Have you ever been to a place which fires your imagination; letting your mind wander on its own – to times past, and to lives that were a tapestry of love, loss and suffering?
This past month, on our way to Rosses Point near Sligo (a town in the north of Ireland), we stopped by at the The Belvedere House at Mullingar, Co Westmeath. While the house itself wasn’t yet open for visitors, the gardens and park were. I have always been fascinated by castles, ruins, cemeteries, sometimes even old apartments and houses – places where you feel, or rather sometimes get a feeling that a hundred stories have been lived, and perhaps if you take a step here or there, you may step back in another time, another world.
Like many Georgian homes of the era, the Belvedere Estate has a walled garden, many walks and landscaped grounds. However, three things stood out for me.
One was the story. And by god, what a story. It was as if, it came straight from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story collection. There is a wall called the ‘Jealous Wall’ and this leads us to our story number one. A most haunting, a most unsettling story.
Here it goes. And I will try and make it as simple and succinct as I can.
Jealousy and rage, and everything set ablaze
Robert Rochfort, later to become the 1st Earl of Belvedere married Mary Molesworth. She was young and talented. He was, known to be a bit selfish, but young Mary was under pressure from her family and she relented to this match. They soon had children, but the Earl would resort to spending much of his time away from his wife, and to his old haunts, living the bachelor life. Mary, who was lonely and missed her friends and family, spent a lot of time with Robert’s younger brother Arthur and his wife Sarah.
Robert grew suspicious, and his suspicion was only too eagerly fuelled by his other brother, George who had taken an instant dislike to Mary. Robert charged Mary with being unfaithful to him and held her a prisoner of sorts, in a garret in Gaulstown, keeping her away from her family, servants and even children.
He himself settled in his new home, Belvedere House on the shores of Lough Ennell. His relations with George also took a turn for the worse, and he had this ‘jealous wall’ enacted, and meanwhile his wife continued to suffer, she was held at the garret until his death. (The wall is a Gothic ruin and it is called the Jealous Wall because it was built to block the view of one house from the other.)
The poor younger brother Arthur suffered as well. When he returned to Ireland in 1757, he was arrested and sued for adultery. Unable to pay the extensive damages of £20,000 he was imprisoned.
Mary was only 16 when she married the Earl. She was his second wife; the Earl having lost his wife of a year to smallpox. She was imprisoned for more than 30 years. Kept away from her children, her family. Can you imagine a life like that?
When she died, she told her daughter that the charges against her were false.
The lake is a mysterious being – be on its shores to catch its many moods
There are many walks that you can choose at the Belvedere Estate, and when you walk past along the shores of the Lough Ennell, you will find in the waters of the lake, an almost otherworldly feeling. It has many moods and at one point, you will find the water calm, at another, almost gushing and noisy like it were imitating the waves of the sea.
We stood at the shore at many points in our walk. The water was clear, the skies overcast, and it felt that the waters were trying to tell us something.
At times brooding and sulking, at times tranquil (especially at the place where there are swings overlooking the Lough), the waters had a personality of their own, they had absorbed all that happened at Belvedere and beyond and throughout their existence, they had buried in their waters, many secrets, many loves, many miseries untold…
The ‘ice house’
I did not click a photograph of this structure, it is a ruin, but for me it symbolised the wealth and luxury and perhaps indulgences too – of those that had the money. It is said that many such houses of Ireland, essentially houses and estates of the wealthy gentry, had a structure or a facility called an ‘ice house.’ This was something to show off wealth, and power – especially to the guests.
The ice house would have an underground chamber which ensured a suitable low temperature and adequate drainage. There would be a cover which would give insulation from the rays of the sun and also easy access for charging and extracting. Ice was easily and abundantly available from the lake in winter. In the staff and many servants that such wealthy houses employed, a man would be in charge of the the ice house, ensuring that the ice was obtained from the lake, the temperatures maintained, and all the stored items were in good standing.
The ice houses would store fish out of the season, even ice for drinks as well as desserts and many other food items and delicacies.
Imagine the wealth. Imagine the indulgence. And imagine the cruelty of a man who imprisoned his lovely, young wife, whilst he nursed his whiskey and asked his servant to fetch him ice!