Deepwell of laughter and tears
A familiar sight to DART travellers, the Blackrock landmark, Deepwell, is up for sale at €10m. Home to three generations of the coal-importing Reihill family, this iconic house contains a vivid piece of Dublin history, glamorous living and great sorrow. Emily Hourican recalls the tragedies and the triumphs that took place behind the elegant apricot facade
ThE personality of a house is something established over long years, created from the physical setting, the prevailing wind of those parts, the noises and colours that make up its backdrop, and by the slow absorption over many years of the personalities, parties and dramas of those who inhabit it. Not all houses achieve this, but for the few that do, it's a question of longevity, and permeability.
Deepwell, once called Fairy Hill, is just such a house; a Manderley or even Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu. A monument to the beauties of its own form and the art collection it houses, but also to the people who have lived, loved, grown and died within it. Deepwell sits in a gentle hollow in Blackrock, bordered by the park on one side, and train tracks at the end.
The view from the top of that double staircase, down to the gardens and out to the sea beyond, places the house in the context of the bay itself, against which it seems to lean in a friendly way. However, seen from the windows of the DART that rolls past the bottom of the garden, the house is something of a curiosity, painted a deep apricot colour, with a double sweep of staircase leading down to the formal Italian gardens, as if the two arms of the house were thrown wide in welcome. Every time, the sight of it excites comment and speculation from DART travellers. 'Who lives there?' 'What house is that?'
In fact, the house was built in the 1700s by an enterprising woman called Julia Ann Blossett, who came early to the vogue for sea bathing that threw up other fine houses in the area, such as Maretimo, Carysfort, Lios an Uisce, and Sans Souci. Deepwell has been continuously occupied since the 1740s; over 200 years of family history and human ambition. Richard Samuel Guinness, who co-founded the banking firm Guinness Mahon, doubled the size of the property and built a new house in 1857, where he lived with his wife, Katherine Frances Jenkinson, and their eight children. It was then that the new house was renamed, to reflect the importance of the well of spring water that served the local houses and watered horses.
John Reihill Snr bought the house in 1942 from Richard Guinness. The story goes that he first viewed Deepwell with a friend, who had seven children to John's four. The friend decided it wasn't large enough for him, and so John bought it as a family home for his wife and four children. From a Fermanagh family, John Snr was an astute businessman who married the beautiful Elsie Stafford, eldest daughter of coal importer JJ Stafford, for whom John worked as a salesman. He then bought Tedcastle in 1952 and turned it into a vibrant, thriving business.
When Elsie had a stroke, in the 1960s, the couple moved into the Shelbourne Hotel, where they are remembered to this day by some of the doormen there, and Deepwell passed to John P, the eldest son.
This is the moment at which the house entered its golden period, a kind of Gatsby-esque glory of parties, of lazy summer afternoons around the outdoor pool and tennis courts, of children playing in the orchard and running wild through the long grass. Gracefully watched over first by Eimear, later Ann and finally Mairead, the house grew in beauty as the lives of those within it expanded.
At first, Deepwell was resolutely a family home, a comfortable jumble of mismatched furnishings and patterned carpet, full of the toys, books, comics and various dogs belonging to John and Eimear's six children. Despite the already considerable art collection, begun as a creative passion by John Snr, that had begun to line the walls with Yeats and Roderic O'Connor, the real business of the house was raising children in intoxicating freedom. It was a paradise for the young, with a stream to dam, trees to climb, even a half-submerged tunnel that ran from the bottom of the garden up to Frascati House – romantic legend had it that the tunnel was to facilitate the comings and goings of a previous owner of Deepwell who had been in love with a lady of Frascati House. A more prosaic explanation is probably correct – the transportation of seawater up to the outdoor pool in Frascati house – but there it was, yet another source of wonder and excitement.
Eimear Collins, from Cobh, in Co Cork, and related to Michael Collins, married young and had her six children quickly. She was a merry mistress of Deepwell, often described as a 'blonde Jackie O', and indeed a portrait that still hangs upstairs in the house, shows her cool, blonde beauty, with heavy-lidded eyes and a deeply pensive air. At the time the portrait was painted, she knew she was dying, and for all the coiffed hair and elegant dress – Tom Jones of Mayfair – there is plenty of silent tragedy in that gaze.
Eimear was "sticky fly paper" for men, in the words of her husband, and mesmerising to everyone from teenage boys to elderly men, as much for her kindness as her beauty. She was warm, bright and funny, with a love of music – especially Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and George Harrison. Her own mother, a teacher, came up from Cork once a month on Sunday to play the grand piano that stood in the drawing room, with its three-way view of the bay through large bay windows.
