Alice's Odyssey: peek inside the restored Georgian home of author Alice Carey
Alice Carey's future home in west Cork was described by all who saw it as a remote ruin. To New Yorker Alice and her husband Geoffrey, it spelt romance and a project.
Alice Carey's house in deepest west Cork is full of images of Mary, the Blessed Virgin. Now, it's true to say many houses in west Cork, west Kerry and the west of Ireland would generally contain a picture of Mary, usually holding the baby Jesus, in the same way they might have a picture of a pope and even still one of John F Kennedy.
But Alice's house is different - she has an abundance of images of Mary, including statues and paintings, mainly upstairs in one of the bathrooms in her fascinating home. "I guess because my mother died when I was young, I guess because I like history, I like the Blessed Mother," the stylish redhead explains. "I do not pray, I do not say the rosary, I do not go to Mass, but I like what is called Marian art. I just like her; she had a tough life. She was a simple Jewish girl, and all of a sudden some bird came down and said, 'You've got to be the mother of God'. Can you imagine?"
New Yorker Alice can identify somewhat with the bit about the young girl and the tough life. Her own adult life has been good; she has had a fascinating and successful career in the arts. She has written several wonderful books, including one based on her own life and finding her west Cork home - called Manhattan To West Cork: Alice's Adventures In Ireland - and throughout she's chosen to be her own woman; a bit of a bohemian, or, as she says herself 'a Jean Shrimpton-lookalike hippie' with a dramatic personal style - favouring strong-coloured footwear and sharp haircuts. She has also enjoyed an enduring love affair of 40 years with her husband, Geoffrey Knox.
However, Alice's early years were difficult. She was born and brought up in a poor neighbourhood in Queens, New York, the only child of unhappily married Irish emigrants from Kerry. She adored her mother but, by her own account, her father was a brute, who beat her regularly. She was able to escape his punishments by going with her mother, 'Big Alice', to the house where Big Alice did the cleaning.
As it happened, her mother's boss was a Miss Jean Dalrymple, a theatrical producer, one of the first women in the 1940s to produce Broadway shows, and Miss D's stunning home in Manhattan was young Alice's introduction to style, the arts and to the possibilities of a better life. People like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Tallulah Bankhead were constantly on the telephone, she met artistic employees and famous friends of Miss Jean, and, of course, Alice was enchanted; in many ways, Miss Jean's house was a fantasy to which she could escape when bad things happened, when her father was particularly brutal or when her uncle, a priest, sexually assaulted her.
The experience at Miss Dalyrymple's also enlightened Alice's mother, and she was determined that her daughter would have a profession. After completing high school, Alice got a scholarship to New York University and became an English major. A teaching job followed. But she didn't like it. "I became a substitute teacher; the worst job in the world. I did it for seven years in the worst schools in Manhattan. I hated it," Alice says emphatically, adding, "so I stopped".
She loved young people, but she felt the level of teaching was demeaning to her knowledge. So instead she did waitressing, worked in antique shops, and pet-sat, while at the same time attempting to follow her dream and become an actress. "I worked in theatre, and in musicals. I was an actress; I loved it but you couldn't make a living at it," she notes. "So I had to get a real job. This neighbour of mine, a TV producer, was working on a documentary called An American Family for PBS. The gimmick was they were going to film this family, who had moved from the east coast to the west coast, for a year. This was early docu-drama, and she asked me to be her assistant. I was thrilled," Alice says.
It was through the programme, which she worked on for three years, that she met her beloved Geoffrey. Geoffrey had graduated from the prestigious Brown University. He wanted to become an actor, but in those days, he was the mail boy in PBS who delivered Alice's magazines to her. At one point there was a screening of An American Family and as none of her friends was interested, she asked him to be her guest at the screening. "It was as slim as that, and 40 years later, we're still together," she notes happily, adding that they were together 20 years before they got married. "I still don't believe in marriage. I love ceremonies, I hate legality. I never call myself Mrs. We did the wedding in a little church and it was delightful, but I hate those papers," Alice, a real rebel at heart, notes.
Geoffrey made PBS his career and moved up through the ranks, while Alice ultimately became a full-time writer. Her obsession with words is not only obvious in her superb books, but even in her always forthright way of speaking. She constantly qualifies statements, making sure she is getting her point across properly, and she doesn't accept words that she doesn't like. The word 'enjoy' comes in for a lot of abuse. "I don't 'enjoy' my life. I hate the word enjoy, at a primal level. I live my life, I experience my life; I experience happiness, I experience sadness. Enjoy is a wishy-washy word," she concludes.
Alice's writing career was slow to take off initially, mainly because she suffered a terrible blood disease - caused by a nutrient she ingested - which was basically untreatable by medication. "This particular nutrient was manufactured by the Japanese and it was contaminated; 40 to 50 women died as a result of taking it," Alice recalls.
