In the west of Ireland, overlooking the sea, it was a dark and stormy night . . .

August 09, 1992|By Dianne Donovan | Dianne Donovan,Chicago Tribune

CONNEMARA IRELAND — CONNEMARA, Ireland -- It was a dark and stormy night. . . . No, really, it was a dark and stormy night on the far west edge of Ireland, overlooking the sea.

Not that there hadn't been darker, stormier nights -- like the one 14 months earlier when the Atlantic had hurled itself right into the hotel, driving all the guests up to the attic and challenging the staff to get breakfast to everyone, which they did, sloshing about in their Wellingtons and generally making a lark of a soggy situation.

But this night was stormy, nonetheless. The wind certainly was howling off the rocks and the rain came in sheets as if driven across that wide expanse of ocean by spirits fast and furious.

And dark! Well, you don't know dark until you've walked along this shore in the dead of night, with the nearest town, Tullycross, asleep a good mile behind you and the nearest city, Galway, two hours by bad road over your left shoulder.

Which is not to say that I was actually out walking along the shore -- I mean, it was dark (did I mention the wind?). No, I had been whiling away the evening in the pub at Renvyle House, a hotel once owned and maintained as a summer home by Oliver St. John Gogarty, Dublin physician, poet and friend of William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and other prominent literary and cultural figures of the early part of this century. Many of them had stayed at Renvyle, mingling with the "paying guests" and generally having a good, if occasionally peculiar, time of it.

I had planned to stay there only briefly, but lingered for four days when I found that Renvyle embodied the best of the country house atmosphere, with a number of public rooms, spacious or cozy, with turf fires burning and rocking chairs or chintz wing chairs pulled up close, and a feeling that the staff knows who you are and when you might want a nice pot of tea. (The tea comes with brown bread scones and jam and a crock of butter and perhaps some fresh whipped cream to "top off.") The services of a good hotel are not to be taken for granted in Connemara.

So there I was: It was dark. It was stormy. It was night. It was also off-season, the only time to visit Ireland properly and understand a bit of the place. I was tired. Perhaps owing somewhat to my evening in the pub? Perhaps -- oh, surely! -- owing to the five-mile walk through the mountains I had undertaken that morning.

Some mornings I headed for the hills, some mornings for the shore. The truth of the west coast of Ireland in November is that you get wet, then you get dry. Gray clouds clear and you see rainbows. Then it rains again. Or not. You see more sheep than people, or you stare at tide pools that have been there since before you were born. Then you hie yourself back to the hotel and have a hot whiskey and take off your shoes by the fire and wait for tea.

But I was not so tired that I was not eager to read a book or two supplied by the hotel manager, who had earlier placed in my hands the guest book for 1930, with its spidery, elegant signatures: Winston Churchill, W. B. Yeats, Eamon De Valera (the republic's first president). These back in the days when guests listed the number of their servants along with the make of their motorcar.

Oh, would that I had not expressed interest in the history of that place! Because it was a dark and -- well, you know -- I lit a fire in my room. Turf fires are difficult to light, but once lit they last long into the night. Thus settled, I began to read a recommended chapter titled "Renvyle" in "The Lively Ghosts of Ireland" by Hans Holzer.

I don't read ghost stories as a rule, being a nonbeliever and a shameless coward on the subject. Maybe you have heard of the Irish woman who, when asked whether she believed in fairies, replied, "I do not, sir, but they're there anyway." Well, that is me about ghosts.

By the light of the fire, I turned on my bedside lamp and began. Sounded simple enough: Yeats and his wife -- like her poet husband, a mystic-- not only had honeymooned at Renvyle House, but had held seances there. They had on a couple of occasions revived the ghost of a long-ago inhabitant of the house who supposedly had hanged himself, and more recently Yeats himself apparently had haunted the room where that early ghost had appeared.

The fire flared and the curtains blew in the wind, and I felt complaisant as the clock edged toward 2 a.m. This was long-ago stuff, and it was literary. Not like rattling bones and rolling heads. I read on.

In "A Seagray House: The History of Renvyle House," by J. A. Lidwell, I learned that Yeats and his wife (the former Georgiana Hyde-Lees) held a seance in the house because "Georgie" had seen a face looking out from the mirror in their room. During the seance, the ghost communicated to W. B. Yeats through automatic writing, saying that he objected to strangers in his house.

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