"Take care to get what you like, or you will be forced to like what you get"
(George Bernard Shaw)
That quote was a particular favorite of my father when I was small. He would trot it out
with much fanfare, like a verbal show pony, whenever I couldn't make a decision.
Indeed he often had cause to use it as I was a very indecisive child. I hadn't thought of it
in years, but it popped into my head as we drove along that Saturday morning, the
words circling hypnotically, like a shiny penny spinning on a tabletop. Had I heeded
Shaw, my life may have been very different, as I have to admit, my first impression of
Clifford House, my future home, was not all that good.
For a while, I lost track of time as we drove along the tiny, contorted back roads that
are both the lifeblood and the curse of rural Ireland. Forbidding, gray stone walls
extended monotonously on either side. A flash of emerald as we passed an open
gateway, the only hint of the lush green pastures they enclosed.
My reverie was finally interrupted as we turned into a long driveway, past what must
have been at one time very impressive cut stone entrance pillars. They now leaned
drunkenly to one side, tired sentinels to a crumbling ivy covered gate lodge. Our car
bumped and scraped it's way down a quarter of a mile of potholed, overgrown-and in
some places, non existent road surface. As we rattled along, I felt the familiar sinking
feeling that accompanied a visit to yet another decaying 18th century Irish ruin
optimistically offered for sale as having 'great potential'.
The feeling was reinforced as we unexpectedly emerged into the forecourt of a small
modern Bungalow and came to a halt. I turned to my wife Geraldine, threw up my
hands and muttered "well, yet another complete waste of time". She wisely remained
silent. We both watched as a tall thin man emerged from the house and made his way
towards the car. He wore the standard uniform of the agriculturally employed in Ireland.
Large black rubber boots, navy blue overalls and a tattered green tweed jacket that
had seen service ranging from Sunday best to spraying weed killer. As he drew closer, I
wound down the rain-dappled window and was startled to see that his dark hair was
standing vertically in a gravity defying clump on the top of his head. He sported a pair
of thick glasses which magnified his eyes to impossibly large dimensions. The odd
combination gave him the appearance of someone in a permanent state of shock. I was
instantly reminded of that terrible warning we all receive from our mothers during some
petulant episode in our childhood. 'If the wind changes, your face will stay like that you
know' and I wondered if there wasn't some truth in it after all.
"Ye'll be here to see the house?" he said. I noticed that his accent betrayed him as a
Northerner. County Armagh, I guessed. He was a long way from home down here in
deepest, darkest Cork, the southernmost county in Ireland.
Rooks cawed in the tall, dark skinned oak trees surrounding us, and the summer breeze
whistling through the bright green leaves lent the whole scene a slightly sinister air as I
confirmed we were indeed here about the house, and gently enquired after the
whereabouts of the estate agent that was supposed to show us around .
"Oh, Mr. Coholan never actually comes out here himself" said a soft female voice from
the other side of our car. I turned to see a small plump woman peering in through the
passenger window. Obviously the wife of the northerner, the woman was perhaps in her
late twenties but looked just a little older. Her tired blonde hair was held back with a
black velvet bow, but a few strands had escaped and straggled around her face giving
her a wistful, somewhat distracted look. However; she possessed a radiant smile,
laughing grey green eyes and her gentle, sing-song Cork accent more than made up for
her husband's disturbing countenance. The impending gloom lifted and we relaxed a
"We do all the tours," said her husband. He introduced himself as Peter Rafferty, and
his wife's name was May. Almost simultaneously they both stepped back from the car
and stood beside their front door in a gesture clearly designed to encourage us to
"I suppose we might as well look, if only to stretch our legs" I whispered to my wife as
we slowly emerged from the car and made our way over to meet the Raffertys.
The sun broke through the large clouds that are the hallmark of an Irish summer.
Brilliant white at the top, stark against the baby blue sky and leaden grey on the bottom,
reminding anyone foolish enough to travel without at least an umbrella, that a downpour
was never far away. We shook hands with our guides and engaged in small talk for a
while. May invited us in for a cup of tea. In rural Ireland, this is a ritual, and much more
serious than it sounds. An unfamiliar guest must be offered refreshment when they
enter the house, which they should refuse at least three times, and then finally accept.
