Monday, April 6, 2009

Narnia and Nostalgia in Mullingar

Last weekend when I was at the Labour Party Conference in Mullingar at the Park Hotel I took some time out from the proceedings on Saturday afternoon to explore Belvedere House outside Mullingar on the shores of Lough Ennell. It was a place I was curious about as I had seen in signposted when en route to the INO (nurses' trade union) conference in Cavan some years back. Also when the film of C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicle "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was released a few years ago Belvedere House was described as the Irish Narnia. A Narnia Trail had been developed in the grounds of this old estate, and it was a popular attraction for Narnia fans.

It was a beautiful sunny spring day, a rarity in itself after so much bad weather recently, so I was glad to get out and explore a part of the country I had never visited before. Mullingar is a garrison town in Co. Westmeath, in the Irish Midlands, and it is famous for the late Joe Dolan, who was known as "The man from Mullingar". Joe boosted our fragile national pride back in the '70s when we were still very insecure, there were no jobs and everyone expected to emigrate, as he had international hits with "Make me an Island" and other popular songs. He is immortalised in Mullingar town centre with a bronze statue made by Genesis, a local company.

I tried to take a photo of Joe's statue as I was driving through town and managed to get a shot while stopped at the lights, as it was impossible to get parking on the street. So much for the bypass, the town was jammed with traffic. Of course I discovered later that I could have gone to Belvedere House by another route, but I wanted to see the statue as there had been so much hype about it, and while I wasn't a hardcore Joe fan, I did spend many a night dancing to Joe Dolan and the Drifters in their showband heyday, which coincided with my Dancehall Days!

The showband era in Ireland is a peculiarity of this island and much has been written and filmed about it, most famously in the film version of William Trevor's short story The Ballroom of Romance, coincidentally made by a Lismore man, the internationally renowned film director Pat O'Connor, who is married to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the film star.
Belvedere House and Gardens
Back to Belvedere House. It was bought in 1992 for the price of a semi-detached house today - IR£250,000 - by Westmeath County Council, who seem to have handled the stewardship very well, in that it is well-maintained, and preservation is sensitive to the original design in the house and the gardens. So they are doing a good job from what I saw on my short visit. The history is fascinating, as there were a host of eccentric aristocratic and bohemian characters in residence from 1740 right up to the 1980s when the last resident died. No children were ever born there so there were no inheritors when the last owner, Rex Beaufort, died. It is a very imposing house, a Georgian Palladian villa, and has lovely Italianate formal gardens laid out in terraces down to the shores of Lough Ennell. The midlands of Ireland are full of lakes, and many drain into the River Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles.

The grounds of Belvedere House are parkland dotted with obscure follies which reflect the owners' vanity as well as their state of mind at the time. The most fascinating is the Jealous Wall, the largest folly in Ireland, which was built to hide a more imposing mansion, Tudenham House, now in ruins, that the brother of the 1st Lord Belvedere, Robert Rochfort, had built nearby and was visible from the terraces of Belvedere House. He couldn't bear to have to see this daily reminder of his brother's wealth so he blocked it with this facade! A classic case of status anxiety, and obviously keeping up with the Jones's isn't a 20th Century invention. Robert seemed to have been paranoid, and a thoroughly nasty piece of work. He was known as the Wicked Earl, as he kept his wife, Mary Molesworth, imprisoned in the house for 31 years for alleged adultery with another brother.
The grounds are laid out in pathways along the lakeshore, and through forestland. It is wonderful to see how the Narnia settings and locations are incorporated into the landscape, which is all a bit magical, and even though there wasn't a snowflake in sight, you could see how captivating it is to children. There is a lovely octagonal folly, denoting Cair Paravel, and a pretty convincing Beaver Dam. I liked the way you stumble upon the various scenes as you wander around, and there is an adventure playground with ropes across a Bridge to Terabithia, with its Narnia reference. There is the inevitable coffee and souvenir shop, incorporated into the outbuildings, and a wonderful Victorian Walled Garden with the original fully restored glasshouse.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing tourist in Mullingar and the visit to Belvedere was a fascinating snapshot of how the other half - no, perhap a fraction of that - lived in an era of noblesse oblige for the privileged aristocracy.
The irony of visiting the local "Big House" during the Labour Party Conference wasn't lost on me - after all, Belvedere House was the setting of the now-defunct "Mullingar Accord" between Labour and Fine Gael in 2004!

We stayed in a nice B&B in a pub near Mullingar, as the hotels were either full or charging over the odds for the conference weekend. Mary Lynch's Pub is on the banks of the Royal Canal that goes all the way to Dublin from the Shannon for 146km. It was pleasant, warm and comfortable, with a delicious full Irish breakfast to start the day, and the pub itself was a real old world local - not an ersatz Irish pub with faux artefacts like so many are nowadays.


