It was John Huston’s wife Ricki, who first saw St Clarens, a large Georgian house, and gardens near Craughwell, Co Galway. She had been staying with Derek and Pat Trench at Woodford House for the Galway Races. When she heard the house was coming up for sale by public auction she went to check it out. Once owned by the O’Hara Burkes,* it was then a virtual ruin, and in the hands of the Land Commission.
John Huston was an extraordinary man even by Hollywood standards. He directed 36 films (including The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Beat the Devil, to The Man Who Would be King, Wise Blood, and The Dead ), had married five times, enjoyed innumerable famous friendships, and some disastrous ones. He got into a long fist fight with Errol Flynn, breaking two of his ribs. Yet their friendship survived.
His career brought him around the world, where his sharp eye helped him to build a serious collection of sculpture and paintings. He worked with Hemingway, LB Mayer, Selznick, Carson McCullers, B Traven, Orson Welles, Gable, Brando, Bogart, Hepburn and Monroe. But not always successfully. He paid $25,000 to Jean-Paul Sartre to write a script for his film Freud, then could not use it.
In the middle of it all, and just after he married Ricki, he was invited to Ireland by Lady Oonagh Oranmore and Browne, to their famous Lugalla home in Wicklow in 1951. He was immediately fascinated by Ireland. Huston loved hunting. The thrill of riding at speed through unknown countryside satisfied something in his character. He developed a passion for the Irish hunting scene. He had hunted in the States, in England and on the Continent but, as he wrote, ‘ Irish hunting came as a new and joyful experience. It had little of the formality of the other hunts. You heard laughter and shouting as the hunt went on. There was a festive feeling about it. Everyone was in high spirits,’
He became interested in the Galway hunting scene having attended a hunt ball in the Gresham Hotel. He could hardly believe the devil-may-care attitude of the members of the Galway Blazers. At one stage, the long line of dancers followed their leader up to the balcony overlooking the dance floor, and threw themselves off in turn.
He bought St Clarens for a song, but spent a fortune and two years restoring it to its former glory. His marriage to Ricki did not survive; but their two children Anjelica and Tony grew up on the estate. For Huston, however, Ireland was the perfect antidote to his busy life style. He became an Irish citizen; and wrote that his 18 years in St Clarens were the happiest of his life.
The middle part
I thought I had finished with the Huston saga as I concluded extracts from Anjelica’s book A Story Lately Told last week. But my friend, and antiquarian book dealer Norman Healy, suddenly produced An Open Book, John Huston’s autobiography, published by Alfred A Knopf, USA, in 1980. There was some interest from the few long suffering readers of the Diary to Anjelica’s Galway stories. So I quickly browsed through Huston’s book. My favourite story was when he fell from his horse and broke his leg. He was taken to Calvary Hospital, now the Bon Secours, which was run by the very respected Sisters of the Little Company of Mary. They took a great shine to Huston. He, however, made it clear that he was an atheist, and had no orthodox religion whatsoever. The nuns just nodded wisely and said nothing. But they were immensely kind to him. They stripped him down and washed the mud of the hunt off him, careful to only wash ‘the upper and lower portions of my body, then handing me a wet cloth they said: “There now, You do the middle part yourself!”’
In the evenings, when all the visitors were gone, and it was time for lights out, one of the sisters would pop her head around the door and say, “ Mr Huston would you like a little night-cap? It will help you to sleep.”
Huston would have his ‘night-cap’. A few minutes later another sister would come in. “ Would you like to have a little night-cap Mr Huston? Just to sleep better?”
‘I never went to sleep sober. Sometimes I’d have four or five night-caps.’ Huston put this lavish attention down to the fact that as an atheist, the sisters knew he was condemned to hell in the next life. They were determined to give him a little pleasure while he was on earth...
The Hustons were sad to see their friends Derek and Pat Trench fall on hard times. The Trenchs had been in the 60 room mansion at Woodlawn since the 17th century. But increased taxes and falling income led them to let all their staff go, except for one elderly woman who had nursed Derek as a child. They converted three rooms into a habitable apartment, while leaving the rest of the house to rot. It was eventually sold to the Land Commission, and the Trenches moved into servant’s quarters at Lough Cutra, near Gort.
Huston was very supportive, but accepted the inevitability of it all.‘ My turn came. I had spent 18 glorious years in St Clarens, but at last I had to give it up. The decision was forced upon me. It became so expensive to run that I had to stay away and work in order to maintain it. I had little time to enjoy the house or the hunt; some years I only made it back for Christmas.’
Staff were reduced from 16 to 12, but it was not enough. ‘So one sad day I sold it all - the house, and almost everything in it, except for a few works of art...I sometimes feel that I sold a little bit of my soul when I let St Clarens go’...
NOTES: *Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills were the first Europeans to cross Australia from South to North. Both men died on the return trip from exhaustion and hunger.