A fairy-tale house
Michele McNaughton loves children and likes to have plenty to entertain them with in her house — including cuddly toys, life-size toys and zany artworks, but she also made a stylish home for herself and her many guests
In the old days, people tended to give their houses names, and often called them after places where they had felt happy – like the spot where they enjoyed their honeymoon, or even a mythical happy place like Hy-Brasil or Eden.
Some opted for whimsical names, like the title of a book they enjoyed.
These days, houses tend to be identified by number only, so it’s always interesting to come across a house like Toad Hall.
The original Toad Hall was described in the popular children’s novel, The Wind in the Willows, as a “handsome, dignified old house of mellowed red brick, with well-kept lawns reaching down to the water’s edge”, and its owner, Mr Toad, as a wealthy, narcissistic, reckless fop.
The real life Toad Hall is located in Dublin 4, and apart from the fact that it, too, is a handsome old house, it has little in common with the fictional house of the same name. It isn’t red brick and it’s nowhere near water. And its owner is the exact opposite of Mr Toad – she’s a warm and welcoming career woman named Michele McNaughton. However, the two Toad Halls have something in common – they are both beloved of children.
Michele McNaughton adores children, and has made a point of creating a home full of fun for the amusement of her nieces and nephews, her friends’ children, and her adored god-daughter, Anneke.
Everything in this house demands to be played with and touched – the many cuddly toys; the life-size animals; the ceramic and wooden creatures on every possible surface; the feathery lamps; secret doorways; the many chiming clocks; the wooden houses; the artworks that have pulleys and levers which enable the boats in them to sail and the birds to fly. No child could fail to enjoy it.
But then, Michele knows the mind of the child very well. Though she is now a director of TileStyle, the business started by her late father Jim, Michelle, who is the eldest of four, spent the first 18 years of her working life as a nanny in the US.
“When my dad set up originally in TileStyle, I was still at school and I helped him out at weekends and late nights,” she says. “After I finished school, I did a secretarial and business course and went to work for him. Then I went to the States. The plan was to stay for a year as a nanny, but the family kept having more kids, so I stayed on. As the kids got older, it was harder to leave them. When I went over, they lived in New Orleans, then they moved to Miami, and I moved with them. I don’t have any children of my own, and that’s probably why I don’t. They’re my family. I call them my little bambinos.”
Of course, they’re not little any more. “There were four boys, but sadly, one was killed in a car accident 11 years ago,” Michele says. “Of the other three, one is a doctor, one is a nurse/farmer, and the other is an artist in New York. Very diverse. I talk to two of them every day. I love them,” she says, simply, adding that she goes over and back regularly to the States to see them, and their parents, and they come here to see her.
Michele might have continued to live in the States, but events in the family back home here in Ireland necessitated her return 17 years ago. “My sister passed away and my dad wanted me home. Then, when I did come home, he got cancer and my mother had a stroke. Being the only daughter and single, I helped them when they weren’t well, and I was glad to,” she says.
Her parents were separated, and for a time, she looked after each of them. Her dad died in 2008, while her mother died in 2012. When her dad passed away, she went back into the business. “I work in logistics and shipping in TileStyle. I love interior design too, and often help friends decorate their houses,” she says.
For that, Michele draws on her experience of having renovated and decorated her own house, which was originally her father’s. After he passed away, she decided to buy it from her brothers. “I had a house in Knocklyon, but when he got very sick, I moved in here about six months before he died. I’m a very sentimental person, and wanted to buy it because it was his – though I hemmed and hawed for a while. Then, I did buy it, and it fell apart,” she says with a laugh.
She adds: “The boiler, the plumbing, all of it had to be renovated. So I rewired, re-plumbed and insulated it. And it was a very masculine house, so I changed a lot of things, and removed the double doors and walls between the two reception rooms, as I love to entertain and the space is better for that.”
Her father had stripped all the paint off all the woodwork and taken it back to the natural pine. The living room still has the stripped-back woodwork and the original pine floors. Michele has lime-washed the woodwork in the rest of the house. “He’s probably turning in his grave about that,” she says with a laugh. Then, five years ago, she did a big renovation, and added a massive kitchen-dining room.
“I like to have dinner parties maybe twice a month. Living in the States, things were so open-plan and big,” she says, adding: “I designed it myself, and I had fabulous builders, Whelan & O’Keeffe, whom I highly recommend.”
The units – some grey, some burgundy – were from Rhatigan and Hick, and Michele was very particular about what she wanted – a good larder and no units above counter level, with what she calls a ‘Google Map’ work surface from Miller Brothers in Rathnew.
The floor tiles are from TileStyle. “They’re porcelain and they weren’t expensive. I’m renowned for picking the cheapest things from the showroom,” she laughs.
Upstairs, there are three bedrooms, all very prettily decorated – one in particular is a real princess bedroom, decorated for her god-daughter Anneke, who has Down syndrome. For that reason, Michele is on the board of a charity called Blue Diamond. “My best friend, Susan, and her husband, Tony Walsh, founded it – Anneke is their daughter.
“Blue Diamond is a wonderful charity for adults with intellectual disabilities. When people with Down syndrome reach a certain age, there is nothing for them, which is a terrible shame, so Tony and Susan started an academy for performing arts. They had a fabulous show called One Love recently in Smock Alley. I’m on the board, and I will do anything for them,” she enthuses.
Anneke’s bedroom isn’t the only feminine element of the house; Michele has removed any masculine vibe in the whole house, though she still has a lot of her father’s stuff, including his 12 chiming clocks. “I’m just like him, I love clocks,” she says, adding, “There’s some of my dad’s stuff, some of my mum’s, my grandparents’. I keep saying I’m going to declutter, and then I buy something else; it’s terrible. I start to declutter and then I say, ‘Maybe down the road…'”
It’s fair to say that Michele doesn’t just have one of anything; everything she likes comes in multiples, especially toads and frogs. “I have a thing for frogs. It was only because the youngest [of the American boys], Paul, loved them, and then I got interested too, so I collected them. Frog wine glasses, frog plates – you name it, I have it. I’m all frogged out now,” she says, then she corrects herself, and adds: “I’ll still buy the odd frog, if I see one I like.”
So all of her young visitors can be certain it will never get boring in Michele’s house. Of course, the home is decorated in this way for her own pleasure and amusement, too. “I’m a hoarder. No actually, I’m not a hoarder, I’m a very sentimental person, that’s it,” she says with a laugh.
And if it makes for a fun house, as it does in the case of Toad Hall, then that’s no bad thing.
For more information on the Blue Diamond Drama Academy, see bluediamonddrama.ie See TileStyle.ie
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine