A Glorified Trance On The Irish Shore
We’re never stopped galivanting. Our latest destination is the village where table turning and ghost writing take on whole new meanings. The shadow of authors Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (her real name was Violet Martin) looms large over the village of Castletownshend on Ireland’s south coast. Frank Keohane comments in The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County (2020): “As the long time home of the writer, artist and Master of Fox Hounds Edith (1858 to 1949), Castletownsend is a highly evocative place, redolent of Anglo Irish society during its swansong. The village consists of two streets, of which the main street plunges downhill to the harbour. At the junction with the second street (The Mall) stand the ‘two trees’, a pair of sycamores, in what Edith described as a ‘barbaric stone flowerpot’. Castletownsend is also notable for the number of gentry houses built within the village rather than in the hinterland on small demesnes, in the more customary fashion.”
Maurice Collis writes in Somerville and Ross A Biography (1968), “Castletownshend was an unusual sort of place, because half a dozen families of the Cork landed gentry were settled there, instead of living, as the Irish landed gentry generally did, on estates dotted about the counties, miles apart from each other, as at Ross. Here their houses clustered round the village of Castletownshend, occupying a square mile of ground or less. The site was high ground which shelved steeply to the sea, a deep inlet or haven from the Atlantic like many others in western Cork. The view from the houses down to the haven and out to its mouth on the ocean was very fine. Near the west entrance to the village, a high point on the site, stood Drishane, the seat of the Somerville family.”
Gifford Lewis explains more about the authors in Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish RM, (1985), “In childhood neither Edith nor Martin had recognised social and class barriers and both spoke naturally to those who in England would have been termed their ‘inferiors’. So that although they were from the privileged Anglo Irish gentry, they were at home in the native Irish world to the extent that their record of native speech in English is uniquely impressive. They knew that in their novels they were recording the death throes of their class – they made an unequalled portrait of the collapse of Anglo Ireland and the rise through it of the new Irish middle class.” Uniquely, Martin’s early demise didn’t stop them continuing to write in unison.
The two streets of Castletownshend are perpendicular to one another, meeting at the ‘two trees’ (to circumnavigate this pretty obstacle by car means mounting the pavement). Main Street is beautifully bookended by Drishane House at the top and The Castle at the bottom. The Mall heads out towards the coastline, ending with The Rocket House. Both streets are lined with beautiful townhouses, mainly Georgian. We last visited Drishane House in 1992. Little has changed, except the heavy Atlantic mist of that day 30 years ago has been replaced with serene unclouded skies on this visit. Jane and Tom Somerville are the present incumbents of Edith’s former home. Martin’s family home was Ross House, County Galway, but she was a frequent visitor to Castletownshend.
Frank comments on Drishane House, “A handsome six bay weather slated house built about 1790, the seat of the Somervilles. In the Edwardian period a new entrance was created on the more sheltered side elevation. This has an unusual rock-faced limestone doorcase with a scrolled pediment of vaguely Chinese appearance. The original wide tripartite limestone doorcase, with Tuscan demi-columns, now serves as a garden entrance.”
We interviewed Captain Paul Chavasse, owner of The Rocket House, two years before he died in 1994 aged 86. “Cousin Edith and Violet Martin were two energetic, lively, independent young women who were keen hunters,” he recalled. His parting shot was, “Don’t believe any rumours about the girls’ relationship. There’s no substance to them.” The Captain converted a row of coastguard cottages into his seven bedroom home. The cut stone building was designed by architect William Atkins in 1841. It takes its name from the rocket launchers that were used to fire ropes to assist ships in danger. The ropes were then used to haul sailors and passengers to safety. The Stag Rocks in Castlehaven Bay were notoriously treacherous. The Chavasse family home was Seafield, a few metres away from The Rocket House, on The Mall. Captain Paul’s wife was Elizabeth Somerville, Edith’s niece.
Crowning the hilltop high above The Castle is St Barrahane Castlehaven Parish Church and graveyard. Frank Keohane describes it well: “Delightfully picturesque, with glorious views over the harbour and many fine monuments.” The Somerville and Ross graves are simply marked: Martin’s is a simple squarish gravestone; Edith’s is an uncarved boulder like a menhir from the neighbouring hills. There are unusual metal – now elegantly rusted – graves too.
“Everyone goes to Mary Ann’s!” smiles Sharon Townshend of The Castle. A roll of owners was unveiled in 1996 by then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey. 1988 to the present Patricia and Fergus O’Mahony. 1983 to 1988 William and Ann Hosford. 1970 to 1983 Norman and Leonore Davis. 1963 to 1970 Prudence Sykes. 1947 to 1963 Mary Ann Hayes. 1930 to 1947 Mary Ann and Willie Casey. 1846 to 1930 Hennessy Family. So it’s named after two Mary Anns. Fergus recently celebrated his 60 and a half birthday and hosted a show in the Warren Art Gallery on the first floor of the pub. It included works by Irish artists Aidan Bradley, Susan Cairns, William Crozier, Felim Egan, Mat Grogan, Matt Lamb, Patrick McCarthy, John Minihan, Yvonne Moore and Cara Nagle.
Fergus joins us for an after dinner pint. “I was the manager at Blooms Hotel in Dublin,” he says, “before coming to Castletownshend.” The Chefs join us as well, having cooked dinner to perfection. Our starter was pan seared tiger prawns with fresh ginger, garlic and chilli followed by a main course of locally caught fresh scallops in a classic mornay sauce. Nights are long in West Cork. Next stop, the historian John Collins who has lived a few doors down from Mary Ann’s on Main Street for 40 years.
“The inspiration and aspirations of a community are in their architecture,” he believes. “There are 146 people living in the village.” John restored the three storey Quay Stores overlooking Castlehaven Bay and converted them to residential use. He also helped save the vintage petrol pump and telephone box facing one another further up the hill. “The police station in Graham Norton’s Holding is actually a house on Main Street,” he points out. “That cranky old diva Brenda Fricker appears in the television series.”
It’s now midnight and the wine and conversation are flowing. John is a born raconteur, never better when talking about Somerville and Ross’s table turning and ghost writing. We’re getting that end of the line vibe. The village terminates at The Castle gates. Castletownshend goes nowhere and is going nowhere and everyone is proud of that. We’re back in Savannah again, in another world.