A place, a house, latterly a hotel, but primarily a state of mind for all who knew it at its zenith in the first two or three decades after the Second War.
Because of its definitive bearing on the lives of those who still remember it, I've held back from any attempt to present its narrative until I can do it justice, and that is not yet.
Meanwhile, I'd like to provide a link to the really excellent websites of Eliane Zimmerman, who now lives in the new house for much of each year, and who loves the tradition of the great house, and the grounds that still surround it.
On returning from sojourns in Abu Dhabi and Athens, I made contact with Sonia Kaulback again, and she impulsively suggested that I join her for a week or two back at the old homestead in Bantry. Penniless and bedraggled though I was, I rashly agreed and off we went by train to Fishguard, then ferry (the old Innisfallen) to Cork, and rural coach to Bantry and just beyond ...
The first thing I saw from the coach, wedged uncomfortably as I was between a goat and a nun, was the towering stone arch at the entrance to the Ardnagashel driveway from the main road, as we approached from Bantry. This is it, exclaimed Sonia, come on, hurry up, get off or we'll miss it!
Sincere thanks to Eliane Zimmermann for this recent photograph.
The arch is now rather picturesquely overgrown with trees and flowering shrubs
Seen from the other side.
It's clearly further from the road than I remember.
Had we been approaching from Glengarriff, in the opposite direction, the roadside hoarding would have provided an advance warning to look lively.
Looking lively has never been my forte in life, and I prefer to let my real merits, poor things but mine own, gradually impress themselves on those around me.
It's better to live down a poor first impression that to fail to live up to a deceptively good first impression, in my opinion. Better a crescendo than a diminuendo.
So by the time I emerged from the bus clutching my meagre possessions, Sonia was already almost out of sight, eager to be reunited with her parents. I followed stolidly, unsure of what was to manifest itself.
The renowned 'Turkeys and Twins' sign was a good omen, and the arch beyond led to a spacious yard, the nearer side of which was flanked by a long two-storey stone building in which (as I later learned) the family lived and the hotel laundry and other services were located. But neither turkeys nor twins were in evidence just then.
The drive now swooped downwards briefly to the left and as it then bounced back to the right, the bay became visible on the one side as the house gradually revealed itself on the other.
Various deck-chaired tweedy figures became visible, flanked by forceful-looking memsahibs with floppy sunhats. Immediately out of my depth socially, I nevertheless resolved to keep treading water.
Himself clearly identifiable
It was the beginning of a long and ultimately successful transition from bizarrely clad semi-feral drop-out to at least the outer margins of social acceptability. I was quite articulate, literate and numerate, always a good place to start, but had yet to meet Ron Kaulback.
He was busy in the bar and beamed at Sonia as she bounded in. Hello Dad, she said, I've brought a friend, his name's Robin, his other name's Erskine.
After a stunned silence during which he stared at me aghast (my orange suede bargain winklepickers, 39/6d, were afterwards identified as being the focal point of disbelief), he sufficiently recovered the power of speech to say, Well I shall call him Erskine, and turned back to the bar.
A little later I was also introduced to Audrey; we hit it off at once and I loved her dearly to the end of her days. Indeed, Sonia always told people that I married her for her mother!
At the bottom of the drive, off to the left of that picture above was this fallen tree, with one branch planted amongst the rocks, providing a dizzying route down to the water's edge for more fearless individuals such as Susie and Ron, who could sashay nonchalantly along it without "crooching or stooping", let alone shufflebottoming (on which those with the least head for heights had to rely).
This very nice watercolour was one of many painted by Maj Philip Ironside, who with his wife Betty were frequent visitors from Innishannon. He was also very accomplished at fly-fishing, as was Audrey, with whom it was a great bond. When Sonia was in her late teens, the Ironsides joined her on skiing visits to Austria (she would travel adventurously by train) – Betty didn't ski, and neither did Philip but he ski-bobbed instead, and they all thoroughly enjoyed the cosmopolitan après-ski atmosphere afterwards.
