Kate O’Brien House begins a new chapter

KOB house watchI’m sad to announce the demise of a regular (okay, irregular but still present) item on the blog—Kate O’Brien House Watch.

The need for progress reports is over because, in a hugely positive development, people are living there now so it’d be creepy to carry on. Not that I ever used binoculars or anything! It’s actually hard not to notice Boru House on Mulgrave Street because it’s quite distinctive.

21519001_1The imposing childhood home of celebrated Limerick writer, Kate O’Brien, has had quite the journey over its life to date. Built in 1880, it’s a stunning piece of architecture—a huge, detached, two storey, red-brick Victorian house with lots of period features (see more pics of it in better condition here).

I don’t live far from there and I’ve spent nearly two decades walking past it so I couldn’t help but see a gradual deterioration in its condition over time. It was put up for sale and I assumed that no-one was living in it full time anymore.

KOB house-best Like many vacant houses, it became a target for vandalism, illegal dumping and maybe even squatting and other anti-social behaviour. It was damaged by a fire (or fires) and I really thought it would be razed to the ground some night. I did a post in 2011 showing it at an all time low.

For years, it has been the subject of attention from local politicians, people involved in the arts scene and media. Limerick Civic Trust appealed for it to be preserved and possibly turned into a museum about the author. A relative of the former owners (a conservation architect) even weighed in, offering to investigate options for its preservation and use. There were a lot of suggestions that it should have a cultural or civic use. See archived articles/features about the house/author here.

KOB House-newBut unfortunately, nothing much happened until it was sold in 2012 for around €80,000-85,000 to a private buyer. From then on, the outward appearance of the building started to change and improve. There were tradesmen about the place working. The fading red of the gates and decorative metal railings was painted over with a deep blue. Glass appeared in the windows again. Things were looking up.

Then, when blinds and furniture appeared it was obvious that people were living there, which was another step forward after so many years sitting empty. For all the suggestions put forward, it seems it is destined to be someone’s home again.

IMG_0434IMG_0436In fact, the house is split into apartments. I randomly came across a listing for the two bedroom ground floor flat on the property website, Daft.ie. I’ve included a few screenshots so you get the gist of what the interior is like. It looks like a very sympathetic restoration.


IMG_0435It looks like many of the original features of the house have been maintained but some aspects have been modernised i.e. you’d rather that the all important bathroom and kitchen facilities wouldn’t be Victorian-inspired!

Anyways, it’s great to see Boru House restored. Any tenants are lucky to be living in a house with such a rich past. Kate O’Brien was born there in 1897 and no doubt, had experiences/memories that were put to good use in her stories and perhaps even cultivated her writing skills as a young woman there. Hopefully, this important piece of Limerick history will now be preserved for generations to come. Now, much like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, my watch is over.

Work progressing on Kate O’Brien house

KOB house watchRenovations are progressing at the childhood home of famous Limerick writer, Kate O’Brien, with some more visible changes over the last fortnight.

Since I live nearby and pass regularly, I hated seeing Boru House go from a regal landmark to a house in a poorer and poorer state of disrepair.


Vandalism and minor fires made things worse and it seemed as if it would go to rack and ruin. I wrote about it several times in posts, here and here.

KOB house-bestIt was bought in January 2012 and soon after, the most obvious exterior revamp was the railings and gates being painted a dark blue—covering up the bright red. I also saw some work being carried out on the cornice on the imposing bay window. The newest additions are windows on the upper floors, which make a super change from the ugly hoarding. There is also work being done on the striking exterior stone masonry features and pillars.

KOB House-newIt was revealed in May in The Limerick Leader that the buyer was Ballysimon born businessman, David Maxwell Fitzgerald. Originally put on the market for €350,000 five years ago, he seemingly paid €80,000 for it.

Anyone anxious about the fate of Boru House surely breathed a sigh of relief when it emerged Mr Maxwell Fitzgerald is a former chairman of the local branch of heritage body, An Taisce and a long time member of the Georgian Society.

He said there is no rush to find the house’s purpose, “it will have a reason to be and we are engaging with some very interesting people on this”. He added that thankfully, the house was structurally sound and the roof was in a very good condition.

New insulation, replacing windows and doors and repairing damage is also on the renovation programme. I spotted some beautiful fireplaces through the windows and I have it on good authority that there are some great period features in the house. The 3,000 square feet includes seven bedrooms and four extra rooms in the attic.

It would make a lovely addition to the cultural offering here as perhaps a literary museum, library or writing centre. But whatever the purpose, I hope it will be used and/or lived in…did I mention I’m available as a house-sitter?! Annnnnyway, I look forward to seeing the activity continue and will apply my uncanny skills as a spy/stalker to keep readers updated.

