Paintings of cows are relatively popular in Irish homes, in both town and country, but they fit in particularly well in the home of Shane and Kate Byrne. After all, the pair live in a farmhouse and Shane is a farmer with a herd of cattle.
He’s also a tech entrepreneur, while Kate is a primary school teacher and they are parents to toddler Max. Into the bargain they have just renovated their farmhouse in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow to such a high standard it won the final of RTÉ’s Home of the Year 2022 competition last week.
Needless to say, they are proud of their achievement.
“There were some amazing homes in the competition but I think the judges voted for ours as the winner because we did so much of it ourselves and on a budget,” says Shane. “There was no architect — just Kate’s design touches and my hard work.”
The judges also loved the classic/contemporary, yet welcoming vibe the couple created, and the fact it’s a fourth-generation family farmhouse. Shane actually grew up in the house, as did his father before him, but the property goes back even further.
“The house is actually 160 years old. The story goes that a different family, the Farrells, lived in this house. There was another smaller house on the land, and the Farrells are said to have evicted them on Christmas Day. The evicted family put a curse on the Farrells and it’s said they all died of TB,” says Shane.
That was long before Shane’s own family came to live there, as his grandad bought the house in 1940. His grandparents reared a family of seven kids in the house, then Shane’s own father and mother took it over and reared their two sons, Shane and his brother Austin.
Shane’s dad was a dairy farmer, but he changed over to a herd of 40 cattle some years ago — Pedigree Angus — which Shane looks after. “Our cattle don’t go to the mart, it’s all about breeding. A lot of emphasis is put on genetics, we have a small amount of high- quality cattle,” says Shane.
The couple also have pet Kunekune pigs, Winston and Agnes, and a clutch of hens. And, like all farms, they also have dogs, Hendo and Miko.
Shane loved growing up on the farm and initially wanted to be a vet. He opted to study science at UCD as a way in, but the course wasn’t for him. “I hated college, it was too slow for me and the subjects didn’t resonate with me. I thought to myself, I can’t stay here for four years and then another seven doing veterinary, so I left and joined AIB. I was working in home mortgages and relationship banking. I did that from 2007 to 2011, so not the best time,” he says ruefully, referring to the crash.
After leaving the bank he headed to Australia with some friends, where he spent six months in Melbourne and a further five months in Tasmania. If he hadn’t experienced hard physical labour before, he certainly did so on that trip. “In Melbourne, although I was offered a big job to go back into finance, I worked in removals. Then in Tasmania, I worked on a dairy farm. We used to get up at half one in the morning and finish at half nine at night. We had to milk 1,000 cows, twice a day.”
When he came home from the year away, he didn’t want to go back into finance and the farm wasn’t big enough to sustain his parents and himself. He did buy 80 sheep but when he and a school friend, Philip Kirwan, decided to start a tech company, he sold them. “My business partner Philip had €4,000 and I had the sheep. I sold them and bought MacBooks and we started our company Showoff,”
“We do bespoke software, and subscriptions and payments are one of our wings. We build applications, mobile apps; we are partnered with Salesforce and Stripe for payments. I deliver projects for the likes of Kwik Fit in the UK.”
The business has grown in the last 10 years and now has 20 full-time employees — including Austin, who is head of design.
While setting up the business Shane also took over the farm as his father was finding it difficult to continue. “Dad had a brain haemorrhage 40 years ago but then in the last 12 years he got epilepsy and because of the treatment drugs he got diabetes, so his health wasn’t good.”
As a result, Shane has been running the two businesses in tandem since he came home in 2012. “For me the farm is something totally different to technology. I like the tangibility of it. I like being able to switch off from technology and spend time on the farm listening to podcasts and looking after the cattle,” he says.
Then there’s the calving and the calves, leaving a little time for his other passion, rugby — though Kate is keen for him to retire from that particular pastime.
He and Kate met in 2015. She is also from Wicklow and from a farm, though her background in the business is slightly different. “My grandad was very into horses and had a stud farm and a dairy farm. My father didn’t have the same love of horses so he got out of them when I was in my teens. He also got out of the dairy and now he makes 300 acres of haylage per year,” she says.
Kate’s parents also owned a pub — Kitty’s in Arklow — with her mum’s siblings. Kate admits she didn’t involve herself too much in her parents’ farm as a child, though she and Shane are now honing up on their agricultural skills with a view to getting their Green Certs. “It’s a baptism of fire for me — I can stand in the gap, that’s about it,” she jokes, referring to the moving of animals from one area to another and the need for a second person as well as the actual farmer.
Both Kate’s mum and Kate’s only sibling Sophie are chefs. There’s no teaching in the family, apart from an aunt, but Kate was always attracted to the job.
