Friday, 27 January 2012

Searching for an old house and listening to an old maestro

Walking along the beach in Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

As dusk fell on Wexford town this evening, I found myself in a nostalgic mood in High Street, looking across the rooves at the back of the new Theatre Royal to the old offices where I once worked for the Wexford People and in front of the theatre looking at the house I had once lived in.

It’s almost forty years since I began working with the Wexford People. But I was back in Co Wexford today not to take a trip down the Memory Lanes of the narrow streets of the old town, but to search for a former family home, and to have some walks on the beaches at Courtown, Kilmuckridge and Katts Strand on the east side of Wexford Harbour.

I left work early, late in the morning, and two of us drove south, arriving in Courtown, 6 km east of Gorey in north Co Wexford, in little more than an hour. Despite all the warnings of heavy rain and heavy cloud cover, the sky was blue, the few clouds were white, and – although the temperatures had dropped to seven or eight – there was a crisp bite in the air that added to the refreshing feeling of this bright day.

The rubble of Invermore gives no hint of a lost story (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I was in Courtown looking for a house that was first known as Invermore when it was built in 1859. Invermore was designed by the Victorian architect Sir Thomas Newenham Deane as a house for M. Scott, the land agent of the Earls of Courtown. Later in the 19th century and in the early 20th century it had been home to the Hon George Stopford, brother of the Earl of Courtown, and Lady Mary Lloyd.

However, my interest in the house was a family association. When the future journalist and republican Máire Comerford (1893-1982) returned to Ireland from London around 1915, she moved to Co Wexford with her mother, Eva Mary Comerford (nee Esmonde), niece of Sir John Esmonde.

At first, they lived with Eva’s sister, Thomas Louis Esmonde (1864-1918) of Gorey, but they soon rented Invermore in Courtown, where they then set up a school for girls and where Máire was a teacher for a time.

We drove around Courtown for a while looking for the old house. After Máire and Eva Comerford left Courtown, the house changed hands and names over the decades, and eventually became an hotel. It was known at different times as Levuka, the Oulart Hotel, the Sands Hotel and the Stopford House Hotel.

Thinking perhaps the hotel had changed names once again, we kept driving around in circles, still hoping to find the house. Eventually, we were pointed to a heap of rubble and a clump of trees in a fenced-off field near two small housing estates.

Like most of the hotels in Courtown, the hotel had fallen on hard times, had closed, and was then demolished. Nothing is left of the stepped arches over the windows, the pyramid-shaped roof, the classical porch, the Gothic entrance arch, the elaborate fretted balusters on the main and secondary staircases with their plant and animal motifs, or the courtyard at the rear with its eclectic design executed in local red brick and the outbuildings with carved bargeboards.

The once planned apartments were never built on the site, and the rubble of a grand old house that once looked down towards the harbour and out to sea – the rubble of a house that once played a minor role in Irish architectural and political history – shows no traces of a forgotten grandeur.

The harbour at Courtown Harbour was built by the Stopford family as a famine relief project in the 1840s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Back in Courtown, we parked above the north beach. The tide was in as far as the rocks, and we walked south and around the harbour, built in the 1840s at a cost of £25,000 as a famine relief programme by the Stopford family, Earls of Courtown. Apart from a few shops and a few strollers, the town looked deserted, many of its former seaside hotels closed and boarded up.

A deserted look at the old Courtown Hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The former Courtown Hotel is on the market, but even there the estate agent’s “For Sale” sign has started to fall off the wall precariously, and the shutters on the windows have fallen away in many places.

From Courtown, we drove out through Riverchapel and Ardamine, passed one caravan park after another, with sale signs offering mobile homes and caravans for rock bottom prices.

On we went through Ballygarret, past Church pretty Clonevan Church near Cahore Point, and the wind generating farm before reaching Kilmuckridge.

Wind turbines on a ridge near Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Down on Morriscastle Beach, the tide was out and the fine white and golden yellow sands stretched for miles in both directions. We were undisturbed as we walked along the shore line, listening to the waves roll and then break. Despite the low temperatures, it was possible to imagine that this was an early Spring if not a an early Summer day.

Looking across Wexford Harbour towards Wexford Town in the fading lights of the early evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Eventually – and reluctantly – we left, and continued along the coast road to Wexford, stopping briefly at Ardcavan, south of Castlebridge, to enjoy the view across the harbour to Wexford Town.

We parked beside the railway line on the Quays, and summer days came to mind when we placed pennies on the tracks and waited for trains to roll over them and flatten them into misshapes.

We had lunch in La Dolce Vita in Trimmer’s Lane, a broad square close to North Main Street and below the ruins of Selskar Abbey. It was a wonderful lunch, and it called for a stroll through the town’s narrow streets afterwards.

The shops in North Main Street reflected in the windows of Saint Iberius’s Church, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At one stage, I found myself catching reflections of the shops in North Main Street in the windows of Saint Iberius’s Church, and I was giving thanks for life and ministry of the late Canon Norman Ruddock.

A few moments later, I found myself in High Street, remembering balmy and youthful days filled with poetic idealism forty years ago.

Back on South Main Street, I was bought as a birthday present Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas, which was released today.

As we drove back under a star-filled night sky, we listened to new songs from the old maestro all the way to Dublin.

Looking across at the former ‘Wexford People’ offices from the back of High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)