FoodFunFarmLife said...

Thanks for yet another interesting post & some great photo's, Catherine ! Hope you have a lovely week ....

Jeannette StG said...

You took many interesting pics - thanks for sharing the Belvedere House with us. Narnia was an unexpected suprise, mostly I don't like movies in that genre, but I loved it - maybe also because of all the symbolic stuff in it.

Glad that these kinds of imprisonments by paranoid people would be harder to pull off nowadays! Seemed like you enjoyed your time there?

Caroline said...

I love to see the old buildings in other parts of the world. Of course here in Australia a country only a little over 200 years old we have nothing like that.

Catherine said...

Thanks for the comments! Glad you liked the post, LYNDA - the photos are nice and I might put a slideshow together for the rest of them, as I took a lot and just selected a few for the post. Have a good week yourself, it is a holiday weekend coming up with Easter, so I will have a nice long weekend, looking forward to it! I posted a comment on your Safari book which I think might have disappeared into cyberspace as i didn't see it come up as awaiting your approval as usual. But in case it doesn't appear, I loved that post and that book, and all the camps listed took me right back! Ruaha, Tarangire, Manyara, Seronera, some I didn't know or are new, most I did visit at some stage. Great for you to have the recipes and photos recognised.Well done!

Catherine said...

JEANNETTE - glad you liked the post and the photos, it is a fascinating place, Belvedere, and I was glad I took the time to visit it. I hope to visit a few more big houses next month as I will be at another conference in Killarney this time. So should present another opportunity for a post with a past! Yes the Narnia link was quirky, every Christmas they have a kid's activity week or something to mark the land where it was "always winter, never Christmas"!
Yes, the films are never as good as the book but this one was well done, though I must say I loved the original BBC version of the story, the kids were a lot less glamourous than the movie kids but more credible as war evacuees!
And thankfully the cuckolded husbands of today wouldn't get away with locking the supposedly errant wife up for a few decades! THough we had a nasty murder case here last week, where the man knifed his wife in front of the 3 kids, all under 8, for telling him she was leaving him for another man. Smacked of fatal possessiveness, if he couldn't have her, no-one could. So we aren't always as civilised as we might like to believe but at least institutionalised cruelty is less commonly acceptable or legal.
I left some comments on your posts, haven't done much lately, too busy!

Catherine said...

CAROLINE - I guess the old world has gotta have the old historic buildings, and don't forget our shared past - these Big Houses all belong to our colonial past, and tell of the lives of the aristocracy, a million miles away from the peasantry who were their subjects. I guess Australia has only a 200 year old recorded history since its foundation as a country settled by the Europeans, but there must be a fascinating aboriginal history predating that time. I don't know a lot about it, I'm afraid, only films like Rabbit Proof Fence and some books I read some years back on the raising of mixed race kids in institutions or white homes, and their subsequent loss of their own identity. It seems very sad in retrospect. Ireland exported a lot of people to Australia from the church institutions here for so-called "unmarried mothers" children, which has become a big scandal in recent years, as they were cruelly treated in the various christian brothers and convent schools they lived in, virtual slave labour. We have had a struggle here coming to terms with the institutional abuse of children sanctioned by the church and it is still unfolding, with enquiries going on and redress boards forcing acknowledgement and restitution, a kind of truth and reconciliation board. Not before time. We were ruled by the church for too long and it is only now we are coming to maturity as a nation and can see beyond the rule of the bishops.

Irene said...

That was an interesting look around Belvedere House. There seems to be an endless fascination with these grand houses that I don't quite see the point of. There must be an endless supply of them in the British Isles and in Ireland all acting as places of tourists attractions now and for other accommodations. We don't have anything quite like it in the Netherlands and I wonder how all these grand houses became established? It must have been at the cost of many unlucky souls who labored very hard to earn the capital for the wealthy families to build the homes and own the estates. It seems almost archaic to keep being nostalgic about these places as if they are an emotional pride to the country they belong to, when they really are an artifact of a repressive time in history. Things were tough in Ireland for the Irish and I can't imagine this fascination with the symbols of unequally dispersed wealth. That's the socialist in me speaking, maybe I see it too black and white.

Catherine said...