This is considered a sign of good manners and breeding. The more vigorous the
refusals, the more hospitable the host appears when they finally do accept. The peculiar
customs of the Irish concerning hospitality to strangers are well described by ancient
chroniclers, and many are still cornerstones of Irish life, dating back over 2000 years to
the Celtic era. The 'tea dance,' as I call it, is not so common these days outside rural
areas in modern Ireland, but no doubt it will surface again in a different form, as has
been the case with so many ancient Irish rituals when confronted with change. I began
my part in the proceedings with a polite but firm refusal,
"Thank you May, but we had tea not 20 minutes ago" It was untrue of course; we were
parched and would love a cup, but the 'proprieties' are paramount in rural Ireland.
"ah sure you'll just take a cup in your hand" said May, opening negotiations,
"No, really, I couldn't manage another so soon but thanks all the same," I replied. May
began her second response, but Peter cut her short, suggesting we start the tour as
there was a lot to see and it would almost certainly rain before we were half way round.
May's face darkened very slightly and she stared at Peter. My heart sank, as I really
was looking forward to the tea.
"Sure it won't take a minute Peter, the kettle is already boiled" May murmured in a tone
that left no doubt she would not be denied.
"Indeed and I know that May, but for the love of God, look at them clouds, it'll be
raining again in ten minutes" Peter pleaded. May bristled visibly until he hastily added
"and sure won't the taypot still be there when we get back?" May relaxed, honor had
been satisfied and there were smiles all round again.
We made our way across the yard and the rear of a very large old house came into
view. It was a terrible sight. Weeds were everywhere, the walls were covered in moss,
and the smell of rainwater, fresh leaves and rotten wood hung heavy in the air. Old,
algae covered slates from the enormous expanse of roof littered the ground, and
what was once a fine cobble-stoned yard with haylofts stables and staff cottages bore more
than a passing resemblance to a direct hit from a long range howitzer.
"This wouldn't be the best view of the house now " Peter muttered. I said nothing, but
marveled at his mastery of the Irish gift for understatement. As we stood surveying the
house, I was reminded of the ancient Inca temples of Central America slowly being
consumed by the jungle until nothing was left to mark their passing except a small stone
outcrop here and there. I also thought of the enthusiasm that had gripped us and led us
on this mad dance through the countryside to find an old house for restoration. Nothing
too serious, just a lick of paint and perhaps a bit of re-plastering to bring it back to a
habitable condition. What we found on that dance told us we had seriously
underestimated the situation, and should we decide to proceed, we were in for a long
haul. I returned to the conversation in time to hear May tell my wife,
"sure all that's needed is a lick of paint and a few sticks of furniture and it'll be grand".
We had moved to Ireland from England in the early 1980's. Geraldine was a young
physician, eager to complete her Radiology training at the Beaumont hospital in Dublin.
I was a freshly graduated industrial designer about to start work for the Irish
government. My parents were both Irish, and like the children of so many emigrants
before me, I was brought up to believe that Ireland was home; anywhere else was
merely some sort of purgatory, and it was the duty of every Irish child born abroad to
return to the motherland as soon as possible. We embraced our new country
completely, and soon Geraldine was looking around for a staff position in the state
health service. A vacancy arose in the hospital in Mallow, a medium size market town in
County Cork in the south of Ireland. We visited the town a few times and liked the feel of
the place, so when Geraldine accepted the offer of a full time position in the
hospital, our quest for the perfect home began in earnest. I needed a place large
enough to contain my studio, and my wife decided she would like a big garden. Most of
the houses on offer were either lifeless modern houses or tiny farm dwellings built
between the wars and in very poor condition. The only other alternative was one of the
large houses built mostly in the 18th century by the English gentry and clergy.
