Upstairs or downstairs?

A friend of mine asked me for some advice recently. They want to have a big do in Ireland, in a castle and were wondering if I could recommend one. Given that there are some 30 000 castles in the country in various states of (dis)repair, that was a tough one to answer. My castle of choice has always been Cregg Castle in Galway but it’s no longer open for public residence 🙁 The one I’d like to be able to afford to stay in is Drumoland Castle in Co. Clare. And the one I’d buy, if I had the money do it up, is Johnstown Castle in Wexford.

First built by the Esmondes who settled in the area back in the late 1100s, it changed hands a few times after being confiscated during Cromwell’s reign in the 1600s. The Grogan family came by it in the late seventeenth century and stayed put until one of the descendants, Maurice Larkin, gifted it to the nation back in 1945. Upkeep must have been horrendous.

The 1000 acre estate has it all. The castle is jawdroppingly gorgeous, from every angle.


20160818_154231_resized20160818_154526_resized20160818_154429_resized20160818_154624_resizedAnd even if, like me, you’re not usually given to being fascinated by gardens, you can’t help but be carried back in time as you stroll the pathways. There are three lakes, complete with turreted towers and lily pads. There are 140 species of trees, 20 peacocks/peahens (I only saw one), and an extended 20160818_161325_resized (587x800)family of red squirrels who were in hiding. The grounds are immaculately kept.

An underground tunnel runs between the meat store and the basement of the castle, lit by glass skylights set in the ground (how novel is that?). This kept the servants out of sight of the family and their guests. (I think Metro 1 in Budapest was built to keep the riffraff out of sight of the hoi polloi on Andrassy – similar thinking?)

20160818_155056_resizedBut back to the trees. The Italian sunken garden is surrounded by Redwoods, a tree I’ve always associated with San Francisco. And there’s a Monterey Cypress which is a Champion Tree of Ireland. Yep – I had to look that up. Apparently some 10 000 trees in Ireland have been measured and of them, 1200 notable for their height, age, size, and girth have made it on to a registry of Champion Trees. Hugging each one of those would be a bucket list of a kind. The Cypress is by Statue Walk, a series of statues facing Castle Lake, each one more evocative than the next. There are plenty of benches to park yourself and your book and whole families had brought their picnics and their rugs. And still there was acres of space.

20160818_160219_resizedThe walled garden was set in the mid-1850s and shows signs of wear and tear. It’s still lovely though, beautiful even. And if the glasshouses were restored to their former glory, it would be spectacular.

Today Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority, owns the estate, which is home to their research facility. Until a few years ago, the castle was their offices. The EPA and the Department of Agriculture are also in residence. What a place to work. Am not sure what the plans are for it… but if there’s a lotto win in my future, I’d be happy to have a chat with someone.

As usual, time wasn’t on my side. So next trip, I’ll have to see the Irish Agricultural Museum and the family cemetery and the machicoulis on Rathlannon Castle. And maybe bring a picnic.

As is my wont when wandering around such fine estates, I found myself wishing I’d been born into that era. I had little trouble in imagining myself, Austen-style, walking the grounds. But then there’s always that niggling doubt… who’s to say I’d have been part of the upstairs crew? Pinnies simply don’t do it for me.

Open 9 am to 4.30 pm seven days a week. Worth dropping in if you’re in the vicinity.

What a waste of a good man

Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis’s voice seeps through cracks in the pavement and every public TV shows him in action. Hotels have guitar-shaped pools and 24/7 Elvis movies. Pink Cadillacs are the order of the day and sideburns are de rigueur.

IMG_5227 (800x600)You can’t come to Memphis and not go to Graceland. Well, of course you can, but if you do, you’ll never know quite what you missed. What makes it interesting is that, in its own way, it’s very understated. To my mind, Elvis didn’t have a whole lot of taste – but then, just look at his costumes and let me rest my case right there. It’s relatively small, as mansions go, and other than the carpeted walls and the carpet in the kitchen, there’s little that could be branded as ostentatious. Yes, he built a racquet-ball court and had an indoor shooting range, and room for more than a few ponies, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s somewhere I might buy, were I to come into a million or three and wanted to live in Memphis.

