Al­co­hol, cream and fil­let steak

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - FRONT PAGE - To book Kil­graney House, tel: (059) 977-5283, or see www.kil­graney­, or­low­gar­den­

‘I grew up on a diet of al­co­hol, cream and fil­let steak. I don’t know how I didn’t have a coro­nary by the age of 20’

‘Icouldn't find the kind of rug I wanted, so I took a piece of the cur­tain fab­ric, re­versed it and backed it with hes­sian, with a layer of car­pet felt in be­tween the two, and it does the job,” Martin Mar­ley says, as he ex­plains, very mat­ter of factly, how he put to­gether this par­tic­u­lar el­e­ment of the in­te­rior decor of the home he shares with his part­ner, Bryan Leech.

Re­source­ful­ness is a mar­vel­lous qual­ity and there can be few more re­source­ful than this pair. They both have full-time, chal­leng­ing ca­reers as col­lege lec­tur­ers, yet they also run Kil­graney House, a re­ally classy guest house, and have done so for more than 20 years. And, as if that's not enough, they have an art gallery, a wed­ding venue and a spa, too.

Into the bar­gain, they're ex­tremely mod­est types. It's only with se­ri­ous prob­ing that im­por­tant de­tails are re­vealed, such as the fact that vir­tu­ally all the fur­ni­ture in the house was de­signed by Martin, and when they can't find ex­actly what they want, they usu­ally make it them­selves. “I don't think you can af­ford to live in an old house if you're not re­source­ful,” is Martin's very prac­ti­cal ex­pla­na­tion of why he found him­self mak­ing the rug, as well as the kind of light fit­ting he wanted in the en­trance hall — it's a com­bi­na­tion of an old wrought-iron can­de­labra, some prisms from a glass chan­de­lier and var­i­ous pieces of wood.

And while Martin makes all the lovely things for the in­te­rior, as well as look­ing af­ter the spec­tac­u­lar grounds, Bryan is a dab hand at fix­ing bro­ken wash­ing ma­chines and such like. Then, in the evening, he pro­duces culi­nary magic for the guests while Martin en­ter­tains them, front of house.

In­cred­i­bly, nei­ther trained in hos­pi­tal­ity or cater­ing — both have back­grounds in de­sign. Martin, who's from Por­ta­d­own, trained in fur­ni­ture de­sign, while Bryan, who's from Wex­ford, is a prod­uct de­signer. The cou­ple met at Kilkenny De­sign Work­shops in 1981, when both were taken on as young grad­u­ates. It was the first job out of col­lege for each. Martin de­signed fur­ni­ture, while Bryan did key­boards, tele­phones and med­i­cal equip­ment. “It was a re­ally good train­ing scheme for young grad­u­ates, with the op­por­tu­nity to work in Ire­land with Ir­ish man­u­fac­tur­ers,” Martin notes.

A few years into the job, Kilkenny de­cided to send some of its staff over­seas as con­sul­tants and Martin was the first to go. He was sent to the Philip­pines and, over the fol­low­ing seven years, he spent long stints there. To­wards the end of the seven years, Bryan joined him.

In the mean­time, they had left Kilkenny and worked as in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tants in their re­spec­tive fields in dif­fer­ent de­vel­op­ing coun­tries — Martin in Pak­istan, Malaysia, Kosovo, Viet­nam and Bar­ba­dos, while Bryan went to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. In the early Nineties, both be­came lec­tur­ers, Martin in Dun Laoghaire In­sti­tute of Art, De­sign and Tech­nol­ogy (IADT), where he runs the stage-and-screen course, de­voted to pro­duc­tion, make-up and cos­tume de­sign, while Bryan lec­tures in prod­uct de­sign at Car­low In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

They bought their home, Kil­graney House, in Car­low, in 1992. “My mother had died in ’91. Af­ter that, I had a cer­tain de­sire to have a home. I had an apart­ment in Dublin, but it wasn't a proper home,” says Martin. “We started to look in Wick­low, but even back then it was too ex­pen­sive. Bryan was from En­nis­cor­thy, we both knew Kilkenny, so we started to look in this area.”

And so they found Kil­graney, which is an un­usual coun­try house. Part of it is a farm­house dat­ing from 1750, with small rooms and low ceil­ings, while an 1820 ad­di­tion is high-ceilinged and quite grand. When they bought it, it was in poor con­di­tion. “It had been the home of the county sher­iff and in the Twen­ties had been burned down dur­ing the civil war,” Brian ex­plains. “The burnt part had been re­built, but the other part had de­cayed, so new plumb­ing was needed and rewiring, a new roof and some new floors.” Martin adds: “We did all the paint­ing and dec­o­rat­ing our­selves; friends helped — we didn't have much money. Bryan's mother stripped the paint off the stairs.”

One thing that wasn't needed was fur­ni­ture. They had all they needed them­selves — from the Philip­pines. When Martin had gone there, part of his role was to de­sign fur­ni­ture, which was to be man­u­fac­tured there. “When we came back, we brought a con­tainer of

pieces back with us which we planned to sell. But things were dread­ful here and, any­way, no one was in­ter­ested in any­thing that was seen as eth­nic,” he says. “We sold a few pieces, but they didn't re­ally move.”

In­stead, they were able to fill the house with all the lovely in­laid side ta­bles, chests and wardrobes they brought back — and, as a re­sult, all the rooms are in­ter­est­ingly fur­nished with eclec­tic pieces made from un­usual ma­te­ri­als such as co­conut shell.