Money was a fairly new thing for Ireland in those days, and John Reihill proved clever at making it. His great and ingenious move was to strike a deal with Communist Poland, and import cheaper coal, to the eternal gratitude of the nation. This earned him the nickname 'the man who came in for the coal', and later 'King Coal'. Entertaining was a new game, too, for the Catholic merchant classes, and many of the children of those early business pioneers recall exuberant bashes that lasted through the night and into the next morning, "cigarette ash and gin over our morning cornflakes; stepping over sleeping bodies to get to school" as one of them put it.
But poetry and music were as much a part of the story as food and drink. Regulars to Deepwell – including, in those days, Joe and Bunny Murphy of Tayto crisps, Norma and Michael Smurfit, Yvonne and Vincent Nolan – recall playing Sinatra classics on the piano, quoting realms of Yeats, or singing Danny Boy. Through it all, Eimear provided soul and a kind of depth of feeling that was both intellectual and emotional. Summers, meanwhile, were for cousins and family, splashing in the pool and cooking outdoors as music drifted through the open doors.
Eimear was sick for nearly four years before she died of cancer in 1972, tragically young at the age of 36. John was just 39, a widower with six children and a demanding business. The years of illness had inevitably taken their toll, on the children and on the house, replacing the days of high spirits and hilarity with something subdued and saddened. Eimear's funeral packed the streets of Blackrock, with sympathetic neighbours and well-wishers determined to pay their last respects to a much-loved woman. The strains of George Harrison's My Sweet Lord drifted from the house and down towards the sea for the entire day as the family mourned.
That was the ending of an era. The kind of innocent informality of those parties belong very much to their time. When John Reihill married again, to Ann Dillon Malone, also a widow, with three children of her own, a new phase in the extraordinary evolution of Deepwell began.
A woman of immense energy and vision, Ann transformed the comfortable family home into a house of such exquisite beauty that it has long been a by-word for what can be achieved by the very rare combination of good taste and considerable resources. With some guidance from architectural historians, she gradually restored every inch of the property to its original glory, often bettering the original incarnation. The task was a Herculean labour of love, one that was admirably achieved. And – no small task either – she once again filled the house with people, activity and comfort. Despite the impossibility of assuming a role that so much belonged to another – the role of mother – John was often to say that she had 'saved' him from himself.
The downstairs rooms were transformed with the deliberate intention of entertaining on a lavish scale. The long garden was skilfully recreated along formal Italian lines, cleverly drawing the eye away from the awkwardness of the train tracks at the end. Out went the tennis court and orchard from the centre, replaced with elegant walkways and avenues. What had been a well-to-do merchant's house now became a palace of art, and of parties.
Because what was the point of such beauty if not to share it? The generosity of John and Ann's parties is still legendary. On a fairly barren social landscape, the isolated bright lights shone gaily. But even so, those of Deepwell stood out as extra bright, twinkling across the bay, just as the lights of Jay Gatsby's parties shone across the Sound between East and West Egg. Except that where Gatsby's parties had the charm of irregularity, those of Deepwell were carefully orchestrated to produce the very best results.
Madeleine Keane, literary editor of this paper, recalls going to many such over the years. Supper parties, Christmas parties, drinks parties. "They were so stylish and stunning. There was always Champagne, fresh flowers, gorgeous food and interesting people. A wonderful mix of art and business. No one ever suggested it was time to go home, and at six in the morning we were often still there. At a certain stage, the floor would be cleared and there would be music and dancing, old dancing with young as the generations mixed easily."
"You walked in and the house would be filled with light and lovely things," recalls Ciaran MacGonigal, who likens Ann to the great hostesses of the age, such as Sheila Dunsany, of Dunsany Castle, Anne Ross, of Birr Castle, and Eileen Plunkett, of Luttrellstown. "She had a very metropolitan, London taste. Whatever the latest thing was, in food, drink, music, you always found it first at Deepwell. She was really a marvellous creator of, guider of and hostess of parties."
And then he recalls a lunch party, before the Cavalry Ball at the Horse Show one year, where the painter Edward Maguire laughed so hard that he broke the chair he was sitting in.
