AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY

 

LIVING on the rock is how the people of Dromana describe their residence, perched on a crag over the river Blackwater as it surges to the sea. Emily and James Villiers Stuart have returned to the house where James grew up, the only child of Ion and Elspeth Villiers Stuart of Dromana, Villierstown, Co Waterford.

When, after the death of Ion, the 19 year old James was trying to work out what to do for the best, his aunt Gertrude insisted that the ancient house, with its great Georgian mansion in front, should not be sold to the Land Commission. The family had lived on the rock for 500 years and she would buy it herself rather than see that tradition broken.

The tradition - which includes the reputation of Dromana as the birthplace of the famous Countess of Desmond - was upheld, but at the cost of the Georgian building. It was taken down, largely due to the depredations of dry rot, in the sixties.

That removal has changed the profile on the crag. The "modern" house - according to Mark Bence Jones an impressive affair both inside and out, with a monumental hallway and vast curved eight windowed drawing-room which was completed in 1806 - has disappeared but the old manor house behind it has emerged in all its simplicity.

Uncertain Future

This is the house which James and Emily Villiers Stuart are now opening to the public. Having sold the land in 1957, they lived in the west of Ireland for years before coming back to farm at Ballynaparka near Cappoquin.

As retirement loomed it looked as if the future of Dromana was again uncertain, as if that old tradition of living on the rock might be broken at last.

When James saw the opportunity to buy back his family home he seized it. Now both he and Emily reflect on what they describe as "the wonderful challenge" of refurbishing the old house and its walks and woodlands.

Woodlands in which, incidentally, the first domesticated cherry tree in Ireland is believed to have been grown from seeds brought by Sir Walter Raleigh. He could not have foreseen the consequences of his propagation for the old Countess - she is said to have fallen to her death from a cherry tree as she reached for the ripest fruit.

The public are drawn to the house because of its extraordinary situation. Those lucky enough to know that amazing landscape embraced within the tributaries Finisk and Licky will be familiar with the silhouette hanging over a curve of the tidal river as the road from Youghal loops around the Blackwater estuary on the way to Cappoquin.

The road hugs the bank of the river; the woods are dense on either side, cloaking the hills as far as the skyline, showering leaves, haws, sloes and black berries on the roadway and turning the river light green in spring, emerald in summer and in autumn, a golden tinted bronze.

Hindu-Gothic Gateway

In winter, leafless, the river shines blue or grey reflecting only the sky.

Seen from the western edge, Dromana is mysterious and alluring. The approach from Cappoquin intensifies the appeal, beginning with the famous Hindu Gothic gateway spanning what is now the main road to Villierstown (a beautiful village, immaculately kept, its monuments enhanced by the addition of the stone tablet commemorating the achievements of its son John Treacy).

Built in 1826 to welcome a Villiers Stuart marriage, its dome, minarets, fretted balustrades and archway bring unsuspecting travellers to a halt on the bridge where the edifice is explained, having been restored by the Irish Georgian Society.

Dromana is drenched in history, a history that spans the islands of Ireland and Britain by a bridge built of marriages and wills, liaisons and elopements, shattering legalities and weighty enactments, creations and second creations with nobility scattered like pennants through the genealogical architecture of what might in a moment of levity be called the family tree.

From the first watchtower built by the Desmond Earis and the FitzGeralds of the Decies through to the reliable intrigues of Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II and abetter of the marriage by which Catherine FitzGerald married Edward Villiers.

From the early deaths from typhoid of both Gertrude Amelia and her husband Henry in 1809 to the death, also tragically early, of Elspeth Villiers Stuart as she rode on a brakeless bicycle into Villierstown in 1943, to the renewal of the manor house begun in 1960 and now visible again because of the obliteration of its Georgian successor: through it all Dromana has held its place in the history as well as the geography of Munster.

Preserving Records

The lords of Dromana were the Lords Stuart de Decies, Barons of Dromana the title of Earis of Grandison is gone now, subsumed in the Scots connection.

But James Villiers Stuart is devoting much of his time to the exhumation and conservation of family records, deeds and documents and to having them preserved on microfilm and lodged both in the Waterford County Library at Lismore and with the National Library.

The portraits and paintings are being taken out of storage. There are so many that Emily is considering turning the old kitchen into a gallery.

The terraces and bastions of the lower shelves of the cliff, the ferrywoman's house, the boathouse, the picnic lawn and the narrow paths which lead to them are all being cleared.

James remembers, of course, when the garden front and forecourt were as busy as a beehive with house guests, indoor and outdoor staff, horses and grooms and ghillies and beaters all contributing to the life of the Irish country house.

Those were the days when all he wanted to do was study farming, when his mother rode the Wall of Death at the funfair in Cappoquin with Charlie Cavendish of Lismore riding pillion, when the long stable range with its bow fronted houses for the grooms had loose boxes for 21 horses and kennelled the hounds for the West Waterford Hunt.

He has no recriminations. He tried to make a go of what was left after death duties he couldn't do it, and that's that.

But here he is, home again, Dromana alive again as a family home, its lights glinting over the dark river.