Aweigh in Kerry

ursine setting

Adrift on the shoreline of Ballycarnahan townland in County Kerry is a most wonderful piece of architecture. It is a ship shaped house, seemingly half buried in the sand dunes, its prow and bridge emerging and facing one of Ireland’s most spectacular views.

view to derrynane

The view from the Ship House: across the water is Derrynane, the home of ‘Ireland’s Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell (soon to be featured on Roaringwater Journal). The Kerry mountains make a splendid backdrop

The house in the dunes was built as a holiday home by Francis and Ros Horgan of Macroom in the early 1950s. It is still owned by the Horgan family. As an architect myself I wondered about the history of the design: did the inspired idea of the ‘ship’ come from the clients? Or was it dreamed up by the architect? In which case the clients would have to be commended for going along with such a daring (and witty) concept.

from the road

Houses made from boats and marooned forever on dry land are not unknown: below are a couple from California; the Kerry house, however, is a purpose-built ‘one off’. Architectural ‘ship’ symbolism can also be found elsewhere in Ireland: the new Library in Dun Laoghaire by Carr Cotter + Neassens Architects has a definite nautical theme, appropriate for its site overlooking Dublin’s Dun Laoghaire Harbour.

green arks


Dun Laoghaire’s new library – the Lexicon – in the right of the picture above, acknowledges its maritime setting (photograph courtesy The Irish Times)

We were in Kerry visiting cousins of Finola: all of them were brought up in Lamb’s Head, just beside the Ship House. They were a mine of information on the house, which had been built by their grandfather Crohane Donnelly (he was named after the local saint) at a cost of one thousand pounds. Over breakfast this morning at Lamb’s Head, enjoying the same view across the bay to Derrynane House, I was delighted when cousin Annie came in with a newspaper cutting from the Daily Mirror dating from St Patrick’s Day 1969: the headline was Ahoy! It’s the Cosy Home that is Always Ship Shape, and it was all about the Ship House.


The house is named St Anne. I gleaned from the newspaper article that …she was one of Mrs Horgan’s favourite saints. A mass was celebrated when the house was “launched”, after the site had originally been blessed by Cardinal Griffin…

The upper deck of the three tier house – the wheelhouse – has a ship’s wheel which came from the HMS Pluto, which was being broken up in Cork. The lower deck, within the concrete ‘hull’, houses a garage and workshop, is known as ‘the hold’ and is lit by portholes. There is even a gangplank leading to the front door!

Quoting the Mirror: …Mrs Hogan, a quietly humorous Irishwoman in her fifties, explained how it all came about. “I’ve always had a great love for this spot, since I first came here at the age of five,” she said. ‘My husband and I used to come here every year for our holidays. We both loved the sea and boats.” She said that Mr Horgan, an engineering director and farmer from Macroom, Co Cork, worked on the plans with an architect. “First of all it was going to be a round house, then it just evolved into a ship. But,” she smiled, “I think that was what my husband wanted in the first place…”

from the driveway

sand dunes

In 1969 …The house now sprouts a TV aerial and has mains electricity. But Mrs Gorgan rather regrets it. “When we had a diesel engine for lighting, it used to chug-chug away. At night, looking across the bay, you felt you were sailing in a real ship right out at sea. I miss the diesel for that…”


Perhaps one day I will get to have a look inside the ship house – I wonder how the rooms are laid out? As well as bringing in the electric there are some obvious upgrades which have taken place – there are modern windows installed and the roof looks to have been renewed. But it’s still a holiday home, owned and used by the Horgan’s children. It must be one of the most unusual and eccentric holiday hideaways in Ireland!

Stop Press Since publishing this post yesterday, Cousin Annie has forwarded some more information. An album of photographs which were taken during the construction process was reproduced in the Caherdaniel Parish Magazine in 2014, with the permission of the Horgan family (owners) and the Donnelly family (builders). It’s a great contemporary record of an unusual project and some of those photographs are put together in this slide show – thanks, Annie!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s the final picture from that collection, worthy of a place of its own. It shows the completed project and the Donellys who built it. Crohane Donnelly, Annie’s grandfather, is on the left…

ship24 complete

head on

Ros Horgan (pictured below in the Mirror article) deserves the last word: …Her eyes twinkled. “The archaeologists in years to come are going to have a lot of trouble with this one. They are going to ask: ‘In what era did they have concrete ships?’…”

Thanks to all Finola’s Kerry cousins and their families for their memories and information on the Ship House, and for the wonderful hospitality which they heaped upon us during our visit. And thank you to Finola for allowing me to use her superb picture on the header, which would otherwise have featured in her own Into The Kingdom post!

Ros Horgan


22 thoughts

  1. I would love to see photos of the inside. Our family used to spend 2 weeks summer holidays in a tent in Derrynane every year at a tiny campsite nearby (now 100% static vans). Owned by a man named Dan if I recall correctly? My young brothers and I befriended some of the Horgan family one year and were given a brief glimpse of the inside of the house, and for some reason, I remember watching an episode of the 80’s tv show “Fame” on their television! Derrynane is quite a special place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kevin, we didn’t get to see inside: there was no-one around when we visited. I think it created quite a sensation in its day, and it’s good that it is still a going concern!


  2. Thanks for this. I have visited the nearby beach a couple of times and have been fascinated by the house. It’s great to know the history. I always hoped that it was rented out and that one day I might be able to stay.


  3. I truly admire the ways in which you link the past ( near past and long past ) and the present. Is there ANYTHING that you’re not interested in ? Beside Justin Bieber and the Conservative party, that is.


      • As mentioned above Caherdaniel Parish Magazine did a piece on the Ship House a few years ago. This piece seems to have material that we didn’t have for that article. Would this material be made available to the Parish Magazine with permission to use it in a future magazine?


      • We would have no problem with you using any of our own photographs. However, we can’t give permissions for the historic ones: it’s a while ago now, but we would have researched the sources for those and requested permissions. if you tell us which ones you would like to use we will look up our files and see who we sought permission from.


      • Many of the historic photos probably came from the builder’s ( Crohane Donnelly) family-his grandchildren. We would have no difficulty getting permission to use those


      • Hi Michael – Finola here. Robert had forgotten, but how we had those pics is that Betty Donnelly was my cousin (Mangans), and her daughter, Annie, shared the photos with us. That is, she showed us the album. So – you probably have more than we do! Annie told us that the Donnellys had built the house – and what a marvellous job they did! I remember Johnny Donnelly well from when I was a student – was he your uncle, or cousin, perhaps?


      • Hi Finola. Betty looked after our children when they were young. Johnny was my second cousin. Small world.
        Caroline Donnelly (a first cousin of Anne’s) gave the same photos to the Parish Magazine and we published them in 2016.
        I was thinking today that it would be nice if we could get a member of the Horgan family to write an article about the house.
        I don’t know any of the younger members of the family but I will make enquiries to see if anybody locally has contact with them.
        It is a pretty unique building and a lasting memorial to the family, the architect and the builders.
        Thanks for getting in touch.
        Best wishes
        Michael Donnelly

        Liked by 1 person

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