English head, Irish heart: how a deserted cottage inspired me to write

Nuala Ellwood recalls an uncanny time in Mayo with her father, TV journalist Luke Casey

For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to water. There is something about being close to the edge of a lake or by a seashore or riverbank that speaks to some primordial part of me and settles my soul.

Which is why so many of my novels have had a watery landscape at their heart. My debut thriller, My Sister’s Bones, was set in Herne Bay, on the north Kent coast, whose scumbled skyline inspired the artist, Turner. My second novel, Day of the Accident, followed the serpentine, semi-rural, course of the River Ouse in Sussex, in whose waters the writer Virginia Woolf took her own life in 1941.

Yet when it came to writing my latest novel, The House on the Lake, I had to swim back through the silt of memory and return to my childhood, to a summer’s day in Ireland when I was 12 years old. And, in doing so, I had to reconcile, not only what happened that day, but also the two distinct sides of me: what my Dad used call the English head/ Irish heart paradox.

My Dad, veteran TV journalist, Luke Casey, had been brought up in Co Mayo in the west of Ireland, a mystical land of lakes and mountains. Mystical because, to me, it had always existed in some strange netherworld that hovered between the Irish Sea and the vast Atlantic Ocean, a place my dad would talk about with a faraway look in his eye and a reverence that bordered on the sacred.


It was a land that, though not able to sustain him economically – his family had emigrated to the north east of England in 1956 when my dad was 14 years old – continued to nourish him spiritually, culturally and emotionally, throughout his life.

And so it was that I found myself one scorching July afternoon in 1991, walking with my Dad across a meadow at Knockmore, in search of a long-deserted house. This was a special place for Dad, the land of his maternal grandparents whose farm had stretched along the shores of Lough Conn, a lake still brimming with salmon and trout. Two impressive mountains flanked the lake: Nephin, on one side, and the Ox Mountains on the other, and we could see the peaks of each as we made our way to the house. Dad described how those hills had both defined and expanded his horizons as a boy. It was exciting to imagine what lay beyond them yet comforting to be safe under their watchful gaze.

As we reached the end of the meadow the house slowly emerged in front of us.

“Here we are,” said Dad, opening a little rickety gate, and stepping into the overgrown garden. “It hasn’t changed much.”

“Someone’s lit a fire,” I said, inhaling the smell of smoking peat as I followed my Dad through the gate.

My Dad paused to sniff the air then shook his head. “I can’t smell anything except those cowslips,” he said, pointing to a cluster of yellow-headed flowers by the gate.

We walked on, the smell of peat smoke still lingering in the air, but as we drew nearer to the cottage I heard something that made me stop in my tracks.

Laughter. Deep, rip-roaring, belly laughter, the kind that comes when you’re around good friends.

It wasn’t coming from my Dad as he was standing by the door of the house, his face sombre, lost in his memories.

As I watched him stroll round to the side of the cottage, a dilapidated, abandoned dwelling that had been in the family for generations, the laughter stopped and the air filled with music. It was a sweet, yet distant sound, as though an orchestra was playing inside a bubble. It was a sound that didn’t belong to this world.

I should have been terrified but I stood there, mesmerised, as the music gave way to voices, low and susurrating, like waves coming in and out of the shore.

“Can you hear that?” I asked my Dad, when he reappeared. “Those voices? The music? The laughter?”

My Dad shook his head. Then he smiled and told me that the house he had visited as a boy had always been full of laughter and music. “Those things never end,” he said, wistfully. “They stay hidden in the land, somewhere beyond our perception.”

We left the house then, and made our way along the road towards Lough Conn, which shimmered like a turquoise jewel in the fading afternoon sun. And as we stood by the shore, I thought of those unquiet voices, of a house occupied by ghosts, the lake water lapping at my feet, and a seed was planted that would take almost 30 years to come to fruition.

The result was my third novel, The House on the Lake, which tells the story of two women who find freedom through reclaiming the wildness that lies hidden inside them. It is a story of courage and redemption, of starting over and laying ghosts to rest and it plays out against a watery backdrop with an abandoned house just like the one I stood outside that day, listening to the voices of the past fluttering through the air.

In the end, I decided to set The House on the Lake not in Ireland, but in the depths of the Yorkshire Dales, a place my Dad had documented for his award-winning ITV series, The Dales Diary, and where I had spent many, happy times with him, walking in the hills and putting the world to rights. Yorkshire is the place I now call home, though I will always feel a pull to Co Mayo, the land of lakes of mountains, and the people whose voices I heard that day because I will always be made of two parts. Like Dad once said: English head/ Irish heart.
The House on the Lake by Nuala Ellwood is published by Penguin