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  • Shelley Dark

#14 Draíocht = magic

If you've been following my research travels, you'll know there's been magic happening.

When I told a man sitting next to me on a plane that I needed sailing knowledge of the Mediterranean, he turned out to be a ship's captain who knows that sea like the back of his hand. When I hired a guide on Hydra, she turned out to be related to my hero. When I needed naval history, a rear-admiral turned up. When I said I can't find a book online, it was in my hands that afternoon. Friday and yesterday were more of the same.

The list, if I made it, would go on and on. So much coincidence, as if the book is begging to be written.

In my last post I mentioned that there was draíocht in Bantry House - an Irish word for enchantment.

Now I want to tell you about some research magic as well - that's draíocht too.

Back to Bantry House. It's far from perfect, but totally enchanting. A grand lady who's fallen on hard times. She was built, added onto, taken away from, maintained, fallen into disrepair, and now has a family desperately trying to play catchup. The owners Sophie and her husband, of the family of the Earls of Bantry, lives here with her husband and young family.

Sometimes if a significant mansion is maintained by government or wealthy trust it can be immaculate, beautiful and frozen in time. At the same time formal and stiff, roped-off, guarded, and cold.

Bantry House from the sea side

A real family owns this house and lives here, without the endless funds of an institution, so there's a more physical intimacy - warm, casual, and giving. The people who live and work there take the home into their hearts and the atmosphere radiates love and trust.

At Bantry House there are no ropes. Paintings aren't taken away to be restored - they're done in situ because someone is kindly doing it for free. Treasures are left displayed on furniture and there are no guards in the rooms. Local people walk their dogs in the garden here.

The visitor is trusted. There's a sign asking for no photographs to be taken. I asked where I may and may not take photographs and the answer was 'Take all you like when the rooms are empty - we just prefer people don't obstruct rooms for others.'

'Take a book and tell them at checkout you've taken it.' 'Sorry if you hear a baby crying or children yelling during the tour - the family live here and the little ones are a bit noisy.'

Sure the curtain fabric is disintegrating in places, and the rugs need re-backing.

For all I know the roof could need replacing. But things are being done just as fast as they can be.

I know that more funds need to be found for the upkeep of this treasure. But selfishly, I'm glad I saw it the way it is.

One of the tapestries was supposed to have been ordered by Louis XV for Marie Antoinette as a wedding gift when she married young Louis.

I loved this little painting. There's a fascinating portrait collection.

​Most of these treasures were acquired by the second Earl of Bantry in the first half of the 1800's during his grand tour. There's even a letter from Lord Nelson in 1786 asking for a new sail for his ship.

The second earl laid out the gardens in the Italian style, on seven terraces to make the best of the site overlooking Bantry Bay. Virginia creeper is just starting to turn colour on the facade - it's like a picture postcard isn't it?

The parterre is planted in box and yew, with a wisteria circle and grotto-like fountain in the centre.

Imagine the second earl's horror when he came home to find that in his absence his father had given away a strip of land on the seafront for a public road. Cleverly, he raised the garden so far above it that now you can’t see it from anywhere on the estate, and you can't hear the whizzing cars.

The guest rooms are comfortable, unpretentious and charming. My room had windows on both sides overlooking both the sea on one side and the garden on the other.

There's a teeny tiny sitting room with an honesty bar and you're welcome to take your drink through the 'secret door' to this library. The door is open, on the right of the fire place in the photo. It's rather a grand room for an aperitif!

Rather handsome mirrors at either end!

And huge glass doors which look out on to the parterre.

The guest rooms are in the wing on the left. Mine is the middle floor bedroom at this end.

There are stable wings on either side of the house on a higher terrace. One functions as garden sheds and storerooms, while the other is a hollow but beautiful shell.

One hundred steps rise up the steep slope behind the house, with a view from every level. I climbed up several times to take it in again and again.

Although I went to Bantry House for pleasure, it gave me an insight into local grand houses at the time of our heroine. How rich English/Irish landlords lived and played.

Now to tell you about developments in my research!

I've come to Ireland to research the heroine of the book. I knew before I came that the records I needed were burned in a fire in December 1920 in Cork city during the War of Independence. But I had several baptism records which were a possibility - I'd visit the most likely areas and see what developed.

I stopped in at a local church on Friday, and a parishioner told me to go to see Father Tom in the clergy house. 'He's very approachable'. I knocked on the door and explained the baptism I was looking for, but Fr Tom was having a parish council meeting, then going to schools. On Saturday he had a baptism, on Sunday of course he had things to do. I must have looked disappointed because he suddenly said, 'How about tomorrow at 2.30pm?' I walked away with joy in my heart and a spring in my step!

I went back to look inside the church. A woman walked down the aisle towards me. For some reason I smiled and said hello. I usually don't speak to people in churches - they're there to pray and I respect their privacy and solitude. So why did I do that?

Her name was Theresa and I felt as if I'd known her forever. I told her about my search. Lucky for me she has a heart of gold. 'I know the very man! He knows all the local history,' she said. 'Follow me down town and I'll get his phone number at the post office.' What a girl.

She noticed that I didn't cross myself with holy water as we left the church, so she wet her hand again and touched my forehead. I know for sure she's an angel.

I parked behind her on the footpath at the post office. When she came out, she phoned her friend John Joe. He suggested tomorrow at 4pm. Perfect! And what was even more wonderful was that he has the same name as our heroine.