IMG_5152 (800x600)IMG_5167 (800x600)So his sofa is 15 feet long – but then if you never let anyone other than immediate family upstairs and did all your entertaining in the living room, you’d probably need that extra ten feet of seating. And if you never particularly cared for alcohol but had a IMG_5175 (800x600)coterie that drank like a school of fish, then you’d need a flash bar.  And if you liked to play pool, then why not have a games room with ruffled, pleated material covering the walls instead of wallpaper. It’s certainly not bland. The kaleidoscope of colours wouldn’t be kind to a hangover, but then the King didn’t drink,  and therefore didn’t suffer so.

The self-guideIMG_5203 (600x800)d tour was quite informative. I hadn’t realised that Elvis had dated Priscilla for nearly seven years before they got married. And that he flew Lisa Marie to Colorado when he realised that she’d never seen snow. It helps to have a couple of private jets parked in the backyard and so what if some thought the gold-plated seat-belt buckles a trifle OTT. His parents hadn’t known that Gladys was having twins so when Jessie was stillborn, Vernon went outside to grieve and saw a blue flash in the sky – and then heard Elvis cry.  Some think that perhaps Elvis was so blessed with his voice because he spent his life singing to his twin.

I love Elvis. I remember where I was when he died – Fethard-on-Sea in Co. Wexford. I’d just discovered popsocks. I hadn’t a clue who he was but this girl staying at the B&B was inconsolable. My age. Eleven. She was distraught and I couldn’t fathom why. I lived in bi-channel TV wonderland and wasn’t at all into music. But the fact that she was so upset stuck with me and etched the date forever in my mind.

IMG_5214 (600x800)IMG_5190 (800x600)I first went to Graceland back in 2001 with RB, whose son Shawn was a great fan (and a great singer, too). Back then, the trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. This time, I was a tourist, alongside the hundreds of others that traipsed through the grounds that day. It was a different sort of experience. To see all those awards in the trophy room, to watch the video-taped interviews, to see the old movies, and then to realise that this man died at the age of 42, bloated, fat, and addicted to prescription drugs. What a waste. What a horrible waste of a life.

IMG_5200 (600x800)Why? What could have happened to a man whose dreams, by his own admission, had come through a hundred times? He was married to the love of his life, had a daughter he doted on, had a fan club that spanned the four corners of the world. Yes, he would have preferred to play more dramatic roles but was typecast in light romance and comedy – if that was the worst of it, could it really have been that bad? And he’s not alone. What is it about fame that shortens people’s lives? What is it about notoriety that poses such a challenge to living? Why do so many famous people die so young? And if dying young is the price one pays for fame, why do so many people chase it so?

And for the rest of us, it might be worth taking stock and measuring our riches not in terms of money or success but in terms of friendships and experience. Which would you rather more: a wealth of happy memories or a seven-figure bank balance and no one to share it with? Yes, when money burns a hole in your pocket, you’re never alone at the fire – but is it really all there is? Are fame and fortune the twenty-first century’s answer to the Holy Grail? I hope not.

Ethnic cleansing in Ireland?

Driving down to Wexford some time ago, I came across this memorial stone on the outskirts of The Rower, a small village in Co. Kilkenny. I stopped to read the inscription and remember being quite taken aback at how direct it was.

A memorial for the three million native gaelic poor who through death by starvation and despairing emigration under the racist foreigners mis-rule, were ethnically cleansed from this their homeland, in that famine decade.

Heady words indeed. Is there a case for the famine being a form of ethnic cleansing? The official United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing is ‘rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.’

According to singer Sínead O’Connor in her song  Famine there was no famine – there was plenty of food; what was missing was the access to it. It was only the potato crop that failed in Ireland. Wheat, oats, beef, mutton, pork, and poultry were all in excellent supply. Irish folk memory is long and stories are still told about ships leaving Irish ports loaded with food for the UK and Europe when native Irish were eating grass to survive. Would that amount to force?

Author C.W.Smith, an Englishwoman, wondered at the behaviour of her compatriots during the famine years: It is not characteristic of the English to behave as they behaved in Ireland. As a nation, the English have proved themselves of generosity, tolerance, and magnanimity, but not when Ireland is concerned. The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence, and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots. But were they racist?

Isn’t history a wonderful thing? Or is it, as Napolean put it,  ‘a set of lies agreed upon’? I had a piece sub-edited recently to better reflect the editor’s view of history than my own – i.e. my certainty was traded for his skepticism. I wonder how much our views on history shape our understanding of what’s going on in the world today – and what happens when those long-held beliefs are rubbished? Does our essence change as we recalibrate all we hold real?