Lady Catherine de la Poer, countess of Tyrone, glued sea shells to the inside of a small, crucifix shaped building on her family’s property for 261 days.
Our guide told us she drive a cart down to the port and commanded the captains there to bring her shells from whatever nations they visited.
Glue didn’t exist yet, so using a mixture of pigs blood, horse urine and sand — if some sources are to be believed— Lady de la Poer attached whatever shells were brought back to her from overseas to the ceiling and walls.
She was the first Lady Waterford, an heiress forced to marry into Protestantism to maintain ownership of her family’s estate in the face of discriminatory laws from the British.
Curraghmore was her home.
Nine generations later, the Curraghmore estate is still occupied by Catherine’s descendants.
Granted, times are different.
The previous Lord Waterford lived up to his title. People removed their hats when they saw him in the street and addressed him by his official title. No one from the village was allowed into the house.
His son, the ninth Lord Waterford is more lenient. He began allowing guests to tour the house several years ago as a way to offset the costs of living in a Georgian mansion built around a castle.
That’s how we got in.
“I brought a dress and I’m gonna live my Pride and Prejudice fantasy,” said my groupmate Briar* in the days leading up to our visit.
Our guide told us people still get lost trying to find the house.
Its driveway is a mile-long dirt path snaking alongside and over a river that drowned the sixth Lord Waterford in 1911.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house.
Taxidermy lions from a previous Lord Waterford’s big-game hunts in Africa guarded the back entryway.
Centuries-old wallpaper climbed up the walls to be capped by plaster leaves and flowers writing in circles on the ceiling.
We only saw four or five rooms on the first floor, but we spent nearly fifteen minutes in each having something new pointed out to us.
There was a central hall of family portraits. Life-size paintings of every Lord and Lady Waterford gazed down from the walls, every one with a lengthy back-story and many with a tragic death to boot.
It was exactly what Hollywood had taught me to expect from an the ancestral home of a noble European family.
There were marble busts and a dining room table that could seat thirty guests, pieces of furniture gifted to the family be famous historical figures like Marie Antoinette and extensive living quarters for the army of servants that once lived and worked on-site.
As soon as we walked in the temperature dropped ten degrees.
Walking around I felt almost nervous, because I had the very strong sense that everything around me was so old and worth so much money that if I broke it I’d spend the rest of my life trying to pay back whatever it was worth.
Basil, the butler, gave the tour of the estate up until his death two years ago.
Now, a woman who grew up in the village nearby guides people through the house.
As a child, she would sneak through the woods and try peaking into the windows until someone inevitably caught her and ran her off.
“I’m gonna get in there someday,” she used to say to her friends.
And now here she was, clutching a sun hat under her arm and opening one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that doubled as the front entryway.
We were allowed to photograph whatever we wanted outside, so we scattered throughout the gardens.
Curraghmore Estate sits on 1000 acres of property, so there was no way we’d get to see all of it in the twenty minutes before we had to be back on the bus, but we were determined to try.
We made the mistake of leaving the bus windows open as we drove away from the estate.
A dust cloud pushed into the vehicle and clogged our lungs and sinuses with dirt for days afterward.
But we were too dumb to realize that in the moment.
We blamed it on all the sheep grazing in the Comeragh Mountains.
That was where we spent the afternoon following our visit to Curraghmore.
It wasn’t really a national or state park in the way we were used to: just a one-lane road up to a parking lot.
There were no maps, toll booths or signs pointing out trail heads, just a few notices about keeping dogs on leashes.
You had two options: follow a well-walked dirt path trotting down towards the foot of a waterfall or climb up the hill that eventually turns into a cliff overlooking the waterfall.
Most of us chose to walk down, passing a surprising number of mothers powering up the hill behind strollers.
The view from the bottom of the waterfall wasn’t terrific— it was one of those that cascades in short steps instead of one, tall drop-off— so I decided to climb up and see if any of the other segments were more impressive.
Two days later we’d all be back on the plane to America.
I reflected on the trip as I climbed up the hill, trying to decide what my favorite parts had been.
As the path got more steep and had to start crawling to avoid slipping and/losing my balance, it occurred to me that what I’d appreciated the most was the opportunity to be out in nature and experience the natural landscape of another country was my favorite part of the whole thing.
It also occurred to me that I’d never climbed a mountain in such close proximity to sheep.
“If a sheep feels threatened and charges me, how do you respond? Is it like when hikers meet a bear in Yellowstone?” I thought to myself.
We had walked on Ireland’s beaches, traipsed through its gardens, graveyards and cemeteries.
At one point we visited the small plot of land where St. Declan spent his final years.
He was an early Christian leader who arrived in Ireland prior to St. Patrick.
Our guide asked that we take ten minutes of silence to experience the area with all our senses.
So we wandered around and listened: to the breeze rising from the ocean and up the cliffs blowing through the ferns and wild blackberries growing in thick walls along the border of the yard; to the bees vibrating through the air from one plant to the next; to the pair of retired nuns reverently whispering near the shrine to St. Declan where hundreds of people made pilgrimages every year; to the gravel path crunching beneath the feet of people passing through on their way to the cliffs higher up.
Seagulls and other ocean birds lived on the cliffs and rocks nearby and were constantly flying overhead.
Kayakers shouted at each other as they paddled around the rocks rising up from the turquoise salt water hundreds of feet below.
My group mates quietly added to the indents on St. Declan’s shrine where hundreds of years of pilgrims had written three crosses and kissed the stone, as was tradition.
Others drank from St. Declan’s well, which was said to have sacred powers of healing, along with many other religious artifacts we saw during our trip.
Jean-Claude discreetly asked our guide later if drinking the water would give him dysentery.
“You should be fine,” shrugged our guide.
Anyway it was a beautiful and spiritual moment while it lasted.
All of it — the history, the sense of ancient identity, the beauty of the landscape, the people— was encapsulated in one place and all those things together made me love the time I had in Ireland.
I climbed as high up that waterfall in the Comeragh mountains as I dared and sat there for thirty minutes or so, just appreciating where I was.
Eventually, I realized that the bus was going to leave without me so I started down again.
I didn’t necessarily think I could die right then and be at peace.
However, if I had a fatal encounter with a sheep and my autopsy read “he died after a living wool sweater head-butted him off a mountain,” I’d feel comfortable in the knowledge I went out with a bang.
To be continued...
*Names changed for privacy
•Ethan Mitchell is a staff writer for The Blackshear Times. Reach him at email@example.com.