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Moving back to Wicklow: ‘I love being back in the seasons again because in Dubai it’s either hot or hotter’

Relocating from the Middle East to Wicklow may come with more domestic burdens, but interior designer Sharon Conneely-Donaldson is relishing the DIY jobs

She educated teenagers in the Seychelles, worked with Abu Dhabi’s royal family and did interior design for multimillion-dollar schemes in Dubai. Now Sharon Conneely-Donaldson has come full circle and is back home, running her appropriately named Full Circle Interior Design company.

Spending two decades in the United Arab Emirates gave her opportunities she would never have experienced here. “I worked on the multimillion-dollar Dubailand theme park in a team dealing with the design specifications of about 10 restaurants. I designed 10-storey boutique apartments on Palm Island in Dubai, and I worked on a lot of big hotels like Park Hyatt Hotel, Holiday Inn, Sheraton, all amazing opportunities,” she says.

Not surprisingly, she noted many differences between interior styles in Dubai and Ireland. “Downtown Dubai is all high rise, sleek, stainless steel, polished surfaces, super-clean and luxurious. Design is held in a very high regard over there,” she says. Young Emiratis were drawn to contemporary and sleek interiors while the older people opted for a more ornate, neo-classical style with gilt edge furniture and heavy damask. “That’s generalising of course, because it doesn’t always work like that, whereas here I find that people like the country kitchen style, the shaker style and Belfast sinks. In Ireland, what I love about design is that you can mix and match a lot using antique shops, vintage, salvage yards. I love that because I never had that in the UAE.”

Of course, weather can influence your design choices too. “In Ireland we use a lot of wood flooring and carpet in the bedrooms whereas in Dubai they use a lot of polished marble, and very expensive marble at that. I used to be in awe when I went to the big malls, like Dubai Mall or Mall of the Emirates and the flooring in marble was a work of art, so many colours and patterns,” she says.

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She ran interior design workshops in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and encountered some unusual challenges. She recalls being invited to run a workshop for local women in a palace in Abu Dhabi. “My only real requirement was that the wall needed to be white, so I could do the presentation on the wall. When I arrived, it was covered in gold leaf and of course you can’t project colours on to gold leaf,” she says. “I remember thinking, only in UAE have you the problem of gold leaf walls.”

She was also astonished at the speed of construction in the UAE. “You see billboards on the highway and after a couple of months they take them away and there’s a high-rise building complete.”

Like the buildings, budgets for interior design are also high, but she says they were not unlimited. “There are a lot of high-end budgets in Ireland too, but because it’s the UAE, it’s part of their image and they’re louder about it, whereas you don’t really hear about the high-end budgets here.”

She returned to Ireland in 2019 with her British husband Peter Donaldson and her Arabian rescue cat Misha in tow. “I love being back in the seasons again, the colour and the light. It’s very unpredictable, whereas in Dubai there’s a lot of continuity. It’s either hot or hotter.”

They bought their two-bedroom Victorian cottage near Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, in late 2021. The house was built in 1887 and needed rewiring and upgrading. Her research on the perils of insulating an old house encouraged her to go for minimal intervention. “We’ve got these thick 60cm walls of granite and brick and we did some lime plastering.”

The installation of the double-glazed windows made a huge difference. “Now we are actually too warm in the house at times, which is brilliant because our first winter here was like living in a freezer.” In a nod to the house’s Victorian origins, she added a ceiling rose and egg and dart cornicing to the living room.

In Ireland, what I love about design is that you can mix and match a lot using antique shops, vintage, salvage yards. I love that because I never had that in the UAE

She used local tradespeople as much as possible and was tickled at the difference between tradespeople in Dubai and here. “In Dubai the payment terms are very structured and when I asked some of the tradespeople here about payment, their attitude was: ‘Arra, sure we know where you live’. It was a more friendly, casual and relaxed attitude.”

She scoured the countryside for antique furniture and #ed and matched them with the furniture she brought home from Dubai, as well as some new pieces. “I don’t want it to be like a Victorian museum of furniture. Mixing the Victorian pieces with modern, contemporary pieces adds a lot of character and personality.”

Also adding character are the purchases from her travels, such as Arabic calligraphy and artwork and an Indian mango wood console table. She was happy to get stuck into DIY and upcycled a wardrobe. “I enjoy doing that because in Dubai you always had someone who did stuff for you. You would never clean your own car or paint your own walls. It would be: ‘Oh, no madam, you can’t do that’. It was good to get back to doing stuff for yourself.”

Next, the couple will tackle the half-acre garden and the seating area that has uninterrupted views of Lugnaquilla. But first there is her day job. Her interior design company has just begun offering a relocation package for people who are moving home from abroad. “I see a demand for this because it’s a big transition coming home, settling children into school, adapting to the climate and lifestyle. You can feel like a stranger in your own home,” she says.

“It’s one less worry if you can work with someone who knows the market and has gone through the whole experience. There are big shipping costs and insurance, so you need to know what to bring home. You need help with space planning, getting to know local tradespeople, suppliers and prices.”

And 10 years of teaching interior design in the UAE has encouraged her to offer short courses and workshops, aimed at the 35- to 65-year-old age group. She says this demographic of mature students has generally been ignored in the Irish market. “It’s a fun and friendly environment with like-minded people and it’s very practical.”

She believes people waste a lot of money by making poor choices when it comes to purchases such as a sofa. “You pick the wrong size, or colour, or material for the room and then you end up living with that for many years. You just need to know the basics in space-planning and industry standards,” she says.

“Another common problem is picking paint without getting a tester pot. There are always discrepancies between the colour card and the paint because it depends on the aspect of the house and the lighting conditions.”

She has also noticed that many homeowners make the same mistake when it comes to designing a kitchen. “There are a lot of hard surfaces, so I would encourage people to have more soft finishes, fabrics, art and accessories. People may have art and accessories in livingrooms and bedrooms and hallways, but they don’t bring it into the kitchen. The kitchen is another room, so show your personality and give it more soul.”