March 16, 2010

Kilgallan, Ireland – A Church Conversion

Last year, on St. Patrick’s Day, I wrote about my favourite TV show in the UK, called Grand Design. One of the episodes that I watched several times was about an architect and his family who converted a shell of a church to stunning vacation retreat. I was contacted by the architect, Andrew Lohan, several months ago, and he kindly agreed to tell the story of the Kilgallan Church. Here’s Andrew…kilgallan 1

When we were persuaded by friends, on a weekend trip to the West of Ireland to take a look at a roofless ruined church, little did we know what lay ahead of us. With two young children, and busy careers, taking on a ruin certainly was not part of our plans. But what a ruin!

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Neither of us mentioned it over the weekend but when we got close to the turnoff on our way back that Monday we both turned to each other - we just had to take another look - and, as we sat on the window sills looking across the trees growing inside, and up at the stone of the belltower, we were converted. By the time we got back to Dublin three hours later, we had designed our dream home, called our lawyer and instructed him to make an offer. It took a few months, but by the spring 0f 1999 we owned an 1835 ex-Church of Ireland, derelict, roofless, shell on an acre of ground, complete with five picturesque gravestones. Oh joy!

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As an Architect I know that restoration is hard. Hidden problems cost money and are by their nature unexpected. And common. Luckily there was so little left of the church that all the possible defects were very readily apparent! And converting churches into homes is harder. The smaller spaces required for living, sleeping and washing mean carving up the big space, and having upper floors cut across the windows.

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kilgallan 9x We tried lots of layouts, but in the end, as usual, the solution was the simple one we had first thought of: keep the full height of the church and the belltower on view at the entrance end, the full height of the altar windows open at the other end and stack the smaller spaces together in the middle. kilgallan 15 Sounds clinical? Far from it - the sense of space is wonderful, with the old stone walls, tall gothic windows, high ceilings, and exposed timber roof sailing over everything. kilgallan 10 The “legs” of the stone belltower stride into the living room, drawing your eye up its full height past two galleries, through the roof glazing to the stone cupola. The views constantly change as you walk around the building up the stair, through the tower and across the bridge linking to the bedrooms.

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At the other end of the Church the three altar windows dominate the dining hall and kitchen, with a big fireplace surround and wood burning stove underneath the high sills.

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An oversized pewter candleabra sits atop the mantle. The bedrooms upstairs have Juliet balconies opening over the dining hall, with views through the big windows across the countryside.

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kilgallan 18 Before we could do any of this, we had to put the budget together to let us start and finish the restoration in one step, allowing us to holiday let the building to help pay the mortgage. We had to repair the dangerously unstable belltower (hit by lightning in 1901 when the church was abandoned) repair the stonework, put on a new roof, and fit new windows. kilgallan 28 We resurrected and re-roofed the empty shell using traditional methods and materials, lime mortar, stone, brick and natural slate, before building an independent timber “box” in the centre, to house the 4 bedrooms. Padraic, our remarkably dedicated contractor spent weeks re-pointing the stone joints alone. We wanted the work to be honest, so the old fabric of the building is retained and exposed, with the historical layers and fragments of internal plaster visible. The new materials and finishes are equivalent to the original, but are not concealed, the new work can be seen in the whiter mortar, the newer stone, the shaded brick. The overlaid layers of history in the building are preserved and legible.

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The new walls and joinery within the space are painted in a restricted palette of whites and grey-greens, with the main feature wall, along with the ‘totem’ wall supporting the staircase is in red . These all contrast beautifully with the stone and the oak floors. (The dark grey green on the doors and fireplace is quaintly named Farrow & Ball’s Mouse’s Back.) The rafters and redwood roof sarking boards are left bare to balance the blue-grey of the old limestone, which is also softened by the cream colour of the lime mortar and buff brick used for the repairs.kilgallan 21 kilgallan 22

Hard as it was to complete (due to the meagre budget we had to get our hands dirty doing some of the work ourselves!) it’s a place that we love to visit, and to share. (Click here for more information about the Kilgallan Church, including how to rent the Church.)

And far from learning our lesson, a couple of years later we did all it again, converting a nearby 1926 traditional 4-room Schoolhouse complete with two front doors, one for boys and one for girls.

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All we need now is an old pub and we’ll have a whole village! See you there for Paddy’s Day!

Jackie & Andrew Lohan, Dublin 2010

Thanks so much to Jackie and Andrew for sharing the story about their amazing restorations! Sláinte!


  1. Truly amazing! How great that you got to post this story.

  2. This is a perfect post for St. Patrick's Day. Thanks Meg for this update on this massive renovation project. I saw the original episode on Grand Design when I was living in Australia. How fun it would be to stay there. Is the school an accomodation as well?


  3. I think that the school is available!

  4. What an amazing restoration! Jackie and Andrew certainly brought that gorgeous old church back to life. And how wonderful that they restored the school as well! I would love to stay at either of these beautiful properties!

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us Meg!

    Kat :)

  5. Such a fascinating post to see the process, and what a beautiful outcome.

  6. Amazing story--this couple are true adventurers!! To put the church back together was a real feat and they make it sound so easy. Thanks--especially since I am 95% Irish.

  7. Meg this is an amazing attribute to these builders off such historical proportion!!

    Art by Karena

  8. How wonderful. We are so fortunate that there are people like the Lohans all over the world willing to take on such labors of love. Beautiful, beautiful work.

  9. Thank you Meg for posting and thank you to Jackie and Andrew for sharing this magnificent transformation. The process was great fun to see and read. You were incredibly brave and I applaud anyone who saves a building as historically significant such as this. You both really are "blessed"!

    Happy St. Patrick's Day indeed.

  10. oh my!! what an amazing place!!!

  11. This is so inspiring! I love seeing these old building being recycled in such a glorious way.

  12. Meg,
    Such a nice St Patrick's day post. The Lohan's are folks with vision, and not a bit afraid of a challenge. I read all the links, great of them and you to share the story.

  13. wow, this is amazing and incredible. I love old churches and seeing the work is fabulous. He is a talented architect. let me know when the pub opens!

  14. SUCH a great story! And a great transformation!! I have wanted to do somthing like this ever since my Mom converted a ruin of an old adobe schoolhouse near Santa Fe, N.M. This is just beautiful! Thanks Meg. :)

  15. Amazing! Perfect! Gorgeous! Incredible! Beautiful! Stunning! =) Gothic architecture is my absolute favorite, and this restoration makes me want to sing. =)

  16. Amazing! I especially love the entry. On our first trip to Ireland in 1990 my husband and I spent many hours exploring old ruins, churches, castles etc that we could just come across. My mom's cousin also has a ruined castle tower on her farm.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  17. Was cycling the Western Greenway and saw the belltower in the distance : as I cycled towards what I thought was a First Fruits Church with an unusual belltower, I noticed the velux windows in the roof and when I saw the refuse bins at the gate I knew I was looking at a very sympathetic conversion but it was only when I found your site , I realised what a transformation had been achieved: congratulations to all involved ! John Mc Cormack Wexford


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