Our 100 year old Wicklow cottage is full of memories of other lives

Writer Philip Judge is sometimes visited by the relatives and descendants of others who have lived in his home

"We talked of the quiet beauty of the place and of our love for this small house."

"We talked of the quiet beauty of the place and of our love for this small house."

 

We never met the woman who sold us our house. We never even met the estate agent. Someone we knew had seen the place and thought we might be interested. A phone call arranged for the key to be left in the village pub. We took a leisurely, southerly drive the length of Wicklow for a brief viewing, an impulsive offer followed, then a prompt acceptance . . .and that was it. We had bought our cottage in the country with no handshake and not a drop of a spit in the palm of a hand.

There were a few niggling delays over details: a lack of planning permission for an extension and the dubious septic tank; then a month or two in a paper chase with the land registry – but these all took place by email and via third parties.

Any sense of the previous owner’s character remained a mystery – apart from the vague hints imparted by bold colour choices in the bedrooms and the Jacuzzi function in the impractically large bath.

This being Ireland, naturally I soon came across someone who knew the house and who claimed it had been decorated as a love-nest for an affair that subsequently ended. The vendor, they said, had been eager to sell.

The Jacuzzi now made melancholy sense – but lacking any personal connection with the woman who had installed it, the association soon faded. This was perhaps a good and natural thing. We have long since painted the walls a neutral off-white and I spent a happy fortnight getting in touch with my inner handyman with whose help I dry-lined the damp extension. I will swiftly pass over the less happy day I spent dealing with the septic tank. Fitting a wood-burning stove in the sitting room was the final touch to make it a home.

The accumulated memories of the cottage are now ours – and those of our two sons who are rapidly outgrowing it. However, these walls have stood on this acre of black clay for more than a century and I am pleased to have had an occasional glimpse of at least some of their earlier history.

One bright May morning when the older boy was still a baby there was a soft knock on the door. A middle-aged woman and a diffident old man stood on the doorstep looking fondly across the valley. He had moved to Birmingham in the 1950s where he drove buses for 40 years. But he’d been born here – in our room as it transpired – the youngest of 13 children. We enthusiastically dragged him and his daughter in and put on the kettle. He politely refused a cup of tea but accepted whiskey with relish and talked of his childhood.

As a small boy he had collected the water every morning from the now defunct communal pump which still stands like an iron sentry just below our lower gate. He remembered his father’s coffin on the kitchen table – just here where we now sat – and how it had to be handed out the window before being carried down the hill to the graveyard. He recalled the names of every particular stretch of the road down that same hill: Dempsey’s corner, Byrne’s field and Tyner’s cross.

For our part, we talked of the quiet beauty of the place and of our love for this small house where he – and now our son – had started life, but mostly we just listened and kept the tea and whiskey coming. His eyes moistened when he said goodbye and crushed my fingers in a startlingly strong handshake. Obviously he knew our address so we took his and for some years afterwards we swapped Christmas cards until one year, his stopped.

A summer or two later, a firmer knock announced the visit of another middle-aged woman – this time from Australia – on a sentimental visit home to Ireland. She was a far-flung niece of the Birmingham bus driver and had idyllic memories of girlhood holidays on this hill. She declined whiskey and tea in favour of chilled chardonnay and reminisced with happy-sad garrulousness of her long-dead father turning the hay in the surrounding fields. Her eyes also glistened, and she gave me a warm, lingering hug before departing. “Attractive to emotionally vulnerable women in their 50s” – I said to my wife afterwards – “I still got it!”

This house has harboured many lives and seen many changes. The emulsion around the front door sometimes flakes in damp weather and reveals many previous coats of coloured paint. The walls wear their own memories but I hope the layers we have added are predominantly happy ones – apart from sad recollections of boys losing football matches or me losing potatoes to blight. But if we ever whistle up the money to extend or rebuild, and thereby change the material substance of these walls, wherein will the history reside? In the place, or the space: in the stones themselves or in the reminiscences of a dead Birmingham bus driver; or of an Australian widow; or in the fond memories of our future grown boys?

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