Monday, 26 October 2020

Belle Isle: VII


I have written earlier about being brought up at Belle Isle Castle and of the occupants of that beautiful place whom I knew as a child.

I am now writing all of my recollections of Belle Isle, Necarne, Corrard, and Ireland in those days, and the following is an extract from my memories concerning Necarne.

I have always been fascinated by big houses and stories of people who lived in them.

Perhaps it was growing up at Belle Isle that kindled this interest but it has always been with me.

My first memory of Necarne was gossip overheard in the Belle Isle kitchens. 

Mr Hermon had sold all the furniture! The roof was leaking!

There were hens roosting in the drawing-room at night!

I had no idea what Necarne looked like except that it was a castle and Mr Hermon used to live in it.

Until one day, when I was a small boy, my father had to call at Necarne and took me along in the Land Rover for company.

I will never forget the first time I saw the castle: My father drove through the large gates and entered the grounds; he drove along the avenue and, coming suddenly round a bend and through some trees, it was there. 

I was enthralled.

A long and battlemented building, honey coloured, with a row of gables running along the top; turrets at the ends and round towers rising behind the body of the castle.

I saw tall chimneys, arched windows and massive doors.

The Land Rover kept moving but I was pressed to the window, trying to take it all in. It was wonderful.

I would have loved to get closer to it but Esmond would have none of that. 

He picked up what he came for and we left by the back road, that was all I saw of Necarne for years; but my curiosity was fully aroused.

In the years to come, I learned a great deal about Necarne and spent many memorable times there... 



Porter of Belle Isle

WHEN Nicholas Henry Archdale Porter died in 1973, Vida Leigh and Tiggy Brunt moved from Belle Isle Castle to Necarne and lived with Captain Richard Outram Hermon.

The place of residence was not Necarne Castle itself but a lovely house beside it known as the Gardener's House, a fine Georgian building, beautifully proportioned and elegant. 

I believe it would originally have been the Dower House.

I was now living in England and it was strange coming back to Ireland knowing that my old friends were no longer at Belle Isle.

When I came home in August 1974, Vida invited my parents, Esmond and Pearl; Paul, an English friend of mine; and me, to dinner one evening at Necarne.

We arrived at the Gardener's House on a warm and sunny summer evening.

This was the first time I had seen the house: It was a solid two storey Georgian structure with a central door to which Richard Hermon had added pillars, for no other reason but to make the house look more imposing. 

There were casement windows, one either side of the front door and three above.

The house had an elegant drawing-room of a good size, a small dining-room and an old-fashioned kitchen.

There was a further back kitchen and another small room downstairs. 

We sat in the drawing-room for drinks and Vida and Tiggy seemed perfectly happy and adjusted to their new home.

Dick Hermon was present and perfectly agreeable, he had always got on with my father and they chatted away about farming.

The drawing-room had two sofas and some chairs set around a marble fireplace.

There were little tables scattered about and a small desk in a recessed side window alcove.

Mahogany shelving had been fitted on the back wall and was filled with books. 

There was a gilt-edged mirror over the fireplace and some of Vida Leigh’s paintings on the walls - two interior views of Belle Isle and a portrait of Nicholas Porter.

Vida very kindly gave me a copy of one of the paintings of the hall at Belle Isle Castle.  

We all crowded into the small dining-room: a circular table surrounded by chairs, a sideboard and a crystal chandelier over the table.

There was a hatch between the dining-room and kitchen and Tiggy pushed the food through and served the meal.

We had braised duck and a selection of vegetables followed by a summer pudding. 

The pudding was made from fresh raspberries and blackcurrants soaked in wine and packed into a brown bread mould and chilled.

It was a lovely meal.

Vida chatted throughout the dinner and explained how she had prepared the dishes.

On the way home in the car later, my mother laughingly told us that Vida had not prepared anything.

She liked to take credit but Tiggy had done the work! 

It was always the same. My mother knew Vida through and through and was familiar with her ways.

Dear Tiggy had smiled demurely and said nothing!

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that Tiggy was slighted.

The sisters were devoted and Tiggy understood her sister’s need for glory!

The walls of the long and narrow hall in the Gardener's House were covered with row after row of framed 18th and 19th century political cartoons that had been on the walls of the landing above the Tudor Gallery in Belle Isle Castle.

Lavinia Baird had disliked them and gave them all to Vida Leigh in the 1970s.  

While the party was talking after dinner I wandered across to the castle.

It was still light and the sun shone on the beautiful stonework.

It was, on close examination, a sorry sight: the glass was missing from some of the windows and I leaped over one of the sills and entered a large room. 

There was evidence of water damage everywhere, ceilings were hanging down; there was debris and muck on the floors.

Doors were missing and there were signs of vandalism.

Everywhere was desolation and damage.

There were traces of wall coverings, carvings, mouldings and intricate plasterwork.

It had clearly been a beautiful place.

A voice shouted through the window.

It was Tom McKervey, the old butler.

He was retired but still lived nearby.

I knew Tom well from my childhood and he greeted me warmly but added a warning; “don’t go up the stairs, the floors are rotten and it is dangerous.” 

I could not resist a look.

Gingerly I made my way to a landing which was even more depressing.

