An anaemic sun blurred against a bleached sky casts no shadows over the house or garden. Close the cast iron gates and the 10 acre estate folds in on itself. Set back from the coast, it’s a rural idyll, but no immunity to destruction is granted in this violent climate. Just a few miles away, a sandstorm is rushing through Marble Hill Beach like a suspended granular mist. The Wild Atlantic Way lives up to its adjective.
The walls of Cavanacor House are soaked in five centuries of history enveloping five centuries of furniture. Owner Eddie O’Kane squeezes a semi millennium of stories into one hour of erudition. An apron of outbuildings, converted to an art gallery, clambers up a hill behind the house. Between the outbuildings and back of the house stands a one bay two storey building. Except it’s not a building, it’s a fragment. An attached tower of exposed chimneybreasts provides a clue.
“It used to be the tip of the return wing. The previous owner Miss Clarke demolished the middle section of the wing in the 1960s to reduce rates.” In so doing, she unintentionally created a framing device of the garden. “Around the same time, the house was rendered. Only the separated part and outbuildings are still roughcast.” The house was the seat of the same family up until Miss Clarke bought it, but surnames changed from Tasker to Pollock (later shortened to Polk) to Keys to Humfrey through marriage. It’s the ancestral home of the 11th American President James Knox Polk.
Walking round to the front, past the double pile gable, the five bay two storey symmetrical façade gives the impression of a distinguished Georgian house, belying even older origins. No doubt, that was the intention. A Doric columned doorcase with a rectangular fanlight is set in a square monopitched porch. Why have one fanlight when it’s possible to have two? A further fanlighted doorcase flanked by splayed walls leads into the entrance hall.
“An 1820 estate map in the entrance hall shows the house without a porch. But an 1880 map does show it.” Clearly a later addition. Marked on the earlier map is ‘The place where King James crossed’. Protestant armies amassed on the flat plains of Cavanacor, along the strategic route of the Deele River, prior to the Siege of Derry on 20 April 1689. James II dined at Cavanacor with the owner John Keyes. Simultaneously, John’s brothers were inside Londonderry’s walls, getting ready to defend the city against the King’s troops.
“James II dined on the lawn under a sycamore tree. It was an exotic type of tree back then. The sycamore was introduced late to Ireland. The tree had a 24 foot circumference. We were driving home on Boxing Day 1998 during the Great Storm. It was like a disaster movie. Lights were going out as we drove through villages. Trees swaying. We just got back in time to Cavanacor to see the massive sycamore tree burst asunder.” That wild Atlantic weather. “My son Eamon is an artist. He made an art piece out of the shattered tree.”
Eddie is also an artist. He studied painting at Belfast’s renowned Art College (now part of the University of Ulster). His wife Joanna studied sculpture. Art and architecture are a family theme. Joanna’s father was John Lewis-Crosby, Director of the National Trust of Northern Ireland from 1960 to 1979. John was also Chairman of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.
“The very old glass in the windows is rippled. I’ve noticed when painting indoors it gives a quality of light different from modern glass.” Lugged doorcases on either side of the entrance hall lead through to the main reception roosm. Straight ahead, a pair of arches is separated by a panelled screen. One arch opens into a corridor; the staircase ascends through the other.
“I enjoy doing detective work. Look at the join in the staircase handrail. I think the stairs originally continued below the screen down to the servants’ quarters in the basement.” One of Eddie’s paintings of the garden hangs in the dining room. “The garden looks Victorian with its profusion of foliage. But when there’s a drought, a ghostly path appears through the grass. It looks like an early herb knot garden.”
Eamon O’Kane’s exhibition Exploring Architecture is on show at the Cavanacor Gallery. One section features acrylic paintings of Eileen Gray’s house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. “Eamon is fascinated by Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray’s professional jealousies. They produced great art and architecture amidst their turbulent personal lives.” Corbu bragged, “Less is more!” Eileen yawned, “Less is bore!” White walls and flagstone floors provide a sense of calm to the gallery, whatever the weather is outside.