Posted by: Peadar Ban | October 9, 2011

Sa t’Inis Fail

It is my plan…as much and as seriously as I am able to plan…to write a chronicle of our recent trip to Ireland.  To that end I’ve been at it with more than my usual off again, off again, diligence, and have managed some several dozen paragraphs.  As a matter of fact I am into the second week of writing since I came home, and, with that, find myself almost finished the tale of the first week’s travel.

I thought I would share a bit of one day with you; one day we spent in Killarney.  In that way you could decide whether or not it was worth your while to endure what will come, soon or not, into your in box.  Do not do anything about this you will regret having done, my father used sometimes to say to me.

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Breakfast over and the dishes put away we left and headed out for the day’s adventures which took us, actually, on another walk into Killarney National Park; this time through the entrance right across the street from St. Mary’s Cathedral.  The big sign said it was the entrance to Knockreer House, another of the old estates, one time belonging to the Lords of the Ascendancy, which make up the lands of the park.  A light rain was falling.  It was, as they say over here, a “soft day”.  But, the place was as busy as it might be on a day in June rather than September for all of that.  So, in the company of strollers and tourists, fellows with pipes and dogs, and ladies with “brollies” and four legged fur balls on leashes we passed through the gate ready for adventure.  The first thing we came upon was what looked like a bit of the Tyrol transplanted; a gingerbread house out of Hansel and Gretel which turned out to be a little ice cream parlor doing a Coney Island high summer kind of business.

The Gingerbread Ice Cream Parlor

Not too far beyond that was a crossroads, a very busy one with tourist filled pony traps going every which way, and walkers like ourselves strolling along up, down and around the place.

We read the sign posts and turned right, up a hill towards Knockreer House and Gardens according to the sign.  After a ten minute walk past some still flowering rhododendrons

Rhododendrons In September

and other unusually out of season blooms we took a hairpin turn in the road and found ourselves soon in a circular drive facing something, a house like building for sure, that we took to be Knockreer House.  At least that is what we thought, but it looked like no other “House” we had so far seen in the times we’d wandered off the road and down the long drive to such things.  It was, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of dumpy, as if the architect hired to design the place worked for The Department of Buildings somewhere rolling out “Council Houses” for the “proles”.  We began to wonder if we were in the right place at all.  To top things off, when we walked up and tried the door it was locked!  Of course this was Ireland, and things get locked at the oddest of times, and left open at even more odd times.  That realization probably prevented us from giving up and going down the hill to strike off in another direction at the crossroads.  To be fair, the sign posts at the bottom of the hill did mention that there was some kind of an educational center in the direction we took along with Knockreer House and Gardens.  Not for the first time ever in Ireland did I wonder.

But, if this was not Knockreer House, where in heaven’s name was it?  We tried the door once more and even knocked on it with no luck.  Then, thinking there might be gardens at least on the other side of the “house”, and just perhaps another entrance…open we hoped…we walked around the corner of the place toward the rear of the house.

I have to admit that based purely on location the place must once have been beautiful.  Situated as it was, it was a perfect place to put a house.  As we came around the final corner and beheld the view we found ourselves at the hill’s summit.  Before us was an easy slope descending to the east in terraced glades to a palisade of fir trees about a hundred or so yards downhill from us.  At one time the trees must not have been so tall as to block a view of what we later discovered were broad fields and pastures, the lake beyond and beyond the lake the Magillicuddy Reeks which, when we looked at them wreathed in clouds and mist the sun somewhere inside all of that, a hint of power and light, reminded me of nothing so much as Sinai during Moses forty day sojourn with The Lord.  But now the black fir fence looked solid enough to stop a rocket, big and bold as devils and almost as menacing, brooding below us on the brow of the hill.  These terraces must once have been Knockreer Gardens I thought.  All that remained were the terraced lawns, long with grass in need of a close shave.

The house itself on this side was a bit more pleasant to look at than the factory faced structure which greeted us.  There were some large windows along the facade, and French doors in the center leading us to imagine being inside years ago looking out on the lake, the pastures and the mountains, all close enough to touch, all looking wild and beautiful.  As we saw them, with sweeps of rain and convoys of clouds rolling by, the wind through the trees sighing and the sound of echoing up from somewhere in the park it was all too easy to imagine ourselves back there somewhere in the 19th century among the ladies and gentlemen of leisure wondering how anything better than this could be .

We stood for a while looking, taking in the view, myself imagining, Mariellen wondering aloud if this was all there was to it and both of us feeling slightly cheated I suppose of a ramble through cascades of flowers, exotic plants and along walls and lanes of shrubbery.  I have to admit to another thought, too, which crept in.  I found myself musing on the Irish way with maps and directions, distances and destinations.  Pin point accuracy, business like precision, in such things I have come to learn is in Ireland a kind of Platonic ideal existing only in the mind of God, but not really necessary anywhere else, certainly not on any map or sign post, or in any guide.

“Were there once gardens at Knockreer?”

“Certainly there were gardens of course.”

“Should we not then, Michael, let the dear people know that, and honor the memory of the lovely flowers which once graced the place?”

