Friday, 23 October 2020

Belle Isle: VI


I have previously written that the Belle Isle people travelled to the west coast of Ireland each year, from 1950 onwards, to holiday at Captain Hermon’s house at Mullaghmore in County Sligo, Southern Ireland.

Since the partition of Ireland, the north was becoming prosperous and changes could be seen everywhere. 

But, at that time, the south was set in the past: Ireland was now divided into Northern Ireland and the newly established Irish Free State.

Barriers and customs posts were set up at the border.

In the south, road signs were changed into Gaelic, the countryside began to look subtly unfamiliar.

The west coast of Ireland, in the 1950s, was a world where time had stood still.

Dry stone walls divided small fields; white-washed, thatched cottages were commonplace.

The southern towns were old-fashioned and picturesque, cars were rarely to be seen. 

There was no television service and few homes had electricity.

The rural south of Ireland had hardly changed in a hundred years.

Most of the people led simple, uncomplicated lives.

A common sight, on the narrow roads, was donkeys and carts, carrying creels of turf.

It was a world of immense charm and innocence.

This may seem strange, given the history of Ireland; but it was essentially true.

Captain Richard Outram Hermon, of Necarne Castle (Dick Hermon, to those around him) bought his house near Lord Mountbatten’s castle, Classiebawn, which had belonged to Edwina Mountbatten's family. 

Lady Mountbatten had inherited Classiebawn and ten thousand acres of land in County Sligo from her grandfather, Sir Edward Cassel, who had been one of the richest men in the world and a friend of King Edward the Seventh at the turn of the century.

Captain Hermon chose Mullaghmore, because of his friendship with Lord Mountbatten.

They were both keen sportsmen, and shot and fished together. 

Captain Hermon and Lord Mountbatten both kept sea-going boats at Mullaghmore. 

A friendship developed between Lord Mountbatten and the rest of the Belle Isle household; he was sometimes their guest for dinner.

Lord Mountbatten repaid the compliment on more than one occasion. 

Indeed, Lord Mountbatten wrote the forward to Vida Leigh’s book about her mother that she wrote following the death of Mrs Brunt, ‘Mary Bright of Fiddler's Green.’

Lord Mountbatten’s contribution was handwritten on Classiebawn headed notepaper. 

I recall a visit to Classiebawn Castle as a very small boy, sitting in a car outside the castle.

I retain an impression of grey walls, lichen, turrets and small trees in tubs, but not much more.

My father had called for some reason on one of the Sundays when we were at Mullaghmore. 

I have a recollection of being out in a boat at Mullaghmore with my father, Captain Hermon, Mr Porter and others.

They were very fond of fresh mackerel at Mullaghmore.

It was held that mackerel had to be eaten when they were freshly caught, because they were scavengers and it was unwise to keep them! 

They were often fried in butter very simply and delicious!

Another way of cooking them was by coating them in oats and then baking them in the oven.

Miss McDougal, the old cook at Belle Isle, was fond of using oats in cooking; it must have been her Scottish upbringing. 

It was rare for Miss McDougal to get her hands on fresh mackerel; she could only really obtain these if the household returned from Mullaghmore with some that had been caught that morning. 

On Sundays, lunch was always a happy occasion at Mullaghmore: Everyone would sit down and dine in view of the sea through the large plate glass windows.

Sometimes lunch was served by a butler, as far-fetched as that sounds! 

Tom McKervey had been Captain Hermon’s butler at Necarne Castle in the days when the castle was occupied.

Captain Hermon continued to employ Tom after he abandoned Necarne Castle, and retained Tom’s services till the day he died.

Tom took on many roles in later years but he was always Richard Hermon’s loyal servant. 

Tom did, when required, still attire himself in black jacket, waistcoat, striped trousers and wait on table; sometimes at Mullaghmore; and sometimes his services were used at Belle Isle if there was an occasion that called for the old razzmatazz! 