“I love kids, I’ve always loved them, and I loved school myself. I had really great teachers, so I trained at the Church of Ireland training college and have been teaching ever since.”
She has taught in several schools, including a long commute at one stage to Glasnevin, but was lucky enough to get a position, eventually, in their local national school, four minutes from their home.
The couple actually met on Tinder, though Shane recalls an earlier meeting. “I met Kate a long time ago in a nightclub in Wicklow when I was the worse for wear and she was going out with someone else,” he jokes.
Kate adds, with a laugh: “He made a move but I was having none of it. We didn’t make the connection about the earlier meeting until after we met again. We’re a Tinder success story.”
They hit it off immediately and found they had a lot in common — the farming background and the same values, as well as a love of travel. Before Max arrived they went to Thailand, Costa Rica, South Africa, Sicily and a host of other places.
Shortly after they met, they moved in together into a cottage on Kate’s family farm. Then the decision was made to build another house on Shane’s land which would be suitable for his parents to downsize to, and include an apartment for Austin.
That left the family home on his parents’ farm and it was agreed Shane and Kate could renovate it for themselves. Shane jokes that as a family they’re like the Ewings of Dallas who all lived together on the Southfork Ranch.
Once it was all decided they moved very quickly.
“We were due to get married and five weeks before the wedding we found out I was pregnant so the building was fast-tracked,” says Kate.
Shane adds: “We got married on May 4, went on a mini-honeymoon to New York and a week later the back was torn off the back of the house. Max was born in November and we were in the following June.
Over the years the house has had a lot of extensions added — bedrooms, as Shane’s dad was one of seven kids, as well as kitchens and bathrooms. When it was decided the house would become Shane and Kate’s, the couple opted to demolish all the different extensions, keeping the original cottage only — which consisted of a hall, kitchen, living room and two bedrooms — and add a modern, light-filled, high-ceilinged extension, which consists of a large modern kitchen/dining room and a living room.
A friend of Shane’s did the measurements and Austin helped with the design of the extension. “Mam and Dad did their best, but it made more sense to start afresh,” says Shane.
Kate adds: “Every time I came to view it at the beginning of the renovations, there was less house and less money.”
They added a utility room, a mud room, a downstairs bathroom and an office for Shane. The house is slightly bigger than it had been with all its extensions, but the key thing is that it’s now a beautiful, streamlined family home on which they put their own stamp, while honouring its heritage.
For example, they kept the original staircase, the original floors upstairs and the living room with its 160-year-old chimney. “At some point in the past they blocked up the old chimney and put up a 1970s facade and the red brick fireplace was hidden,” says Shane.
It was exposed during the renovation and the upstairs is the same as before, though upgraded and beautifully redecorated. “We had local builders who were brilliant and they kept everything worth keeping, like the timber trusses.”
It’s extremely warm and cosy throughout with underfloor heating and wide-plank engineered-oak flooring. While most walls are white, the house is full of colour and interesting textures.
Kate has a great eye and has married vintage pieces she has bought online with lots of family heirlooms and pieces donated by relations — like the superb mahogany dining table, which is the centrepiece of the kitchen.
Because of Covid-19, the extended family haven’t seen the house, so they plan to have a big get-together at this table.
Kate has a beautiful sofa which was owned by her grandmother and upholstered as a gift by her aunt. Numerous pieces came from a late family friend called Bridie, including the coffee table in the sitting room.
“It was Bridie’s kitchen table but we cut the legs. If Bridie knew that I had cut the legs off her table… but to be honest, if I hadn’t, it would have sat in a shed,” says Kate, while Shane adds: “Kate loves old shite.”
He’s only joking, of course. He is proud of the fact they pay homage throughout the home to his family.
Additions include a porch he feels his grandmother would have loved. When she went into hospital, before she died, she told Shane’s aunt she was going to put a porch on the front. Sadly that never happened so Shane and Kate added one in her honour
The rebuild has helped them to live differently. The company head office was in Rathnew but they let it go during Covid-19 and Shane now has his home office.
“We’re so lucky we don’t have to sit in traffic. And I used to do so much flying. In 2019, the year we got married, I did 107 flights, including long haul. We will go back to seeing our customers but not as much. We will have options,” Shane says.
“We’re not tied to any physical location any more. We’re an Irish-based company but we have a massive talent pool that we can now draw on from anywhere in Ireland and they can all work remotely too.”
However, only Kate and Shane can live in the nicest house in Ireland. And that’s official.
Boxsets of all eight series of ‘Home of the Year’ are available to watch on the RTÉ Player
https://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/interiors/meet-the-tinder-success-story-whose-revamped-160-year-old-wicklow-farmhouse-just-scooped-home-of-the-year-41523035.html Meet the Tinder success story whose revamped 160-year-old Wicklow farmhouse just scooped Home of the Year