McDonagh.

A view of the hallway from the balcony

The second pearl of advice she has for those preparing to design a room is to ignore fashion and trends. Entirely.

“Avoid what’s in vogue. What’s in today is out tomorrow. But if you go for classic pieces and looks, they’ll look as good in 15 years as they do today.”

A case in point is the house she overhauled and redesigned at 48 Shrewsbury Park off Merrion Road in Dublin’s Ballsbridge and facing the top of Shrewsbury Road.

The gated scheme was constructed pre Tiger in 1989 by the award-winning firm of Sheelin McSharry. It was wise to the needs of older couples trading down from the area’s extra large period homes as well as a younger generation who couldn’t quite afford them.

The McDonaghs acquired the house 15 years ago as a base for the family for Dublin trips. Inevitably Easter was charged with resurrecting it.

“It was a kip and very dated. So I did what I always do. I sat down and I watched and I looked and I listened for it to tell me what it wanted. Soon I realised it was telling me it wanted to look out on the garden.”

Many modern townhouse style properties developed in the 80s have problems with layout and light and No 48 was no exception.

“So the first step was to open up the rooms. We knocked the kitchen into the living area and invested in a quality Four Seasons conservatory which was imported from Canada. It’s quite amazing. It holds the heat in winter and in summer it helps keep the room cool and offers complete soundproofing. The glass self-regulates.

Another view of the stairs and balcony

“We put in a bespoke handmade kitchen and all the glass was also handmade. We installed underfloor heating and topped it with a top grade marble.”

Above the living room fireplace, where an unusually high and odd-shaped atrium space opened up above, she had a 12 ft high mirror purpose made to fit the dimensions like a glove. Reflecting light back into the room, it adds to the sense of space.

In one of the bathrooms another feature mirror looks like it has been framed in striking gold and black mosaic to match the rich tiles.

“I like to modify things to suit what I’m doing. So in the bathroom I actually reused the patterned tiles that came with the set, the ones that normally make the edgings, and I made them into a frame for the mirror instead.

Another bathroom comes with a distinctive washstand supported sink with kitchen table-like legs. “I’ll see pieces that are different and I’ll buy them. That will always be interesting in any time and you won’t see it anywhere else. So again it will never date.”

One of the bathrooms

Among the other unique impact pieces is a very unusual and very large fully round art deco salon display cabinet. While the piece has enormous impact in its own right, no one else would have considered not only locating it in a bedroom, but parking it on top of a bank of fitted cupboards so its impact is raised further.

Perhaps not pc, but again wholly unique is the living room’s sumptuous mid-century, tobacco-hued alligator leather covered armchair and matching foot pouffe.

To guide the eye up the stair that winds down from the gallery she sourced a set of four matching tall cigarette card silhouettes of famous early 20th-century Irish figures.

There’s a big glass coffee table suspended on four shiny black glass orbs. We have framed Wedgewood takes on classic Japanese designs.

One of the bathrooms

The whole is a classic boutique town house with some very unusual spaces, in particular the big anchor reception room with high ceilings and Edwardianesque glazed conservatory dimensions.

Just as the house ‘told her’, there is now a clear view through to the garden via a room ending in glazed double doors with an overhead fanlight and glazed ceiling. It leads to a colourfully planted and smart bricked patio for dining outside in good weather.

If it has a top end Airbnb whiff about it, it’s because it was used for a few years for this purpose. But in latter years one of her sons has been based here. And as she says, for a visual palette prepared years ago, it holds up perfectly well today.

With Easter and her son Cormac set to head off on their travels with an eye to another venture, it’s time for them to place this house on the market.

Spanning just over 1,600 sq ft it comes with an entrance hallway, the huge open kitchen/dining room with a utility room located off it. The kitchen comes with a rugged charcoal coloured Rayburn range and Aga Companion with gas cooker and there’s a Bosch dishwasher. The utility comes with a Bosch washing machine and a Hotpoint dryer. One of the double bedrooms is downstairs with an ensuite. Upstairs there’s also a double bedroom, a bathroom, a living room and a third bedroom on a mezzanine level with its own ensuite.

The back garden has a gated side passage to the front with a driveway providing off street parking.

As regards location, this is Dublin’s swishiest. It’s the embassy belt and near the RDS, Aviva Stadium, villages Ballsbridge, Donnybrook and Sandymount with its strand. Herbert Park is close by and the city centre is within walking distance.

The McDonaghs have appointed agent Owen Reilly (01) 677 7100 to sell on their behalf and he’s asking an even €1m.

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