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Young couple brings new life to former Catholic ‘Bishop’s Palace’ in Ballaghaderreen

David and Chloe Ewings open the door of their family home to artists and locals alike to remove the house’s air of mystery

Shakespeare returns to Edmondstown House near Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon this week after a three-year absence that seemed, for some, as long as three wet winters. Kept away since 2019 by the pandemic, London-based Pilgrim Players are back with The Comedy of Errors from Friday next, August 12th to Sunday August 14th.

The group has a preference for staging Shakespeare’s comedies in the open and did so in 2018 and 2019 at the Bishop’s Palace, as the house is known in the area, much to the delight of local audiences, a majority of whom had never been in the grounds before.

They, and the Pilgrim Players, have been hosted by young London couple David (38) and Chloe (37) Ewings who bought Edmondstown House from the Catholic diocese of Achonry in 2017. Up to then it had been the residence of Bishops of Achonry for over 100 years.

In all its 158 year existence Edmondstown House has never known such vitality as it has since 2017 with children, their families, and visitors coming and going, with opera, rehearsals, Shakespeare of course, afternoon teas, fine dining at weekends, visiting singers and musicians, and guests booked in for overnight stays.

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Edmondstown House hardly knows itself, nor has it ever known before such benign chaotic domesticity as follows every young family, anywhere: in this instance the Ewings, originally from Dulwich in southeast London, and their children, daughter (7) and son (5).

Due to its history, it was hardly a surprise the Ewings children should recently arrive back from school at St Aiden’s in Monasteraden to tell their parents that classmates had been saying “... we live in a palace”. The children were firmly advised “... you live in a home”.

As David Ewings remarked: “To them this is perfectly normal. They were two and six months when we came here.”

The family have successfully transformed the building, with its towers, turrets, and grand rooms — built in a High Victorian style as designed by John McCurdy (architect also of Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel) — into a home, right down to the enthusiastic Red Setter dog.

According to local lore, Edmondstown House was built by Captain Arthur Costello in 1864 to impress his new wife, an Italian princess. She remained unmoved, left him for England, and he died of a broken heart. Not quite the case, but they love such hopeless, romantic, and particularly tragic stories in Ballaghaderreen. The facts suggest otherwise.

Capt Costello never married and died in Dublin aged 59 after accumulating considerable debt due to an excess of living. It forced him to sell off most of his estate to the State. It was then sold back to its tenants while Edmondstown House itself and some land around it were bought by the Catholic diocese of Achonry in 1892 for use as St Nathy’s Diocesan College.

In 1896, the college moved to its present site in Ballaghaderreen town. The House remained vacant until 1911 when then Bishop of Achonry Patrick Morrisroe moved in. It remained the residence of Achonry’s Catholic bishops until 2017.

Set on 29 acres, it has seven bedrooms, two large reception rooms, a library, a fine staircase, a cellar and what were staff quarters. Outside there is a coach house, tiered lawns, a fountain and a long tree-lined avenue.

“These type of houses have a legacy in Ireland,” said David Ewings. “They do carry with them a certain stigma of what they represented. This is a big house by today’s standards, so what was it like in 1864? You can’t forget the legacy of the house. I’d say 95 per cent of people who come here today say ‘we’ve lived 10km away or 5km away or less. We live at the end of the road, and we’ve never been inside’.”

This was, Chloe felt, “the greatest shame”.

Both believe they have an obligation “to have an open door, because it hasn’t had an open door”. Local people were appreciative too.

“They’re excited. They think it’s great for the town. Sometimes they’re bigger fans than I am. When things get tough they’re like ‘no, let’s keep going’. They really want it. They understand what we’re trying to do,” said Chloe.

The couple found the house online. “We just found it on the internet and we were like ‘oh, that looks really interesting. Let’s go and have a look at it’ and then we went to have a look at it. Then we came back again six months later. I think we looked at it three times, four times? So, it was very slow. It wasn’t like ‘wow, let’s do this!’,” recalled David.

“Obviously, it was a fairly seismic shift for us, moving from London to Ballaghaderreen. For me it wasn’t so much of a shift because I had family connections here and I’d spent a lot of time here but, for Chloe, I think it was huge,” he said.

She agreed. “It was.”

“There have been some cold turkey moments, yeah.” Local people had helped her overcome those.

“You’re living in a very intimate place, although you’re quite isolated from everybody. So, while that space is there, you find ways to connect, whether that be at school, whether that be in the supermarket. The local people help you along,” she said.

David’s father is originally from Corrigeenroe near Boyle in Co Roscommon and his parents have a house there, where he spent many summers when younger. Chloe, too, had spent time there with him, so Ireland was not new to her before the move from London.

“These sort of opportunities in life don’t come along very often and I think we would have kicked ourselves if we got to 60 and we hadn’t given it a go,” he said. “The only reason we can do this, basically, is because we were lucky enough to get on the property ladder in London. There are many two-bed flats in London that would go for double this.”

