The Trip: Scones, support and back-chat on a day out with Rathgar Ladies Club
The idea of a ladies’ club brings Grace Kelly in High Society to mind. But it quickly transpires that the club helps many women who have lost their husbands, have no family in the area or have moved to Ireland. More tea, anyone?
At Emo Court in Laois are Ellen Yendole, Louise Rankin, Ann Luke and Margaret Gilmartin. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
At Emo Court in Laois are Eileen Cassidy and Moira Dyck. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
At Emo Court in Laois are, in foreground, Catherine Hardy and Iseult Kennedy. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
It is one of those rare Irish summer days when you are almost certain the rain will hold off for the afternoon. I’m headed to south Dublin, because I have been invited to join the Rathgar Ladies Club on their annual summer outing.
When I hear I will be spending the day with a ladies’ club my initial reaction is: do they still exist? In my mind, a ladies’ club consists of a group of attractive women in their 40s and 50s dressed in white lace and pearls, sipping tea from china cups. Think Grace Kelly in High Society.
The invitation tells me the bus will leave Rathgar at 12pm. I saunter up with 10 minutes to spare and quickly realise I’m one of the last to arrive. Rena Geoghen, the club’s former president, ticks my name off a list and hurries me on to the packed bus.
As I’m directed to my seat, I can see Rena and the club’s newly elected president, Virgilia Corrigan, shaking their heads disapprovingly as the late arrivals scurry towards the bus (it’s 11.58am). Apparently, someone has arrived without having signed up for the trip: totally unacceptable.
“She can sit in the naughty chair up front,” says Lyla Kennedy as she settles herself beside me.
The minibus is filled with well-dressed women aged in their mid-60s to mid-80s. Virgilia takes the microphone and introduces us to Mike the bus driver, who looks overwhelmed by all the ladies packed into his vehicle. We are told the air-conditioning has been set on full blast due to the scorching temperatures (it’s 20 degrees).
“If they’re not feeling well, they better get off the bus now,” says Lyla, before launching into a well-informed account of the club’s history.
My preconceptions about ladies’ clubs are all wrong, it turns out. The group, which was founded in 1981, hosts a variety of talks, concerts and workshops. Musicians, authors and historians from around Dublin visit the Church of the Three Patrons for the weekly meeting.
I notice an older man sitting farther up the bus. Isn’t this a ladies’ club?
“That’s Louis Dixon and his wife, Stella,” says Lyla. “He brings her to all the club nights and always collects her afterwards.”
In a Newbridge minute
We arrive at Newbridge Silverware shortly before 1pm. As the ladies step off the bus, assisted by the chivalrous Mike, Virgilia calls after them, with desperation in her voice: “Don’t spend all your money.” It’s clear from the mad rush for the gift shop that her warning has been ignored.
I walk inside the showroom and see a tall woman eyeing the Christmas decorations.
Mary O’Connell tells me she is originally from Co Meath but recently returned from the US after living in Chicago for 24 years. “I made my life there,” she says. “It was a huge change coming back.”
She joined the club to meet women of a similar age. “I would never know any of these people if I wasn’t in the Rathgar Ladies Club, and they’ve certainly brought an enrichment to my life.”
She says the club is an outlet for women who have lost their husbands or who have no family in the area to develop friendships and socialise. However, Mary is worried about the drop in membership. “Our membership is shrinking now that women are at work. It’s a different scenario,” she says.
All of a sudden, an imposing man in a well-tailored suit grabs my arm, pulling me towards the staircase. Hans Lomulder from Newbridge Silverware leads me up to the Museum of Style Icons, describing in detail the history of every garment on display while doing so. I’m pleasantly surprised to discover an impressive collection of clothing and personal effects belonging to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
“People don’t understand or realise the extent of this collection,” says Hans as we stroll past a display case of Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor gowns. He directs me towards a collection of letters written by Audrey Hepburn to her father.
“She found out after the war that he was living in Ireland and started writing letters to him,” he says. “She came and met him over here at the Shelbourne Hotel, only for a couple of hours. That was the only time they met after the war.”
I notice some of the Rathgar ladies milling around a glass case containing a familiar black dress.
“There you have the Christina Stambolian dress,” says Hans as I look at Princess Diana’s figure-hugging black number. “We call it the revenge dress, because it’s what she wore the day Prince Charles broke up with her.”
