PJ McClay working in his Boston workshop. Photo courtesy of McClay Carpentry.

Oul House Renovated Cottage: Meet PJ McClay

Renovating an old cottage in County Donegal has been a passion project for PJ McClay, a Boston resident who, for the past two years, has breathed new life into a 200-year-old old cottage in his native Inishowen, with help from his brother, Chris.

Ireland on a Budget first shared PJ's story back then, detailing the challenges of bringing this old structure back to life and what it meant to him.

Here's a look back at that interview, and at the end, you'll see what this cottage actually looks like today.

You'll also discover how to experience a slice of Old Ireland by renting out this modern — yet authentic — cottage for your Ireland budget vacation.

Do you know the history of the house that you are working on? Did its previous occupants simply die or emigrate perhaps?

We have some limited information but have not done any thorough research yet. What I have done I’ve found via online research like Griffith’s Valuation and other similar sites, as well as from some local knowledge.

It was originally two houses.

The farmer I bought it from remembered his father purchasing the property about 40 years ago.

In addition, a local genealogist has done some research on a family from Canada who grew up in one of the houses.

I grew up about 15 minutes from the site and it turns out that the mother of one of our neighbors also grew up in one of the houses.

an old house in ruin renovating an old house in County Donegal
This is what the house looked like when PJ purchased it. Photo: PJ McClay at

Have you lived in  Inishowen your whole life?

I grew up in Glengad which is about 15 minutes away from Rashenny. I left when I was 18 to go to college in Waterford.

When I was 20, I moved to Boston. I’ve been in the Boston area for about 18 years now. I’m usually back in Ireland about three to four times a year.

When did you start working on the project and when do you expect it will be completed?

We started about a year ago. Planning permission took almost a year to get approved.
An aerial view of the cottage and the surrounding Co. Donegal countryside. Photo:

We had hoped to be finished this summer, but the virus has obviously slowed things down so now we’re hoping it’s done by the end of this year.

Are you renovating the cottage in your spare time?

No, I hired my brother Chris to run the project and he has been overseeing the local trades professionals working on it.
Keeping some of the old features common to an Irish cottage was central to PJ's renovation of the Oul House. Photo: PJ McClay.

I’m usually there every few months to check in on it and do certain tasks that I had wanted to do myself like put the roof back on the original part of the cottage.

Are you a carpenter or a builder by trade?

My father is a joiner and I was helping him from a young age. I went to college to study architectural technology, then when I went to Boston. Now I build and renovate houses around the Boston area.

What surprises have you discovered as you continue to renovate this old cottage in terms of its structure?

This is a hard one. I guess the biggest discovery in terms of the structure is the respect I’ve developed for the men who originally built it.
The new kitchen in the Oul House. Photo: PJ McClay.

When you’re working on something that has stood for hundreds of years and that was built by men using what they had around them and using basic tools, ingenious methods, and sheer strength, you come to really appreciate that.

The second surprise was that I thought it would be difficult to find trades professionals willing to work with the materials and methods the way it was originally built.

To my surprise, I discovered there were some people nearby still doing the trades the same way it was done hundreds of years ago, from stonemasons using lime mortar, to plasterers using lime plaster, to thatchers still using flax.

And if you did find any unexpected stumbling blocks, were they easy to fix?

Stumbling blocks, hmm.

I’m in construction so I’m used to stumbling blocks and relish a good challenge. The biggest stumbling blocks were, I guess, planning permission which took a considerable amount of time but eventually was approved as we had requested so I can’t complain about that.

trees and rocks in a house renovating an old house in County Donegal
Trees were growing in the middle of the cottage before PJ started working on renovating an old cottage in County Donegal Photo: PJ McClay at

The second one, I guess, would be getting used to the various trade professionals beating to their own drum.

They work on one project for a week and then go to another project for a week and so on.

So that was a little frustrating when things took a month instead of two weeks to complete. But at the end of the day, everything was done right so again, I can’t complain.

Were there other stumbling blocks? Of course, there were. Here are a few examples:

  • Tree roots under the walls and trying to remove said roots without the wall falling down around you.
  • One corner of the house was originally built on solid rock, which is great. But when you’re trying to add an extension, it makes things very difficult.
  • Having to use a jackhammer without vibrating the walls so much that the walls fall down around you.
  • Encountering a structural crack meant having to take down and rebuild one whole gable wall.
  • When we started this project four large trees were growing inside one room alone.

A common theme was just trying to stop the walls from falling down around you. But having a construction background, I found that these challenges were just part of the job and I don’t necessarily consider them stumbling blocks, just another day at the office.

No doubt a house like this holds many memories. Did you uncover any items that might speak to the previous owners or to a bygone era in Ireland?

old tools renovating an old cottage in County Donegal
Some of the above items were found when renovating the old cottage in County Donegal. Photo:

We did not find a lot.

The items we did find included parts of a cast iron bed, some horseshoes, some fragments of pottery, and a fragment of a large cooking pot sometimes called a famine pot. We also found a couple of the original wooden pegs used to hold down the thatch.

If you did come across some cool objects, it looks like you are willing to restore them rather than throw them away.

Yes, anything found will be reused in some way, including any of the trees we had to take down. They were milled into timber, which we will use for everything and anything in the cottage.

My father had also saved some items from his grandparents’ homestead that he gave to me and that I will use in the house.

These items included my great grandfather’s shaving stand and the old lock from their front door. He is also making the sash windows and doors for the cottage along with my other brother.

I guess the goal is to restore it to its original glory but with some modern conveniences, yes?

the side of a cottage renovating an old cottage in County Donegal
The repointed stone walls of the Oul House were just one of the many tasks that P.J.'s construction team took on as they were renovating the old cottage in County Donegal. Photo:

Yes, the original two rooms of the cottage are being restored as authentically as possible, but the extensions are being built in a style that compliments the original cottage but is as energy-efficient as possible.

This includes insulation to a Passivhaus (PH) standard, which is a set of voluntary criteria for ultra-low energy use; home solar panels; and a high-efficiency heating system.

Do you intend to live in the cottage or rent it out as a holiday home for tourists?

The planning permission granted allowed me to build a small new house beside the old cottage and restore the old cottage.

gate outside cottage renovating an old cottage in County Donegal
A side view of the renovated cottage. Photo: PJ McClay.

The original plan was that I would live in the new house and rent out the cottage. But the character of the old cottage is making me rethink that plan.

It’s hard to explain but there’s something about an old building like this that just sucks you in and won’t let you go.

It’s an unusual feeling that you just don’t get from a new house. But as I’m probably 5-7 years away from being able to live there year-round, I will most likely rent out the cottage until then.

PJ's renovated cottage was recently highlighted on RTE One's show, Cheap Irish Homes.

Below are some more photos of the renovated “Oul House.”

photos of a cottage renovating an old cottage in County Donegal
The renovated Oul House in County Donegal. All photos are courtesy of PJ McClay.

The finished cottage is now available for rent throughout the year.

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