Finally, acupuncture helped her to heal, but not before she was practically at death's door. "I looked so bad - this was the time Aids was happening, and I looked like I had Aids. We had a home on Fire Island and a man I barely knew, the man who ran the liquor store, said to me: 'Are you going to sue?' I said, 'I'm not going to sue. 'Come on,' he said, 'look at the money you've spent. I'll get you lawyers. I'll get you a Jew and an Irishman' - and he got me Rheingold McGowan. They took me on because the case was so interesting. It went on for four or five years, but I got money; it helped buy the house in west Cork and that was nice," she notes.
Geoffrey and Alice have a small mews house in Greenwich Village in New York; for a time, they also had a home on Fire Island with lots of great friends there, but Aids destroyed the community. "We left Fire Island because of Aids. It's a passion of mine the way people forget what Aids did. Can you imagine a week where you'd go to three or four funerals? The horrific behaviour towards these men - and it was mainly men. It was an extraordinary island - no cars, everyone was so nice, so happy - then, all of a sudden, everyone began to die. We couldn't take it any more. We left while we still loved it, as opposed to growing to hate it," she says sadly.
They decided they wanted a place in Europe, and finally they bought in west Cork. "We picked Ireland, not because I'm from Ireland, but because we loved the history of the country, the abandoned castles, James Joyce, Riders to the Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Giant's Causeway . . . We were and still are in love with the island of Ireland," Alice enthuses.
They saw an ad in the New York Times for a house, which they came to view, but it turned out to be too big, too derelict. After that disappointment, they went to a local estate agent and found another, smaller house, which they bought. It was also derelict.
"We did not know west Cork at all; we did not know west Cork from east Wexford, but it was a project, and we love a project," Alice says with a wry laugh.
She laughs now because they really didn't realise what they were getting themselves into. That was 22 years ago, and the project took many years.
The property they bought - which comprises two houses, a big farmhouse and a little cottage - is set on four acres and dates from the 1840s; according to Alice, the cottage is pre-Famine. Looking back, she realises it was a ruin, but as she insisted on pointing out to friends back in New York, who were appalled that she and Geoffrey had bought such a thing, it was a Georgian ruin. Anyway, they found much to love about it - the fireplaces, the stonework, the size of the windows, the coving in the ceilings. She was charmed by it. As Alice relates in the book about one of the architects who came to assess the house: "He said, 'There was big money here once. The house has detail; pretension, even'. Pretension thrilled me. God knows I'm that to the bone."
After meeting with several architects and getting planning permission, they realised that as they knew nothing about renovating ruins, it would be better to start with the smaller building, the little cottage which was used as stables for the big house, and renovate it first, and live in it while they did up the other.
It took 18 months to do up the cottage - and, of course, it wasn't all plain sailing; there were the usual problems with builders and deadlines and budgets - however, once that was done, they were able to come and go as they pleased and watch the work in the big house.
The big house has eight rooms, three of which are bedrooms, and the couple have renovated it faithfully; they haven't made it modern or open-plan or filled it with light; instead, the rooms are the same, just beautifully restored. However, they made one addition - a glorious space with a stone floor and a large Gothic window.
"We didn't change a single thing - these are all the original small windows - but I wanted one big room and so we built it on," says Alice. "What I love about this room is the space and height and light and the Gothic window, yet it's constructed with just cinder block, but the guys - we know [the actor] Jeremy Irons slightly and he let us use his workers - they made all this with modern methods, yet it looks old."
Every room in each house is painted a different colour, and every room has its own distinct personality. Alice can't resist fair days and never comes home without a jug or a cup, so the dressers are teeming. She loves auctions and skips and junk shops, and has picked up some gems, including a Famine chair from Sotheby's and an armchair that once belonged to Hollywood actor Hurd Hatfield, who lived in north Cork before he died.
"I'm sitting in New York reading The Irish Times and see that Hurd Hatfield's effects are to be auctioned. 'I'm going back', I tell Geoffrey. 'Are you kidding?' he says. He finally agrees, once we settle on a budget of ¤500. When I got there, I loved the house, but I knew I couldn't afford anything, but there was one chair I really wanted. The bidding kept going, and I thought, 'I'm never going to get it'. Then the other bidder put down his paddle, and I got the chair for ¤450. As he passed, he said, 'I knew you wanted it'," Alice recalls.
The couple spend one-third of the year at their home in west Cork, coming and going in all seasons; underfloor heating makes living there in all weathers possible - "I was against it, but boy am I glad we have it now; the slate floors really retain the heat," Alice says.
One thing she is adamant about is the furnishings. "I think you get a beautiful house by using old, used furniture. I'd never buy anything new. I like to feel their spirits combine with mine to create a home."
'Manhattan To West Cork: Alice's Adventures In Ireland' by Alice Carey, is published by The Collins Press
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
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