Ladies in Laois
It’s a quick drive to the next stop, Emo Court in Co Laois, where the ladies head straight for the tearooms to fill up on buttery scones. I fall into step with Mary McMonogle, who tells me she used to come to the grounds of Emo Court as a teenager when her aunt lived in the local parish. At that time a Jesuit order lived on the estate. “All the statues were face-down on the green then,” she says as we walk along the gravel driveway. “Sure the priests couldn’t be looking at the naked women.”
I notice an attractive woman with dark eyes and sallow skin sitting on one of the lawn chairs outside the tearooms. Maria Feliciano Dia Mata is from Fortaleza in Brazil and has only lived in Ireland for three years.
“The ladies help me with my English,” she says. “They’re very friendly and special. This group helps me a lot, I listen to them speaking in the meetings.”
Maria decided to follow her son after he moved to Ireland in 2004. As we chat I see a frazzled Lorraine, our photographer for the day, herding the ladies away from the tearoom. It seems photo time may not be quite as painless as we had hoped.
The women line up in the sunshine but every time we are ready another lady scurries up from the tearoom. Rena and Virgilia wearily ask the women to hurry up.
“You’re not meant to be hurrying on your day out,” a voice calls from the back.
After 15 minutes of framing the perfect picture we are ready to be snapped when another posse appears around the corner.
“They obviously had two scones, those ones,” says Mike as the final few squeeze in at the edge of the photo.
During the tour of Emo Court we learn that the house was designed by architect James Gandon, designer of the Custom House and the Four Courts, and completed in 1870. After the Jesuits lived at the home, it was sold to Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison in 1969, who subsequently handed the house and its gardens over the State in 1995. Some of the ladies are getting tired and lose interest, slumping on the couch in front of the magnificent fireplace in the drawing room.
After the tour we are given half an hour to explore the 11,150-acre grounds of the home. I join the rhododendron search party, who are determined to locate the purple and pink flowers on the estate. The general consensus is the visit to Emo Court has become “our Downton Abbey day out”.
Missing in action
Back on the bus Mike looks worried. He tells me it is time to leave but some of the ladies are still missing. The tour guide has just told us that Emo Court is the largest enclosed estate in Ireland after Phoenix Park. This could take a while.
Mike and I agree to take a quick jog around the main gardens. Along the route I find a couple of strays and direct them towards the bus. The final culprit is found loitering outside the tearoom. She wanted more scones.
The next leg of the journey brings us to back to west Dublin for dinner at Finnstown Country House Hotel. We arrive at a haven of peace just minutes from the bustling M4, where families are sipping drinks in the warm evening sunshine.
When the food finally arrives I turn to speak to Catherine Hardy, who is sitting beside me. She worked as a doctor in Yorkshire for years but moved back to Dublin after her husband died. We discover a shared interest in travel and I delight in her tales of adventures with her husband through Russia and Japan in the 1980s.
By 9pm our bellies are bursting and eyelids are beginning to droop. The chatter on the bus home dips to a slight hum as heads fall to one side and begin to doze. When we arrive in Rathgar, I wave goodbye and begin the walk home under the final rays of sunshine.
My mind wanders to Mary from Chicago and Maria from Brazil, two women from different worlds who both joined the club to make friends in an unfamiliar city. I was entirely wrong in my assumptions of this group.
I am awoken from my daydream by a loud beep. I turn and see Mike waving from the minibus as he drives by with a large grin on his face. I’m not the only one smiling after spending an afternoon with the ladies of Rathgar.
WHISTLE-STOP TOUR: THE BEST AND WORST BITS
Ate: Three-course dinner of iced-fruit sorbet, pork belly with black pudding mash, onions and red wine jus, and sticky toffee pudding for dessert. And buttery scones at the tearoom, of course.
Saw: Glitz and glam at Newbridge Silver, Emo Court stately home and its vast gardens, and Finnstown Country House Hotel (with peacocks wandering through the grounds).
Loved: Audrey Hepburn letters, searching for the rhododendrons through the Emo Court forests. And the scones.
Hated: Working a 6am shift before the tour. Cue droopy eyelids.
Would I do it again: Already planning to spend an evening with the ladies in September.