We’re not those kind of people

Eoin Butler

Eoin Butler

October 2013

On a crisp autumn evening, I’m tearing around the back roads of north Co. Dublin at the wheel of my mother’s battered hatchback. My mother is in the passenger seat. It’s 6.15 p.m. We were due at our destination three quarters of an hour ago. Tempers are beginning to fray.

For the umpteenth time, my mother revisits the seemingly straightforward directions we received: Kinsealy Garden Centre; Church of Ireland chapel; Baskin Lane. ‘For Jesus’ sake, Eoin,’ she laments. ‘I could see you driving past a garden centre, but how the hell do you miss a church?’

Noreen recommended we get there early. Not, she was at pains to stress, for her own convenience: she’d be glad of our company whenever we arrived. But it’s October, and the crumbling Georgian mansion she’s currently occupying is poorly lit. We won’t see much of it once daylight fades.

Finally, on our fourth approach, I locate the narrow, unmarked laneway. Signs warn trespassers to keep out and, although Noreen is permitted guests, I experience the giddy thrill of being in a place one is not quite supposed to be.

Three hundred yards or so along, we stop at a rusted set of wrought-iron gates. A moment later, the gates part to allow us through.

I spent the morning reading up on the history of Abbeville. I know that it was built as the country residence of Ireland’s chief tax collector, and that it is a truly enormous property, with a total floor area of 14,600 square feet. Yet, at first glance, it is not nearly as grand a place as I expected. Overgrown foliage on either side of the pilastered main doorway obscures its full breadth, while the portion of its façade that is visible is clearly in need of repair.

Noreen is waiting for us by the fountain that stands outside the front door. She is a down-to-earth country girl and a family friend. ‘How are the Butlers?’ she smiles, as she embraces my mother warmly. ‘God, I was startin’ to wonder were ye coming at all.’

She draws our attention to the ground beneath our feet. Set into the cobblestone footpath, from which one stone is noticeably missing, there is a coat of arms with an inscription in Latin and, in bold capital letters, the name of the house’s most famous former owner: CHARLES JAMES HAUGHEY.

Noreen leads us up the steps into the main entrance hall. A cut-glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling and a pair of stags’ heads are bolted over the doors on either side. The interior, otherwise, has been stripped bare. Dust and discolouration on the walls and floor indicate where paintings once hung and furnishings were once placed. Walls are scuffed, paint is cracked, and just about everything reeks of damp, dirt and dilapidation.

Charles Haughey died in 2006. Two years later, his wife Maureen relocated to a small property adjoining the estate. Looking around their former home, it seems extraordinary to me that a building could have deteriorated this badly in such a short time. Noreen and my mother disagree. ‘Of course it could,’ they reply in unison. ‘Sure that’s why I’m here,’ says Noreen. ‘To keep water flowing in the pipes, to keep the walls from falling down.’

Noreen moved to Dublin from the country, on secondment for her job, a little over a year ago. The timing of her secondment was not ideal. She was about to be married, and she and her fiancé had just bought a house. Now, on her own in Dublin, she found renting prohibitively expensive. So she responded to a radio ad seeking responsible adults to act as ‘live-in guardians’ for vacant, high-end properties. At the moment, she shares Abbeville with a number of fellow tenants, none of whom are in evidence this evening. This probably isn’t how Noreen envisaged spending her first months of married life, but she has developed something of a proprietorial pride in her temporary lodgings.

‘Come on,’ she says, leading us into the Gandon Ballroom. As Taoiseach, Haughey sometimes convened cabinet meetings here. There is a wooden dance floor in the centre of the room and three spectacular full-length windows overlooking a vast expanse of rolling parkland.

My mother is a plain-spoken Mayo woman who loathed Haughey when he was alive. I mean, she considered him practically the devil incarnate. But it is her fondness for crappy home-makeover TV shows that is most in evidence so far here. I think part of her fantasizes about being the urbane expert who walks into a dilapidated farmhouse, puts his hand over his mouth for a moment, then fires off a volley of pertinent observations. ‘Was this their living area?’ she asks, thoughtfully. ‘I mean, would they have spent time here as a family?’

We wander into another large room adjacent to the ballroom. Abbeville is presently on the market for sale, and the auctioneers’ listing refers to this as the Formal Dining Room.* But I know it functioned more recently as Haughey’s private study. It is empty now, and there is a large coffee stain on the carpet.

The walls, floor and ceiling of the ground-floor bathroom are covered entirely in cork. As someone whose formative notions of glamour were gleaned entirely from episodes of Dallas, the effect seems pretty swanky to me. The ladies disagree. ‘It’s grotty,’ my mother frowns. ‘And dated,’ sniffs Noreen.

Through the grand Breakfast Room, we enter the replica Irish bar, which the architect Sam Stephenson installed for Haughey using materials salvaged from a Belfast bank. During the summer, Noreen and her housemates occasionally opened a bottle of wine in here after work and made a night of it. I can imagine that must have been fun. The furnishings are still in place and the dank smell that pervades the rest of the house has not yet made its way in.

