My grandmother Mary, my father’s mother, had a hundred years ago met Algernon Evans-Freke at a May Ball in Cambridge. They got married and a year or so later he inherited the title Lord Carbery and a neo-mediæval castle on the South West seaboard of County Cork.
His family claimed descent from Elystan Glodrydd, the tenth century Welsh Prince of Fferlys, and the name of the castle was Castle Freke. Mary went out to it from England unsuspecting that she would be so overwhelmed by its beauty. At once she fell for it entirely.
Of her first days there she’s left little record. All the many letters between her and Algy during their engagement and at later times when they were not able to be together, which she kept in a silver embossed coffer with their initials entwined on the top, she later destroyed. But as a boy I used to sit with her in her cottage at Eye while she, with passion, described those days to me. She used to say that since she had left the castle she’d been a wanderer all her life. She consoled herself in her latter days with writing and with scholarly study. But her heart rested still in the past. Although it wasn’t till very much later that I learnt the whole story, even then, as a boy, a fairytale quality attached itself to the castle, in my mind.
Grandmother’s happiness was short lived. Only a few years after their marriage Algy was tragically dead. My grandmother was left as mistress of this towered and battlemented place riding its hilly promontory above the Atlantic, and of its thousands of acres of woodland, meadow and moor, marsh and lough. Offshore the sea was studded with the hundred islands, some desolate but many inhabited, that are known to this day as ‘Carbery’s Hundred Islands’.
These days the sea still tears at the Long Strand. The woods my grandmother knew are still there, although much damaged by gales and forestry. There are still the sandhills and the bogs, the drives wandering through trees or skirting the grey marsh. And then, amidst deep woods, on a sudden eminence, with its Wagnerian terraces falling from it southward and westward toward the sea and its many battlements and towers and portcullised gateway standing up against the sky, the castle.
The face of the castle is now blank, with many of its battlements removed and its windows empty. But this does not diminish its grandeur. Not so long ago, I found someone waiting for me at the West Lodge. He told me his father had worked for my grandmother, and that he himself later became steward of the ruined estate.
‘Knocked - knocked - ah sir, all knocked. I’ll tell you now. If it was up today, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it. Ah sir, and now if you walk with me yonder, you can see it again, yonder there through the trees with the slender appearance, the tower of the second Lord. Knocked, all knocked. There sir stood the castle. And there were the doors of cedar and pillars all of marble. I’ll tell you now. Yonder the bedroom of her Ladyship, with the great view of the ocean. Then next the tower of the sixth Lord and the tower of the deaf and dumb Lord who was father of the Countess of Bandon. And from here, before we proceed, you can see well nigh all the Carbery lands and demesne, the bog and the woodland, and pasture, all knocked now, all gone back.
‘She was far younger than you sir when she was mistress of it all. And here after the time that her Lord had died she lived alone. No, there were few visitors for some years after the time that the Lord had died. The Lord had died and there were no longer guests in the castle. I have heard that her family desired her to return to England. But she did not leave.’
What a strange story! What can have been her feelings, I wonder, this young woman in her castle in the midst of the bogs and woodland, with her husband’s ashes buried beneath the headland where she was later to erect a vast stone cross by the sea? From other villagers I heard other stories; how she would ride endlessly the empty countryside. I thought I could fancy something of her strange solitude. One day, in the attics at Eye Manor, I unexpectedly came upon her journal for that period. Prior to that discovery I had not even known of its existence. Never published, it existed, as far as I know, only in this one collection of four battered volumes, fastened by rusting brass paper clips and typed on archaic typewriters. I found myself transported into Grandmother’s world of a hundred years ago, inspired by the journal’s beauty, wit, and pathos.
Other writers besides my grandmother have celebrated this area of West Cork and have helped us become acquainted with that lost world in which, so it has been claimed, the Anglo-Irish ‘Ascendancy’ of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth was, in many cases, ‘a vast confidence trick, backed up by faithful servants and good horsemanship.’
As I strain to get a better glimpse, reading letters and books and other works of the period, I find little mention of the Carberies. This may be because Algernon, the ninth Lord, grandmother’s husband, died from consumption in 1898. John, the tenth Lord Carbery, who inherited the title when he was six, was not to come of age till 1913. Thus for fifteen years Castle Freke had no adult master. Its mistress during this time was the young Mary Carbery.
‘Let us take Carbery and grind its bones to make our bread,’ wrote Edith Somerville, my grandmother’s literary neighbour, to Martin Ross, her friend and collaborator. The administrative district of Carbery formed the location for the ‘Experiences of an Irish RM’ and many other works of Somerville and Ross. Drishane, Edith’s family home, was in Castle Townshend, a few miles along the coast. She rode with the West Carbery Hunt. The two places were fairly distant from each other for a there and back visit in a day, using horse transport. But Edith did go over to Castle Freke to paint. Years later John, the dashing tenth Lord Carbery, moored his yacht in the bay overlooked by Castle Townshend. One of Edith’s sisters, Hildegarde Somerville, was not perturbed by the distance or the darkness and went to a dance given by grandmother in 1905. In a letter, Edith describes how she,
arrived [back] from Castle Freke this morning at 6.30. She then went to bed ... She says it was an excellent dance. Crowds of surplus men, perfect floor, band, supper, champagne - Lady C had ordered an army of assistant hireling waiters from Cork, and every man of them arrived blind drunk and had to be put to bed instantly! However all went well. H’s young charges, from Edie Whitla to Loo Loo, got on first rate and had all the dancing they wanted, and H herself said that it was very good fun. There were some very wild Easterns there - Nevill Penrose heard a man say to the girl of his heart ‘Blasht yer soul, where were ye hiding that I couldn’t find ye!’ But all the decent people were there too; the incredibly kind Mrs Guinness had lent Bock a most lovely dress. Hand painted chiffon and silver spangles. H says it must have cost about 20 guineas.
Mary’s journal, recently published for the first time, gives a remarkable further glimpse into those times when, despite many joys and consternations that seemed real enough to them, there was little inkling in the minds of most of these people that, within only a very few years most of Ireland would be independent of England; or that the estate of Castle Freke and the employment of the many people who worked there would so soon be a thing of the past.
Everything at that time really did still seem very secure. One visitor wrote in the guest book:
As long as yonder angry billows dash
With sullen fury on the iron shore,
As long as winter’s stormy torrents lash
These broken coasts with wild unceasing roar,
So long may these grey towers maintain their stand
Defying time unblemished by decay,
Pass on through centuries from hand to hand
And harbour peace for ever and a day.
Algy’s consumption finally overwhelmed him in 1898. He and Mary were staying in the Imperial Hotel in the Malvern Hills in England. They had travelled there by carriage, boat and train from Ireland in the belief that the climate of the Malverns might secure him a few more days or weeks of life. Their six year old son John (Jackie) became the new Lord Carbery. Their other son, Ralfe, was one year old. Mary was to be mistress of the castle and estate till John came of age.
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