Ross Castle - A labour of love

Ancient protectors: Two of the old Irish yews in the gardens at Ross Castle.

Ancient protectors: Two of the old Irish yews in the gardens at Ross Castle.

I have always had great respect for the Irish yew tree. Because of its association with sanctuary and protection in mythology, you often see the yew in old graveyards. But its strength and bulk in old age, (it can live for hundreds of years, fertile to the last bearing red berries and new growth every spring ), it is also associated with love and protection. It is considered a great gift to have yew in your garden. If you are fortunate to have yew trees of a great age you are doubly blessed. Its branches are traditionally used in the Palm Sunday ritual.

When I was at national school, history was taught in a quaint mixture of myth and fact. St Bridget and St Patrick were up to their amazing tricks. Bridget’s cloak had miraculous powers. All that the sick and the crazy had to do was to touch it to be healed. Patrick blessed the magical Children of Lir, and baptised them before they died aged 400 years. But if my memory is fuzzy on the saints, I remember the story of the doomed lovers Baile Mac Buain and the beautiful Aillín. Despite their great love for each other from childhood, for some reason they were forbidden to marry. To avoid the great pain of seeing each other, they each lived on opposite sides of Ireland. When they died, a yew was placed over each grave.

As the years went by, the names of the lovers, the location of their graves was lost from most people’s memory. When the High King of Tara needed a new desk for his writing, the unknowing woodsmen felled both trees. The smooth tablets were held out to the king, each one in a different hand. It was the first time the ‘lovers’ had come side by side since childhood. Immediately there was a great noise as they sprang together, entwining about one another like woodbine on a branch. The oldest man in court remembered the story of the two lovers; and the King decreed that the tables should never be prised apart, but reverently kept together in the library of Tara.

Imagine what treasures lie undisturbed in the old library of Tara! Even though I am generally in favour of improved motorways (because they are safer ), I don’t want the proposed M3 to dig up the sacred groves near the Hill of Tara.

Surprisingly intimate

Inside the many gardens at Ross Castle (all of which are now open the public ),* are six massive yew trees in open ground which immediately caught my attention. They must be several hundred years old. You can see why they were held in special regard by our ancestors. They do not conform to the usual tree-shape that we know. Each trunk is practically as wide as its canopy. Its branches soar straight into the air, while its dark evergreen foliage burrows into a dark interior, the perfect home for spirits and gods.

But the yews of Ross are only part of its spectacular gardens which are a pleasure to wander through. If you stand at the front door of the castle, and look out between the lake and the woods, there are wide parklands stretching into the distance. By contrast, the gardens themselves are surprisingly intimate.

The best approach is to leave the courtyard, with its generous borders of Japanese anemones and roses, out through its restored carriage entrance, under a Gothic arch into the first of several gardens, with their herbaceous borders, wide pathways, and old iron gates. Giant box hedge and mature shrubs gives the impression of rooms, each with its own surprise. Inside you will find a fountain, a greenhouse (with its prolific apricot tree, its fruit the colour of old gold ), stone sculpture, a red-brick pond with large carp, urns and statuary. Then a tall old gate leads into one of the largest walled gardens in Galway, its high walls beautifully intact. It’s now being planted with vegetables.

‘This is it’

The restoration of Ross Castle, Roscahill (just off the Moycullen-Oughterard road ), has been a labour of love for Elizabeth and George McLoughlin, who came to Ireland in the early 1980s looking for a holiday home. It was also a giant undertaking that would have defeated lesser mortals. But George and Elizabeth are about the toughest and most charming people you could meet, to whom, I feel, Ross Castle was a challenge they couldn’t resist.

George was big into property in New York, and was fussy about location. Elizabeth, a concert pianist by profession (she, like John O’Conor, trained at the famous Vienna Academy of Music ), but with an brilliant eye for old classic buildings, a good knack with picking up furniture and art at auctions, and not afraid of very hard work. When she first met George she had totally renovated Callow Titus House in Milburn, New Jersey, regarded as one of the 100 best homes in America.

Driving along the Moycullen to Oughterard road in 1985 Elizabeth spotted Ross Castle looking gaunt and forlorn in the distance. She stood outside its door and looked at the view (the gates were locked. George had to climb over the fence and haul Elizabeth after him ), while George looked at the ruin within. Its roof had collapsed, its floors had fallen in, only its walls were standing. George was initially horrified when she turned to him and said “This is it. This is our new Irish home”.

A welcoming home

It was a formidable challenge for any couple. Gradually it became so big that it ceased to be an ‘Irish holiday project’ but a full-time home. George realised that if anyone could do this Elizabeth could. And he was going to back her all the way. He was also becoming dissatisfied with New York life style. They had a daughter, Catherine, and they wanted her to grow up in a different environment. Ross Castle was going to cost money, but they were determined to do it right, and to share in its rebirth.

It was originally a 15th century O’Flaherty tower house, and went through at least three readjustments, until eventually it was Georgianised in the 18th century. All kinds of interesting people lived there including the Galway Tribal Martins, of whom Violet became a famous writer when she teamed up with her cousin Edith Somerville and wrote prolifically, including Some Reminiscences of an Irish RM. It later became a popular TV series. Another interesting resident was Major Poppleton, a former guardian of Napoleon who married a Martin; and more recently the late Claude Chevasse, a Celtic scholar and a well known character in Galway.

While Elizabeth directed small armies of workmen, craftsmen, experts of all sorts and sizes, George cheerfully scoured the countryside for blue Bangor slates. By watching out for farm buildings which had recently swopped their slates for modern tiles, he knew no farmer could throw out a slate of the blue Bangor quality. Invariably, they were stacked neatly around the farm. There were occasions when his trailer broke its chassis from the weight, his car got stuck in mud, but in the end he had slates to spare.

Thanks to Elizabeth and George Ross Castle today is one of the great homes of Ireland. Its outhouses and stables have been converted into hotel-class self-catering homes, and are occupied throughout the year. There is a swimming pool, wonderful walks, and deer have recently been introduced into its extensive grounds. The McLoughlins are well aware of the treasure they now own and happily share the house and gardens with local residents and friends at dinners and parties. It is renowned for weddings. They are both passionate about their achievement. George does the garden tours himself; and Elizabeth ‘thanks God for the long evenings’ when she can stay out working in the gardens till 11pm. The best compliment I can pay is that despite its size (the house is five storeys and there are extensive out buildings and land ), they have made it a welcoming home, not a museum.

* The gardens at Ross Castle are open daily from 10am to 4pm. Fee: €6 to see the castle and gardens, and €4 to see the gardens alone.

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