Stranger in the night
When not leading ghost tours of the family castle, Harry Durdin Robertson is at his easel in the attic, writes MICHAEL PARSONS
HALLOWEEN DOESN’T HAVE to be quite so hideously plebeian and trans-Atlantically tacky. How about a hoity haunting in an authentically Gothic setting with a supporting cast of resident phantoms? Huntington Castle, in the decidedly Transylvanian Co Carlow village of Clonegal, is offering afternoon and evening “Candlelit Ghost Tours” featuring “spooky witches, ghosts and ghouls” daily until – and including – the night itself on Wednesday.
The 17th century pile, at the end of a forebodingly shaded avenue, was built by Anglo-Norman toff Lord Esmonde on the site of an old abbey, and looks like a mansion from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. Originally used to garrison soldiers serving Queen Elizabeth (the first one), it is now home to four generations of the extended Durdin Robertson family. The castle is partially open to visitors and available as a wedding venue and “location” hire. Some scenes in Barry Lyndon were filmed there in 1975 and more recent credits included a brooding fashion shoot for Ralph Lauren.
The tours are being led by Harry Durdin Robertson (26), an artist whose first solo show of paintings, Views from a Stranger – featuring good-enough-to-eat still lifes and agreeable landscapes – has just opened at Dublin’s Oriel Gallery. The former Clongowes student lives half the year in Italy where he learned to paint “realism” in a Florentine atelier – thus escaping the pernicious influences of Ireland’s contemporary art scene. He’s also a portraitist and keen to receive commissions. But needs must and the painter is pluckily mucking in as host to show visitors his ancestral home. Think Harry Potter meets Downton Abbey.
While the spectre of Lady Esmonde may not appear on cue, this is a cracking tour of a fascinating house. A dining room – where portraits of wigged Georgian gentry oversee an opulence of silver and polished dark wood – is alone worth the trip. But the pièce de résistance is an eye-popping Egyptian temple in the basement. This isn’t a temporary “installation” for the occasion but the permanent centre of a once notorious, and still extant, cult – the “Fellowship of Isis” – devoted to the worship of the ancient gods and founded by members of the Durdin Robertson family in the 1970s.
Alas, there’s no mummy but the pharaohnic bling decor features images of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, and altars to various Nile-side deities. Not quite what one expects to find below stairs in rural Ireland and wacky enough to cause a starched butler’s eyebrows to arch in despair. The temple is likely to be the highlight of the tour for many visitors and, although utterly incongruous, is firmly in the tradition of country house life having a streak of pure eccentricity as fruity as barm brack.
Harry Durdin Robertson claims to occasionally “hear the ghosts” while working in his attic studio and is quite unperturbed. But then he comes from a line of Anglo-Irish who didn’t scare easily. After all, his great grandmother was a crack shot whose hunting trophies decorate the walls – visible just inside the entrance to the tour – and among them is a stuffed and mounted crocodile she bagged, aged 17, on a trip to India. Her portrait hangs over the fireplace in the sumptuous Tapestry Room. She looks like the kind of gel who could have silenced a noisy banshee – at 50 yards – with a silver bullet.
Candlelit Ghost Tours of Huntington Castle, Clonegal, Co Carlow, daily until October 31st. The castle is 90 minutes from Dublin via the M9 (exit 5) and then N80. Some 12 tours daily lasting about 40 minutes. Family-friendly tours (suitable for children Under 12) between 4pm and 6pm. Evening tours between 6.30pm and 9.30pm for adults and teenagers only. Tickets: adults €10.50; Under 12s €8.50. Participants are advised to bring a torch and wear a costume. Further details and booking at huntingtoncastle.com
Views from a Stranger, an exhibition of paintings by Harry Durdin Robertson, is on view and for sale at the Oriel Gallery, 17 Clare Street, Dublin