Ardnagashel in a Nutshell
The following synopsis of Ardnagashel's history (up until the game-changing fire of 1968) was prepared by Sir Cosmo Haskard, resident of Tragariff, the great house just down the coast from Ardnagashel. His wife Phillada, Lady Haskard, explained in an accompanying letter of 1998 that he had been asked by the staff of the holiday apartments that had been established in what was previously the yard up above the house, if he could provide some historical background information for a leaflet to be produced in response to the many enquiries from visitors. This is he did, as you can see, and the resulting leaflet was a great success.
Taken moments afterwards.
Evidently an aerial photograph and therefore post 1910. Note Ardnagashel House in bottom RHS corner and Sugar Loaf (Gabhal Mhor) dominating the skyline further round the coast.
Ca 1950, and frequently included in the hotel brochures, reviews etc.
The finest close-up of the old house before the fire in 1968.
It isn't surprising that Ardnagashel, a starkly angular old house with a turbulent history, in a wild romantic setting, tree-girt and storm-lashed, also attracted artistic attention.
The scraper-board original by Julie Brenan had survived some fairly rough handling, but has photographed very nicely, in conjunction with a touch of digital repair-work here and there. In fact, two variants of this image are also rather compelling, and one starts to wonder where the artistic truth resides in such situations.
Ca 1972 after the fire (1968), and the building of the restaurant (early 1970s).
The derelict old house was subsequently demolished and rebuilt, by Ron and Audrey, but after their departures the new house was replaced by a succession of architecturally undistinguished bungalows.
The new house under construction (Christmas 1972) –
note the large pile of rubble on the LHS
from the demolished remains of the old house.
The new house (subsequently demolished under new ownership) –
the steep slope behind meant that the second storey as seen from the front
was accessible at ground level to the rear of the house.
Let's Halt Awhile with Ashley Courtenay
I'd feel confident that Ashley Courtenay, as a gourmet and bon viveur, had been frequenting Ardnagashel from its earliest years under the aegis of Ron and Audrey Kaulback, but the reviews that you may see below are all that I have to hand – his practised pen more easily expresses all the unique facets of Ardnagashel for the visitor or guest than I could ever manage as a minor appendage of the family at that time.
Though the cuisine was superb, and the cellar almost unequalled in the whole of Ireland$, and the atmosphere invariably convivial and, as the evenings in the bar progressed, high-spirited, the bedroom accommodation was Spartan by modern standards – warm and comfortable, of course, but plainly furnished and equipped – personally I much prefer plain to the mock-opulent that is de rigueur nowadays.
The other aspect of Ardnagashel was Ron's patrician indifference to the profit motive – it was often remarked that the bar only made money during the intervals that Ron would be called away by (for example) a call from the Gardai to retrieve a dead body from deep water somewhere down the bay, during which time one of the regulars would deputise behind the bar, charge proper prices, and stop providing drinks on the house to favoured customers, or (for example) free packs of peanuts.
And although (as the sand in my hourglass trickles ever more quickly) I haven't compared the purchasing power of money between then and now, or checked the rates prevailing at the other hotels in the area at the time, I do wonder quite how they could possibly have charged such antiquated prices! Though their tariff did creep up over the five years quoted below, it was still incredibly modest.
$ Cached in some remote and cobwebby corner of Ron's cellar was an antique brandy of such rarity and excellence that the only other extant specimens belonged to the King of Sweden.
Ashley Courtenay's Let's Halt Awhile in Britain and Ireland,
29th Edition, Andre Deutsch, 1962:
Ashley Courtenay's Let's Halt Awhile in Britain and Ireland,
32nd Edition, Barrie & Rockliffe, 1965:
Ashley Courtenay's Let's Halt Awhile... in the British Isles, Eire and the Channel Islands,
34th Edition, Barrie & Rockliffe, 1967:
The cryptic abbreviations were all pretty self explanatory
| || || || |
|F.L.||Fully Licensed||10%S||Service Charge|
|W.T. ||Weekly Terms||Rms.||Rooms|
|B.B.||Bed & Breakfast||Sgl.||Single|
|A.T.||Afternoon Tea||Priv. Bath.||Ensuite|
Prices were all pre-decimal, and were expressed in terms of guineas (I guinea = £1.05), shillings (1/ = 1 shilling = £0.05) and [old] pence (1d = 1 old penny = £0.00416rec). So for example, 16 gns meant £16.80, and 37/6 meant £1.875!