Tiggy told me, on a later occasion, that around that time some children ran amok in the derelict castle and tossed loose and crumbling stonework from the battlemented towers into the gardens below. 

The castle’s windows were boarded up to preserve what was left.

It was a sorry end to one of Fermanagh’s beautiful buildings.

Later that evening, we sat in the drawing-room and then Vida jumped up and said “come on,” we all followed her and trooped upstairs to her bedroom.

Vida reclined on the bed and we all sat around.

Some more drinks were produced and we chatted for a couple of hours. 

It was like old times at Belle Isle, Vida had always enjoyed holding court in her room.

It was a lovely room, too, but nothing compared to the one she had used at Belle Isle.

We were shown round the upstairs rooms and Vida remarked on a tapestry on the wall in Mr Hermon’s room.

It was old and had been with him at the castle.

I wish I had paid more attention because I cannot remember what she said, but I think it may well have been Gobelins. 

Apparently it was one of the few possessions he had retained from the castle.

Richard Hermon had been in an affable mood all evening and I broached the subject of the castle.

He said that it was not practical after the war to keep it up and it was no good rattling around a place like that on your own. 

I knew better than to pursue the matter but do recall Lavinia Baird saying once that had Mr Hermon spent a couple of thousand pounds when the roof started to leak and, repaired, it would still be sound.

She said it would now cost a fortune to bring it back.

At the end of a most enjoyable evening at Necarne, we made ready to leave.

Again, this is a memory that sticks in my mind: we walked along in front of the gardener's house, passing a small ornate stone wall; there was a donkey on the grass behind it.

It was a clear, silent night and Vida linked arms with my father as we walked back to the car.

Tiggy was chatting to me; we all embraced and said good night. 

I never saw Vida again.

In the next year she developed a swelling on one of her legs, she was taken into hospital in Omagh, County Tyrone; she died shortly afterwards.

The period that followed was interesting, because Richard Hermon had always admired Vida but had tended to be a little distant from Tiggy.

Now they were left alone together they got on remarkably well. 

I saw them out driving on a couple of occasions together.

Richard Hermon died in June 1976 and left the Necarne Estate to Tiggy’s nephew, Pierce Brunt.

Vida and Tiggy had a brother, Nigel, who never came to live in Ireland but had visited occasionally. Pierce was his son. 
Richard Hermon had arranged that Tiggy (right) was to be able to remain in the Gardener's House for the rest of her life.

Tiggy remained at Necarne for some years.

I always went to see her when I was in Ireland and we kept up a correspondence.

She was always cheerful and amusing but it must have been lonely for her though she never said so. 

She took on a lease of life for a while after Richard Hermon’s death and would take herself into Enniskillen and have her hair done!

Soon she settled into a quiet existence with her little dog.

She only had one now: Penny, a brown and white Jack Russell terrier.

There were still people around Irvinestown and Necarne who had worked for Richard Hermon, and they were good to Tiggy. 

I saw Tiggy a few more times, once my sister Audrey and two of her young children came with me, Helen and James.

Helen sat close to her mother and James played with the dog.

We were in the kitchen of the Gardener's House.

It was an old-fashioned room with a range, a flagstone floor and large cream-coloured glass-fronted cupboards full of blue and white china.

On one wall behind a sheet of glass were a series of impressionist watercolours. 

They had been in the summer-house at Mullaghmore originally and belonged to Vida.

I remember Vida telling me they were French.

I recall them distinctly: they were all of a young fair-haired man standing among flowers and shrubs in an idyllic landscape. 

I have a feeling they will turn up on an antiques programme one day and be worth a fortune!

Tiggy was delighted to see Audrey; they had always been friends.

Tiggy laughed and said “You were always slimming Audrey when you were growing up, look at you now, seven children later and still slim!”

Audrey laughed and responded, “Oh no!” Tiggy smiled and said “There’s not a scrap on you!”

They chatted on in this vein quite happily and I took some pictures.

The last time I saw Tiggy we spent several hours together in her kitchen, she brought out a box of old photographs and there were some fascinating glimpses of the past, including a series of pictures of the interiors of Alton Castle in the 1920s; and one picture of Nicholas Porter as a young man standing in front of Belle Isle wearing a cape, standing with his arms outstretched and bowing slightly.
He looked very whimsical, perfectly capturing the spirit of the ‘bright young things’ of the 1920s.

I wish I had asked for a copy, it was so striking.

Tiggy made some tea and produced cakes, and then we went for a short walk by the castle with the little dog.

Tiggy was so sympathetic for everyone else: “Poor Vida, how difficult it was for her, in her last days”; and “Dear Richard, he did miss Vida so”. 

Never any complaint about her own situation.

We said good-bye at last and I promised to call again soon, but it was not to be. 

Tiggy died within the year and I never went back to the gardener's house.

I hope someone at Necarne looked after little Penny, but I feel sure they did.

First published in April, 2010.


Linda Hudson said...

Very interesting as my late Aunt Miss Johnston worked as housekeeper for Mr Hermon as we were local Irvinestown folk. She had also worked for the Belmores at Castlecoole.

Linda Hudson said...

Very interesting. My Aunt Miss Johnston worked for Mr Hermon and the Belmores at Castlecoole