The sale was completed in November/December 2017 and they moved over in early 2018. “We had only been here six weeks and we decided to put on a Shakespeare play. We do it with a guy called Max Bennet and his girlfriend Deirdre Mullins. Max is my best mate. I went to university with him. I’ve known him for 20 years; been through thick and thin with him, as he has with me.”

We’ve had opera dining experiences and we’ve had a pop-up Cuban guitarist evening. Local people are so kind to us and supportive of these new ideas

The University was Cambridge where David studied Theology and Religion Studies before going on to Law and becoming a barrister. He continues to work as a barrister with a financial institution in London, commuting from Dublin or Knock airports.

Theology? “I was just really interested in it. I’m a cradle Catholic but I had more questions than I did answers. I didn’t study it from a vocational perspective. It was all just academic.” He studied “biblical Greek, then it was Buddhism, Judaism, looking at literature from a religious perspective. One of the things that I found most impressive about the Bishop who we bought this house from — Brendan Kelly — he was a phenomenal linguist. He was brilliant at the classics, fluent in Irish, and very gifted.”

In 2018 their Shakespearean friends in The Pilgrim Players group staged Much Ado About Nothing in the House grounds. It was the Players’ first visit.

“No one gets paid. The actors pay for their own flights. They stay here and we provide the food and a couple of bottles of wine. And that’s it,” said David.

Performances are at weekends; one on the Friday, two on Saturday, and one on the Sunday. Upwards of 700 people attended the four open-air performances in August 2019. “It’s for those that want to enjoy creating theatre together,” said Chloe.

She is a trained singer and gives lessons at the house. “I studied opera singing at the Royal College of Music in London and then I lived in Vienna and studied more opera singing, and then we moved here,” she said. She teaches local children piano and singing at the house. “That’s been brilliant, actually. Teaching, that’s my love and passion,” she said. It was “lovely to see children arriving every day and, in a way, if this could be a school, I’d love it to be a school. But it’s just nice to have that steady stream of contact.”

As The Irish Times visited a rehearsal was under way for a children’s opera written by Cuban pianist Eralys Fernández who Chloe went to Music College with. From Grimm’s Tales, it is titled Mr and Mrs Hake and the Magic Princess Fish. A performance for local children and families at the house was “a great success”.

“The children have really related to it,” she said. It meant they could have “an operatic experience without it being Madam Butterfly. It starts from there. No child is going to instantly respond to La Traviata. It’s too much,” she said.

“It’s the same with food,” added David. Some weekends, as publicised on Facebook, he cooks and serves highly-praised meals at the house. Just last month Edmondstown House was nominated in the Irish Restaurant Awards as best newcomer in Roscommon.

“I enjoy cooking. We’ve always, throughout our married life, had people coming round for food and dinner.”

Chloe does not cook. “I work behind the scenes, but the bottle washer really does count — my department. No, I’m a wonderful consumer and a supporter, especially when something goes wrong. I’m very good under pressure. I’m probably the guinea pig,” she said.

The meals are frequently accompanied by singers and music. “We’ve had opera dining experiences and we’ve had a pop-up Cuban guitarist evening. Local people are so kind to us and supportive of these new ideas,” she said. Where David is concerned: “What’s nice about it is, and I always say this to people, I’d rather have 50 people who come regularly, that can text me and go ‘are you doing food tomorrow or whenever?’, than a thousand people I don’t know.”

Yes, it all involved “a lot of hard work, an awful lot of, like gardening, a colossal amount of stuff” but what made it worthwhile was “the ability to put an opera on in the diningroom. And it’s great for the children. They now think it’s normal,” as do “a lot of the children from school who came to see the opera,” he said. “We just sort of do what feels right”.

They met at school in southeast London. “Chloe went to the girl’s school and I went to the boy’s school. The rest is history, really,” he said.

And he told a story of such exceptional symmetry about his Beckenham parish in London. The late parish priest at St Edmund’s in Beckenham was Ballaghaderreen man Fr Jack Madden. Fr Victor Akongwale, a young Nigerian priest, served there and became a close friend of the Ewings family.

Fr Akongwale is from the Nigerian diocese of Ogoja whose founding Bishop (from 1955 to 1973) was Thomas McGettrick of Achonry diocese. He was sent to Nigeria from the Bishop’s Palace/Edmondstown House in 1939, as a missionary priest. “This house was quite famous in Victor’s part of Nigeria because it’s where Bishop McGettrick was sent from, and I think Victor’s Bishop stayed here with a previous Bishop,” said David.

Fr Akongwale stayed in St Edmund’s parish “for 10 years or whatever, baptises our children, goes off and does his own thing. We come here,” David recalled. “Anyway, Victor came over for six weeks last summer, ‘spoke to Bishop Paul [Dempsey, Bishop of Achonry] and is now the assistant priest in Swinford [Co Mayo]. It’s almost come full circle. And throw in, as well, Fr Jack from Ballaghaderreen. It’s almost like it was meant to be,” he said.