The current housing shortage is not a new phenomenon; entrepreneur Gillian Rijke remembers when she and her Dutch husband Mark bought their house back in 2017, there was such a demand for the houses that she had to sleep in her car overnight to get it.
nd, as she sat in her Ford Galaxy, she recalls being told that she was number 13 in the queue for a home.
Fortunately, Gillian is not superstitious. She wasn’t deterred, and she and Mark have created a charming and cosy home for themselves and their family. In the years since they’ve been in the house a lot has happened, including the devastating loss of her beloved aunt Eithne, but there have been good things too, such as the creation of her company, Lily Pad Home Accessories, named in honour of Eithne who had a lily pond at her home in Wexford.
It was Eithne’s death that inspired Gillian to follow her dream and, more practically speaking, an inheritance from her aunt had enabled Gillian, a mother of four boys, to start her own interiors business. Prior to that, she worked in high-pressure, high-flying jobs in technology — all a far cry from interiors.
These were jobs she had fallen into after completing her degree in French and sociology in Maynooth. Gillian loved languages and was probably influenced by her mother, who had been an Aer Lingus flight attendant, back when it was a very glamorous job, and had travelled the world. Her father had a pub called Wrixon (Gillian’s maiden name) in Clonmel, and Gillian and her younger sister Carole grew up there.
Gillian did travel a bit, spending time in France for her degree. “I worked in a restaurant in Brittany and then spent some time with different families in Bordeaux, a really nice experience.”
However, after graduation, her first proper job was with the AA, then she joined Compaq where she was working in technical support and where she met Mark, who was working in a different company in the same building. “We met properly at a barbecue for the companies in the building; we started chatting and we just clicked. He’s a very kind and caring person and always 100pc supportive of everything I do.
We met in August, and the following December he came home with me because he wasn’t going back to Holland for Christmas, and that was it. Because my dad only had daughters, Mark was like the son he never had. They get on great, which is fab. Mark has three sisters, which is ironic, as we now have four boys.”
After Compaq, Gillian worked her way up through a series of IT jobs before becoming a customer services manager in Apple, where she stayed for six years and during which time the family lived in Mallow, as Apple is based in Cork. “While there, I had a very big team reporting to me. And I was travelling a lot to the States. Then the boys started arriving and it became too difficult.”
As it happened, Gillian had fitted in a postgraduate qualification in HR and employment law with her work schedule and the arrival of her babies so she started her own company, SEE Consulting. “I called it after the three boys: Sam, Ethan and Ely.” They are aged 14 to nine; her fourth son, Christian, is six.
By then, the couple had moved, first to Dalkey, Co Dublin, then to Greystones in Co Wicklow, as Mark’s work needed him in the Dublin area; Mark is managing director of the European division of Canadian company N’ware. “He works in software. I don’t know what he does exactly. Do you remember the character Chandler in Friends, he used to say he was a ‘transponster’? Well, when people ask me what Mark does, I say he’s a transponster,” Gillian says, laughing.
When Christian arrived, Gillian found that running her HR consultancy and looking after four small children, with Mark often travelling for work, was getting too much, so she decided to become an employee again and joined a company called Voltedge. She loved the work and the people she worked for, but she’s painfully honest and admits she felt she had become unreliable. As every working parent knows, it can be difficult to juggle work and one or two children — but four? A nightmare.
“The two women who run the company were wonderful and really supportive,” Gillian says, “but, with four children, they get sick and you just have to take time off. My husband is the main breadwinner so it fell to me to look after them. I was conscious that I was becoming unreliable and I hated that; it really irritated me.
“At least with your own company, while you have to work very hard and long hours to make it a success, you can become more flexible and work when the kids aren’t around, don’t need you or are in bed.” And you can even rope them in for little tasks like putting stickers on packages, though Gillian is careful not to overdo that.
Gillian’s company is all about accessories for the home which she sources abroad and sells online. She has always loved interiors and styling her home with the right touches, but starting her own business in that area was a pipe dream until after her beloved Eithne’s death.
