Oh lord: next generation takes the keys to Waterford county
When he inherited Curraghmore House – and the title of Lord Waterford – Henry de la Poer Beresford had to change the name on his bank cards. But he’s happy to embrace his newly conferred role, which includes hosting the Curraghmore Bluebell Festival
‘It’s very challenging trying to keep this historical house standing up with a roof on it,’ Lord Waterford pictured at Curraghmore House, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Upstairs downstairs: household staff of Curraghmore House, Co Waterford – including footmen with powdered hair – taken circa 1905. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
‘It was a pain changing the bank cards,” says Lord Waterford, 9th Marquis of Waterford. He’s telling me about becoming Lord Waterford back in February.
“You changed your cards?”
“Well I had to, I was the Earl of Tyrone before,” he says. “So it said ‘Henry Tyrone’ on my credit card.”
“Not ‘the Earl of Tyrone?’”
“You don’t fit into the boxes when you have a title.”
“What does it say now? “
“‘Henry Waterford’. I’ll tell you, when I went into the bank manager he was fairly confused. He said normally you have to go through all these [processes]. They’re worried about people money-laundering, you see, but he said ‘I think this is a different situation’.”
I am visiting Henry Nicholas de la Poer Beresford, the new Lord Waterford, in Curraghmore House. We are standing in a vast, deserted courtyard. Statues peer out of alcoves. The house itself looks forbiddingly gothic. It’s actually a Norman keep encased in a Victorian mansion, surrounded by Georgian ranges, a landscaped garden and 3,000 acres of land. The de la Poer family has lived here for 800 years.
On the keep, looking down on us, is a St Hubert’s Stag, a deer’s head with a cross between its antlers. The stag saved the house from burning in the 1920s. “The IRA, whoever it was, had straw along the top of the house ready to set the match,” says Lord Waterford. “But there was a full moon over the lake and the full moon shone onto the cross which shone onto the courtyard, and the man who was about to light the bales thought this was a sign from above so didn’t light them and hence the house is still standing.”
Is that true? He laughs. “I’ve always been told it is. Hopefully it’s true before you write it down on paper.”
He seems like a lord. He has an outdoorsy face, wears tweed and moleskin and has spent his life devoted to polo. He is unfailingly polite but reserved. He’s happiest to elaborate when he finds something amusing, like the credit card story or the IRA burning down the house story. In general he likes short sentences and “yes” and “no” and “I don’t know” answers. This leads to me asking a lot of questions, which seems to take him aback. “Help me out here!” he says, at one point, to the photographer.
When I arrive I ask if there’s anywhere I can plug in my phone. Unfortunately, none of the old-fashioned round sockets fit my charger, so we wander from room to room until we find a modern socket in the beautiful blue drawing-room beneath plaster ceilings and ceiling paintings by Peter de Gree. The blue drawing-room is next to the yellow drawing-room which is next to the dining-room. These are among the rooms open to the public. The tour guide is the ex-butler of the previous Marquis. In the blue drawing-room there are paintings, a case of military medals, a large, ornate golden mirror and many obscure pieces of furniture including an oriental screen originally “from the bedroom of Marie Antoinette”.
How did they get that? “I don’t know,” says Lord Waterford.
He became Lord Waterford in February when his father, the eighth Marquis, died. He was 81, says Lord Waterford, “but you never expect someone to die, do you?”
He and his wife Amanda are moving in and plan to open the estate more. They’re participating in the Waterford Garden Trail, running a Bluebell Festival tomorrow in aid of the South East Radiotherapy Trust, hosting a Mud Run on August 22nd and building a tearoom in the courtyard.
“It’s very challenging trying to keep this historical house standing up with a roof on it,” he says. “You have to have a large income and with farming and forestry, it’s hard to do. That’s why we’re developing more into the tourism and want more people coming here . . . My father didn’t like too many people around.”
The new Lord is 57 and has spent most of his life going over and back to England where he managed farms and stables and polo teams. His oldest son is a top polo professional (he has two other children). When do people stop playing polo?
He laughs. “You’re looking at one now.” He pats his belly. “Too old and fat.”
Growing old and fat is a luxury for the Marquises of Waterford. There’s a curse.
“There was a child or something reputed to have been hung by a Marquis of Waterford and the mother or grandmother put a curse on the family that the Marquis of Waterford would die a painful death. And that probably was the case till my father died peacefully in his bed.”
Previous Marquises have experienced shooting accidents, drownings and even occasional lion attacks. The current marquis first thought about the curse, he says, when his son, Lord Le Poer, now Earl of Tyrone, was born. “There wasn’t a Lord le Poer for 200 years, because there was never three generations alive at the same time. So that was it. It must be over now, hopefully.” He chuckles. “I’ll be watching my back.”
