A Tale of the Mill House
By Michael Stewart
They used to dine upstairs at the Mill House, in a large room facing the road, with a cabinet in the corner which contained the finest bone china and polished silverware. There was a mahogany table in the centre of the room, and the lady of the house would often rap its surface with her knuckles and emphasise it was solid mahogany and proceed to give an account of the local doctor offering twenty pounds when he had occasion to visit the house. if they were prepared to sell it. However, even though twenty pounds was a substantial sum of money in the early part of the century, on no account would the table be sold, for at the time, corn mills throughout the country were flourishing and the owners were financially secure, so there was neither the need nor the desire to part with such a magnificent piece of woodwork.
There was a picture hanging on the wall, above the mantelpiece, which was painted by a cousin of the family – Mother Alacoque – who was a nun in Australia. It wasn’t a very large picture and its merit as a work of art was never really vouched for; however it was held in high regard by the family and greatly cherished. Eminent people who visited the house were taken to see it, and it was admired and commended by all. This painting had a special significance for the family, for it was said that while the artist whose creation it was had passed away in a far off country, her figure was seen to emerge from an upstairs bedroom one night and then fade from view, immediately before her aged sister was found dead inside. In later years, when the sole surviving member of the family would be the worse for drink and had to go to hospital to be ‘dried out’, he would climb on to a chair, take down the picture and having wrapped it in old newspapers, would clasp it under his arm and take it into a neighbouring household, requesting them to take care of it until his return.
They said that his mother had him spoilt in his formative years, allowing him to lounge in bed until noon, indulging his every whim and idiosyncrasy and ignoring her neighbours’ advice to encourage him in making good use of his time by engaging in some worthwhile pursuits. As a result, he was considered locally as having had a ‘misspent’ youth. She watched with pride as he rode to hounds with the Galway Blazers, having prepared the livery and polished the lashings and stoutly defended his disinclination to apply himself to the day-to-day running of the farm or the mill, putting it down to the family’s lineage and his being of gentle birth. “He wasn’t cut out for work” she would explain, “he’s too refined”. He would get married, of course, but it was so hard to find a suitable girl and then there were his friends at the hotel in Galway who enjoyed his company so much and looked forward to meeting him. She would also insist that he had very little time to spare and was delighted when he purchased a car.
It was a small black car, a ‘Baby’ Ford and it came equipped with a starting handle, as most cars did then, for at the time motor technology was not at an advanced stage and it was by no means certain that an engine would ignite simply by pressing a button or turning a key. It became obvious before very long that the car was contributing in no small way to the downfall of his business, for he would drive to Galway every so often, where he would squander the household money drinking and carousing with his friends – one of whom owned a large farm which he was wont to call a ranch, another a hackney driver – and not return home until the ‘small’ hours. His mother would maintain that his purpose in travelling to Galway was to pay court to a daughter of the hotelier, but the neighbours said that he had no interest in settling down and that he was more attracted to the high life and the company of boisterous friends.
There would be great excitement and commotion of a Saturday afternoon, when the car was being prepared and started. for the journey into town. Firstly, it would be wheeled out of the garage onto the road and boiling water would be poured into the radiator. The proprietor would then turn the starting handle for several minutes. while at the same time the clutch pedal had to be depressed. More likely than not it would fail to start, causing him to become very annoyed and frustrated and as a result, he would swear loudly and call for more boiling water – it was one of those rare occasions when he did swear, because normally he was a quiet spoken and gentle individual, who had excellent manners and who would doff his hat on greeting a lady. There might perhaps be a few expletives when chided by his fellow revellers as he sat on a bench in a corner of the local pub, where he would vehemently proclaim that he was no ‘Joe Soap’, having rode a show jumper called ‘The Nuggett’ at the Royal Dublin Society Horse Show in Ballsbridge with a celebratory dinner later in the Saddle Room at the Shelbourne Hotel. He would invariably add that there was ‘blue blood’ in his veins and that his grandmother had fed the countryside in ‘Black ’47.
After more boiling water being poured into the radiator, the car might eventually start, but then again it might not. However by this time, a group of curious onlookers would have gathered and they would help push the car up the road and it would finally disappear over the hill in a great cloud of smoke.
His mother would then return to the kitchen and begin a lonely vigil. Towards nightfall she would wander out to the front gate and listen for the sound of a car – there were only three or four in the parish at the time – and then return again to sit by the fire and drift into prayer. As the night wore on, she would continue to worriedly pace in and out to the road and passers-by later at night would often see her standing in the doorway as she waited and looked away towards Galway, hoping to see the lights of the returning car.
They said she might well have been peering far away into the past, for she came from a small town in the Midlands, where her family were well-to-do and respected. Normally they would take a holiday every year and indulge themselves for a week or two in Lisdoonvarna or by the sea. At one stage she was to take up a post with one of the professions but then fate took her to Cregg Mills, with its bridal path and promising outlook as a viable and prosperous business.
All agreed that she was ideally suited to be Lady of the Mill House, with her noble bearing and sedate style. Tall and slender, she would wear a small black shawl which rested easily on her shoulders. Even when the business declined and money became less plentiful and despite a gradual descent to a shabbier gentility, she always seemed to carry around her an aura of respectability. She would continue to encourage her son to associate a with people of consequence and refinement and held onto her pride and dignity to the very end.
I still like to walk out the road of an evening and see this ancient stone building, which is as imposing and formal as ever and still looks splendid, now with its Georgian facade, but it’s a melancholy- splendour, for there is no high drama at the Mill House now, no rushing to and fro, no old lady stands in the doorway with a kettle of boiling water, nor neighbours gather in anticipation to share in the excitement and satisfaction helping the proprietor start up the ‘Baby’ Ford and set out to pay his court, or for a night on the town. The cars parked at the mill now are the latest models of many different makes. which start up instantly at the turn of a key. The place has still many images of times and ways long gone and those former proud inhabitants of the House are now but a memory, to be rekindled of a Saturday evening, by one who could recall with nostalgia those halcyon days and the mapic of being called upon to depress the clutch pedal of a ‘Baby’ ord, or assist an impoverished and inebriated gentleman place a valued painting in safe keeping, until such time as he would have recovered his sobriety and returned again to his own harsh world of reality.
This article was originally published in Anach Cuain 2010.