A big garden shoot
The head gardener's house at a Sligo estate had an inspired young John McGahern peering over the wall
The old Rockingham Estate in Co Roscommon, which famously hosted big bawdy shooting holidays for Britain's assorted aristocrats, blue bloods (and sometimes even royals on a secret skite), has been a controversial part of Ireland's colonial past but also an inspiration for the writer John McGahern. He grew up next door to Grevisk House, the residence of the estate's head gardener.
McGahern who passed away in 2006 and is best known for The Dark and Amongst Women, has been hailed as Ireland's greatest writer since Beckett. He frequently referred to Rockingham in his work, recalling the regular pheasant shoots hosted for local and visiting gentry. He wrote: "With a retinue of servants, farmhands, stable lads, gardeners and gamekeepers, the estate was a closed world within a world."
Estates like Rockingham employed whole regiments of gardeners adhering to a strict apprenticeship system. They weren't permitted to water a single plant until they had spent at least a year observing more experienced workers. This hierarchy among the aristocrat's vegetable growers meant the position of head gardener on an estate was quite prestigious and it usually came with a rather grand house to reflect that.
Grevisk House, which housed the head gardener at Rockingham, has just been placed on the market seeking €449,000 and offering a family sized, but still quite regal cutting of the once-dominant Rockingham estate.
Rockingham's head gardener was employed by the Stafford-King-Harman Baronetcy, for whom the 800 acres of Lough Key Forest Park was the core of a 30,000-acre estate that once covered much of north Roscommon and parts of Sligo. The title was created for Thomas Stafford, who later became a Free State senator. Stafford married Frances Agnes, daughter of Edward Robert King-Harman, of Rockingham. Their son, Cecil, the second Baronet, assumed the additional surnames of King and Harman and the title became extinct on his death in 1987.
The great house itself was destroyed after a fire in 1957 while Sir Cecil Stafford-King Harman was attending the races at Doncaster.
A witness recalls him being "terrible annoyed" on his return. Soon afterwards Sir Cecil sold off what remained in the early 1960s. Most of it was bought by the Land Commission and a large part of is now Lough Key Forest Park.
Today we can wonder if McGahern based one of his most troubling stories, 'The Rockingham Shoot,' on what he learned growing up in his own household, at school and mixing with the head gardener's children next door. The story focused on a nationalist school teacher whose attempts to prevent his young pupils beating at a pheasant shoot held in honour of the British ambassador, lead to shocking violence His father Frank's role as a local garda sergeant would have brought plenty of local doings into the household and within a young John's earshot.
The 'Rockingham Shoot' became a dark and powerful television play produced by Danny Boyle.
After it was televised, McGahern was placed on a blacklist by the Republican newspaper, An Phoblacht. One of Frank's McGahern's last cases as a garda sergeant in nearby Cootehall was to investigate the fire at Rockingham House and while it was finally deemed accidental, Sergeant McGahern strongly suspected arson.
Grevisk House is set on 1.5 acres and is half a mile from Lough Key Forest Park, the region's premier tourist attraction for outdoor and water-based activities. The house spans 2,540 sq ft, just over twice the size of an average home.
On the ground floor there is a characterful centre hall with chessboard tiling which includes a very elegant hand crafted cut string spiral staircase. Two of the receptions are arrayed on each side.
Grevisk was acquired by its current owners in 2006 and has been restored and decorated in an mix of traditional and contemporary styles.
As expected the gardens are well tended and the grounds include stone outbuildings suited for more accommodation, storage or recreation. Many of these have been recently reroofed and one includes an office and gym on its first floor. There's a good sized traditional kitchen, utility and third living room at the back of the house which all face into a cobbled courtyard. Upstairs there are five bedrooms, three double rooms and two singles.
All the bathrooms are newly fitted in a traditional style. Outside there's a small paddock to keep horses or livestock.
The period property is situated in a private, sheltered setting on the old estate, near Boyle, Co Roscommon. The five-bedroom residence is also five minutes from Carrick-on-Shannon, which is a key hub of North West tourism.
Boyle, Co Roscommon
Asking price: €449,000
Agent: REA Brady (071) 962 2444