As Uncle Matthew (a thinly-disguised Lord Redesdale, Nancy Mitford's father) put it in The Pursuit of Love, "Frogs are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends". We've moved on from those crude caricatures, and personally I think that SW Ireland has everything a civilised person could possibly require – spectacular scenery, wide well-made roads with little traffic, and (often enough) very decent weather, but above all, the Irish people themselves: welcoming, hospitable, articulate, exceptionally well-educated and well-informed, and invariably happy to pass the time of day over a glass of Paddy or Jamesons.
Ardnagashel threw in a host of other activities for the more energetic holiday maker – such a golf, sailing, schnorkelling and even scuba diving. Ron was an accomplished subaqua diver himself, and there was a compressor to refill the air tanks each day.
Oh yes, and there was Ardnagashel's very own fresh farm produce (much of it still rationed in England for years after the war), Cordon Bleu cooking and a cellar almost unrivalled in the whole of Ireland.
Back coverFront cover
p5Inside back cover
A working reserve of wines and spirits for the day-to-day requirements of restaurant and bar was maintained in a room down in the house next to the kitchen. But the cellar itself was a room up in the yard, from which Ron would replenish the room next to the kitchen each morning.
For whatever reason – trust in the total integrity of the Ardnagashel staff, for whom he would organise transport to and from Mass each Sunday, or simply a desire not to become paranoid about security – he didn't lock the cellar door during the first few years of the hotel. But one morning he discovered that the cellar had been broken into during the night and all the spirits had gone.
Circumstantial evidence, or rumour, suggested that the culprit was the husband of the cook at the time, and regarded locally as a Bad Lot. The cook was probably asked a few searching questions and maybe the Guardaí were informed. Be that as it may, the Ardnagashel family dogs were lethally poisoned shortly afterwards, and the suspect left the area, never to return as far as I know.
And the cellar was kept padlocked in between visits ever after.
Its contents were authoritatively said to be the most extensive in Ireland apart from some super-plush place in Dublin. And yet Kaulback retailed them at scarcely break-even prices – as a renowned connoisseur himself, he simply wanted to share them with other appreciative enthusiasts.
Note that the prices are quoted in decimals, and therefore reflect the decimalisation of the Irish punt on 15 Feb 1971 (the punt being pegged to the pound sterling in those pre-euro days).
So these are the prices that were being charged in the new restaurant that was opened in the early 1970's after the hotel itself was destroyed by fire in 1968, of course. But the pricing would have been similarly rock-bottom in the heyday of the hotel ...
No wonder, therefore, that there was invariably a merry buzz of animated conversation in the bar as evening progressed, but when Audrey came in to feed her wild badgers, Fogarty and Milligan (see Puckoon) there would be a breathless hush while everybody watched with fascination. They would arrive from outside when she called, and after eating their fill would disappear out into the darkness again.
And on another occasion, one of the stalwarts of the establishment, though confined to his wheelchair by polio (still not uncommon in those days), came back from the little loo round the corner, and exclaimed "Good God, Ron, there's a frog in the bowl!". General scepticism prevailed, but upon investigation it proved sober fact.
This wasn't the only time that local fauna turned up in the smallest room. Some time thereafter, the same chap, Geoff Woollcombe, returned ashen-faced to the bar and announced there was a hedgehog in occupation. So ever afterwards, a sign attached to the door warned well-lubricated customers to "Cave Ericium"!
Brocklets in the Bar
One summer in the mid-1960's, somebody from thereabouts brought two small orphaned badger cubs to Audrey and asked her to take care of them.
She readily accepted the opportunity and tended them devotedly. They were known as Milligan and Fogarty, from the two hapless characters in Spike Milligan's very funny comic novel Puckoon
that was hugely popular at that time.
Milligan and Fogarty would come when called, lumber into the hotel bar and greedily consume a high-protein bowlful together, oblivious to the intense interest from all around.
