It was my birthday in the year 2000, and St Patrick’s Day to boot. We were visiting an old friend who had introduced me to my first husband, many years ago, and in fact had been a groomsman at our wedding. He had moved to the Irish Republic, both our spouses had died, and we now each had other partners, but we had kept up the friendship from years back. John had his own architecture business in Galway, and I was back nursing. He had been invited to a formal party nearby and asked if we would like to go too.
That evening, we set out with our friends John and Anne, to the party at Castle Ellen, near Athenry in County Galway, Ireland. Being unfamiliar with the area, we drove through Athenry village, which is renowned for its distinctive old arches, and out under one of the arches. We tried various long driveways from the road and at last we came upon a sign for Castle Ellen, pointing back the way we had come!! Performing a difficult u-turn, we confused other traffic also doing u-turns, and finally reached an entrance on the left, which had a sign bedecked with the Irish army flag. The gateway itself was hardly wide enough to allow our modest saloon through, and we proceeded up the grassy driveway for about 1/4 mile, and came upon the house itself, resplendent in the moonlight.
The host, Chief Engineer with Galway Council, who had bought the property in a state of great disrepair, was welcoming guests in army uniforms, and their companions in long velvet capes to protect them from the still, cool evening air. We joined them ascending the wide stone steps, which rose directly from the grassy frontage. In the dim moonlight, the entrance was a picture of decaying decadence, and our eyes had to adjust to the poor electric lighting, 30 watts being all that was permitted.
A stuffed red fox gazed at us through a mask from some long-forgotten masked ball. Rotting flags of old regiments and branches still holding their dried autumn leaves adorned the walls. Brown sacking held together crumbling parts of the old coving above the front door. Inside, doorways on left and right gave glimpses, through new plate-glass door sections, of bare pinewood floors, occasional pieces of old furniture and marble fireplaces. Military music played as we were welcomed and ushered past the old staircase, which rose centrally, but ended mid-air at the top of the first flight. More stuffed animals observed us from their positions on varying levels of the staircase. In the Long Room on the right a blazing log fire threw flickering shadows around the walls, and guests helped themselves to drinks from the makeshift bar in the corner. Old pews and pine benches provided some seating, though the guests stood mostly in groups by the fire or near the uncurtained windows. A pair of peafowl faced out to the estate on either side of the bay window, and a Corinthian column supported a stucco objet in the central window. Opposite the fire, the cream wall was painted with fading frescoes. The other walls were painted dark red, and an ancient torn paper Christmas star, bedecked with gold paint, partially contained the 20 watt central light bulb.
As we chatted, more guests arrived – the Irish army chief in his moss-green uniform, and a bearded redcoat, sporting a long sword and sheath. Later we were invited to cross the hallway and help ourselves to the banquet spread out on the T-shaped table, extending through the 2 rooms on the other side of the house. These were also warmed by more blazing log fires. A certain lack of sharp knives led to the Redcoat offering to carve the whole chicken with his epee, to the amazement of the ladies!! After dinner, speeches were made in English, followed by Irish, which somehow seemed the natural tongue in this old Irish house, wreathed in history, which had actually been the family home of the ancestors of Lord Edward Carson, leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party between 1910 and 1921, whose mother was Isabella Lambert.
It was an evening never to be forgotten. It was like a dream, it felt as if we were taking part in a play. Did it really happen? Or was it a dream? Who knows?