Mother was very fond of home life, but father was quite the opposite; his idea of living was to have a good time; his hobbies were hunting, shooting and driving tandem. He always kept an open house except when attending race meetings or going to London or Paris during the opera season. Of course, mother had to accompany him on these excursions, and we were left very much to the tender care of the governess and nurses. Be that as it may, we children had a very happy time of it. Each one of us was given a pony when we were old enough to ride one and we had such lovely picnics in the woods around the house that it seemed to us just a round of pleasure. The trees, too, were so large on the lawn, especially the two beautiful drooping ashes in front of the house, that we often had our meals under them during the summer months.
The little town of Gort was only a mile away, and a detachment of cavalry was always stationed there. On fine mornings the soldiers would go for long marches and, of course, pass our place and oh! how beautiful the band would sound as it marched by the grounds of our home on bright frosty mornings. We liked to see the uniforms lit up with the sunlight dancing about their silver facings. Sometimes father would invite the colonel to bring the men in on our lawn and go through a sham battle for our edification. After the fighting was over the men would be entertained at lunch, on the lawn, of course and the colonel and officers would be given lunch in the house. Treats like this, you may imagine, made father very popular with the military authorities.
Our home, Cloon House, was built on what the Irish call a fort. It really was a mound under which the natives were buried and of course, the place was supposed to be haunted. One night about midnight we were all awakened by the most terrible noises you ever heard. It seemed as if big chains were being dragged up and down the hall, and then the piano commenced playing for its bare life; what the tunes were, I could not say, but they certainly were very weird to say the least. It was not long before all the servants were up in arms and, with white and scared faces, were making their way to our sleeping quarters, imploring protection from the demons at large in the house.
After quite a thrilling time the weird entertainment ceased and, after much persuasion, the servants returned to bed. In the morning they all gave notice to leave, but after a thorough investigation, it was found that someone had left the back door open and one of the hounds, on an exploration trip, had taken advantage of it and walked upstairs and got into the drawing room and, after nosing about for a while tried his hands or rather his feet on the piano. Hence the weird overtures we were treated to. The chain accompaniment was never explained. Of course, everyone thought the house was haunted too, owing to my aunt being burnt to death after returning from a ball. It seems that her clothes had ignited by a spark from the fire grate while she dozed asleep before undressing to go to bed.
There was a very charming walk through the woods at the back of Cloon House to a dear old windmill on the edge of a pretty little stream. From there you could go on the road to the O’Hara’s place. It was a dower house belonging to their brother, Sir William Gregory whose family home was just on the other side of the road. It was called Coole Park and had been in the family for many generations.
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Other days we would visit Lough Cutra Castle and have lunch beside the lake, sharing our repast with the beautiful swans that would cluster round us. Indeed, they quite expected to have their lunch with us, it being the usual thing with them. This lovely old mansion originally belonged to the Lords of Gort, but the third Viscount Gort having fallen upon hard times, sold the castle to the superior of the Loreto Order in Dublin, from whom it was purchased by the first Viscount Gough. The two cannons at the entrance were captured by Lord Gough when he was fighting with Clive in India.
Another rendezvous of ours, also on the same estate, was the Devil’s Punch Bowl, reached by a bridal path through the woods. In spite of its name, it seemed as if placed in a Garden of Eden, the surroundings were so lovely. Copper beeches, willows, mountain ash, syringa, pink and white hawthorn, pink and yellow laburnum – not to speak of the wild flowers and trailing moss — made this place one of the beauty spots of the country. Neither must I forget to mention the picturesque tea house decorated with shell brought from India by members of the family. ‘
The grounds used to be open to the public so many times a month but they had to be closed, owing to vandalism and a terrible tragedy that happened in the woods near the bowl. It seems soldiers used to take their sweethearts for a stroll along the bridal path and one night a young man and his companion must have had a violent quarrel for the body of a girl about l8 years old was found, floating in the water of the bowl, and in her hand was a military button with a piece of red cloth attached to it. The shrubs nearby showed every indication of a fierce struggle. This mystery was never cleared up, so the grounds were closed to everyone except friends of the family or such visitors who could procure a pass to get in.
Within a mile’s walk ahead of us, we would come to my uncle’s residence surrounded by thousands of acres, owned by James La Hiff of Gort House. His land ran right through into Ennis. The little town of Gort, on the outskirts of which Uncle James resided, derives its name from King Guaire who had a palace there in olden times.
