Squatting in an Irish country house

In the 1950s, my very English great aunt Sheila made the bold move of marrying an American. He was called Charlie, and they lived in a beautiful 60 acre Irish estate, near a town called Mallow, in Cork county. Up until now, I had a fairly idyllic vision of Ireland, based on seaside villages and postcard farms, but driving one hour inland shows a rougher reality of copy-and-paste housing, unemployment, Irish travellers and boredom.

The estate now stands at odds with its modern surroundings, and is unoccupied except for Mary, the housekeeper, four unruly dogs, and Josh and I, who came to stay for the weekend.

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The estate is an extraordinary place. Back in the ’50s, Charlie and Sheila were diverted by the ‘For Sale’ sign on the drive back to the airport from a holiday on the Irish seaside, and missed the flight but bought the house. The estate was once set in a rural landscape, but bad town planning and a boom in the Irish property market meant that Mallow gradually crept up the hill to engulf the walls of the estate on all sides. The house itself is completely unchanged by this, like a time capsule from the past, standing in complete ignorance of happenings outside the walls. Except when the travellers jump the gate and steal cucumbers from the greenhouse, a perennial problem, apparently.

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In her old age, Sheila used to sit for hours on end in the library. She was an eccentric who didn’t like people a lot, but did like horse racing an awful lot. Her life was dedicated to the racing stud, which was successful to a degree, but she would rather watch a victory on the telly in this room than go in person and have to talk to all the people she would inevitably have to talk to. Her reading glasses are still on the side table.

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Charlie and Sheila lived in a way we’ve forgotten about until Downtown Abbey became a hit. There is a door bell underneath the carpet so Charlie could call the servants from the kitchen without causing disruption (to him). Josh kept stepping on it by mistake, sending the dogs berserk. Back then, the tableware was silverware, all meals were taken in the dining room, and absolutely no mugs were allowed in the house – cups and saucers, thank you very much. When the stairs became too much for Sheila, she installed a magnificent chair elevator train track of a thing, which winds up three stories in 20 minutes.

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Charlie as a young man, surveying the dining room

All this primness, and then you meet this voluptuous beauty, catching your eye at the last moment just as you turn the corner of the stairs. I know this post has nothing to do with food, but the house was such an oddity, I thought I’d share it. A final thing – big thanks to Mary for having us to stay.

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