02 Aug My favourite room: From Buenos Aires to Waterford, how life and love have inspired Maria Ines Dawney’s interior design choices
While the colour of the front door is something most of us agonise over when decorating our homes, visitors often don’t even notice it. If one is left waiting for a knock to be answered, it’s the outside one turns to, and in the case of the home of Maria Ines Dawnay in Co Waterford, the exterior is wonderful – acres of rolling lawns and mature trees surround her stunning stand-alone Georgian-style home.
owever, the colour of Maria Ines’s front door is particularly striking and it transpires it was chosen for a very romantic reason – it’s the colour of the uniform her late husband, Major Hugh Dawnay, was wearing when this bubbly Argentinian first clapped eyes on the dashing officer of the British Army. His regiment was the 10th Hussars.
That was in the early 1970s, and since then, Maria Ines has lived in Waterford. For much of their marriage, the couple lived in a magnificent period mansion called Whitfield Court, her beloved Hugh’s ancestral home. Hugh ran a large farm and a world-renowned polo school there, and as well as looking after their two children, Sebastian and David, who are both now grown up, Maria Ines herself operated the house as a Hidden Ireland for paying guests.
In 2006, the couple built their current home. It was a downsizing move as Hugh, then in his mid-70s, was finding it hard to manage everything. This house is big by most standards, but compact compared to Whitfield Court, which had 17 bedrooms.
Maria Ines also ran an interiors shop in Waterford city for many years, and her innate talent and interiors knowledge are evident in the many beautifully furnished rooms in the house, which are filled with things she picked up over the years, as well as some pieces from her previous home.
Hugh’s mother was Lady Katherine Beresford, daughter of the then Lord Waterford, so there are some family heirlooms, including magnificent sets of china. “She had one set for lunch and another for dinner and chided me if I used the wrong one. She was a lady, that’s the way she was brought up,” Maria Ines notes with a laugh.
Maria Ines herself was born in Salta in the Andes between Bolivia and Chile, the daughter of a doctor who served two terms as Argentinian minister for health. The family moved when she was 12 to Buenos Aires, and after completing school – Maria Ines went to an English-speaking school as her mother was determined that she would learn English – she studied museology with a view to a career in museums.
However, no sooner had she qualified than she met Hugh. “He came with the British Army to Buenos Aires to play polo with the Argentine Army. A friend of mine, the daughter of a general, brought me to a lunch party and Hugh was there. He was following a blonde lady at the lunch and sat next to her, but she didn’t talk to him so he decided to talk to me. I wasn’t going to play second fiddle, so I hit him on the head with a polo whip. It’s true,” she recalls with a laugh.”We both started laughing and then we knew we had the same sense of humour.”
Despite their age and religious difference – Maria Inez was 22 and an Argentinian Catholic and Hugh was 17 years older and an Anglo Irish Protestant – they fell in love and married a year later.
Hugh left the British Army and the couple moved to Ireland. Shortly after, Hugh took over the family farm at Whitfield Court in Waterford as his father had died just before the wedding. “I was very homesick at first. My mother-in-law, Lady Katherine, lived with us,” Maria Ines volunteers.
“She was very Victorian, quite different to me; sometimes she didn’t approve of me and she would go ‘tsk, tsk’. For example, when there was a storm, I would hide with my children under the stairs so I wouldn’t hear it; she would disapprove of that.
“Looking back, I have no regrets – she was wonderful, I’m glad I had her. And she gave me the history of the family, because she knew I was going to carry it on. I have her diaries, I hope to write her biography.”
Learning how to live with Lady Katherine was one task, finding like-minded people with whom to be friends was another. “When I came to live here, it was funny, they thought I was going to be an incredible rider because I came from Argentina. All the Anglo Irish, the only thing they did was ride. They were so different,” Maria Ines says. “The people who became my first friends here were the cook, Paddy the handyman, and the housekeeper, I followed them everywhere and I learned Irish ways.”
However, when Maria Ines became pregnant for the first time, she made friends with other expectant mums, many of whom are still among her core group of friends, and in her book club.
“It’s wonderful, they are still all my best friends,” she says in her charmingly accented English. “What helped me too was the ICA, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. I was with them briefly. We did all sorts of crafts, patchwork and the like, and I gave a lecture about Argentina. The ICA was wonderful.”
Once her sons – Sebastian, now a professional polo player, and David, who’s in pharmaceuticals – arrived, she was well settled in Waterford and she and Hugh had a busy life running the farm and the polo school. Through the polo, they met an international set and there are many photos of Hugh with the royal family. To cater for the polo players and the Hidden Ireland guests, Maria Ines actually went to the trouble of becoming a professional cook by doing the full-time, three-month Ballymaloe course.
She became very involved in the Chernobyl Children’s Project International with Adi Roche and Ali Hewson and travelled several times with them to Belarus. She held a big ball at Whitfield Court for the charity, raising money for an incubator and an ambulance, with the help of her friends.
Along with all these activities, she opened an interiors shop, The Country House, in Waterford, which she ran from 1979 until 1990. She started it again in 2012, this time calling it Country House Design. Maria Ines credits the shop with helping her to cope with Hugh’s death eight years ago.
“When my husband died, my world fell apart, but the shop kept me going,” she says. “I loved the furnishings I brought from France, I loved the French country look. I used to go to Paris, Milan and Madrid to buy for the shop; my customers loved what I bought. My customers and I had so much in common; I loved it.”
She only retired from the shop early this year; she was thrilled to find a lovely young woman, Sinead Gunnigle, to take on the lease and Sinead has now opened Nest, also an interiors shop, to continue the tradition.
Maria Ines also found great comfort in her lovely home, which she shares with Carlitos, her dog.
When she decided to move from the old house, she wanted to combine, within the new build, the best of Georgian design and modern conveniences.
The hall is the epitome of the period’s design. “The Georgian design is normally in the form of a cross, with rooms off it,” she says. The house has high ceilings, beautiful hand-made mouldings on the ceilings and antique mantlepieces, but unlike most Georgian buildings, the house has lots of useful rooms – utility rooms and bathrooms – and masses of storage.
Her own en suite and dressing room are huge. “When you’re building your own house, you can do that,” she says with a laugh, adding that she was able to make her own bedroom, one of four, identical to her bedroom at Whitfield.
As well as a beautiful country-style kitchen, complete with Aga, Maria Ines has a light-filled conservatory, two drawing rooms, a dining room and a wonderful library full of historical and non-fiction tomes. And needless to mention, there are many Waterford Crystal chandeliers from the old house.
The many tabletops are covered with family photos – particularly Hugh and Sebastian at polo events with Prince Charles, Prince Philip, even Prince William – and the walls are covered in landscapes and still lifes. Soon, Maria Ines’s own paintings will also hang on the walls; she started doing watercolours during the lockdown and already she has become very proficient with delicate images of hydrangeas and tulips.
“My motto is: ‘If you’re determined, you can do it’,” she says.
Given Maria Ines’s happy, successful, productive life so far, it’s a motto which obviously has stood to her.
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin