My first close-up of Rockingham House came from the saddle of a bicycle one Sunday morning many years ago. The year was1950 and school holidays were about to begin. David, a friend of mine from England, had arrived on his annual visit to his grandparents Elizabeth and Paddy Moraghan in Rockingham. Paddy and his son Frank ran the stud farm which was situated in the stable yard in the heart of the estate. There, the young purebreds and yearlings were reared, groomed and got ready for the annual blood stock sales in Doncaster in England. The Moraghan home was on one side of the great archway into the yard which in more recent years became the offices of Coillte. On a wall in Paddy’s living room there was a range of photos of race horses that had begun life in his charge, some of which had won success on the race tracks of Great Britain. A place of honour was given to ‘Careless Nora’, a young mare that had realised a huge price at the bloodstock sales in the late-1940s and had helped put the small Rockingham stud farm (and Paddy) on the map. Paddy was a regular caller to our shop for the Irish Press and an ounce of his favourite tobacco, ‘Erinmore Flake’. For three weeks in summer when David arrived I became a visitor to Moraghan’s home in the heart of Rockingham.
That Sunday morning as I set out on my voyage of discovery I felt like a young Christopher Columbus sailing to a new world. It would be the first of many visits I made to Rockingham before the great mansion was gutted by fire in September 1957. David had arranged to meet me at The Gothic Gate which was the official entrance into the estate. Mick Carroll, the well-known ‘Keeper of the gate’, had a puzzled look on his face till he saw David standing by and seconds later we were pedalling the mile-long beech walk I had heard so much about. The towering beech trees, heavy with foliage lining either side of the majestic driveway, left us in a twilight zone or as John Milton might say: “in darkness visible”. I imagined it as the nave of an old gothic cathedral, pillars awash in deep green letting in narrow shafts of light through tiny windows high in the roof. The chanting of a thousand birds, invisible to the eye, sounded like the dawn chorus arriving late, while carpets of bluebells, primroses and rhododendron led us along the way. As we exited this beautiful jungle of green we emerged into a vast area of open space extending almost as far as the eye could see. The only interruptions on the landscape were the small derelict Church on a far off hill that had once been the place of worship for the King Harman’s, the family’s own private chapel and beside it the cobbled stable yards that had living accommodation within for the families of the men who worked there. The entrance to this lonely looking outpost was through a great archway that boasted a comfortable home on each side; David’s grandparents in one and Dick Clynch, the Head Butler and Chief of Staff (in the Mansion), in the other. Next into my ken was Rockingham House sitting majestically on a hill overlooking the lake, no doubt the penultimate view of Lough Key with its 32 islands!
In a short digression, my grandmother who had been a schoolteacher in her younger days in the convent school told me many stories of old Boyle, the rich history attached to it, the way of life of the people and a few little insights into the story of Rockingham. She had even found time to teach me the Latin responses to serve Mass as an altar boy in the days of the old vernacular. Describing the mansion she said it contained a window for every day of the year; true or false I confess I never got round to counting them. She was one of a group who attended the Great Ball and Open House in the year 1912 on the coming of age of the young heir Edward Stafford King Harman. Being the unique occasion that it was, the estate opened its doors to the residents of Boyle town many of whom were still paying rent to Rockingham in those early years of the last century. The rent office then was situated at Military Road, which today is the Family Life Centre, and the sealed-up door still visible on the left of the building was the entry door the tenants used to go in to pay the rent. She described more than once to me the scene in Rockingham as she remembered it; people standing in small groups on the great lawn in front of the house, tables erected and dressed with food, sandwiches and fruit from the Rockingham gardens. Music and song that welled up from inside the mansion filled the great lawn outside with a wonderful air of festivity. Young Edward could be seen dancing with some fine elegant young ladies, some of whom hailed from the town. It was a great occasion of celebration for the King Harman family but sadly it was short lived. A few years later, in 1914, Edward was killed in action at the Battle of Ypres in the early days of the First World War and denied the joy of ever seeing his yet unborn child. He would have been the inheritor of the estate rather than Sir Cecil his younger brother who ended up as the last member of the King Harman family to live in Rockingham. The dynasty that had spanned a period of 350 years was about to enter its final stages.
Getting back to my itinerary, Rockingham of the 1950s was in its heyday with an estate close on 5000 acres which included 2000 acres of quality grazing land, vast tracts of dense forest, a private residence for The Agent or overall manager, four gate lodges, two hunting lodges, a small stud farm, a ten-acre walled garden with a large orchard, two artificial canals (one connected to the small harbour convenient to the mansion) and last but not least Lough Key itself, the most beautiful lake in Ireland.