Audrey and Milligan – or was it Fogarty – nobody but she could tell them apart.
They flourished under her watchful eye, and, as badgers do, grew larger, much larger.
Audrey eventually released them successfully back into the wild, but for quite a while afterwards they would still turn up at the back door of the hotel to say hello.
Political correctness had yet to reach Ireland, with such blandly uninspiring messages as "Season's Greetings" or (worse still) the transatlantic "Happy Holidays"!
Châtelaine and Seigneur
The Horticultural History
The following historical overview up until 1980/81 is transcribed from
- Miss Ellen Hutchins (1785 – 1815) and the Garden at Ardnagashel, Bantry, County Cork, John Bevan, (46 Foyle Road, Fairview, Dublin 3), published in
- Moorea, The Journal of the Irish Garden Plant Society, p 1, vol 3, Mar 1984 irishgardenplantsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/MOOREA-VOLUME-3-MARCH-1984-PDF-7710KB.pdf
which itself (we might call it JB0) is based on the first and second parts of a project entitled Ardnagashel – A Hidden Treasure which the author presented as part of his work for the Certificate in Amenity Horticulture at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, in 1981.
|JB1||Title||Ardnagashel: A Hidden Treasure|
|5||2||Ardnagashel: Its History and Ownership|
|JB2||9||3||Miss Ellen Hutchins|
|JB3||14||4||Trees and Shrubs at Ardnagashel|
Photocopies of all four typescripts have recently (Jan 2015) emerged from the archive of personal documents left by Mrs Audrey Kaulback at her death (Aug 1994), and I've decided to put them into the public domain – which allows Bevan's magnum opus to be appreciated in its entirety.
When Bevan abstracted JB0 from JB1 and JB2 for publication purposes, some of the details were repackaged, so it is well worth reading all three. The fourth, JB4, is very exiguous, as there is no trace of the photographs – though it is just possible that they are still held by the National Botanic gardens.
Ardnagashel – History and Ownership
To understand Ardnagashel's history, one must go back to the time when the O'Sullivan clans were overlords of what is now called West Cork. In their possession the land was subject to a system of inheritance called Gavail Ciain, succession from father to son. After the Elizabethan wars the area settled down under Owen O'Sullivan who had taken the Queen's side, but during the 1642 Rebellion, either he or his successor fell into disfavour and his lands were confiscated. After the Cromwellian conflict, the O'Sullivan land in the Bantry area was divided between three adventurers who had enlisted, with a promise of payment by land, and this later created a very complicated system of land tenure under sub-tenants.
The Hutchins family from Dorset appear to have been in Ireland from early in the seventeenth century, according to Burke's Landed Gentry (1958). Richard Hutchins served under the Earl of Orrery in 1666, and became one of the Commissioners of Poll Tax. He owned property at Blackrock, near Bantry, during the eighteenth century.
Arthur Hutchins (1770 – 1838) bought the Ardnagashel freehold for £1000 in 1800; it comprised three hundred acres. He proceeded to lay out the estate; pasture land and plantations were included. He probably constructed the ornamental arch which marks the entrance to the property, and also the avenue to the seashore. The fisherman's cottage was rebuilt as a beautiful mansion with mullion windows. Arthur Hutchins put in the stone drains which have assisted in preventing the sort of erosion that is evident in so many other places around Bantry.
One of his problems was the protection of young plants, including plantation trees, from cattle, both his own and those of other people. Enormous walls were built, both to clear and protect the land. Local tradition has it that in exposed areas west of the house, the young trees failed until others were planted to give shelter. A few of these trees, mostly firs, are still there protecting the valley in which many rare trees and shrubs have been growing since Arthur Hutchins' time.
Emmanuel Hutchins (1769 – 1839), Arthur's brother, practised law. He died mysteriously in Damascus while purchasing Arab horses which his groom brought back to Ireland.
Ellen Hutchins (1785 – 1815), a sister of Arthur and Emanuel, was a famous amateur botanist – I will refer to her later. Her interest in botany was later carried on by other members of the family, and many specimens of trees and plants in the present gardens came from Kew. There is a Cedar of Lebanon which might have come back with one of the family from the Middle East.
