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Sunday 18 February 2018

'He was a bit of a Casanova, last of the great cavaliers...'

Claire Gorman

A STRONG chill travels down the corridor of the once stately Killegar House and hits you as you step out from the warm kitchen.

One end of the corridor is closed off and some portraits of old blue-bloods have fallen from the walls and now stand upright, leaning against the dozy plaster.

Parts of the elegant house -- the home of Lord Kilbracken, soldier, journalist and Third Baron -- set in acres of woodlands and lakes near Carrigallen, are falling down, crumbling back into the dramatic damp Leitrim landscape. Yet Killegar holds on to its great elegance and charm, and as you walk through its bare corridors its easy to imagine the house in all its former glory -- each room filled with warmth and famous house-guests, the estate full of life with staff and their families living in houses on the land.

Walking down the wooden stairs past walls of peeling paint, you come to a large room with a piano and white- framed patio doors leading out on to the garden, which was once covered in Victorian-style flowerbeds.

A bust of Lord Kilbracken -- who was born in 1920, educated at Eton and Oxford, and died in August 2006 after a distinguished career as an Fleet Air Arm pilot, writer and member of the House of Lords -- sits on top of the piano along with dusty music books filled with Mozart.

The room next door was cleaned that morning after it was flooded during the freezing weather. Books about criminal law and poetry overflow from an old wooden bookcase with a shiny, silver tin whistle sitting on top.

Lady Susan Kilbracken and her son Sean, (29), share an "allergy" about the house. "It does, a lot of the time, feel like you're pushing water uphill, because just when you think you've got something looking great, something disastrous happens and you then have to spend twice as much money fixing it," she explains.

"It is soul destroying and it would be hard if you dwelt on it. A lot of the time you just have to go around this place and not see things, just close your eyes and not worry too much. It's an absolute nightmare."

Susan recalls the first time she met the divorced John Godley -- or Lord Kilbracken, as he's officially known -- in December 1980. She was a 25- year-old Australian woman travelling in Europe following the death of her parents when she saw this bearded elderly man (he was 60 at the time) staring at her through a cafe window in London.

"He looked at me and smiled. He came in and ordered a cup of coffee and a chocolate eclair and he came over and he sat down.

"He said he was a member of the House of Lords and I wondered what on earth that meant actually," she laughs. "And then he asked if I would care to come and have tea with him -- so I did, and I went there and met him and it was all really interesting, intoxicating.

"Now that I'm older I think, 'God he was a bit of a Casanova, no doubt about it, the last of the great cavaliers.' He was desperate, yes," she reflected.

"He was lovely, absolutely charming, and very amusingly ever after if I was out and I saw a chocolate eclair if I bought it and brought it home for him to have with his coffee he'd always say, 'I'm not eating that, they're dangerous. You never know what they're going to bring.' He was very funny."

That Christmas she came to Killegar House, on the borders of Leitrim and Cavan, for the first time while on a visit to Ireland.

"I first saw Killegar in the moonlight. It was really beautiful," she recalled as she drifted back to a time filled with emotion and excitement.

"We walked through the house and down to the terrace and the whole place was just completely bathed in this silver, ghostly light. It was absolutely magical and I just remember turning around and looking at the house and thinking, 'Oh my God. It's just so beautiful,' and getting this overwhelming feeling that this place needs me. I just completely fell in love with the place, just completely intoxicated with it."

Soon after they married, Sean was born. But the couple were divorced in 1989. Susan returned to London, where she worked in publishing and charity fundraising. But still Killegar called -- and about 10 years ago she returned to Killegar to look after the ailing Lord of the Manor.

"After September 11 my work changed and I was able to come back here and work from here. John by that time really needed to have somebody in the house living here all the time, so I was here more and more looking after him and more and more taking over what was happening here. I kind of just moved back. It just happened more by accident than by design."

After Lord Kilbracken died, she and her son decided to remain on in his beloved house. "I know he would be very pleased that we're still here and that we're still struggling on, and I know he would be very pleased that Sean's still here and still struggling on," she says.

In many ways, Sean has taken after his father. He is an accomplished writer and has won several awards for his poetry. He feels enormous pressure to stop Killegar from crumbling and refuses to sell it after promising his father that he wouldn't. "It's been in the family about 200 years now, since it was originally built," he says.

"My brother, Christopher [the 4th Baron and present Lord Kilbracken], would be happy if it was sold and so would most of the family. None of them live here or come here that often, so to them it's not really serving much purpose -- whereas for me, it's my home. They'd be happy to sell it, whereas I would be reluctant to.

"It's a common situation really that the present-day owners of old heritage homes end up in a situation where you've got this big estate and land, big house, but there's no money to go with it. It's called being asset-rich but cash-poor.

"I said to my dad that I wouldn't [sell it] and I know it means a lot to him that I don't. But then at the same time it's hard living here. It's a constant struggle. I definitely do feel that pressure and the fact that I can go on struggling, that's what my dad did.

"He just found it to be a constant struggle, a constant source of worry. But at the same time it is a great place."

Killegar has suffered the ravages of time and a disastrous fire in 1970, but the present Lady Kilbracken and her son are now determined that it will not succumb to apathy and neglect.

Sunday Independent

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