“Eithne and I were incredibly close. She was like my second mum and the boys were like her grandsons. She spent a lot of time here with us. She had been a teacher but had to retire at 42 as she had cardiomyopathy. She was a few months short of her 70th birthday in November 2019 when I got a call from my mother. She had been talking to Eithne when the phone went dead. She tried to ring back but there was no answer. I had to drop everything and go to Wexford where I found her dead on the floor of her kitchen. It was devastating.”
As it happened, a few months prior to that Eithne had asked Gillian to be the executor of her will, and so it fell to her to sort her affairs.
“She had also left me an inheritance and while I was driving home on one of the many occasions I went to clear out her house, I decided I was going to use my inheritance to turn my life around because I was finding it very difficult to maintain the balance of looking after the boys and working.
“While I was cleaning out her house I noticed the pond in her garden with lily pads. Well, not noticed exactly, as I had seen it a million times before, but I decided then I would call the business Lily Pad as she loved that pond so much.”
She told Mark her plan and apart from an initial “what are you talking about, you’re a HR specialist” reaction, he’s been very supportive and does the financials for her.
Gillian started the online shop in May 2021 and sells more than 180 items, all sourced in Scandinavia and Holland — items such as table lamps, candles, vases, bowls, rugs, coasters; everything that adds a dash of colour and personality to a home. Her ranges of battery-powered lamps and candles are popular. It’s been thriving and Gillian feels it is not just due to her carefully curated collection but also to her website and personal service experience garnered over her years in business.
“After Apple in particular, I realise that side is very important, so my phone number is on the website. There’s a chat function and I always call five days after a delivery to make sure the customer is happy.” While online sales are her main source of income, she finds now that people are sending her pictures of bare shelves and asking her to suggest ways of styling them and she’s also being asked to style a wedding using her candles and lamps.
She also dipped into reality retail with a Christmas shop in Greystones. “There’s a lovely man in the village whose home has a beautiful shopfront and he lets it at Christmas only. I got the shop from November 26 to December 22 last year. We got on really well as he’s from Wexford and he knew of my grandmother’s hotel there called Taravie, so he knew I was from good stock,” Gillian laughs. “He’s promised it to me for next year again and I will definitely do it again. People in Greystones have been so supportive. I’d love a more permanent retail space if one ever comes up in the area.”
Gillian says she’s loved the area since the family came to live there, first in a rented house at the harbour and, since then, in their own home in a modern development just outside the village, which they moved into in 2018.
“Ever since that first night when we all queued together and ordered pizza and wine as we waited for the gates to open, we’ve been friends. And through the kids’ schools — because most of us don’t have family in the area and have kids the same age — we rely on each other.”
The house is semi-detached with three bedrooms, an attic, three bathrooms, an open-plan kitchen/dining room and a separate sitting room. The back gardens are large and not only were they able to add a cabin at the back which serves as an office for Mark, but they also added an extension with windows on all sides; this is also courtesy of Eithne’s bequest. “It was made by Loghouse and built in five days.”
There are a lot of features which separate the house from the run-of-the-mill semi-detached home — particularly the air-to-water heating system, which means the house has a consistent temperature; the extra-high ceilings and the attic space which is so big that they were able to make a fourth bedroom and still have a huge amount of storage.
Gillian says clutter makes her feel stressed and she often declutters. “I recently ordered numerous skips; it’s very cathartic. I was keeping things like all the kids’ paintings, then I realised it would be better to just keep a few and photograph the rest. I also got rid of all their baby toys.”
The walls are mainly painted white, the floors are laminate — except the hall and stairs where Gillian has used carpet — so it’s an unfussy backdrop, which means Gillian can add touches from her own collection at Lily Pad. And to highlight different pieces, such as paintings, she uses those invaluable battery-powered wall-lights she sells.
Of course, there are many pieces which belonged to Eithne, including her favourite armchair and many photos of her, reminders of the wonderful woman who made Gillian’s dream of a new enterprise a reality.
See lilypadhomeaccessories.ie; @lilypad_homeaccessories
https://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/interiors/my-favourite-room-gillian-rijke-used-her-inheritance-from-a-beloved-aunt-to-start-her-own-interiors-business-41655714.html My Favourite Room: Gillian Rijke used her inheritance from a beloved aunt to start her own interiors business