We went into the supermarket to make ourselves a cup of coffee from the self serve machine. There are tables and chairs near the checkouts. 'We don't have any fancy cafés here,' she said. We sat and chatted about our lives, our families, her recent trip, my book. 'You know I only prayed 5 stations of the rosary in the church,' she said. 'Then I got sore knees. If I'd said the full thing we wouldn't have met. Isn't that strange?'

I just had time to make Bantry House for the guided tour at 2pm.

The next morning after I left Bantry I drove around the bay trying to get a view of the house from across the water. ​

​But I couldn't find a vantage point and I was terrified of being late for Fr Tom. So I did a U-turn and drove back.

On those little roads you can be stuck behind a slow truck for ages. Aren't they pretty sileage bags? I risked life and limb to take that photo - if two cars had come along at the same time I would have had to dive over a solid wall of scratchy bush on the side of the road. It didn't happen.

Driving is quite a pleasure in Ireland. Trying to find a place to stop is not!

I was an hour early as it turned out, but I was happy to wait. The white van was still there. Maybe it's Father Tom's!

Father Tom is silver-haired and affable. He opened a huge fire-proof Chubbs safe to take out the actual Baptism Record Book from the early 1800's. Carefully he turned the pages. At first he thought the entry was missing, but the priest had written the wrong year on one section. Then he found it and we read it together! We discussed spelling mistakes, how babies were usually baptised on the day they were born, the family names of the witnesses.

Theresa had said Father Tom would tell me how to find John Joe's house. Knowing the maze of tiny roads, I dreaded being lost and missing John Joe altogether! It turned out Fr Tom didn't exactly know, but he phoned a neighbour. He was tech-savvy enough to drop a pin on google maps on my phone. Too easy.

When I left he said 'I'll see you at the Pulitzer Awards'. We both laughed at his joke.

It doesn't matter how many photos of the green pastures I take. I still have to stop and take another one. The heifers came down to say hello.

The house was a modern two-storey home and Ursula answered the door as soon as I arrived. And they were just as nice as they look. John Joe's family has been living on this same farm, with exactly the same acreage, for centuries, and he knows the names of his forebears by name, and the names of their wives, right back to the late 1700's. And for many he knows how many children, who their sister married! Off by heart. They were tenant farmers of the local lord, liable to be evicted at any time, until the early twentieth century. Then they became outright owners. The pair have co-written a book on local graveyards which they wanted to lend me. They were just so kind.

I had taken a berry tart from the local bakery and they politely insisted on eating it. Even though Ursula had made a lemon cake. Guess which I chose!

We discussed the possibilities of our heroine being part of this family. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, John Joe felt it could easily be so. He had a suggestion too about one of the witnesses at our heroine's parents' marriage.

He told me about the more recent history of his family. His father and uncle fought for the IRA and were arrested in January 1921 and imprisoned on Spike Island near Cobh - I mentioned that island to you the other day. His father tried to escape in August and as punishment was sent to Whiddy Island for the rest of the year. He was decorated after the amnesty.

We talked politics a little. The treatment of Irish Catholics by the English over the centuries. For many, the wounds are still fresh.

Suddenly Ursula said, 'So would you like to see the house?'

'Sorry?' I said.

'The house,' said Ursula. 'The original house from the early 1800's. We lived in it until forty years ago.' Tingles went up and down my spine.

The old house looked as neat as a new pin, nicely proportioned, freshly whitewashed, forming one side of a concrete quadrangle. On another two sides are the old storehouse building, and the dairy shed. They've had to put in new windows, Ursula explained, because the birds were building inside.

There was a gladioli stem lying near the front door. As soon as I admired it, Ursula snapped it off and said 'It's yours now.'

​Downstairs there was an entry, a storeroom, a living room and the kitchen. There was no kitchen range, just an open fire place.

the upstairs bedroom fireplace

Upstairs two bedrooms - at times two parents and eleven children could be sleeping in them.

Look at the thickness of those walls. Ursula said it was a very warm house. Windows were small because home owners were taxed on them - it varied on the basis of the number and size.

The smaller upstairs bedroom. Did our heroine touch those walls?

The back of the house is rather pretty isn't it with the hydrangea softening the wall. The original roof was thatched, and it's been re-slated twice.

​John Joe's great-grand-father died when he fell from these steps.

Every house had a little shrine.

It was nearing dark and starting to rain, so I felt I must make for Cork. I was really sorry to say goodbye to John Joe and Ursula. There were so many questions still to ask! We'll keep in touch, but they don't have the internet so it will have to be snail mail or telephone.

I drove to the front gate and stopped to put Cork into the GPS. Before I knew it, Ursula was at the car window. She was worried I was lost already. Without the phone I would be!

Forty minutes later I was in Cork. Our flower is now above the bathroom sink in a hotel glass. That's probably the most special flower I've ever posted for you!

I looked for Whiddy Island on google maps. I know now why I couldn't find a spot to view Bantry House from the other side of the bay. Whiddy Island is in the middle. I've been looking at it for two days.

I've spoken to Theresa on the phone a few times since Friday - she's really has been the magician-cum-catalyst. Kind and generous and eager to help. She's put me in touch with her cousin a genealogist. What a treasure.

You know, I had driven through other possible towns in the last few days, and not felt a thing. Sometimes not even gone into the church. But this town just felt right. The farm felt right. We'll probably never know if our heroine has a connection. But I've a hunch that she did.

Tomorrow I fly back to London. Until next time buddies,

shelley dark, writer 

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