Unique icon of resilience and renewal in the West
Lucinda O'Sullivan steps back into history at Renvyle House's 130th birthday, and detours to Clifden
'LAST night I dreamt I went to Manderley again ... " was the opening line of Daphne du Maurier's famous novel Rebecca – a tale of love, deceit, and murder, and an all-destroying fire in the mythical house Manderley on the Cornish shoreline.
Many great novels have been written focused around an iconic house, from Charles Dickens's Bleak House to the current day TV phenomenon Downton Abbey. We get to know the generations who live there and pass on, handing over the reins and responsibility to the next generation.
Renvyle House in Connemara is one such great historic house on the Atlantic shores, which was razed to the ground in the Twenties in a fire and rebuilt in the Thirties. While gazing out on the islands and trekking through the 200-acre estate of beaches, heathers and ferns, you can't but think of the clans of O'Malley, O'Flaherty and Joyce, who lived, loved and died in the wild, mystic beauty of Connemara and the area that is Renvyle itself.
The house has been renewed over generations and lived its life with the turbulence that is Ireland's story through the Land League and the Civil War.
It has been the home of Oliver St John Gogarty and has played host to luminaries such as Augustus John, Lady Gregory, Winston Churchill and WB Yeats – who spent his honeymoon there.
Rebuilt in the Thirties in an Arts & Crafts style, Renvyle is unique. It oozes warmth and character, and you can almost visualise Agatha Christie characters languidly lounging around on the sofas in front of the fire in the hall.
This year sees Renvyle celebrating 130 years of hospitality, having first opened its doors as a country house hotel in 1883 under the auspices of the Blake family. However, it has been in the ownership of the Coyle family for 60 years, with John and Sally Coyle being the present incumbents, with their charming daughter Zoe Fitzgerald being the hands-on marketing director.
It is one of those places of happy memory that people visit as children, and return in time with their own children. On a recent visit for the birthday celebrations, John Coyle told me how the family first came to Renvyle.
"My father first came here with his mother, who was a widow, in 1936 or 1938 – their names are in the ledger. My father got married in 1944, but he always thought that house property in Galway was far too expensive so they lived in a rented house in Salthill until 1961.
"However, my mother said she wanted a house of her own so they looked around and there was a house on Taylor's Hill, the place to live in Galway, and it was by tender. They knew it was about £3,000, so he put in bid of £3,333.
"He used to play poker, and there was another fellow Peter O'Donoghoe who ran McDonagh's at the time, and he knew my father was bidding. He said he would put in a poker hand, £3,340. So my father hadn't bought that house!
"Renvyle came up at the time. The bank had taken over, so himself and his friend, surgeon Michael O'Malley, and a man called John Allen, who then owned the Imperial Hotel, bought the place for £3,000 – lock, stock and barrel, fully furnished.
"So that's how the Coyles got into it. I remember coming out with my father as a child, probably in 1952. He had an old Studebaker that had soft suspension and I was always getting sick in it! The road from Letterfrack to Renvyle wasn't tarred, it was all loose stones, it was that primitive.
"The first manager was Eoin Dillon, a very well-known hotelier, who later ran the London Tara Hotel. He was a nephew of the O'Malleys and had just graduated from hotel school. Renvyle House had a well, a generator, and electricity – sometimes. There was also a caretaker here, with one eye, and he always had a single-barrel shotgun under his arm, but he could run the generator. The kitchen had this enormous stove that was fuelled by turf. So Eoin lasted four months and fled!
"Then over the years we bought out the other two families. The house was in a very good state – we didn't have the 'new wing', which was built in the Sixties, we just had the old house which was rebuilt in the Thirties on the footprint of the old house after the fire in 1922. It was very well built, the structure was to a very high specification."
John is loud in his praise of the team at Renvyle: Ronnie Counihan, chief executive, who is just an amazing hotelier and host to all his guests; and head chef Tim O'Sullivan, who never fails to deliver anything but delicious food for all to enjoy.
"If I was running it, it'd be like Fawlty Towers. There's a tremendous amount of organisation in running this," says John. "You can't make a mistake. So you're always making sure that everything is organised, and staff trained. The house has a spirit of its own, a personality, people come back and back."
On the second day of our visit, we went into the nearby town of Clifden, which was just waking up after the long winter months, and had a look around the shops and eateries.
Grainne Hyland was just reopening her gifts and interiors shop Whistlestop on Market Street that very day for the season. Grainne is a Dubliner who came to Clifden in 2000, having met her husband Eugene Casey there.
I could have happily come home with half her stock, which is all very elegant, from the Swedish range of Linum linen tablecloths, as well as fabulous Alabasta trays which are so dramatic you just want to put them on display. She also stocks Jersey Pottery, a striking range of blue and white Bretagne 'Sardine Run' printed platters with dipping bowls, matching placemats, and dishes.
Wayne and Orla Baylis have been dishing up excellent coffee, bagels, sambos, scrumptious cakes and light lunches for the past 10 years to eager locals and visitors alike in their cute Upstairs Downstairs cafe on Main Street. "We offer good value. We get a lot of local loyal customers which is key," says Wayne.
Jenny Curran from Dublin and her husband Shane Forsyth opened their shop Lughnasa on Bridge Street a year ago, stocking fun gifts.
"We moved to Claddaghduff about eight years ago because we love it down here," she says.
Jenny has a range of very different and unusual soaps.
"A lot of my stock is Irish, like very local local – like soaps made in Oughterard."
She has great colourful handknit tea cosies, as well as Russian doll bookends, but hot sellers are fantastic fun and funky fairy sewing kits, and Clifden fairies for €10. Also hot sellers are the Leprechauns and 'Freshly Caught Fairies' in jam jars! They put a smile on your face.
Eileen Halliday and Louise Gibbons operate the cute Connemara Hamper on Lower Market Street. Eileen says, "I'd lived overseas for 40 years but we retired in the Nineties to Clifden, where we had a home. My husband is an exploration geologist, and we lived in North and South America, and Australasia.
"I went to a book launch one night, where I heard that a little shop was coming up; and so I started The Connemara Hamper in September 1997.
"Those days in Clifden you couldn't get Parma ham, olives, fresh cheese or anything like that, so it grew from there. We try and concentrate on the Irish cheeses, and nobody buys a cheese without tasting it.
"We make a lot of stuff ourselves, but our bread is made by a young French baker who brings in flour from France. We also have breads and cakes from Goya in Galway. And all our wines are organic.
"We have been in this location for the past 10 years. Louise Gibbons has been with me here for the past seven".
After our visit to Clifden, we returned through the dramatic dark beauty of the Inagh Valley, immortally captured by Paul Henry, to the wonderful world of Renvyle House for more relaxation and wonderful food.
"Last night I dreamt I went to Renvyle again..."