There is an elevated bend in the road as you drive through Ardfield in west Cork. In that moment, the trees and hedgerows part ways and a dramatic sea view is revealed. On a sunny day, the ocean glistens and Galley Head sits proudly in the distance. It is a beautiful sight, one that guarantees goosebumps.
“I remember exhaling ‘wow’ the first time I saw it,” says Kela Hodgins pensively.
It was 2013 and she and her husband Stephen were on a little adventure, taking a voyeuristic view of a house up for sale. However, Dunowen House is no ordinary house and this was no ordinary purchase.
Set on four acres of land, Dunowen House is a beautiful eight-bedroom 18th century house and when the couple viewed it, there was also a cottage, a barn, mature gardens and an orchard. Within 10 minutes’ drive, there are five beaches.
Stephen and Kela peered at Dunowen House from the driveway and arranged a viewing for the following week.
“After the viewing, we stood on the path, looked back at the house and I said to Kela, ‘Are we going to do this?’ Within two weeks, the for-sale sign was in our front garden,” Stephen recalls, still almost giddy with excitement. Kela on the other hand is a lot quieter. “I was definitely more hesitant,” she reveals. “We were changing our whole life.”
Their old life
As much as Dunowen is no ordinary house, this was no ordinary house purchase. Stephen and Kela are both born and bred Dubs and up until that point in their life, their story was quite normal. Kela says: “We met in work, dated, got married, bought a house, had three beautiful children – Ben (22), Thea (20) and Lucy (12) – bought a bigger house in Blackrock.
“We worked hard. I was in marketing and over the years did consultancy work and lecturing in Smurfit College. Stephen was in company management, mostly for finance and insurance businesses. Our story was no different to many other families.”
But Stephen admits he wasn’t happy, specifically in his job. “Everyday was the same. Get up, battle your way into the city centre, sit behind a desk, eat the same sandwich for lunch, get stuck in traffic on the way home. I was sick of the rat race.
“Of course, over the years, we’d have dreamy conversations about moving to the country but we never really took it seriously,” he says.
During a holiday in Spain, that changed. “I had enough. I said to Kela, ‘I’ve spent 25 years sitting behind a desk, I don’t want to do it for another 15.’ So we both agreed we’d look into it properly.”
That was the summer of 2013. Neither could have anticipated, however, that by the end of that year, their lives would have changed completely.
“We saw a property for sale called Inchydoney House so we planned a night away, the two of us, to take a look. It wasn’t for us, but we said while we’re down here we’ll see what else is for sale and we saw Dunowen House. That was it, as soon as we viewed it, we fell in love. Our plan from the very start was to give up our jobs, build a house on the land and make a living out of Dunowen as a luxury self-catering experience.
“That’s a whirlwind,” I say in shock.
“Try living it,” they reply laughing.
“The timing was right,” Kela explains. “The market had taken off in Dublin but it still hadn’t picked up in west Cork, so we sold our own house for a decent amount and then bought here for a good price.”
Did they ever have any doubts? “Oh yes, I definitely questioned it,” says Kela. “We had a beautiful house in Dublin that we had just renovated, the kids were happy in school. I remember at the time, people saying, ‘Wow, you’re so brave,’ but really what they were saying was, ‘Wow, you’re mad.’
“But we knew,” she finishes quietly.
“We knew,” agrees Stephen looking at his wife. “We could see it. We could see the potential, we could see that we could make it into a beautiful place for people to stay, we could see the lifestyle we would have down here, living in the countryside, by the sea.”
Rich in history
Dunowen House certainly had potential to be really great again. Explaining its history Stephen says: “It was built in the 1771 by Captain George Sands and it had multiple owners over the decades, the most famous being Noel Redding, bass guitarist with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He bought it in 1973 and the story goes that he was suffering from burnout. He and his girlfriend Carol Appleby decided they wanted out of the rock ‘n roll world. They put a pin in a map and it landed on west Cork and that’s how he ended up here in Dunowen House.