There are six bed­rooms for guests, all en suite. The only room that looks in any way ho­tel-like is the din­ing room. “We al­ways said we want to keep our house a home,” says Bryan. It's a home they share with their adored Shar bull­dogs — a cross be­tween a Shar Pei and a bull ter­rier — Wol­s­ley and Reilly. “Bryan loves cars — our last two dogs were Mor­gan and Bent­ley,” Martin notes with a laugh.

They opened the house to guests in 1994 and since then Kil­graney has made its name in sev­eral ways. For a start, it's con­sid­ered a great es­cape from the kids — “no kids al­lowed,” Martin, who is a dead ringer for Robert De Niro, in­sists. “Peo­ple want to get away from their kids and so they cer­tainly don't want to face other peo­ple's chil­dren when they get here.” It also has built up a rep­u­ta­tion for its cui­sine. “When we first opened, no one came to Car­low for Car­low's sake,” Martin ex­plains. “So we had to con­cen­trate on the food.”

Bryan does most of the cook­ing while Martin does a lit­tle of it, in­clud­ing the fa­mous or­ange pan­cakes, some­thing of a sore point with Bryan. “Ev­ery­one says, ‘Oooh, I can't wait for the pan­cakes’. No one says, ‘I can't wait for din­ner',” he com­plains.

In truth, his seven-course din­ner is renowned and while he had no for­mal train­ing — “We didn't do Bal­ly­maloe,” Bryan de­clares de­fi­antly — it tran­spires he was reared by a woman who was some­thing of a le­gend her­self in the world of cook­ing. The Myr­tle Allen of Wex­ford, if you will. His mother, Ma­bel Leech, was a sheep farmer who turned her home into a farm­house-guest­house af­ter her hus­band died, when Bryan was 11 — Martin's fa­ther had died when he was nine and he, too, is from a farm­ing back­ground. Ma­bel did such a good job that Bord Failte made a point of send­ing VIPs to stay with her. Au­thors Wil­bur Smith and Les­lie Char­teris were two such no­ta­bles. Her cook­ing was fa­mous and Bryan be­gan to learn from her from an early age. “I grew up on a diet of

al­co­hol, cream and fil­let steak. She was a great be­liever in al­co­hol in cook­ing. I don't know how I didn't have a coro­nary at 20,” Bryan says air­ily, adding: “She col­lected mag­a­zines and she would put notes on all the recipes she had tried in them, say­ing things like, ‘This would be bet­ter if you did it this way in­stead’ — analysing them. Ac­tu­ally, I was cook­ing from an early age. When­ever Mum dis­ap­peared, I hit the kitchen.”

Ma­bel — her full name was Ma­bel Hen­ri­etta and the cou­ple re­ferred to her as HM — was a great help to them and both were dis­con­so­late when she died of can­cer two years ago. In her hon­our, they have cul­ti­vated an on­col­ogy gar­den stocked with all sorts of herbs known to be help­ful in the fight against can­cer. There's also a gar­den seat with her name.

The gar­den is an im­por­tant part of Kil­graney and it’s some­thing the cou­ple is very happy to share. They’re mem­bers of the Car­low Gar­den Trail and they run gar­den­ing cour­ses through­out the year ti­tled “Grow Your Own Din­ner” and “The Veg­etable Diary”.

Other re­cent ad­di­tions in­clude the wed­ding cer­e­mony room, which the cou­ple made use of them­selves when they for­mally com­mit­ted to one an­other last year. “We had the civil cer­e­mony to tie up the le­gal ends,” says Bryan, prag­mat­i­cally. “And to get our fam­i­lies to­gether be­fore we're six feet un­der.” An­other ad­di­tion is the gallery and they've made use of this them­selves, too, or at least Martin has. It tran­spires he's an ex­tremely tal­ented ce­ra­macist and he's had a few shows. He says with a laugh that he's build­ing it up for his re­tire­ment. And, yes, Bryan is also de­vel­op­ing a side­line. “He's very in­ter­ested in hand-made watches and he's done some very in­ter­est­ing projects along those lines with his stu­dents. He wants to make a watch,” Martin says.

There's only one an­swer to that. Where will he get the time?

Top right

The at­mo­spheric din­ing room, where guests en­joy Bryan's renowned seven-course din­ner. Martin and Bryan op­er­ate a strict ‘no chil­dren' pol­icy, so guests can be as­sured of a real break away from the hurly burly of home life.

Mid­dle right One of the six ex­ot­i­cally dec­o­rated bed­rooms. The chairs made of sea grass were de­signed by Martin and are called Mar­i­lyn chairs, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons.

Left The hall is painted in a peach-yel­low ochre wash, done 20 years ago, yet still look­ing good. Fur­ni­ture in­cludes the Bie­der­meierin­spired pedestals de­signed by Martin; the cherubs are from the Philip­pines. Above Martin Mar­ley and Bryan Leech with their two Shar bull­dogs Wol­s­ley and Reilly. Be­hind is their home Kil­graney in Co Car­low. The house started as a sim­ple farm­house in 1750, but a grand ex­ten­sion was added in 1820

Bot­tom right A de­tail of an­other of the bed­rooms

Top Martin and Bryan in their draw­ing room; the pink leather so­fas are from Kube in Sandy­ford. ‘We wanted low, minimalist so­fas,’ says Martin. The rug, which matches the cur­tains, was made by Martin, who says he just backed cur­tain fab­ric with car­pet felt and hes­sian

Above left The chan­de­lier in the hall is made from an eclec­tic col­lec­tion of pieces, in­clud­ing an­tique prisms and pieces of wood

Above right The cream and mauve bed­room, which fea­tures an old piece of beaded fab­ric from Burma over the bed

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