These dwellings once dotted the countryside, commanding the most spectacular views and the very best
of farmland. Unfortunately, such houses were designed and built in an era when vast
armies of servants were readily available from the local peasantry, willing to work just
for their keep. When times changed and the English gentry left, or were forced out by
the IRA, the result was neglect and slow decay. The local people were unwilling to
maintain the estates as they saw them as symbols of a hated 600 year occupation, and
in some cases they even hastened the decay with the clandestine use of heavy
machinery. Many of Ireland's finest Georgian houses met their tragic end in the dead of
night, from a descendant of the 'peasantry' armed with a bulldozer and a very long
memory. We decided we would try to rescue one of those poor beleaguered houses and
asked locally for the name of a good estate agent who might be able to help. We were
told Morris Coholan was the man to see, and early that Summer we found ourselves
upstairs in his well appointed office which looked out on the bustling main street in Cork
Morris Coholan preferred us to use the French pronunciation 'Moreece'. However, due
to the vagaries of the slightly pompous, highly nasal, and very elongated accent of the
'well to do' of Cork city, which has been cruelly described by some as 'like listening to a
flying swan trying to talk' he invariably called himself 'Morse' , and so did we, behind his
back. Morris was on the phone when we arrived and he motioned with an imperious
wave of his hand to take a seat in a couple of those very squeaky leather chairs that can
only be found in a rarely used office. His phone call over, Morris faced us across his
large empty desk from the relative comfort of a swivel chair. 'Moreece' presented quite a
picture. He was in his mid forties, very well dressed, very overweight, and very oily. His
hair was plastered flat against his skull with copious amounts of hair oil and he sweated
profusely. His eyes were small, dark, beady and close set in a heavily jowled face
which continued past his chin and cascaded over the collar of his expensive shirt almost
completely concealing his neck. I began to explain what we were looking for, but before
I was half way through our requirements, he held up his hand for silence, and stabbed
his intercom button with a pale sausage-like finger to order coffee and cookies from his
elegant secretary. Rising from his chair, he drew his impressive bulk up to the window
and gazed out over the city below,
"You see Dan, the problem with old houses is that no one has the interest these days.
The love of craftsmanship and quality materials, all gone, a terrible pity, so many of
these houses are being lost to the past. It's a great thing ye are doing" he said.
"And do you live in an old house yourself Morris?" Geraldine enquired.
"God bless you girl, no, no,.. not at all , he said, 'herself' would never stand for it". He
didn't elaborate on what 'herself (his wife) wouldn't stand for, but as we later found out
for ourselves, he meant living in a state of chaos and piles of rubble for years at a time.
"So, 'Morris' do you think you can help us? I asked.
"Well now Dan, I can and I can't" he said, as I watched him shamelessly consume the
entire plate of cookies his secretary had just placed on the table without even a pause
for breath, his cheeks bulging with the effort. From then on, I was unable to regard him
without that image popping into my head, and thinking that he greatly resembled a giant
malevolent hamster. This made any serious discussions difficult for me as I was often
hard pressed to keep a straight face, and for quite some time our conversations were
carried out with me looking over his shoulder and out the window onto the street below.
I like to think it gave me a somewhat disinterested air, which may or may not have
helped in negotiations, but it was better than bursting out laughing.
"I have one or two places alright" he said thoughtfully through a mouthful of crumbs,
"ye' mightn't like them". but sure if ye don't, then we'll keep looking till ye do"
Geraldine and I were to repeat that procedure many times over the summer. Each time,
we left the office a little more dispirited than the last, until eventually life in one of those
soulless modern houses was looking like the only option left.
Clifford House was such an unlikely prospect that Morris dispensed with his usual sales
pitch and simply left a message on our answering machine to the effect that perhaps we
might like to 'drop in' and see if we liked what we saw. He said he would meet us there,
however, as we found out from Mrs. Rafferty, "sure he tells all the clients that", but never
actually turned up unless they wanted to see the place for a second time. As I stood in
the yard and looked around me at all the devastation, I wondered who would be insane
enough to want to see this place more than once? Peter suggested we might like to see
the front of the house and then step inside for a look around the interior. We continued
our way across the debris strewn yard, passing under a moss covered stone arch
containing a beautiful wrought iron gate. The Raffertys went ahead and held the gate
open for us, and as we passed through that archway our lives changed forever.