“Apart from reroofing though, he didn’t invest much in the house during his 30-year tenure. When he died in 2003, the house needed a lot of work and a consortium of owners, some of whom were in the music industry bought it and did extensive work.
“However, they couldn’t reach an agreement on what they wanted for the house and a few years later, it went up for sale again.”
“It actually went on and off the market for a few years,” says Kela. “I think it was waiting for us.”
When the couple arrived in 2013, the house itself was in a good place.
“We had huge confidence in the house, it’s not just that it’s beautiful, it has a great atmosphere. As soon as you walk in the front door, there is a great vibe off it.”
The rest however, was more challenging, he says. “There was an old cottage and we had to renovate that fast. The plan was to have that as a separate smaller holiday home but in the interim, it was where we lived so we could welcome guests into the main house that summer and start earning an income.”
Today, it is a beautiful contemporary three-bedroom cottage alive with character but back then, the couple describe it as a poky grim, old building.
Stephen says: “The vision that Edge Architects in Clonakilty had for the space was amazing so as soon as it was completed, we had him move onto the next project, the barn that would eventually become our family home.”
It may have been a barn with trees growing in the space that is their sitting room but, now Stephen and Kela’s house is nothing short of stunning. A long building, all the internal walls are original creating a beautiful fusion of the old and the new.
Since January 2016, when the family moved into their current house, Dunowen House and the accompanying cottage has been welcoming guests from all over the world. Stephen explains: “We love it, we’ve created the kind of holiday experience for people that we wanted ourselves.
“We’ve been so well supported by guests and repeat visitors and the community. Becoming part of Ireland’s Blue Book was a huge coup, a recognition that what we had done, we had done well. It has definitely helped get our name out there and gave an assurance to visitors about the kind of luxury experience they would have here.”
Kela adds: “We’ve welcomed families celebrating milestone birthdays, friends getting away together, lots of luxury hen parties and we’ve also hosted quite a few weddings. Our first wedding was 128 people,” they say laughing. “It was fantastic but really the house is more suited to smaller weddings. Although the pandemic has been really difficult, we’re hosting 10 weddings this year, all small and intimate. And they have been so enjoyable because couples and their families are so happy to be celebrating this special day. There is such a beautiful atmosphere in the house on a wedding day.”
It’s not just the location and the house that lends itself to a beautiful wedding, Kela is an excellent cook and baker. Her weekly #cakemonday slot on Instagram has quite a following and guests are also treated to her talents.
“Everyone arrives to freshly made scones and it’s a real treat after a long journey but at the moment, especially with the outdoor dining situation in restaurants, a lot of guests are adding meals onto their stay.
“For example, our guests have requested a meal tonight. So I am cooking beef bourguignon with beef that I got in O’Neills Butchers in Clonakilty and potatoes and vegetables from our garden. There is also an option of hake that Stephen picked up this morning from Glenmar in Union Hall. For dessert it’s raspberry frangipane.”
Not surprisingly, the pandemic has been very hard on their business.
Kela says: “It was shocking, that is the only way to describe it. Like so many others, overnight, our business closed. We didn’t know when it was going to open again, what supports were available.
“We were dealing with guests who were stressed and we were refunding deposits. There was a time when I thought, we’re not going to have any money.
“Thankfully, Stephen still does some consultancy work and we ended up having a great summer with Irish guests last year. But it has been difficult, being closed for 12 out of the last 18 months.”
What has kept them going though is the nature that surrounds them, the west Cork lifestyle and the community. “Even in the depths of winter, we would walk to Galley Head or I would go to Red Strand for a swim and wave to the locals,” says Kela.
Stephen adds: “If we stayed in Dublin, I would still be stuck behind a desk but every day is different here. Sometimes I do the garden, other days I am fixing something in the house. Kela is baking, the kids are happy. Ten years ago, we had never been to west Cork, now we wouldn’t be anywhere else.”