Working as a fashion buyer with a|wear and Primark, launching her own fashion line with a major Australian retailer, rubbing shoulders with royalty in Dolce and Gabbana; on paper, Una Hardiman appeared to have it all.
“I always felt the pull home,” she reflects. “I knew I hadn’t finished business here, and that I was still running away.”
Home in this case being Aughry, an historic 65-acre farm estate in Dromod, Co Leitrim that Una’s parents took on as a major renovation project, and where she has now returned to run an Airbnb.
But this is more than a business venture. Rather, it has been a deeply personal journey that has allowed Una to make peace with the past after stepping out of the rat race to return to rural Ireland to care for her father when COVID hit.
Una explains that her parents-Eugene, the local GP, and Clare, a nurse who stayed home to raise their five children- bought Aughry in the 1990s.
Situated on the Shannon, its history dates back to 1640, when Aughry Castle was first constructed by Major John Nesbitt from Scotland; though this was destroyed in 1690 by the Jacobites.
The Nesbitt family would later build Aughry House in the early 1800s, along with a walled garden and orchard. This house was knocked down and replaced by another property in the 1930s; though had been empty for 20 years when the Hardimans took it on.
Una believes her parents always craved their own patch of countryside, as her father had previously run a small farm for a short time after setting up his GP practice. For her mother, however, Aughry’s renovation was a personal project.
“She had five kids quickly together,” she reflects, “so I think it was the first opportunity for her to really explore her own creativity.”
With the help of local tradesmen, Tom and Philip Reilly, the family undertook a two-year renovation of the house and gardens, before moving in in 1996, with the farm leased locally for beef and sheep.
Una remembers fondly her mother’s pride in her place.
“To see her in that space and see her dream come true was really incredible,” she recalls.
When Una was 17, however, her mother returned from a trip to New York complaining of back pain.
“It was all pretty quick,” she says of what was soon diagnosed as a symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Sadly, she passed away in 2002, but Una will always treasure their time in Aughry.
“I don’t wish illness on anyone or any family… but I think it brings you close,” she says.
“There’s a rawness and there’s a reality there that you can’t avoid and you have to face. And I think there’s honesty there; and truth. So, I think for us as a family, it was the first time we really got to know Mum properly.”
When it came to knowing herself, however, she explains that she felt “really lost” in her late teens.
“I didn’t feel suited to academia and I couldn’t understand where I could go. I had a dad who was a GP and very successful and maybe [I] felt ultimately, I needed this career,” she says. “On reflection, I feel I took some very bad moves after Mum passed away.”
While Una studied arts in UCC, followed by a master’s at the Smurfit business school in UCD, she feels she suffered emotionally as she was not suited to either course.
“I did learn lots; but it didn’t really feel like me,” she explains.
“Running away from it all”, Una spent a year in Spain, but on returning home, landed in Dublin, where she began working in retail and was soon promoted to assistant manager in a high-end boutique. When her sister suggested a buying and management course at DIT, she applied, and got her first start with a|wear, before moving to Penney’s, where she was promoted to a buying role.
“It was everything I wanted at that stage in my life, but I was struggling under the pressure,” says Una. “I loved the creative side, but the figures and the numbers side, it was a challenge for me.”
Hitting the road again, Una moved to Australia, where she worked with Big W (a division of Woolworths) and launched a youth fashion range. Later roles included working in Dolce and Gabbana’s flagship London store (“you were dealing with people from another world in there!”) where she graduated from senior sales to visual merchandising.
By 2020, however, she was working for a natural beauty brand in the UK when lockdown hit. At the same time, her father needed more support after his mobility suffered following a stroke. She decided it was time to come home.
“I think our lives were colliding at probably the right time,” reflects Una, who worked remotely initially, before giving up work to care for her father full-time, with support from her sister and brother, who were also at home.
Taking time out to concentrate on caring allowed Una to get to know her father on a different level; though she acknowledges the real demands that role reversal can have on both parties.
“We learned to communicate in a different way and to sit down and hold hands and have really tough conversations, and I’m so grateful for that actually because it’s not easy, and it’s not easy for families to be so open and gentle because with care comes frustration; you know, you can lose yourself,” she reflects.
Part of Una’s self-care strategy was spending time in nature. Seeing Aughry again with new eyes, a seed was planted that spring. Could she do something creative with the space and continue the work her mother had started?
“I wanted to change the story for us,” she explains. “I always went home and I always felt a heaviness and a weight.
“It was like we had paused and I just thought, ‘God, could this not be great in some way?’”
There was a former cow shed that Una’s parents had previously done a rough and ready renovation on, which she felt had potential for a holiday rental. But?
“Everything was mouldy and decaying,” says Una, but with the help of her sister, Orla, plus the original tradesmen who had worked on Aughry, the project began to take shape.
While Una left some elements intact- for instance, the stove her mother had installed, sitting on a large rock she had taken up from the Shannon- she invested in new windows on the top floor, in laminate flooring downstairs, a modern bathroom and a kitchen with a granite counter for longevity. Furniture-wise, she prioritised spend on key pieces, like good quality beds to suit the lower ceiling, and mixed and matched with pieces from IKEA and JYSK.
In total, she invested about €20,000 savings in the project, which opened to guests last summer through Airbnb. Sleeping four guests with a minimum stay of two nights, the cottage sits surrounded by the estate’s walled gardens and offers guests a tranquil retreat by the Shannon.
In a short time, Una has earned super-host status (based on five star reviews) and hopes to see a return on her investment in one to two seasons. Longer-term, she sees potential for renovating more of the yard, but in the meantime, hopes to balance Airbnb with doing more work in the interiors’ world.
But most importantly?
“I’ve resolved so much by coming home and facing it all and not running, and it’s been quite the journey,” she smiles.
“I’m so happy to be home.”
Aughry Yard is €180/night plus a €20 cleaning fee and the Airbnb service charge of €66 for a two night stay €446 total).Visit https://www.instagram.com/aughryyard/
1 Excellent communication An amazing guest experience is the goal and this starts with great communication from beginning to end. You want to ensure the guest is stress-free.
2 Ease of experience A great instruction manual regarding your house rules, for the use of everything within the cottage is really important. Offering suggestions for what to do or where to go in the area is greatly appreciated.
3 Personal touch Whether it is freshly-cut flowers from the garden, a card, a bottle of wine or baked bread, guests love a personal touch.
4 Comfort I wanted people to feel like they were being hugged as they came through the door. This starts with heat, visually by the interiors, comfy sofas, chairs, great beds and linen and finally, a nice bathroom experience.
5 High-speed wifi An essential from a working perspective, but also for adults and children to have access to devices in general. We don’t have a TV in the cottage to encourage people to switch off and relax, but if they do wish to watch a movie on their laptops, it’s there.
6 Cleanliness This is something everyone appreciates and a checklist is a great way to keep on top of all the smaller details.