Heirs and Graces
The shadows were closing in. On a dark night in 1922, while heavy clouds curled and unfurled over the Comeragh Mountains, four IRA men crawled up the four mile driveway of Curraghmore. The fourth of four castles owned by the de la Poer family, who’d come to these islands during the French Catholic Norman Invasion, was about to become ruins. But St Hubert would save the night. As the terrorists approached, a flicker of moonlight silhouetted the crucifix surmounting a stag over the entrance tower: of St Hubert atop the balustrade. Illiterately, the terrorists assumed the family inside must still be Catholic. They fled and burned down the crucifix-free Woodstown House nearby. The de la Poer motto is Nil Nisi Cruce: “Nothing without the cross.”
We’re in the James Wyatt designed staircase hall of Curraghmore. It’s a Sunday morning and John Beresford, 8th Marquess of Waterford, has graced us with his presence. Inspecting our old postcard of Curraghmore, he remarks, “Look, the fountain in the lake is clearly visible. It was the tallest fountain in Europe before my grandfather took it down.” The estate boasts the tallest tree in Ireland, a Sitka spruce. At 47.5 metres tall, its full height is not immediately apparent as it grows out of a dell. The Marquess is less than impressed by wind turbines visible from the neighbouring farm which mar the otherwise Arcadian setting.
“That dashing red haired gentleman,” says the Marquess pointing to a portrait on the landing, “is Henry the 3rd Marquess. He was hot tempered and one day got into such a fierce argument with his father he charged up the staircase on his black stallion. That’s how the middle step got cracked. The portrait of his wife Louisa the 3rd Marchioness, herself an artist, is rather lovely. The 3rd Marquess was killed while fox hunting. My brother Patrick is a great soldier. He was awarded the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst.” The current Marquess was a talented polo player and is a friend of the Duke of Edinburgh. “I’m lucky to have three sons and five grandsons. Richard, my eldest grandson, is 6’8” and a professional polo player.” Sport’s in their (blue) blood. The 3rd Marquess enjoyed partying as much as sport. He was one of several wild sportsmen who sprayed the tollgate and houses of Melton Mowbray with red paint. The phrase “painting the town red” was born.
“That’s Aunt Clodagh,” the Marquess grins gesturing to another portrait. “Do you know what the Irish name Clodagh means? Muddy water. Lady Muddy Water Beresford.” Over six kilometres of the Clodagh River run through the estate. “Curraghmore has always been a working farm.” Even more than that, it was once a self contained community. In contrast to the format of wings elongating the façade, at Curraghmore the ancillary quarters stretch forward from the entrance doors to form the mother-of-all-forecourts. More Seaton Delaval than Russborough. As well as the stables for 60 horses, this parallel pair of wings at one time housed the accountant, bookkeeper, butler, doctor, estate manager, gamekeeper, headmaster and woodcutter and headmaster. An estate school lay behind the gatelodge. Basil Croeser, the retired butler, still lives in one of the Gibbsian detailed houses lining the forecourt. A new butler, aged 23, has just started. He’s yet to be fitted for his uniform. Later, he will serve the Marquess lunch, a silver tureen on a silver tray concealing produce from the estate. Game soup’s a favourite. There are 25 estate staff, including a cleaning lady for every floor. There may be four poster beds but bathrooms are on the corridor. No en suites. This is an Irish country house, not a hotel. Chamber pots at the ready.
“That painting’s by Gilbert Stuart who famously was George Washington’s portraitist. Those are of my parents and grandparents. Do sign the visitors’ book.” Lavender’s Blue is added to Prince Albert of Greece, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and, er, Iain Duncan-Smith. “The house is surprisingly warm, even in winter,” comments the Marquess, “thanks to roaring fires in the main rooms and the thickness of the walls.” We move into the Blue Drawing Room, walking across a 1770 Axminster. The wealth of art between these thick walls becomes even more apparent. One, two, three Joshua Reynolds. Same again for Rubens. A portrait of Catherine the Great by Giovanni Battista Lampi hangs over the doorcase. A Gerrit van Honthorst here; a Thomas Lawrence there. In the adjoining Yellow Drawing Room, filled with morning light from two windows on two sides (blind windows were unblocked in a major restoration 25 years ago), is a painting of another family aunt, Lady Wyndham. She’s wearing the pearl necklace Mary Queen of Scots handed to her lady-in-waiting before she lost her head. The pearls are upstairs, in the Marchioness’s dressing room.
The dining room retains its original skin tone coloured walls and the nine metre linen tablecloth dating from 1876 is still in use. Standards are high at dinner parties. The Marquess and Marchioness sit at opposite ends of the table, 17 privileged guests on either side. Men wear bow ties; ladies, long dresses and jewellery. Candles perched in three silver candelabra provide the only lighting. Dinner is served on 10 dozen floral Feuillet plates. Upstairs, far flung corners of the house are piled high with boxes of English, French and Chinese china. After dinner, at a nod from the Marquess, the ladies withdraw to another room. A larger than usual party was recently held when the Marquess celebrated his 80th birthday with 80 guests.
There’s so much else to write about Curraghmore. The stuffed lioness and her cubs lurking in a glass box. Elephant trunk and feet umbrella stands. The quatrefoil shaped shell grotto. The grass avenue which stops abruptly, unfinished since the 3rd Marquess’s untimely demise. The Curraghmore Hunt painting by William Osborne with name plates for everyone including the hounds Jason and Good Boy. Grisaille panels by Peter de Gree. Roundels by Antonio Zucchi. Francini plasterwork. Most of all, the great sense of peace that presides throughout the 1,620 hectares of Ireland’s last wilderness.