Noreen wants to show us the exterior of the building while there is still some daylight. The back door of the house – sealed off by Special Branch officers when they arrived to arrest Haughey during the Arms Crisis of 1970 – can’t be opened. So the occupants have taken to accessing the grounds via a large bay window in the bar.

Noreen hops up on the windowsill. My mother hesitates. ‘Arrah come on, Anna,’ Noreen laughs, extending her hand. And a moment later, we’re all outside.

During the summer heat wave, Noreen tells us, the guardians would sometimes sunbathe on the grass behind the house. Once, a helicopter carrying prospective buyers of the property landed on the lawn, catching them unawares.

On the footpath outside the conservatory, two massive barbecue grills are rusted beyond use. A battered sign for Inismhicileain, Haughey’s private island in Kerry, is mounted on the conservatory’s wooden panelling, where the paint is peeling off in strips. We follow Noreen through a gap in the old stone wall to where a swimming pool is hidden underneath a beat-up and leaf-strewn metal cover.

The pond behind the house is covered with algae now. According to an interview Terry Keane gave shortly before his death, Haughey once told Keane, his mistress, that he used to dump anything incriminating she left in his car into this pond to avoid detection by his wife. ‘After I’m gone,’ she claimed he told her, ‘Someone will dredge that lake and find buried gold.’

That story seems unlikely, though. In daylight, the pond is plainly visible from the house. By night, he’d have had to walk about three hundred yards in the darkness, through damp grass, to reach it. Besides, this is a man who purchased a 246-acre country estate at a time when his ministerial annual salary was just £5,000 a year. The man’s indiscretions, it seems to me, were carried out in plain sight.

On the far side of the house are the stables where Haughey, raised in modest circumstances only a few miles from here, would pose for publicity photographs on horseback, dressed in the blazer and riding boots of a country squire. But the buildings are in ruins now and light is fading fast.

Personally, I’ve never shared the prevailing view in Ireland of Charles Haughey as, for better or worse, a colossus of modern politics. To me, he has always seemed more a run-of-the-mill postcolonial capo – not nearly as Shakespearean a figure as Robert Mugabe, say, and only one of a sprawling cast of villains responsible for Ireland’s present predicament. Yet I would defy anyone to tramp around Abbeville today without, at some point, muttering those hackneyed lines about the lone and level sands stretching far away …

Upstairs Noreen shows us her sleeping quarters. The room is large and bare, with just a pile of her own books and CDs stacked in one corner, and a hatch through which meals could once have been sent up from the kitchen two floors below. There is a small bottle of holy water at the bedside. ‘I give it the odd sprinkle alright,’ Noreen tells my mother. ‘Because you do wonder if there might be …’ – she lowers her voice here – ‘ghosts about the place.’

We venture back along an L-shaped corridor, up some more steps and into what the guardians understand to have been Maureen Haughey’s bedroom. It’s pink and ornate and really very spacious. But it’s nothing compared to what’s across the next corridor.

Charles Haughey’s master bedroom is about the size of the average Irish parish hall. I don’t wish to speculate too broadly about the man’s nocturnal proclivities, but he could have hosted a five-a-side football league in here, had he been so inclined. There is a grand fireplace to one side, a enormous balcony overlooking the house’s main entrance and more dust imprints on the walls where, presumably, expensive artworks once hung. The carpet is badly discoloured. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling and the window sills are strewn with dead insects.

In the adjoining bathroom, there is a freestanding marble bath in the centre of the room and massive illuminated wardrobes where, it is impossible not to speculate, Haughey’s Charvet shirts must once have been kept.

Noreen notes that the couple’s respective bedrooms were accessed by separate stairways.

‘How did she put up with him?’ she sighs.

My mother shakes her head. ‘He married up,’ she says. ‘That was the cruel thing. She was a Lemass. He was a nobody.’

‘Oh, but can you imagine,’ says Noreen, ‘what this place must have looked like when the flowers were in bloom?’

They both stand there for a moment, the widow and the bride, peering wistfully into the gathering gloom below.

The last decade of Haughey’s life was dominated by the Moriarty Tribunal, which investigated corrupt payments he received during his time in office, as well as large sums of money held in his name in secret offshore accounts for which no source could be determined. Diagnosed with prostate cancer, he sold Abbeville in 2003, in an ‘advance sale and leaseback’ deal worth €45 million. That same year, he settled his tax liabilities with the Revenue Commissioners. He lived out his days, ironically, a very rich man for the first time in his life.

The developers who bought the place had plans for a hotel resort and golf course, but those plans were shelved following the property crash of 2008. Three years later, the developers themselves went into receivership.

As it happens, we’re the first visitors Noreen has had at Abbeville. She hasn’t previously fancied rummaging around the darker corners of this dilapidated mansion on her own, so this is her first time seeing most of it too. There are fourteen bedrooms in all, as well as an inordinate number of staircases.

The layout is byzantine. We constantly find ourselves passing through passageways and antechambers, never quite sure whether we would shortly be returning the same way. There are frequent discussions about whether certain lights should be left on or switched off as we pass. If a light is left on unnecessarily, it could be months before anyone notices.