When we arrived at the Moraghan home that morning I was given a real warm welcome by David’s granny and soon afterwards he brought me on a ‘grand tour’ of the estate. It began with a trek through the tunnel used by the staff to enter the kitchen and the house generally. Built in a curve that ran for two or three hundred yards in semi-darkness I might have cursed the said darkness but for a few lights fixed high on the walls. Rockingham House had its own electricity supply and didn’t have to depend on the local power station, John Stewart Electric Ltd., in Boyle. A gentle tap on the kitchen door was answered by Maura Taheny, a lady I knew from town. Una Leydon from Drum was giving a hand to Mrs. Hogan, the Head Cook (Master Chef), to lift a large tray of cakes from the oven of the huge Aga Cooker. A few minutes later we were sitting in a corner of the huge kitchen sampling a slice with a dash of fresh cream; not a bad start, I thought, for my first visit to Rockingham House!
As we were about to leave the kitchen Miss Mackie, Governess to the King Harman family, peeped in. A petite lady with snow white hair and wearing an air of importance, I thought for a moment I was looking into the face of Miss Marple the well-known detective or sleuth from the Agatha Christie films; they could have passed for twins. On our way out David added a little postscript to her C.V.; Miss Mackie loved to cycle to Boyle on her day off and to meet up with a close circle of literary friends in The Royal Hotel and enjoy a glass of Winters Tale Sherry. Quite a revelation!
After the kitchen experience we found our way to the icehouse, a room below ground level that was used to maintain foods at a cool temperature. With winding stone steps leading down to it, it had shades of the medieval dungeon about it. Next stop was the Fishing Temple or Pavilion built on a pier extending on to the lake. A quaint fairylike building, hexagonal in shape, it had small gothic windows and a miniature folly as part of the roof. The jury was out on its use or function; it could have been a kind of summer playhouse for the King Harman children when they came on holidays! After dinner I was brought down The Drummans and was quietly informed (only when we got there) that it was haunted. David’s Grandad had told him about the strange man who wandered about the woods occasionally dressed in gamekeeper’s attire and carrying a shotgun; he never spoke but just stared ominously at the person he confronted. It was said he was the ghost of a long dead gamekeeper who liked to visit his old stomping grounds and to ‘frighten the daylights’ out of a potential poacher. Fairytale or not, I was happy to exit this dense part of the forest and to see the Fairy Bridges up ahead of me and heavenly daylight breaking through.
Arriving back at his home, he said: “Let’s give the Clynch’s a call. Mrs. Clynch is a very nice lady!”. Dick, her husband, was Head Butler and Chief of Staff in the mansion and little happened without his imprimatur. Orders for the day emanated from him and were taken on board. His wife was seamstress and personal assistant to Lady King Harman, a position that carried its own prestige and an authority of its own. Anyone who ever watched the 1960s television series ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ could have been watching a day in the life of Rockingham House. The daily routine had a close similarity about it. In the morning the dark green coloured Bentley was driven from its underground garage, spotless and looking as if it had come off the assembly line that morning. Christy Dolan the chauffeur, dressed in navy blue uniform, peaked cap and polished knee-high leather boots, drove Sir Cecil or Lady King Harman to Boyle whenever required. That Sunday morning we sat and watched from a distance as the Bentley emerged from the darkness of the underground garage into the sunlight and drove up the winding driveway to the main entrance to collect Sir Cecil and Lady King Harman for Church Service in Ardcarne Church.
My final visit on that memorable Sunday was to Rockingham Gardens. I hadn’t been brought there just to admire the ten-acre spread of trees, gardens and glasshouses; David had a built-in plot of his own. There were glasshouses bulging with fruits of every kind. James Kelly, the head gardener, and his family lived within the grounds and had three or four learner gardeners to help him run the show. Mick Bellew, his second in command whom I knew well calling into our shop, had spent the best part of his life in Rockingham; the man’s name was synonymous with Rockingham gardens. David lingered and browsed close to a particular glasshouse, one rich with raspberries and strawberries. As we dallied and pondered, a smile appeared on the face of Mick Bellew. “You’re standing very close to that glasshouse lads,” he commented. “Mind you don’t crack it!” We said nothing. “A dish of strawberries with fresh cream in Moraghan’s kitchen would be a fair old ending to a day in Rockingham, would it not,” said Mick. We smiled and gave a nod of agreement. My first visit to Rockingham was an unforgettable one.