An Irish Childhood

book 3

‘A four-year-old child sits on her father’s knee, in the pony-trap, holding the reins. She is conscious of the touch of his hand guiding her own, the rough texture of the sleeve of his jacket, the pony’s silvery white haunches moving to the rythym of a steady trot, its alert pricked ears, the polished harness, the rings, buckles and mounts. Presently at a curve of the avenue Mount John comes into view: solid, cream-coloured house, its low-pitched blue lead roof just visible above the parapet. From this angle it is partly hidden by trees – among them a copper beech, a tall bluish green Wellingtonia tapering to a point, a monkey puzzle and a walnut tree. Only when the trap has passed between the white gate-posts on the half-circle of gravel, to the left the pleasure ground, to the right a weeping ash, can one see to advantage the sash windows – two either side the hall-door, matched by similar pairs above and an additional window over the fanlight; the slim Ionic pillars; the oak door and the shining brass knocker that on closer inspection reveals itself as a Greek urn narrowing to the base where the hand takes hold.’

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‘Mount John was built in the early seventeen hundreds. Like many other Irish houses belonging to the same period – when the settlers began to embellish the country that hitherto they had ravaged, building themselves homes of distinction – it combines solidity with a spacious elegance. The walls are thick – in places several feet in width. I remember a great bulge by the landing window; another in the bathroom wall in which, if I am to believe an old cottager – he worked for my father and still lives on the Wicklow road – part of the Russian crown jewels are concealed.
In common with other houses designed not in isolation, but in a manner that has regard for the landscape – house and landscape making a single picture – it is seen at its best from a distance. There is a pleasing view from the road, through a gap between beeches and limes – the house standing above a sweep of lawn, set about by trees and shrubs, and, beyond it, a glimpse of mountains. Even so it looks smaller than it is – an illusion created by a facade broken by the relatively few flat windows. Inside, one is taken unawares by the spaciousness, whether it be the airy hall, the curving staircase, or the rooms with their high ceilings, pleasant proportions and the light coming in the tall windows. It seems to hold within itself something of the largeness and the quiet of the countryside.’

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‘The drawing-room was a golden room. The curtains were old-gold with a flutter of white muslin, rhe carpet a similar, deeper shade. The sun poured in the tall windows of which two faced east, the third south on to the pleasure ground – picking out the gilded oval frames enclosing portraits of my Hamilton grandparents and over the mantelshelf a gilt-edged mirror. There was a sofa upholstered in a rich gilded brocade; two yellow wooden chairs with painted on the back of each a bouquet of flowers tied with a ribbon – the tiny blossoms picked out in red and blue and violet; and in front of the piano a stool with ends similarly decorated. My mother’s Sheraton writing desk stood in one corner, and in the window as you came into the room there was a Sheraton table massed in spring with daffodils in a crystal bowl, in summer with golden-pink Gloire de Dijon roses, in autumn with chrysanthemums. I remember on the same table a tortoise-shell paper knife, a busby chain, regimental badges, a pair of spurs and a number of small silver objects that included a windmill, a filigree round table with chairs to match, a poodle dog with a leg missing. The white Adam’s mantelshelf was decorated with a carving of two gryphons staring at each other and on the side panels acanthus flowers rising on twirling stems from a Greek urn.’

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‘It is an evening in spring. The hall-door is open – as it often was, so that the house used to be permeated with the scents and freshness of the garden. The light is a pale silver, as after rain. A breeze sirs one of the West African fetish masks (relics of my father’s soldiering days) making it sway and scrape against the red-washed wall above an oak table on which there is a black-and-gold lacquer tray for visiting cards and, behind this, a pair of elephant’s tusks crossing each other. My mother comes in from the garden with violets in her hand. She holds them out to me to smell, then lays them on the table and sighing (not plaintively, but as if in satisfaction at a task well done) slips her slender, ringed hands out of a pair of crumpled gardening gloves. Spring in childhood has become crystallised in this memory of the open door, the silvery light, the scraping of the fetish mask against the wall, my mother holding out the violets.’

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‘A path ran north of the house through the shrubbery to the faded greenish blue garden door set in a wall and opening on to a box-edged path arched with ramblers. To the right was a deep border brilliant with flowers: maroon and lemon and sapphire columbines – these backed by a hedge of beech on the further side of which was a paddock where my mother kept her poultry. There were more flowers to the left of the path: deep blue cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, sweet Williams, bachelors’ buttons, flame-bright montbretia and a double row of sweet-peas. And, beyond these, raspberries and currants and strawberry beds. There was an apple tree with a twisted trunk and crumpled lichen-coated branches. Overnight – so it used to seem to us – it became in the spring a could of blossom soon to drift away upon the wind.’

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The above extracts are taken from Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir An Irish Childhood, telling the story of a period before the First World War when she and her family lived at Mount John, County Wicklow. The author’s parents had both grown up in County Meath but her father, as a younger son, did not inherit property there and so bought another small estate. For many years owned by generations of Archers, Mount John appears to have been built over several phases, the rear portion probably being the earlier part to which the east-facing front with its large reception rooms was added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. On either side of this section of the building are bows, that to the north two-storeys high, that to the south (off the drawing room) single-storey.
Financial circumstances forced Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents to leave Mount John in early 1914 and her book is an evocation of a lost Arcadia, a magical world she recalled for the rest of her life. An Irish Childhood, with its charming line drawings by Norah McGuinness, is too little known; the work provides readers with an insight into life in Ireland across all sections of society just before the onset of the upheavals that so changed this country. Many years later the author returned to Mount John and, having walked once more around the place where she had been born and spent her earliest years, she wrote ‘As I went through the white gate into the dusk it was as though there had been a transference of time. A moment belonging to a past beyond the reach of my memory, yet familiar from hearsay, had stepped forward into the present…’

Book

Mount John, County Wicklow is now for sale, and waiting to be brought back to the condition so redolently described by Elizabeth Hamilton. For more information, see: http://www.sherryfitz.ie/resi/buy/7-bed-Farms-and-Estates-For-Sale-by-Private-Treaty-Newcastle-Mount-John-House-Newcastle-Co.-Wicklow-propertydetail.aspx?id=328894&ST=1&pc=1

8 comments on “An Irish Childhood

  1. What a contrast to have such an idyllic literary memory compared to the rather brutal reality of the cling-film covered scar of a missing fireplace. Great article and one can only hope that the new purchaser can bring back a measure of the former glory.

  2. mtm says:

    What a shame the house wasn’t respected enough to have even the rudimentary repairs done (OMG: Look at that front door!) The sales information provides no pictures of the amenities. I can only imagine what state the kitchen and baths are in —Not to mention the roof, windows and systems (OH MY!) Deep pockets are required to bring this anywhere near its glorious past. Is that asking price for real? I am no expert on Irish real estate, but good Lord, that price seems way out of line for a property in desperate need of a complete overhaul. And at that price it seems the property has its fate sealed. I hope I am proved wrong.

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes,I’m afraid the house is in somewhat poor repair now, and the kitchens and so forth definitely in need of attention, but it is not at all beyond redemption in the right hands. As for the proposed price, that reflects the value of the attached land rather than the building. Without wishing to seem rude, I hope you are proven wrong too!

  3. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks for a typically well written and informative post (with an extra dash of feeling this time). You blog is always a pleasure to visit. Regards Thom.

    • Thank you, it is kind of you to write. I do recommend Elizabeth Hamilton’s memoir if you have not yet read it, a wonderfully evocative and wistful book, especially given how fractured her family life became after they all left Mount John.

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