MY FAVOURITE ROOM
Alcohol, cream and fillet steak
‘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?
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