Samuel Hutchins (1834 – 1915) went to Australia during the 'Gold Rush' and returned to Ireland in 1858 with over one hundred packets of seeds of Australian plants. No plant books or records were kept by the family, but it would be interesting to visit the property 'Fortlands' near Charleville, which belonged to his father, as there are a number of trees and shrubs there that may have links with those planted at Ardnagashel.
Samuel was a younger son and succeeded his brother Emmanuel (1823 – 1880), who was buried in the 'Chillin' or family graveyard on the estate. This is an interesting feature of the property and some of the burial stones can still be seen.
Eventually Samuel Hutchins was succeeded by Capt Richard N Hutchins (1876 – 1915). He was followed in turn by his son, who eventually passed the property to his sister Patricia Hutchins, a writer, who still resides on part of the estate.
The other part of the land was sold in 1947  to Col and Mrs Kaulback who changed the house into a hotel and renovated the grounds. They planted extensively. The hotel was destroyed by a fire in 1958 , but was later rebuilt as a private dwelling.
In 1970  the part of the estate owned by the Kaulbacks was sold to a Dutch company [Bofinex], which planned an elaborate holiday complex. The future of Ardnagashel is under its control.
1945: My wife has shown me a telegram, dated 10 Sep 1945, sent by Ron Kaulback from Ireland to his wife Audrey looking after their young daughters back in England, to say HAVE JUST BOUGHT ARDNAGASHEL [STOP] HOPE YOU WILL LIKE IT.
1968: My wife and I (and all concerned) clearly recall that it was in 1968.
1974: It was by 1970 that Col & Mrs Kaulback's house was rebuilt, and a restaurant opened on the seaward side of the yard above. They closed the restaurant at the end of the 1974 season in anticipation that Bofinex would buy their part of the estate, though preserving their tenancy of the house.
It would have been at this stage that Ronald Kaulback had to relinquish the care and maintenance of the horticultural and arboricultural tradition at Ardnagashel that he had done so much to develop and extend, with the indispensable support of Donal Coakley, the immensely capable Ardnagashel gardener, for so many years.
(Donal's wife Mary, though youthful as is the traditional Irish way, was equally indispensable in the running of the hotel – whenever a staffing situation, or kitchen crisis, teetered on the edge of catastrophe, Mary would infallibly resolve the problem and soothe the ruffled egos.)
And indeed, it was only two years later, after yet another volcanic marital altercation, that Ron left Ardnagashel for ever. It emerged subsequently that he had been given some very bad advice as to investing the proceeds of selling Ardnagashel, and there was nothing left in the kitty. Whatever the motivation, it opened new chapters for them both. Audrey herself moved to Rossdoon some years later, a picturesque but rather ramshackle property tucked away above the water's edge just outside Glengarriff, not far from the Eccles, whilst Ron remarried and subsequently lived just above the village of Hoarwithy, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire. It was ironic that she, who had retained her English passport, remained in Ireland, whereas he, who had taken Irish citizenship, should have returned to England!
Donal Coakley and Ron Kaulback relaxing in the bar of the restaurant
In retrospect, I should imagine that the high-water mark of the Ardnagashel estate was just prior to the fire that destroyed the hotel in 1968. The Kaulbacks' main objectives after that was to re-establish themselves in hastily converted quarters up in the yard, and to organise the building of the new house on the site of the hotel, and then to build and equip the restaurant, to the left hand side of the yard where the drive curves down towards the sea.
The trajectory between 1968 and 1974 would have been at best a 'managed decline', that rather sardonic euphemism. From 1974 onwards it became a complete surrender of the horticultural heritage1, 2 to the forces of nature – letting in the jungle, in Kipling's vivid phrase. The new owners of Ardnagashel (and their various successors since that time) made little or no visible effort to sustain all that generations of the Hutchins family, surmounted by decades of creativity and conservation by Ron Kaulback and Donal Coakley, had so memorably achieved.
And sadly, to this day it remains just that – a memory of what once was. Bevan's report in 1981 still found much to admire, but there have been over three further decades of total neglect since then.