A writer very much at home in the world of great houses and gardens

At Home in Ireland

Mary Leland

Atrium, an imprint of Cork University Press, €30

Review: Tommy Barker 

Can there be anyone in Ireland who has visited more fine Irish homes, and encountered more history and hospitality, than writer Mary Leland? She has knocked on more doors (and had them generously opened to her) than any early 20th century Republican on the run and in search of ‘safe houses’. Not only has she encountered the safest of houses (but some buildings at risk, also), she’s had the softest of feathered pillows, the most diverse and divine of Irish breakfasts, and had the run of thousands of private acres and gardens, which she’s frequently enjoyed with Bobbie, her four-pawed faithful companion and reader-in-waiting.

It was, she admits in the preface to At Home in Ireland “a hard job, but someone had to do it.”

Over a 17-year span writing for this paper, and taking many roads, boreens and avenues less travelled, Mary Leland visited over 800 Irish homes and houses, gardens and national monuments, for the readers of the Irish Examiner in its Weekend/Property publications.

She has journeyed from Derrynane to Donegal and if she didn’t quite die or dine for Ireland, well she has breakfasted and tasted for thousands of loyal readers, who have lapped up her every mot and morsel. Now, a small selection of those 800 encounters (a still considerable 100 or so) has been gathered in the hardback covers of a book, published by an imprint of UCC’s Cork University Press, Atrium. It’s engrossing, lyrical, richly informed, informing, enviable and admirable.

Atrium is one of three CUP imprints; at the risk of simplification, it’s the more ‘coffee table’ end of CUP’s output. Yet, in this case, Mary Leland’s At Home in Ireland with its empirically quite modest proportions of 260mm by 198mm and 304 pages, is less a coffee table book than a breakfast, or a supper, tray, publication.

A manageable read, easy to hold (compared to CUP’s weighty Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, which really is “A Tome in Ireland’) it’s a smorgasbord of delicately-painted dainties; one can imagine reading it, in almost any of the dozens of houses she writes about here, propped up with mounds and dunes of pillows and bolsters, with a lamp placed just so,! and perhaps a wood-fire turning itself inside out in a room corner for atmosphere, scent, or heat.

If At Home in Ireland were to be no more than a glossy glimpse behind the stout doors, portentous knockers and crumbling porticos, at the end of long estate avenues, well, there’d be some merit to it — how the other half live, or how you might like to live, that sort of stuff. But, it’s so much more than that, because Mary Leland is such a fine writer, inquisitive, with descriptive (and prescriptive) prose ever at the ready, and she brings context, knowledge (and expectations, too!) to her visits.

As she visits places grandly delivered, grimly or gleefully maintained, or plundered and rehabilitated over the centuries from the Normans to NAMA, there’s grace, elegance, lyricism — and some concealed, or just-restrained, barbs, or just some old-fashioned wearied resignation and frustration too.

Visting Ballinacurra House in 2006, as the property boom marched out to its fateful end, Leland writes “whatever else may be growing in and around Midleton, houses are in full bloom. Acres of pastureland are succumbing to the insatiable appetite of residential development. Yet in the face of such sprawl the land itself seems in good heart. All along the coastal districts the fields glow with a golden autumn harvest, a bright promise of good faith between farmer and field. If farmers in Ireland are abandoning the land, it’s not the land’s fault.”

Prescient. A mere six years later, many ghosting housing estates are the equivalent of farming’s set-aside, and agriculture is back in the ascendant as an economic driver. In that Ballinacurra piece, with farmer/owner Allan Navratil, Leland encapsulates the frustrations of rapid change, the senseless and bitter closure of sugar-beet factories, of housing bubbles, and of much more.

In writerly, fresh and heart-felt timely pieces that stand the test of fickle times, written at a period of huge physical and environmental change in the landscape and community, Leland finds a constant or weaving thread, recording, contextualising, praising, admiring, learning and conveying. Oh, and breakfasting.

If just one-eighth of the places Mary Leland visited during her 17-years of travels have made it to this book, there’s possibly — and, hopefully — more to come. She’s had to reduce her original Irish Examiner story lengths by one-third for this CUP book format — so fair dues.

Mary Leland is an exacting writer, and a doughty critic too, with joys and dividends for readers in her prose, so perhaps she won’t mind if a few gentle (or professionally peevish?) criticisms of the book’s editing are made here. Picture quality and choice is uneven, ranging from glorious to the grim (inexplicably, a holiday-quality snapshot of Ulusker House’s owners in some Mediterranean setting, with church towers growing out of their heads, appears on page 274), and some interior images could have been taken off a website, such is their relevance.

It’s also a pity individual pieces aren’t dated on the page as to the time of writing (ranging from 1996 to 2011), given their oft-time timeliness, repeatedly forcing the reader back to the contents index, though at least her many visits are often updated with an individual 2012 postscript.

There’s also the odd, editing error: artist Derek Hill’s Glebe House and Gallery (p145) is in Donegal, not Bandon, as the contents list erroneously directs.

Ah, but that’s pettifogging in the greater glory of this intelligent, rewarding book. At Home in Ireland is an enriching, enveloping read, full of depth, yet easy to dip into, beguiling, ethereal in its praise of the good things, people and places in Irish life, as well as a weighty eiderdown against the woes of a suddenly-chilled world (although she’s not above praising electric blankets in draughty quarters).

While of late there’s now a plethora of books on vanishing great Irish houses, relics of bygone architectural glories, Leland’s At Home in Ireland pays tribute to the people who’ve kept those buildings alive, hospitable, productive, vital, joyous and joyful, welcoming, open, and roofed, improving, kept them as homes, fashioned them for hospitality and for visitors, forging new chapters in long histories, from castles to cottages.

She’s done the State (and the once-great estates) some service.


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