Heaney draws the crowds at Kate O’Brien Weekend

The 28th Kate O’Brien Weekend rounded off very successfully with a reading by Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, to a packed auditorium in Mary Immaculate College today (Feb 26). I discuss it further down.
Firstly, there is an update on Kate O’Brien’s former home, Boru House. Mayor Jim Long announced that it was to be restored and turned into a writers’ centre. No-one could tell me definitively, however, whether the purchaser was a private individual or the local authority. It may even be a partnership of some type. The irony of the event’s theme ‘Tell it slant” isn’t lost on me! But the important thing is that it’ll be preserved. It is obvious, judging by the strong attendance at the weekend, that the city’s literary history has a certain appeal.
The weekend involved lectures, discussions and recitals. It was well organised as always, drawing a big crowd and featuring a broad range of participants. I went to several talks/readings on Saturday.
Leading sociologist, Dr Niamh Hourigan, gave a very interesting presentation on the concepts of intimacy and integrity in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. We have two conflicting moralities. She spoke at length about the role that colonisation had in shaping our modern culture and society. She even put forward an explanation of why the Irish political system depends so much on favours and funerals. Her research is still in progress and I’d say the finished product will be a compelling read.
Heaney n KOB 2 copy
Seamus Heaney reads under the stern gaze of Kate O’Brien
The poet, Katherine Towers, delivered a lovely reading of her work. Her poetry had strong natural themes running through it but I preferred her pieces about music. She said someone had told her once “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Well I don’t agree and thankfully she doesn’t either because otherwise she wouldn’t have written poems like ‘Counterpoint’ and ‘The Glass Piano’. Most of the vocabulary of music, unsurprisingly, has great sounds and Towers harnesses that language to great effect.
Novelist John Boyne read from his latest novel, The Absolutist. He spoke briefly about writing in general beforehand; his best piece of advice was probably that there is no set place that writers get ideas but they have to be open to ideas; recognise the good ones and grab them! The novel deals with the tricky subject of a conscientious objector during World War told from the viewpoint of his best friend. Boyne is a fine writer and an engaging reader. I’m definitely going to get the book on the strength of the reading.
Frank McNally, who writes the brilliant ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in The Irish Times, drew comparisons between Flann O’Brien and Kate O’Brien, or “the two extremes of 20th century Irish literature” as he described them. His talk was as witty as the column, although he pointed out that Kate O’Brien rarely used humour in her work…where Flann couldn’t see the serious side of things.
Seamus Heaney
Heaney 2
The closing event was The Kate O’Brien Lecture, which took the form of a reading by Seamus Heaney but he also spoke about how the poems he selected came about and his personal experiences. Heaney is to Irish literature what Bono is to Irish rock music in his ability to draw a crowd, and hold it totally in thrall. The new Lime Tree Theatre was full to its 500+ capacity and with all types of people, from kids to the elderly, such is the universal appeal of his work.
He read several poems about Spain because O’Brien had close links with the country. ‘The Little Canticles of Asturias’ was particularly interesting. His writings about his childhood tend to strike a chord with a lot of people. He read, Mossbawn: Sunlight, which is one of my favourites. It’s a beautiful tribute to his aunt in a description of her baking: “And here is love like a tinsmith’s scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin”. The little miracles of household chores were also present in two sonnets about his mother, which describe peeling potatoes and folding sheets. Their closeness is apparent in every word.
The love poem, ‘Tate’s Avenue’, is another study of intimacy. ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, about Heaney’s stroke several years ago, is very evocative. He describes the “bone-shaking” ambulance journey with his wife looking on, worried. One line resonated: “We might, O my love, have quoted Donne/On love on hold, body and soul apart.” It was a diverse cross-section of his work. ‘Out of the bag’ was an unexpected delight. It’s a poem about how a young Heaney thought the local doctor brought babies in his big bag and his surgery must be full of baby body parts…sounds perverse but it’s funny when you hear it! Another poem that people seemed to respond to was ‘Peacock’s Feather’, written as a christening present for his wife’s niece. You can hear the reading here, courtesy of Limerick Writers’ Centre.
I saw him read once before in Mary I when I was a student there and his poetry is as powerful as ever. It was a pleasure to hear him read again. Unfortunately, he didn’t read my favourite poem of his—‘The Forge’. That’s a giant of a poem, much like the man himself.
All I know is a door into the dark,
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

Kate O’Brien house finally sold!

