Monday, December 13, 2010

Gilford Castle & the gift of Christine

My introduction to Gilford Castle started like this:

This is a presumption on my part. I am hoping that you are the right person, but it is hard to imagine that you aren’t. Please forgive me if I am wrong.

I had mailed this to Gilford Castle in the summer of 2003, along with what little I knew at the time about the history of the silver bowl. I was connected in no time at all to the amazing Christine Wright. Her son, James, emailed me first:

We noticed from your website 'the silver bowl' that it looked remarkably similar to a piece that we have in the house... so I thought you might enjoy a photograph ....

The silver bowl at Gilford Castle was, of course, the spitting image of the bowl that our family had once owned, the one that had initially sparked my quest to run the particulars of this family story to ground. It was the second of the three or four such bowls that I had hoped to trace.

Two weeks after James’ email, a follow-up letter arrived from Christine telling me, You must come stay with us. A few months later, I actually washed up in person on the doorstep of Gilford Castle, at Gilford, County Down. I couldn’t believe my good luck. I had fallen into a piece of what to me was heaven. It is the de facto repository for much of my JACKSON and BROWN and MENARY family memorabilia. Once, I found a letter in a drawer from my grandmother, written in the 1920s. It included photos of my father as a boy.

The Castle itself was bought in 1908 by James Francis Wright, the husband of Mary Menary. Mary was Christine’s great-mother-in-law, and was known for the way that she toured about Ireland in the company of her chauffeur, Mons, and it was she who both documented, and then archived the facts that got me under full sail pretty much right from the get-go.

In these trips, Mary was also accompanied by Dean Orr, an eccentric clergyman, known to traipse about Gilford with the soles of his shoes barely attached to the uppers and his coat buttoned all askew. Both Mary and Orr are now long dead, and one of my life’s regrets is that I missed meeting the two of them – and not by much. Unfortunately, I hadn’t cared to pursue this kind of research when I was a few decades younger. Then again, most of us don’t.

Luckily, Christine & I truly enjoy each other’s company, and Gilford Castle has become the place where I hang my hat for several days whenever I make one of my mad forays into the archives of Ireland. Our shared regret is that Mary Menary’s daughter-in-law, who was also Christine’s mother-in-law, saw fit to bin hundreds of family letters, and save only the envelopes. For the value of the stamps. We can only guess at their content.

On my first visit in 2003, Christine gave me free rein to explore every nook and cranny. Look in whatever drawer you want, copy what you like, use what you find. Since then, in successive visits, I have scanned, photographed, transcribed and annotated pretty much every pertinent document – with her permission – and posted it all onto my web site. The Castle’s archives are now, as a result, accessible to all. No one else need bother. It is all done.

Occasionally, Christine will pry me away from the documents and say, Lets go safari. This always means clambering into her workhorse of a car and heading off with an ordnance survey map in hand, the better to find the actual places where these people, who I have only met in old documents, once lived, and worked, and died.

As well as this, Christine has also introduced me to the names of the roadside flowers of the region, the need to preserve historic trees, and the names of the dozens of birds that she cares for with mixtures of fats and seeds in her numerous feeders. She is one of those Renaissance women who can design a wedding dress and sew up the finished product on one day as readily as she can birth a calf on another. I have seen her concoct a meal for forty with the same ease and élan as she crafts a simple lunch for two. I continue to remain in awe.

She also sheepdogs me when my ignorance of Irish history and customs leads me astray. For example, on this last trip I learned that “ditches”, the kind referred to so frequently in old deeds, are actually the stone walls that were used to demarcate fields. They were renewed each year by adding the rocks that were turned up in each season’s ploughing. Until then, I had assumed that a ditch was a deep trough in the ground. That is what it is in Canada.

She also explained to me that the cut blocks of stone that were used to create the archways at one of our old family homes at Cavananore would help us to date the building. Brick arches tended to show up later in this part of County Louth.

Since she also once lived at Urker, a significant Jackson family home, she is more authoritative than anyone else on how the house there grew to be the size that it was before it was sold in the late 1980s, and became no more than a tumbledown ruin. When Christine was doing an addition to Urker in the early 1970s, she found straw and feed between the rafters of one section, indicating that part of the building had seen earlier use as a feed loft. In all likelihood, Urker had started as one of those ubiquitous thatched roof cottages that were the norm in much of Ireland until well into the 20th Century.

More than once on this last trip, Christine and I would be barrelling along a narrow country road, me seeing nothing but hedge, hedge and more hedge, when she would brake, throw the car into reverse, brake again and then say, Here, See this. A break in the hedge that I had missed would reveal an overgrown path or an avenue of trees, leading to a knoll where a significant house had once stood, a house that I had on my list of things to find out about. There is no way on God’s green earth that I would ever have caught that gap in the hedge on my own.

I know that I would be utterly lost without her when it comes to researching this project. My fond hope is that one day, I will be able to pry her loose and bring her for a visit to my home on the west coast of Canada, where perhaps the whales will be courteous enough to pay us a visit. Or at very least, a school of dolphins, or a few generations of the family of bald eagles that live in the trees two lots over from us. I suspect she would love this.

Maybe, maybe.... Hope springs eternal.


  1. Don't you just adore 'gaps in the hedges' that are thrown into your vision by good and wonderful friends?
    You, dear Sharona, have managed to show me a lot of gaps in the hedges that I would have otherwise missed.
    I'm glad someone is doing the same for you. XO

  2. Very Interesting one of my 8th grt grandfather's Sir William Johnston had Gilford Castle with his wife Nichola Anne Acheson ( she was the Earls of Gosford family ). William was a High Sheriff on and off. Then his son Richard my 7th grt grandfather had it next ... I think my 6th grt grandmother Nicholina Johnston was born in there. I would love to know more of the history of the place. Just learning day by day ... would love to go there some day in the future. Yours David in Toronto at :

    davidarathoonstudio ( at sign )