IRENE - interesting it was, and the fascination of these old houses is in the history, all part of our past and now we are more comfortable in our national skin at the ripe old age of 76 as an independent nation we can look back at our heritage from the colonial masters of that era with some objectivity. Yes they were brutally elitist and the class system was reinforced here as much as in Britain. The occupation of 800 years hasn't been forgotten but we had too much bloodshed in Northern Ireland in the 40 years of the "Troubles" to perpetuate the bitterness now that there is peace on the island of Ireland. Well, relative peace. There are still outbursts of violence from dissident IRA splinter groups, and they do not speak for the majority of Irish people and certainly not for the Socialists of the Labour party. Recognising the big house aristocracy heritage in its colonial context is not to excuse or forget the often cruel behaviour of the erstwhile owners. But it is not right to airbrush it out of our history as that could be revisionist. Acknowledge it for what it was, a very tough time for the Irish to have their language and religion of choice suppressed for centuries and having their land occupied and being virtual slaves, it's fodder for years of anarchy and rebellion but when we got our independence after a bloody Civil War in 1922, it was too hard-won to be squandered by violence and recrimination. I suppose we have moved on, joining the EEC in 1972 and benefitting from the years of structural funding, and the years of the Celtic Tiger,and have come through the stigma of the IRA tarnishing the country's international image by purporting to speak for the country during their so-called war years up to the Good Friday Agreement. Now we are proudly members of a wider EU and Eurozone, and many of us see ourselves as European as well as Irish. We can take a vicarious pleasure in the state ownership of places like Belvedere, there for everyone to enjoy, and even though Lismore Castle is still in the Duke of Devonshire's possession, he gets no special treatment nor do his extended family. Respect has to be earned and as long as they do that, they will be regarded as local employers with the bonus of a good tourist draw for the area.
I would have thought there are many nice castles in Nederland, Slot Moermond in Renesse is very old, if small, and Slot Zeist I remember as beautiful. Like Belvedere, they seem to be used for conferences and meetings. I see that Helmond and Deurne have castles, they are towns I have been to see friends. Of course there are beautiful royal palaces and castles there too, and many hotel castles. I think there is a great sense of heritage in the Netherlands, and of course they have the advantage of having been on the ruling side in the colonial era! I guess a history lesson in Irish history is way outside the scope of even my blog! But it was pretty bloody and full of intrigue and exploitation. I like your socialist viewpoint as it mirrors a lot of my own. I try to see all sides of the coin!

Peggy said...

Hi Catherine, great post as I have only ever driven through Mullingar on the way to somewhere else!I love the stories of these old houses as we have so few of them left in Ireland. I must tell my daughter about the narnia connection as her children are very 'in' to these books and I am sure they are not aware we have this quite so close to home.

Unknown said...

Hello Catherine,
Great post on Mullingar, I saw Joe Dolan in the Market Square, I think Brian Cowen took time out recently from handling a banking crisis to unveil it, solid thick piece of metal (the statue of course!)lovely pose, nice piece of work.
Could we have a plaque at Belvedere to commemorate the signing of the Mullingar Accord at that location in 2004?
I'd to go early on Saturday sorry I didn't see you or Jan. Lovely pics, well done again.

Catherine said...

PEGGY - Thanks for the feedback, yes I had only ever by-passed Mullingar in the past, and this was an interesting interlude. It has generated quite an interesting variety of responses, which I enjoy. I suppose Ireland has its ambivalent attitude and relationship with the Big House and it is always a bit tricky to strike a balance between love and hate - a bit like love the sin, hate the sinner where the sinner is the colonial past that perpetrated such inequality but was prevalent all over the world at that time, east and west.
I am sure your daughter's kids would love the Narnia connection there and seemingly at Christmas they run themed shows where they play up the Narnia thing. it seems to be good year round, though. My kids are too old for Narnia now, at 13 she is too sophisticated for such things she loved a few years back!
I dunno why I don't get a feed to your posts as I am following them, thought I would. But I check it out every so often. I will leave a comment soon.

Catherine said...

Hi JOE - thanks for commenting on the post, glad you liked it. Yes Biffo did indeed unveil old Joe, and I bet he wishes he was back in Mullingar instead of fielding the fallout from Lend-a-hand's largesse yesterday.What a day! I still haven't had the courage to calculate what I'm down, as it is just a LOT according to Jan who did the maths.
I am glad I went to Belvedere, as it is an eccentric and fascinating place, what oddities we have in the country! I'm sure every Big House has its skeletons and this place seems to have had quite a few.
AS for the Mullingar Accord, a plaque to commemorate something notable in our past I suppose could be welcomed - is there any future in such a union down the road?
I see Libertas has started its dirty tricks campaign with billboards dissing the opposition!
We saw you speaking Friday night at the conference but you were nowhere to be seen thereafter! Take care, glad you liked the pics as well.