The house was built in the late 1700's. The American War of Independence was
over and the French Revolution was underway. Ireland was undergoing an industrial
revolution and a great deal of money was being made by a few well connected
individuals. One such individual was Richard Martin, a Cork city merchant. Mr. Martin
was on the lookout for a suitable wife and he found what he was looking for in Catherine
Randall of Riverstown. Catherine was an only child and heiress to an estate in excess of
two thousand acres of arable and woodland in an idyllic location on the banks of the
river Blackwater near the town of Mallow. He married her, and as was the custom in
those days, assumed control of the entire estate. The couple were apparently very
happy together, and as a belated wedding present, Martin built his wife an elegant
dwelling with what must be one of the finest views of the river in the entire valley.
It was the same exquisite view that met my eyes as I passed through the stone arch.
The house was built facing due south, on a plateau atop a large limestone cliff. Massive
ancient oak and beech trees surrounded the house on three sides. A gravel forecourt
extended some thirty feet to the front, then nothing but a drop of a hundred feet to the
river below. Spread out on the far side of the valley opposite the house were the Nagle
mountains. The Nagles were not majestic, rugged mountains, In fact they barely
qualified as mountains at all, but were achingly beautiful nonetheless. They were softly
featured, rounded, undulating affairs, covered in trees and small fields reflecting every
shade of green imaginable. In the soft summer sunlight, they looked like slumbering
children lying under beautiful green quilts. I stood quite still, transfixed by the vision of
an Ireland I thought had long disappeared. I watched as two crows danced and
swooped with a large hawk over the glittering river, trying to drive him away from their
newly hatched young. I stared at the sheep lounging contentedly in an impossibly green
meadow looking like small white pearls on a green baize table. Peter was talking to me
but I was unable to respond for quite some time, prompting him to say,
"It's not a bad oul view now is it?" Another triumph of understatement but I was too
overwhelmed to notice. I reluctantly turned away from the view to give my attention to
the house, and what a house it was. Built like a beautiful, well proportioned breakfront
bookcase, it's tall façade was pierced by those large graceful windows with tiny beads
between the glass panes that only a Georgian master craftsman could create. Despite
the ravages of time and neglect, Clifford House had a great dignity about it, a penniless
aristocrat limping along in the rags of it's former grandeur, unwilling to ask for charity,
but dependent on the kindness of others for it's survival. I crunched across the gravel
drive to the ancient front door that Peter was struggling to open. He put his shoulder to
the task, and with my help, the door scraped inward reluctantly. I glanced over at
Geraldine, but her face gave no indication of being impressed or otherwise, so I decided
to wait until we had seen the inside of the house before daring to say I actually liked the
We pushed past the waist high weeds, through the small vestibule, and into a truly
massive hall. Peter proudly told me it was the size of a basketball court and I could see
no reason to doubt him. The ceilings were about fourteen feet high and a magnificent
staircase descended in a curve from a gallery above sweeping into the hall opposite the
front door. As we stood, open mouthed, May began to tell us all about the current owner
of the house and his misfortunes. I really wanted to see the rest of the house, but felt
perhaps it would be better to know some of the possible problems before we got too
excited about the place. May went on to tell us that an Irishman owned the house but he
was married to a Brazilian timber heiress and she was reluctant to live in Ireland. He
worked for the Irish state electrical company as an engineer and had gone to Brazil on a
government contract. He met and married the heiress in Sao Paulo but like many Irish
abroad, soon became homesick and the longing for home overcame the considerable
pleasures of a wealthy lifestyle in a tropical climate. He convinced her to buy the house
without even seeing it. As it stood, the house came with twenty eight acres of mostly two
hundred year old beech and oak woods, three quarters of a mile of the river Blackwater
-one of the finest Salmon rivers in Ireland- some small meadows, and the hunting rights
to the surrounding two hundred acres.
