There’s a wee drop of aul’ rain in Lifford and it’s bucketin’ in Letterkenny so it is, but by the time we get to Marble Hill the sun is splittin’ the trees. It’s gone from Baltic to boilin’ so it has. All in good time for a dead on wee bite of lunch in Shandon’s overlookin’ the empty beach with not a wee’ne in sight. It’s dead posh. Not like the Carrig Rua Hotel in Dunfanaghy which is dunderin’ inn. Anyone up for a wee trip in Bert’s boat later on Killahoey Beach?
Running out of Ulsterisms it’s time to enjoy a celebratory pescatarian feast in Shandon Hotel which has had the greatest revivification since avocados were mere vegetables or fruit or whatever they used to be. There are views and there are views and there’s the framed golden strand of Marble Hill with the white tipped frothy spray of waves almost lapping up to our table. Across the water on the far side of Sheephaven Bay lies Downings.
Next stop the jolly town of Dunfanaghy. It’s all abuzz around the august Market House. “This Building was erected by Alex Rob Stewart of Ards House AD 1845,” marks a plaque between its first floor windows. On the ground things are more relaxed. There’s a coffee bar, antiques store and yoga venue. And a farmers’ market in the Diamond in front of the Market House.
Opposite the Diamond is McAuliffe’s Craft Shop. It has evolved over four generations of the same family since opening in 1920 as Sweeney’s Drapery. Romantic Stories and Legends of Donegal by Harry Percival Swan, 1965, is one of several local interest books for sale. It opens with, “Donegal calls you. Situated in the North Western corner of Ireland it is one of the most fascinating playgrounds in these islands. It is part of the nine Counties of Ulster, and is the largest County in the Province (1,865 square miles). Donegal belongs to Eire, but is separated from it by County Fermanagh. Donegal’s key note is variety.”
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.”
“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.”