There was a different cook at the Mullaghmore house during the summers: her name was Maggie and she had worked for Captain Hermon in the castle at Necarne in the past.

I remember nosing about in the kitchen at Mullaghmore while she was there and she was very kind to me. 

As usual I got under everyone’s feet and had to stick my nose in everywhere!

In any event, Miss McDougal never had leave from Belle Isle to cook at the holiday house.

Just as well or she would have had a blue fit! 

The trips to Mullaghmore on the coast continued for some years, as Audrey (right) and I were growing up.

In 1964 I left Ireland, like countless thousands of young Irish men before me, to work in England. 

I went back to Ireland often, and made what was to be to be my final visit to my old Belle Isle friends at Mullaghmore in 1965.

I was seventeen, a lanky, awkward and sallow youth. 

I remember this occasion vividly: Vida Leigh took my mother, father, Audrey and Tiggy on a drive around the coast road; I don’t recall where Dick Hermon and Nicholas Porter were, but old Mrs Brunt and I were left alone, sitting in the porch, overlooking the sea. 

We were old friends and easy with each other.

Gigi made polite conversation, how did I enjoy England? Had I made friends? Would I come back to Ireland?

She looked at me closely and, smiling at me, took my hand, “I have known you since you were born Julian, you must not let England spoil you, you know, do not lose touch with Ireland and your mother, you must always come back.”

I remember this clearly, it was one of those moments.

 I recall looking closely at Gigi and registered how old she had become.

Her hair was still chestnut in colour, but her eyes were yellow and tired.

She was 87 years old. 1965 became 1966. 

I was at work in Hatfield, near London, when the telephone rang one morning: it was a payphone in a passage on a wall outside for the use of staff.

“It’s for you Jules,” I left what I was doing and went to the phone, it was my mother.

She told me quietly that Gigi had died peacefully in her sleep the evening before, on New Year’s Day, 1966. 

It was the end of an era, the Belle Isle folk never returned to Mullaghmore. 

In 2008, in summer Audrey and I returned to Mullaghmore with Audrey’s husband, Jack, and her daughters Caroline and Jackie.

I was sixty years old and Audrey was fifty five.

We walked round the harbour and had something to eat in what had been Peter’s public house, all those years ago. 

It bore no resemblance to the old inn of the 1950s, and had changed beyond recognition; it was clean and modern and bright and welcoming, but no trace remained of how it had been before.

It was a different world.

Mr Hermon’s house was still there on the hill; it belonged to someone else now.

We drove up to the gates and sat for a minute or two in silence, remembering. 

It seemed smaller and greyer and strange; there was nothing for us there, no trace of what had been, the sheet had been wiped clean; and I remembered Tiggy’s words to me at Necarne, when she was talking about Belle Isle, “You can never go back to the past.” 

It was a page from another time and no-one standing on that hill now would know how it had been back then. 
I can still see my sister Audrey, running along a stone wall beside the beach at Mullaghmore in 1958.

Our father would be teasing her; they played a little game, time and time again. “Audie, two!” 

She would shake her head and respond, “No, Audie three!” young Audrey was the apple of Esmond’s eye and the age game was played often, but Audrey knew she was three!

“Come on Juna!” she would shout excitedly, as she ran to the beach. 

I was ‘Juna’ to Audrey and the beach was waiting!

All those who laughed and danced and walked on the sand and paddled in the sea, with the wind in their faces, have gone.

Esmond and Pearl, Nicholas Porter and Richard Hermon, Vida Leigh and Gigi and Tiggy - and Audrey. 

My beloved sister Audrey was dying from lung cancer when she made the last visit to Mullaghmore.

She died on 22nd January, 2009.

First published in March, 2010.


Anonymous said...

What a moving and beautiful story. Having grown up near Belle Isle it was very poignant. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

A gorgeous piece of writing. Thank you.

Andrew said...

Thank you so much. You get to the point in life where so many loved family, friends and neighbours are gone. They stay with you though and in many ways are more real than ever. Gratitude for a good life is always enriching.