"It would have been nice to have a 'squireen' about the place again" said May wistfully. I
enquired what she meant and she told me that the inhabitants of the 'great house' and
estates were often referred to by the locals as the squire (if they didn't already have an
aristocratic title) The full title for Clifford in it's heyday with two thousand acres was
'Squire of Clifford, Ballinaraha and the Inches', an inch' is a small sandy beach on a
river. However, in this case the estate was now so small that the owner was sometimes
referred to locally as 'the Squireen'. In Ireland, any word with 'een attached means a
miniature version of the real thing, 'boyeen' or 'girleen' is a common pet name for little
children, and with Clifford's estate being on the small side, the squire naturally became
a 'squireen'. There were also two acres of glasshouses with the property, a failed
tomato growing enterprise of the previous owner. The current owner decided that these
were to be revamped and turned into a thriving business that would pay for the
restoration of Clifford. A small modern house was built near the glasshouses and Peter,
who had a degree in Horticulture, was installed as the manager and charged with
starting up the tomato business again.
"That", said Peter in the hushed tones usually reserved for the back of the church on a
Sunday morning, "was when the money really started to come in" His eyes adopted a
glazed, faraway look and as I glanced over at May I noticed she too had the same
"Oh yes, those were good times " he murmured, "You couldn't count the trucks that
came in here in a day, loaded with building materials, timber, concrete, plaster and the
like." I couldn't help myself, as I contemplated the vast emptiness that surrounded us, I
asked, "so where did it all go?"
"Ye're feckin lookin' at it" was the slightly terse reply. I felt I may have hit a sore point
and decided to change the direction of the conversation.
"How long did the work go on for?" I asked. The distant look returned, and Peter told me
that there was a team of builders at work on the house full time for nearly three years.
The builders had gone on to construct the house that he and May currently occupied
and when the horticultural business failed for the second time, 'herself', (The Brazilian
woman) turned off the money
"so that was that" he said, brushing a speck of imaginary dust from his ragged jacket.
The couple stayed on as caretakers while a buyer was being sought for the house. It
was meant to be just for a few months but the months turned into years and when we
arrived, they had been there over five years.
I was fascinated by the mysterious Brazilian woman and decided to risk asking a few
more questions. She was never referred to by name, only as "the Brazilian" or "herself"
and from the tone the conversation took on when she was mentioned, I gathered she
had not made a favorable impression on the Raffertys.
"Ach! she was used to gettin her own way all the time" said Peter. "She arrived here one
summer, no English by her, expectin' us to know what she was talking about. T'was a
bad summer alright, rainin most of the time and I think she got a wee bit fed up as there
isn't much to do round here for someone like that, if ye know what I mean" May took up
"well, a few weeks after herself arrived, a big container from Brazil turned up. It was full
to the brim with antique furniture. We thought she was getting ready to stay, but she just
called up the driver from Limerick and told him to send it back to Brazil. She didn't even
"We knew it was all over bar the shoutin' after that" said Peter. "The husband made a
brave effort to keep the house but with the cash flow stopped, t'was the end of the
"We've been here ever since" said May ruefully.
I looked around, more carefully this time, and while the outside was one step from
ruination, I noticed that inside, the bare concrete floors were all new and the
whitewashed walls and ceilings were also freshly plastered. The familiar 'old house'
smell of damp and decay was noticeably absent, there were modern electrical sockets
everywhere and I could indeed see the evidence of considerable investment although
the house was completely bare and empty. However, I concluded for the work to have
taken three years, there were only two possibilities, the work was undertaken by the
world's only team of quadriplegic builders, or the owners were charged twice the price
for half the work. I settled on the latter. The kitchen was the only room in the house to
have anything in it, and even that was confined to just cabinetry, worktops and the
appliances. It was a relatively small kitchen for such a big house but it was comfortable,
and later, we were grateful for that lack of size during the long cold winter days as it was
one of the few rooms in the place we could actually afford to heat when the full enormity
of what we had done finally began to sink in.