Boru House in Mulgrave Street
KOB house-best
The former home of Limerick novelist, Kate O’Brien, has been sold for just over the €85,000 asking price. Can I get a hallelujah?!
As I outlined in a previous post, Boru House in Mulgrave Street deteriorated rapidly after a fire over two years ago. It was a target for anti-social behaviour and was in danger of being damaged further, or destroyed completely. City councillors, Limerick Civic Trust, Limerick Writers’ Centre and many others all appealed for its preservation. Now, hopefully, someone will take on that task and bring the house back to its former glory.
Though technically derelict, it still has many of its original period features (it was built in 1880). The “substantial detached two storey red bricked residential building” spans 3,000 square feet and has six bedrooms. Many civic uses have been suggested but it would also make a gorgeous home if restored.  
I don’t know who the buyer is; he/she wasn’t named in The Sunday Times Home supplement item. Auctioneers de Courcy’s turned down an offer of €75,000 for the property in early December. Before property values crashed, the house and the parcel of land behind it were on sale for €1.4 million. The house was valued at €350,000 at the time—a far cry from €85,000.
The timing of the sale is impeccable because the 28th Kate O’Brien Weekend will take place next month, February 24-26. This year’s theme is ‘Tell it slant’ (from the Emily Dickinson poem,which starts “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant…”) All the events are on in the Belltable, including a music recital, lectures and discussions. The weekend doesn’t just focus on the author’s work but also on society and culture. This year’s speakers include Nobel prize-winner, Séamus Heaney; author, John Boyne; IrishTimes journalist, Frank McNally and sociologist, Dr Niamh Hourigan. A voluntary committee organises the whole weekend and it is always a stimulating, creative programme.
Kate O’Brien wrote novels such as The Ante Room, Mary Lavelle and The Land of Spices. The latter two were banned for references to homosexuality so she was considered an early feminist. She lived in Spain for a time and wrote a book about Theresa of Avila,among other subjects. Two Spanish towns have named streets in her honour.
The full programme is available here and for more information, see www.kateobrienweekend.com.  

Kate O’Brien house in a bad state

KOB house watchTo mark International Women’s Day, I want to highlight the plight of the former home of famous Limerick writer, Kate O’Brien.

O’Brien was a groundbreaking author of her time and to add to her feminist street-cred, has had books banned because she wrote about homosexuality (‘Mary Lavelle’ and ‘The Land of Spices’). She lived in Spain for a few years and wrote some books on Spanish subjects including ‘Theresa of Avila’. The Spanish town of Gotarrendura even named a street after her. The Kate O’Brien Weekend, held in Limerick every February, has been going on since 1984 and attracts some very prominent speakers and visitors. The Glucksman Library at UL has a large collection of O’Brien’s personal writings. The recent play, ‘Anything But Love’, was based on O’Brien’s ‘The Ante Room’…the list goes on.

Rubbish 2Unfortunately, probably like herself, her childhood home on Mulgrave Street in Limerick has gotten more than its fair share of abuse. It has been vacant for several years and like a lot of empty buildings, it became a target for anti-social behaviour. It started with a few broken windows and graffiti but then it was set on fire about two years ago, damaging a lot of the interior. Now the downstairs windows and doors on the imposing red-brick house are blocked up with metal sheeting; the external features are crumbling; the garden is covered in rubbish and it is a haven for illegal drinking (and possibly worse). I would guess that it’s being literally and metaphorically pissed on.

Boru House was built by Kate’s grandfather, Thomas O’Brien, in 1880. The building is of “architectural, artistic and historic interest”, according to the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH).

BEFORE picture (from the NIAH website)


KOB house-bestIt has been brought up umpteen times at city council meetings (and I should know because I reported on them for three years) but while the council contacted the owners with concerns, there’s very little the local authority can do about it. A few councillors wanted the council to lease or buy the house to preserve it and use it as a library or writers’ centre. But the last time the house was on the market the asking price was €1.4 million—beyond what the council could pay. There was also talk once of the council trying to take over the ownership under laws on derelict properties. It was decided not to take such drastic action at the time.

A relative of thKOB 3-best copye owners and conservation architect, Thomas Quinlan, has emphasised the potential of the house if restored—highlighting that in the local press and setting up a website. Appeals from former mayors, Limerick Civic Trust and the organising committee of the honorary weekend have fallen on deaf ears.

At the moment, it seems that the house is in limbo and at risk of deteriorating further. If it gets razed to the ground, it’ll be gone forever whereas if restored it will preserve a piece of Limerick’s literary and social history. I live nearby and every time I pass it, I think what a waste it is. I hope that someone will take on the challenge some day soon.