“Of course, Daniel.  And isn’t it only the great thing?  Sure it would only encourage everyone’s imagination to see what once was and may someday be.  They’ll be fierce to see it.”

“Grand, so!  Sign posts about the house and gardens it is then, be God!”

At just about that time we turned to look at the house and saw a person inside one of the rooms.  So, as quickly as our old legs would carry us we hoofed around to the front, filled with the hope, despite all the evidence thus far,  that we’d soon be walking through exquisitely furnished rooms.  We tried the door again only to find it locked.  Odd?  No, if you remember this is Ireland.  We wandered down the front of the house looking for another door, and open door and the living person inside.  We found it soon, in a little alley like niche; the very thing, an open door giving way into a sort of utility room with mop sinks, cleaning supplies, work clothes on hooks and Wellingtons on the floor, those calf-length green rubber boots so popular on BBC shows about farm life in Blighty.

Mariellen wondered whether or not we should go in.  I had no such scruples and entered.  An open door is, after all, an open door.  Passing through the entrance/utility room we found ourselves in a bare hall outfitted like the lobby of a post office or a bus station.  There were posters on the walls and the walls themselves were a mustard yellow color reminding me of one thing only I had seen too much of in my babies’ diapers.  What had been done to Knockreer House was nothing short of a crime, I thought.  We passed through this to a short hallway leading to the rear of the house.  Off this were two rooms, old drawing rooms one might assume.  As we entered and began to walk down the hallway I looked to my left and saw the person we had seen from the outside in what looked like a large classroom, set up with chairs and desks in aisles and rows, a blackboard at the front.  Our “person”, a lady in a uniform of some sort, was straightening the desks.  Along one wall were a series of stuffed animals, squirrels, badgers, birds, stoats and other winged and furry things, the wild life around the area, I guessed.

The lady looked up at us,  smiled and asked a question with her eyes, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”  By way of an answer I said, “Excuse me, please, but we are looking for the Knockreer House.  Is this it?”  Mariellen added, “And, the gardens?  Can you tell us if they are nearby?”

Still smiling, perhaps a bit sadly this time she said, “This is not Knockreer House, but this is where it was.  It burned to the ground some years ago.”  “And the gardens,” Mariellen repeated.  “They were there outside,” she pointed out the window toward the terraced hill and ill kept grassland, “but that is all gone now and only this is left.”  What this was she explained was some kind of center for training and education in the wildlife and geography of the national park and surrounding area, a place where school kids came on field trips and wandering old people like us stumbled into or attended seminars on restoring Eden.  She was just about finishing up cleaning the place after a morning of classes.  Then, she was off to her lunch.  We thanked her and turned to go.  As we were just leaving she begged us to wait and went to the front of the classroom returning with two brochures.  With a little apology…another one… and another sad smile she handed us the brochures saying, “These are all I have.”  We took them and repeated our thanks before leaving back through the barren hall and clutter of the utility room.

The brochures were all about the history, flora and fauna of Knockreer estate, the house and gardens that were and were no more, burned to the ground and abandoned.  A couple of days later I learned from somewhere, I can’t remember, that a lot of those places like Knockreer lit up the sky as the Irish people needed light to give birth to their own country after centuries in the darkness of Britain’s benevolent shadow.  The brochure gave no dates for burning and abandonment.

We turned down the road to the crossroad.  As we approached them and discussed where we should go next I looked to my left and saw the tower of St. Mary’s just outside the gate.  It had been a shelter for the Irish during the Great Hunger.  That had been just a couple of decades before Knockreer House had had its foundation dug.

The cathedral tower is the tallest structure in Killarney.

St Mary's Cathedral Tower, Killarney, Co. Kerry, Ireland

I wondered was it taller than the hill and the burned house.

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Responses

  1. Well written description. Was the house burned during The Troubles?

    • Thank you, Gabriel. I don’t really know when the house was burned down, nor how. I know what I’d prefer to believe, though. And, I suspect that is the version everyone would want us to believe. The spirit of Christy Mahon lives on.

  2. Pete, I really enjoy your way with words.I can see why Brother Cronin enlisted you as an “APE” at the Prep.
    P.S. Who was Christy Mahon?

    • Thank you, Ron. Then, you know more about it than I ever suspected. Almost fifty years after the event I still can’t figure out how I ended up in that company of smart guys. Christy Mahon is the “hero” of Playboy of the Western World by Synge. a play that always gave my mother-in-law fits of laughter.

  3. As you may or may not remember I was also an “APE” way back when. As a kid from Godwin Terrace I quickly realized that I was in the company of some very bright and articulate guys and I quickly determined that I could best serve that august group by listening rather than serving up my own half baked notions as to literature.
    I learned a lot from the group but, in retrospect, I probably should have marshaled up the courage and spoken up because, as you know,that’s an important part of learning.Hence the qustion about Christy Mahon.
    Oh well you can sometimes take the kid out of the Bronx but———–
    Regards.

    • The only guys I remember as members of that group are Bill Burke and George Buttrick, both of happy memory.. You will forgive me, I hope, for not including you. I know we were about a dozen. Beyond that I am blank..

  4. No worries mate it was a long time ago.


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