Does he take it seriously? “Oh, you don’t worry about those kinds of things do you?”
He takes me out to the grounds. We pass the inner hall with its cantilever staircase and family portraits. He shows me the third Marquis, who originated the phrase “painting the town red” while on a bender in Melton Mowbray in 1837 (he literally painted the town red). “He was fairly wild,” says Lord Waterford with understatement.
We go to the impressive outer hall which is part of the original 12th-century keep. There, beneath very old plasterwork, is an incredible collection of old, posh junk. It’s worth itemising: a grandfather clock, a megaphone, a Victorian pushchair with wooden horses that move up and down, a very large key, a pile of firewood, a hand-drawn family tree (I point this out and he peers at it as though for the first time), a top hat belonging to the third Marquis, a stuffed fox in a glass case killed by the third Marquis (“[it] gave him a good hunt”), antlers on the walls, three elephant feet and an elephant’s trunk filled with umbrellas, golf clubs and walking sticks, some stuffed lions (“The sixth Marquis liked killing animals in Africa”), a cardboard box full of animal skulls (“Those are more recent”) and a table covered with hats. He punches an ancient polo hat gently, making a dent. “It must have been useless,” he says disapprovingly.
Above this there’s a huge painting of an 18th century family. There are 11 people in the painting including the first Marquis, who hired James Wyatt to develop the house and gardens, and his brother John Beresford, the former revenue commissioner who brought James Gandon to design the Four Courts. At the centre is their mother, Catherine, Countess of Tyrone, the only female to inherit Curraghmore (the Beresfords married in at this stage) and the woman responsible for building the Shell House, a seashell-covered folly in the grounds.
We walk out to the Shell House. There’s a smell of burning wood and there seem to be pheasants everywhere. We pass wrought-iron statues of hunting dogs, wolves and boars bought at the Paris Exhibition. “In three weeks this whole area will be blue [with bluebells],” he says. “It’s beautiful. Like a sea.” In a few weeks, he says, the whole garden will be “ablaze with colour”.
In the Shell House shells line the wall and little stalactites of shell fall from the ceiling. In the centre stands a statue of Catherine and there’s an old stone crest at the door. “It’s not our crest. I don’t know what it is.”
Their own crest features the St Hubert’s Stag. The family motto is “Nil Nise Cruce”, but Lord Waterford can’t remember what it means (it means “nothing but the cross” – I looked it up). We walk around the Wyatt-designed lake and see the 13th-century bridge built in anticipation of a visit from King John (he never came). In one place in the landscaped garden, the stone of the balustrade is broken by an encroaching Horse Chestnut tree. “Wyatt wouldn’t be impressed,” chuckles Lord Waterford.
Few people live on the estate now. “People prefer to live in a village next door to Centra,” he says. “I wouldn’t. I’d prefer to live in the middle of nowhere with nobody annoying me.”
He loves it here, he says. “There’s a tranquillity and quietness here you don’t get in the English countryside.”
He loves to ride across his land. Does growing up here make him feel apart from other people? “I think with my generation it changed a lot then,” he says. “There’s always a class divide but I don’t feel that, to be honest with you. I’d be happy talking to anybody.”
He says that the Beresfords were never absentee landlords. The wall around the whole estate was called “the penny wall”. “People were paid a penny a day and their food,” he says. “I don’t think the Famine was quite as bad in this area as in others, but they were quite well looked after, I think. Or as much as they could have been.”
Did he always know he was going to inherit? “I was always going to be Lord Waterford but whether I was going to inherit Curraghmore was another thing . . . My father didn’t make it clear until three or four years ago . . . [but] It would be unusual for the eldest son to be disinherited unless he did something dreadful.”
And he didn’t do anything dreadful? “No. No. Luckily, I’m an angel,” he says and laughs.
So your life was set? “It was in a certain way.”
There’s a photograph from early in the last century in which 19 servants are standing on the terrace of Curraghmore. Does he remember that world?
“Possibly the end of it,” he says. “The house is very low-key now. Money ran out or labour got more expensive.”
The house looks massive. How many rooms are there?
“I have no idea,” he says. Later I ask again. He thinks. “There are eight or nine or 10 bedrooms.”
Do many people still live like this? He says he knows a few.
Before I leave I retrieve my phone and watch Lord Waterford closing the big wooden shutters in the drawing-rooms as a clock chimes and a teckel called Hector gets under our feet. The closing shutters plunge the rooms into complete darkness. His main challenge, says Lord Waterford, is keeping a roof on the place. Keeping Curraghmore is expensive and he wants to be able to hand it to his son.
“We’ve lived here for the past 800 years, it would be a pity if we didn’t.” He pauses before adding politely: “From our point of view.”
The Curraghmore Bluebell Festival takes place on May 3rd from 11am