The basement is infested with mice and rats, so when we get down there, Noreen and my mother expect me to open every door and switch on every light. They clutch each other in fright at the slightest sound. There’s a games room, with a full-size snooker table that’s still playable. We whack the balls around and pose for photographs. I feel a bit like an American soldier, puffing cigars in one of Saddam’s gaudy palaces.

Further along, another room is bare but for a 1980s-style multi-line telephone, and rows and rows of empty metal shelving. What was stored here, I wonder? Given its proximity to the stables, my mother suggests maybe he kept his equestrian equipment here. Noreen reckons he’d have kept that stuff with the horses in the stables. This was more likely for his sailing gear.

But none of us, really, knows what utensils either of those activities require, let alone whether such items are generally stored in a person’s house or at some other location.

Retreating back through the games room, I stop to study a constituency map of Dublin mounted on the wall. For a moment, the ghosts of the past flicker briefly to life. I can see the old ogre and his cronies playing billiards and sipping brandy. Saying things aloud that need only be said aloud the once.

Noreen invites us to stay for tea. I’d really rather not hang around, but I can tell she’d appreciate the company. There must be twenty metres of worktop space down here, split between the basement kitchen and breakfast room. There is a 1988 Dublin Millennium sticker on one of the shelves and a big old table to sit around. This, my mother decides, is the family living area she had been wondering about.

Noreen’s cupboard is almost bare. A box of Weetabix, tea bags and a can of Pringles. She avoids eating here as much as possible, she says, and it isn’t difficult to work out why. The odour is rank. Noreen believes that rising damp isn’t to blame, but rather the organic produce one of her housemates keeps in the fridge. The fridge door has come off its hinges, so a large stone is used to keep it in place. I recognize the stone: it’s a match for the one that’s missing from around Haughey’s coat-of-arms outside.

We sit down, and Noreen talks a little about the problems she is experiencing at work. Secondment to Dublin was supposed to be a temporary measure, but her stint here is being extended indefinitely. When I met her by chance in town yesterday, she described how her co-workers’ needs are constantly accommodated, while she is ignored and shunted around. On that occasion, I advised her to be more aggressive in pressing her case. Bosses tend toward the path of least resistance, and kind-hearted, easygoing Noreen seems to me someone it might be easy to push around.

I assume my mother will agree. But she doesn’t. She offers a different perspective. Last year she was one of thousands of primary school teachers forced to take early retirement in order to protect their pension entitlements. She loved her job. She loved the kids. They seemed to like her and she didn’t want to retire.

‘Why do you think I’m here?’ she says. ‘My children are all grown up. Why do think I’m moping around Dublin at this stage in my life?’ She tells Noreen that, if she wants to keep her job, the wisest course of action might be to do nothing. She asks if Noreen has considered the possibility her bosses want her to resign. ‘It needn’t be anything personal,’ she says. ‘The country is broke. Cuts have to be made.’

‘Tell her about McFeely,’ I suggest, hoping to lighten the mood a little. ‘Oh God, yes,’ laughs Noreen. ‘Wait till I tell you …’

Before Abbeville, Noreen was live-in guardian at the former home of Thomas McFeely, an IRA bomber turned property developer who had become notorious when one of his housing developments, not far from Kinsealy, was found to be dramatically in breach of fire-safety codes. Shortly after Noreen vacated the place, a mansion in Ballsbridge, a workman discovered €200,000 in cash hidden in the bathroom. It was a bathroom Noreen had used every day for six months.

News of the find broke when she and her husband were on honeymoon. ‘I mean, can you imagine?’ she laughs. ‘Two hundred thousand euro. We spent the rest of the honeymoon arguing what we’d have done with it.’

Noreen decided they’d have buried the money in her father’s back garden and left it there until the heat died down. Her husband, though, had more ambitious plans. He reckoned they’d have gone to a casino in Monte Carlo and washed the money through the roulette tables there. Her husband is a dairy farmer and a rather unassuming one at that. The notion of them hobnobbing with minor European royals and major Russian mobsters, sipping martinis and laundering dirty money, is at once absurd and yet utterly intoxicating.

Eventually, the laughter subsides.

‘We’re not those kind of people,’ Noreen says, finally.

It’s not a protest of innocence, more a statement of fact. She means the wheelers and the dealers. The speculators and the accumulators. The great and the good. No, we’re not those kind of people. We’re just living in the squalid shithole they have bequeathed to us.

After saying our goodbyes, Noreen notices her handbag is missing. She must have left it in one of the rooms upstairs. Its dark now, she says, and there’s no way she’s going back that way on her own. We have to come with her, like it or not.

I flick backwards through the camera roll on my phone, to see if I can figure out where we were when she last had it. As we step tentatively up the creaking stairway into blackness, I use the tiny light on the phone’s interface to guide our way.

*A few days after I visited Abbeville, sale was agreed for a reported €5.5 million, to a buyer later revealed to be a Japanese hotel chain. Shortly thereafter, Noreen and the other guardians were asked to pack their bags.

To read the rest of Dublin Review 59, you may purchase the issue here.