Many of the parties were 21sts and weddings, as John's six children and Ann's three began, one after another, to reach the milestones of their lives. The girls would be dressed by Pat Crowley, their hair and make-up done, and the house would be filled with clever, witty people. Guests were picked with care – to provide the right mix of sympathy and spark – and treated with consideration. In matters of food intolerances, preferences or even chewing ability, Ann was inevitably thoughtful and discreet.
"Deceptively simple," is another guest's recollection of Deepwell parties.
"Days and days of work would go into them, but the impression was always of charming ease. Wonderful wines, wonderful Champagne, wonderful food. You could meet anyone there, painters, writers, minor deposed European royalty or fascinating German jet-set, like Gunilla Von Bismarck."
As the guests were collected and the milestones celebrated, the house also filled up with a stunning collection of mainly Irish art, continuing the tradition set down by John Reihill Snr. Only last year, A Fair Day, Mayo, by Jack Yeats, sold for €1m to an anonymous bidder. It had been bought for £250 by John Snr in 1944, and had remained in the family ever since. Anne Harris, editor of this paper, recalls going to a meeting with Ann Reihill in Deepwell, in the days when she was editing Image magazine. "All I could see were the Irish impressionists," she laughed. "I couldn't concentrate on the rest of the house, or on the meeting. All I could see were Yeats and Roderic O'Connor." Another room contained a series of largely unfinished work by various Irish artists, including Sean Keating. The story goes that John Jnr would be sent over by his father, with a fistful of money, to ask the painter in question, 'have you finished yet?' Sometimes, if the answer was 'no' too often, the painting would simply be bought in its unfinished state, and hung.
The list of those who attended parties at Deepwell goes on and on; a who's who of Ireland and beyond. Miranda Iveagh, Sonia Rogers, Maurice Craig and Agnes Bernelle, Sheila Dunsany, Pat and Conor Crowley, Terry and Ronan Keane, Baron de Breffni and Ulli, Cecily MacMenamin, Sybil Connolly, Ib Jorgensen, Tony Ryan, Jonathan Irwin and Mikaela Rawlinson, Norma Smurfit, Claus and Iris Michel, Kevin and Rose Kelly, a vibrant mix of creative and business talent, all chosen for their charm and decorative qualities as much as their success. "All against a backdrop of solid, wealthy American bankers," is another guest's recollection of those fabulous parties.
Those of the children married from the house include Zita Reihill's wedding to John Gleeson and Karen's to David Britton. John's second daughter, Christina, married Mark Inglefield in Chelsea Church in London. Each time, the house lent itself to transformation into a picture-book romantic setting. Of John's six children, the three boys, John Junior, Mark and Raymond, all joined Tedcastles, while his three daughters followed the arts. Zita is a painter, Christina a writer and psychotherapist, and Karen an art restorer.
But, of course, life does not proceed without bumps and troughs, and yet another layer to the history and mythology of Deepwell is added by the pretty classical temple at the bottom of the garden, put up in memory of Hugo Dillon Malone, son of Ann, who died tragically young in a car crash. Like the temple for Tara Guinness at Luggala, it is a graceful reminder of the constancy of death in life.
Yet another incarnation of Deepwell came after the separation of Ann and John, when he shared the house and his life with Mairead Dunlevy, who he met around the time his eldest sister, Elizabeth, died. Mairead was curator of the Hunt Museum in Limerick, and a highly regarded historian of Irish fashion. There was also something about her that faintly recalled Eimear, and precipitated in John a deep, romantic attachment.
They would hold hands and walk the pier, participating in the local life of Blackrock as well as taking the same cruises John once took with Eimear. They were together for five years, before Mairead, too, died of cancer. Gradually, the busy social life of Deepwell quieted around them. The last party held there was for Christina Reihill's poetry performance of Soul Burgers, at the Dun Laoghaire Pavilion.
After it, John invited 30 of her friends back for a supper of chicken curry, served on starched linen and with silver cutlery, and spoke most lovingly of his daughter's brave and creative response to addiction.
John himself died three months ago. Despite the imprint of the women he loved and who loved him – Eimear, Ann, Mairead – in many ways Deepwell has been his story, the evolving canvas of his life echoing the richest phase of the house.
It is now on the market, for €10m, and will shortly pass to a new owner, a new stage in its existence. Whoever buys it will be buying a small but vivid piece of Dublin history, along with the 2.37 acres of land, and the elegant, gracious house.
And for those who attended the parties, who grew up there, discovered life there, married from there, mourned the passing of loved ones from there, the light from those windows, twinkling with countless memories, will continue to shine out across the bay; "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Sunday Indo Living