The Galway ladies who ride

Week II

Shared humour: John Huston and his daughter Anjelica quietly enjoyed the efforts his girlfriends made to impress him.

Shared humour: John Huston and his daughter Anjelica quietly enjoyed the efforts his girlfriends made to impress him.

John Huston was an expert rider, and expected his children to be so too. From an early age both Anjelica and her brother Tony were given horses. St Clerans, a magnificent Georgian house on a large estate at Craughwell, County Galway, had a full stable, watched over and trained by Paddy Lynch, a former jockey. Huston brought his family to live there in the 1950s while he travelled the world making films. He would come home for energetic holidays usually with Hollywood friends, and at times with his latest mistress. Once home, however, the sometimes lonely childhood lives of his two children would burst into action. Huston impressed upon them that the most important things in life were courage, and not to be a ‘dilettante’. He explained, as he smoked his brown cigarillo, that a ‘dilettante’ was a ‘dabbler, an amateur, someone who simply skims the surface of life without commitment.’

The children were in fact excellent riders. Anjelica taught herself to ride side-saddle. If her horse, Penny, shied away from a high gate or a double stone wall, and she flew over its neck, hitting the ground with a painful wallop, or ending up sprawled on the asphalt of an icy main road, her father would calmly remark: ‘Get back on the horse, honey. You don’t want to lose your nerve.’

Huston himself was an avid rider, especially on the hunting field. He would return from some film assignment abroad, and the following morning, without any exercise, he would mount up on his horse Frisco, and they’d be off and away.* He was joint master of the Galway Blazers, and a benefactor of the famous Galway hunt. Every St Stephen’s Day the Blazers would meet at St Clarens. Anjelica wickedly noted that ‘the women of the hunting set exuded a thinly veiled ferocity, with their carmine nails and lips, drinking Bloody Marys, their heads thrown back in braying, smoky laughter, a cigarette smouldering between their fingertips. These were the women of the county - the exiled daughters of the British aristocracy...’**

At St Clarens breakfast was served before the hunt. ‘Scrambled eggs on toast, fried mushrooms, black sausages, rashers, the ubiquitous Limerick ham’ were on offer, while hunting flasks and stirrup cups were filled with port and brandy. Huston, in his red jacket, would lead the hunt out the gate. ‘The air was always crisp, the ground was hard, and the holly, thick with red berries, twinkled with frost.’

‘A way to go’

Anjelica loved the hunt. ‘There was nothing so close to the feeling of flying as being on a good Irish hunter when the hounds picked up the scent. All the senses engaged in perfect synchronicity and rhythm - your heart and your horse’s heart beating as one. Trusting your combined power to fly is an intimate connection.’

There were many skilled riders in the Blazers, but the woman who caught Anjelica’s attention was Christobel Ampthill, always immaculately turned out, who was the only other rider who rode side-saddle. She was in her sixties at that time, lived in Dunguire Castle with her old mangy foxhounds who were too old to hunt, and would have been put down was it not for her refuge. They were fed off Wedgewood plates at her dining table.

On the hunt ‘she was serenely brave, and galloped over five-foot double stone walls with the ease of a gazelle.’ Everyone was afraid that one day she would kill herself. And one day after taking on a ditch, her foot caught in the stirrup, her habit tangled in the hook of the side-saddle, she lost her seat. Through some miraculous feat of her own, as she slid under the belly of her mount, she clung on. Riders rushed to stop her horse just before it jumped over another stone wall. Realising she could have been killed, she exclaimed: “ I suppose I should say thank you, but what a wonderful way to go!”

The Russell case

Living a sheltered life at St Clarens, Anjelica could only guess at what happened in adult relationships. Despite her parent’s cosmopolitan and sophisticated backgrounds, sex was never discussed. She had never seen her parents share a bedroom, and had no way of knowing what went on in other households. Yet hearing adults whispering in corridors, and seeing certain tensions when certain people were mentioned, she gleaned the mysteries of adulthood rather than having them explained.

Christobel Ampthill was probably widely discussed. She really had to seek exile in Kinvara following a notorious court case which kept the British tabloids in business for years. Whenever she appeared in public she was conscious that peopled nudged each other, and pointed her out.

She and her husband, Lord John H Russell, had married in 1918, but agreed to have no children. However she later became pregnant. An infuriated husband divorced her as he knew he was not the father of her child, which turned out to be a son (and years later it was proved that he was in fact his heir ). In a sensational courtroom drama it was shown that poor Christobel was still virgo intacta, yet she was very definitely pregnant. It was later proved (when DNA testing became commonplace ), that Sir John was indeed the father.

How she became pregnant has been occupying adult minds ever since. Christobel herself offered the court a possible explanation. She claimed she became pregnant by taking the same bath previously enjoyed by her husband, and used the same sponge...

Moving swiftly along, I note that whatever young Anjelica made of all this mindboggeling stuff, or whether it contributed to her knowledge of adult relationships, she doesn’t say. But she was well aware of the efforts made by her father’s girlfriends to impress him when they stayed at St Clarens. Some of them, knowing Huston’s passion for riding, would insist they were perfectly competent on horseback. Anjelica notes with glee; ‘ They’d be mounted on the calmest of the rather hefty thoroughbreds in the stable, and invariably there would be some drama. It would become blatantly evident that they had no experience whatsoever. Dad would find this vastly amusing. And one couldn’t help but agree with him because they were so earnest, “ Oh, yes, John, I ride!”

Next week: Anjelica’s mother Ricki, and the end of St Clarens.

NOTES: * Once going over a stone wall, Frisco threw Huston who fell heavily breaking his leg. He was taken to the former Calvary Hospital at Renmore, Galway, where the nuns made a great fuss of him. He was allowed his Irish whiskey every evening.

**I am taking this from Anjelica’s A Story Latey Told - Coming of age in Ireland, London and New York, published by Simon & Schuster, on sale €18.60

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