My father’s sister, Aunt Jane, would sometimes visit us at Cloon House and stay for a few days or longer. She was one of those austere creatures, quite tall and thin, her face being framed in the tight barrel curls so affected by old maids in those days; and her dress was nearly always of a clinging style, either grey or purple in colour. Even today I look on those tints with horror. She was a wonderful harpist and pianist, so we were told, but for us to sit around in the drawing room and listen to her overtures was anything but cheerful. Indeed, if the harpists in Heaven resemble her in any way, I would sooner go to some place not quite so elevated. There is one thing, however, I don’t think they give Bible lessons in Heaven, and that was one of her hobbies.
I will say in her favour, however, she always gave us lovely presents and, when leaving, treated the servants generously. My eldest brother, Arthur, was her favourite nephew, and she particularly wanted to have charge of his upbringing, just as if he were her own boy. When he went to Conwy college in northern Wales, she used to visit him there and supply him with plenty of pocket money and encourage him in duelling, archery, fencing and boxing, and from what my brothers and cousins used to say, he fought everyone’s battle as well as his own. He spent half his holidays with Aunt Jane at her house in Kingstown and the rest of it with us at home. But with all her money and attentions, Arthur gradually weaned himself away from her as he grew older. His self-respect began to make itself more of a guide and he wished to feel free to do what he thought best.
Just about this time, my little sister died while mother was in Dublin, and a beautiful retriever that always minded her while she slept in her baby carriage left the house and never returned. On the night of her death, the dog had its two paws up against the house just under the windowsill, and whined as if his heart would break. That was the last we heard of him, although we offered a large reward for his return. Mother returned home by express train that morning and was surprised, on looking out the carriage window, to see a large brown dog crossing the railway track; she said afterward that she was certain it was our dog. Now, there is a strange quality in a dog that we cannot understand it seems to have a weird instinct that tells it when something tragic is about to happen.
A little while ago I mentioned that my Uncle Henry was drowned while bathing so here is the story as I heard it. He was staying at a friend’s house when one morning he decided to go swimming in a lake nearby. Uncle Henry must have struck something while diving for he never reached the shore again. His clothes were found on the bank and, although the lake was dragged, his body was never found. In the meantime, my mother heard his little Irish terrier whining under the bed he used while staying with us. She tried to coax him out with all sorts of food but it was no use. A telegram came a little later on in the day to say that his master was dead. No one could go near the poor little animal, and he died of grief the following morning.
Now, having enough of the glooms, I think something funny ought to be in order. A character of interest was Kate Grady, our devoted parlour maid. No matter what would happen she would always stay with us. She certainly was a very pretty Irish girl; her beautiful complexion, her lovely black hair and blue eyes, were the admiration of all our guests. Well, she had one failing, curiosity, especially where anything fluid was concerned. Her thirst was marvellous and nothing in the line of wines or spirits came amiss. One day father had some company at dinner and, later on while at their coffee, he mentioned a new concoction his man had made up for cleaning the white tops of his hunting boots — it was a mixture of alcohol and whiting, I think. The man was called to bring some up to the dining room and demonstrate its qualities. That being ended he put the mixture, which happened to be in a whiskey bottle, on the mantle-piece. As soon as the company had left the room, in comes Kate and, of course, the first thing she saw was the bottle. Nothing would do but put it to her mouth to sample its contents. It was about half full and she swallowed all that was in it. She got as far as the kitchen and collapsed on the floor. Mother was called to try to find out the cause, but Kate was speechless. The doctor was sent for and her stomach pumped out when to the surprise of all what would be in it but boot polish. Poor Kate, that was a lesson for her. She was ill for days and even joined a temperance club and kept straight for quite a while. Then something happened that was to be her undoing again.
The people in the town were giving a dance, and Kate asked to be allowed to go. Mother gave her a discarded white ball dress and had it trimmed with shamrocks. Kate certainly looked lovely in it as it just suited her complexion. Well, the time came for her to go and off she went, but sad to say, Kate never came back. The next morning when a search was made for her, the gardener found her sound asleep in one of the flower beds, cold and wet with dew.
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Written by Elizabeth La Hiff Lambert
Published here 17 Aug 2022 and originally published 1979
Page 0076 of Athenry History
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