What an unexpected special day. There I was, zooming along the M1, while the soft purr of my two year old snores filled the back seat. We had just been to see a brand new squishy baby, only four days old, born to one of my closest friends. My sister called me.
“Dowth Hall are having an open day.”
“What?” I said.
“We’re here now, it’s great.”
I looked round at the snoozing toddler. We were due home, food needed to put in her little tum tum, food needed to be put in my tum tum, but if we went home we’d miss our chance to see this house, which is right bang in the middle of the novel I’ve written.
I veered off the motorway and headed straight for the hall. History overcame food. We could eat later.
I couldn’t believe my luck as I was directed up the old carriage way route to the house – I’d driven by the entrance so many times – even pictured it here and longed to be able to get up and inside the house itself.
At the gate I met the manager of the estate and he gave me a map and said viewings of the house needed to be booked but I might be able to get in. He works for Devenish Nutrition who were hosting the open day and who have been working to restore the house and grounds since their takeover by Executive Chairman Owen Brennan in 2013. He said they were opening up to the public today to get ideas and feedback for moving forward with the lands and house.
As I drove my Peugeot up the mainly grassy path, I imagined the carriages that would have trundled up here for centuries. The driveway is one mile long. I looked across at the beautiful oak trees, puncturing the green hills around the house. It looked liked something from a Jane Austen picture.
At the house I was surprised to see so many cars – there were hundreds all keen to get a look at this land and house that has been off limits for the general public forever.
I met my sister and went straight up to see if I could get inside the house.
My name wasn’t on the list. There was no more room.
I wasn’t getting in.
This was worse than being refused entry to a nightclub.
With historians for bouncers.
I tired to talk about my novel, but as I’m still new to that and still kind of waffle and feel embarrassed about it (I really need to get over that and start selling it – it all comes down to that calling yourself a writer thing, doesn’t it) the architectural expert looked at me a bit strangely and said maybe if I came back later I could get in.
I must have seemed desperate.
But these houses are my connection to my work. I need to see them, to feel them, to touch the plasterwork and woodwork and picture the people who lived there. Otherwise I’m just plagiarising Downton Abbey. And that’s just sacrilege.
Barred, not not defeated, we went and checked out the bouncy castle and let the two year old run round like a mad woman. We queued for scones and tea and I snapped everything like crazy and tried to get over the fact that here I was staring up at a house that I had thought I would never see.
After walking around and looking at the heated stables (toasty) my sister announced that it was nearly time for the tour of the house that she and her better half were booked on.
“You can have my place,” offered her boyfriend. “I’ll mind the toddler.”
Without even letting him rethink the his gesture or look back at the child, I ran off to the front door of the house and waited with my sister to go in. “I didn’t realise you were on the tour,” I said. “I think this is the best day of my life.”
So we got in.
The tour was short, as the house is still under reconstruction – there would be no going upstairs. But we saw the entrance hall study, main room, dining room and could look into the conservatory.
It was enough for me. Immediately I could see that his house was not as big as Townley Hall House, which I have used as a reference to my story.
In my novel the family and my main character live in a farm house that I know existed. The character’s love interest and his family live in a big house – landed gentry. I knew when writing that if I was sticking to facts, this would be Dowth Hall, as it’s the nearest large estate house to my family in the story.
But, because I’d never been to Dowth Hall, I couldn’t use it as a reference point in my writing. Instead I used Townley Hall, another nearby estate house, because I had been there a number of times and because it’s closer to where I grew up and I know the landscape better.
Today’s visit showed me a number of things. It showed me that my references will work, as I need a larger scale house, one that would have hosted functions and balls, which Dowth Hall due to its layout and design, would likely not have.
It showed me examples of beautiful interior and architecture that I can bring into the novel, should I wish. And it taught me that not all gentry families were protestant – something I had wrongly assumed. The family who lived in Dowth Hall remained Catholic and this just might work better for my story.
One of the most valuable meetings today was with the managers and historians who are working on the house. I hope that should I need it, I can follow up for further information and research.
I love that the owners held an open day today. Seeing these valuable and culturally significant pieces of architecture are vital to helping the local community understand just what assets we have on our doorstep.
We are right in the middle of a UNESCO world heritage site – people have moved here for thousands of years – we live in a very special place.
I can’t not but write about here.
I hope that when the book is polished and on the shelves, all those who showed up today will also show up and have a read.
I’d like to do the place some justice.
For pictures before the auction of Dowth Hall see this descriptive document which shows the rooms as they once looked. Featured image in this post is from independent.ie
My novel is called December Girl and is set in Dowth, Drogheda and London. It’s inspired by the true story of an eviction that took place at Dowth in 1880 – and follows the life of fictional character Molly Thomas, who sees herself caught up in a web of murder, prostitution and the loss of her child, in her quest to come home.