The wild bunch – An Irishwoman’s Diary on gardens and literature in Waterford

Garden of Cappoquin House in Waterford. Photograph: RoseAnn Foley

Garden of Cappoquin House in Waterford. Photograph: RoseAnn Foley

 

A group of gardening historians from London were given a peep into the private homes and gardens of big houses along the Blackwater River recently.

Being the only non-gardener in the group, your humble scribe has to admit that the beauty of the irises and hydrangea plants and the stately presence of Irish yew, oak and cedar trees were all but forgotten once we stepped inside the elegant homes themselves. Who could resist the dark pathos and passion in the eyes of Pauline Villiers Stuart as she looks out at us 21st-century tourists: no doubt when painted in oils she was depressed and broken-hearted after hearing that the Scottish engineer who loved her had drowned in a lake.

Walking in over grey flag-stones, a hint of long ago in the air, it was all a bit like Downton Abbey come to life. The sight of an old-fashioned Victorian pram standing in the corner of a drawing room had me imagining an earlier time when house-maids ran out of sight along underground passageways, not to mention the pheasant and grouse hanging in a game larder.

When we walked through a sunken garden in the grounds of Cappoquin House, talk touched on the beguiling smell of the magnolias, the deep colours of the azaleas and rhododendrons, and the great views of the Blackwater traversed by the Red Bridge where the old railway line once ran.

With gardener Mark Windross, from Yorkshire, beckoning us on, it was all about the 40-year-old Wisteria, the Euphorbia Melifera and an impressive Japanese cedar.

Some mature trees here are over 150 years old. The six-acre garden, which was laid out in the middle of the 19th century, was taken in hand by Lady Olivia Keane in the 1950s and expanded by her in the late 1970s. It reflects much of her taste and extensive knowledge of plants.

The sense of upstairs downstairs was pervasive, even without the owners pointing to features such as the antique sedan chair in the entrance hall of Cappoquin House

All was quiet apart from the birds, but we learned from Sir Charles Keane, who took us on a leisurely walk through the lush grounds, that it is considered great good luck to have a rookery in your garden.

The visits were part of a tour that was organised by Ardmore-based Virginia Brownlow and London-based gardener Stephen Smith.

The two friends took the visitors to river valley landmarks such as Tourin House, Lismore Castle, Cappoquin House, Salterbridge House and Dromana, all visits inspired by the trips made by Virginia’s mother, the writer Molly Keane, to friends, neighbours and relations throughout her life.

Virginia, who has vivid memories of her childhood in the big houses of the Blackwater valley, was on hand to add extra insights: some were reminded that Dromana was the real-life backdrop to her mother’s 1941 novel Two Days at Aragon.

The sense of upstairs downstairs was pervasive, even without the owners pointing to features such as the antique sedan chair in the entrance hall of Cappoquin House, the rows of hunting boots and Wellingtons lined up in hallways, and the magnificent imperial bifurcating staircase of oak that rises behind the hall at Turin House, which is home to the Jameson family (of whiskey fame).

It’s here that the granddaughters of the elder daughter of the fifth baronet, who married Thomas Jameson, live today.

It’s easy to understand how the dowager might have achieved such a great age in light of the disregard for accuracy and date-keeping that prevailed at that time

Barbara Grubb, daughter of the late James Villiers-Stuart, had us visitors in the palm of her hand when she described the most notable person associated with Dromana – Katherine, Dowager Countess of Desmond. Born a daughter of the house, it is reported that she died there in 1604, supposedly from falling out of a cherry tree at the reputed age of 140!

It’s easy to understand how the dowager might have achieved such a great age in light of the disregard for accuracy and date-keeping that prevailed at that time, continued Grubb, with a nod to the wise among us.

While the tour focused largely on the gardens and homes of the gentry, Dromana, which towers above the Blackwater, will hold a different kind of day on Saturday, July 15th, when speakers will focus attention on the literature of the Big House. Those due to speak at the event, called Now the Day is Over, include poet Tom McCarthy, who will discuss life downstairs; academic and writer Eibhear Walsh, who will look at Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane and the fall of the Big House; writer Sally Phipps, who will talk about the life and writings of her mother Molly Keane; and journalist Andrew Cockburn, who will speak about the good deeds and skulduggery that are to be found in Claud Cockburn’s Big House novel, Ballantyne’s Folly.

For more information about Now the Day is Over – The Literature of the Big House, visit dromanahouse.com, and for information about future tours of the Big Houses along the Blackwater Valley, visit mollykeanewritersretreats.com