Relying on their own DIY skills, Aislinn and Seamus have been renovating an historic property into their dream home... now their skills could win a cash prize that would help with the rest of the project
From knocking down walls to digging up floors, Stephanie Bell hears how a Co Armagh couple have rolled up their sleeves to transform an old house badly damaged by fire
A Co Armagh woman has opened her home to TV cameras to compete for a top prize in a new DIY series on RTE.
Aislinn Higgins, from Lurgan, will be seen this Tuesday single-handedly transforming the study of her period home on RTE One's The Big DIY Challenge.
The only Northern Ireland participant in the six-week series, Aislinn, who runs her own media production company, is competing against a number of people from the Republic all challenged to renovate a room in their home without any help.
Each DIY project must be completed in 10 days, and the winner stands to win a cash prize of €10,000 from the programme's sponsor, the supply store Woodie's.
Aislinn (34) is married to Seamus (38), an electrical engineer, and the couple bought their dream home, which dates from 1880, before they got married three years ago.
The substantial six-bedroom detached period property, which they bought for £200,000, was largely destroyed in a fire just before they moved in. Since then they have spent £40,000 on renovations - and there is still work to be done.
Aislinn is no stranger to the cameras, having worked as a presenter for both the BBC and Irish TV on Sky. She worked for 12 years in TV production, both in front of and behind the camera, as a roving reporter for BBC NI's In Your Corner, and also as a presenter with the popular County Matters show covering Armagh and Down for Irish TV.
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She now heads up her own company, Dream Media Ireland, producing high-end corporate films for local and global businesses.
Despite her TV experience, she said it was very different having cameras in her own home.
"It was definitely different having someone else ask the questions. PJ Gallagher, who presents the show, came up and did some filming and he was a lovely fella. It was really fun and I did enter to win but I also really enjoyed it," she says.
Aislinn entered the RTE series just 15 minutes before the application deadline in April and was stunned when they contacted her the next day and, after an interview, told her she had been accepted for the show.
She grew up honing her DIY skills, working alongside her father and grandfather. Originally from west Belfast, her parents moved to Lurgan when she was 16, and after she married Seamus, who is from Tralee, the couple opted to settle in the Co Armagh town.
"We bought this big old house off the Portadown Road five years ago," says Aislinn. "It was a total renovation project which I loved the idea of as we could do it up the way we wanted and there are some beautiful original features.
"Before we moved in, the house was set on fire and it pretty much destroyed the living room, kitchen, dining room and two bedrooms at the back of the house.
"We started renovating the back of the house first, where the fire had done the most damage.
"We have a new kitchen, a snooker room with a bar, a study for me and now we are ready to move on to the front of the house.
"We are saving and doing it up as we go along and to save money we are doing the bulk of the work ourselves.
"People thought we were nuts taking on such a big project but this is going to be our forever home.
"We've taken walls down ourselves and dug up floors and hired a digger to take out the old borders in the back garden. We've just had to get people in for specialist jobs like the electrics and plastering.
"I've always been into DIY, ever since I was a child. My dad and my granda did a lot of DIY and I learnt from them. I was a wee tomboy learning to paper and plaster and lay flags at no age. I grew up watching Changing Rooms."
With the back of the house completed, the couple were due to start on their front living room, dining room and study before working their way upstairs.
Aislinn picked her study to renovate for the TV show. She kept a video dairy of the 10-day challenge and RTE cameras visited her home every other day to record her at work.
Each contestant has to visit a Woodie's store to receive a basic tool pack to send them on their way and, with no branches in Northern Ireland, Aislinn lost a full day on the job travelling to Dundalk.
She had a prior work commitment which also cost her a day, leaving her just seven-and-a-half days to complete her project.
"I was working at it from early morning to midnight most nights," she says. "I had to do it all myself except for the electrical work. I made a big eight-foot bookshelf which Seamus was allowed to help with because it was so big.
"I had to strip and prep the walls, and because it is an old house I was worried that the plaster would crumble as it had in some of the other rooms.
"Thankfully, it wasn't too bad although there were a few holes and cracks I had to fill in. I also had to replace skirting boards which had been damaged by the fire or which had rotted because they were so old."
A grand old period fireplace in the room had also been damaged extensively in the fire and Aislinn stripped it back and repainted it.
She wallpapered the walls and painted the room, and then tackled the furniture, up-cycling an old chair and a desk, giving it a leather top, complete with metal studs.
Impressively, she also built the large bookcase herself.
"The most expensive things in the room were the wallpaper and paint as everything else was recycled," she says. "I think in total, because I did all the work myself, it cost about £500."
And with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room and dining room still needing renovated, Aislinn says the show's €10,000 prize would go a long way towards helping them to complete their home.
The Big DIY Challenge is on RTE One this Tuesday, July 9 at 8.30pm. You can follow Aislinn and Seamus's house renovation on her blog at www.dreamdiy.ie/home