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Skeaghyvagh, Co. Kildare – Lighting up the Fox’s Den

Photographs by James Fennell.

Marsha Hetherington has always had a fetish for the bizarre. This might be because her late lamented mother – the Portuguese actress Ella Ramona – famously survived a ten minute brawl with a Kodiak bear while filming “Moonshine in Anchorage”. Or perhaps it is simply because she is a direct descendent of Johnny Hetherington, the London haberdasher who presented the world with the first ever top hat in 1797. Either way, the Taiwan-born poetess has been coming to terms with these curiosities since the 1997 release of her highly acclaimed auto-biographical odyssey, “The Tale of a Fox, His Wife and a Tin Capped Undertaker”.

In 1997 Marsha went to Ireland to attend the wedding of a goddaughter. Irish weddings are often distracting affairs. Marsha ended up staying considerably longer than she had planned and, before long, she had fallen head over heels in love with the country. She felt inspired by its ancient past and, as a writer, she could not help but feel enchanted by the land which had begotten such greats as Yeats, Swift, Wilde and – one must raise a tin capped nod – the charming Molly Keane. Marsha decided to move to Ireland.

Located by the world-famous Curragh Racetrack, Skeaghyvagh was built in 1893 for a Private Secretary to the British Viceroy in Ireland. When Marsha first saw the house, the walls – painted or wall papered in muddy brown and even jet black in places – spoke in such a depressing manner that she was momentarily inclined to start her car and drive away immediately. However, the presence of the ripe waters of the River Griese babbling softly beneath the avenue and around the back of the house soon assured her that appearances could be deceptive.

Marsha penned the bulk of “The Tale of a Fox” at Skeaghyvagh. But before she wrote it, she oversaw and actively took part in a complete renovation of this handsome country home. Where there was darkness, Marsha invented light. The modest dark entrance hall was illuminated with the hues of a warm and relaxing honey colour. The bedrooms were stripped of their bleak brown Victorian wallpaper and rehung with alternating strips of snow white and midnight blue. The dining room was likewise emblazoned in a life affirming sunshine yellow. The whole effect, including the addition of a conservatory to the rear of the house, has been to create a home of great vivacity and fun. This atmosphere is further enhanced by the random presence of objets d’art, pug-nosed elephants from Japan, Indo-Celtic londranas and miniature steam engines from Wolverhampton.

In many ways Skeaghyvagh is the architectural equal of “The Tale of a Fox”. Like Marsha’s early childhood, Skeaghyvagh presented a sober and perhaps rather depressing world for its inhabitants. And yet, just as Marsha was able to cast aside the harsher side of those early years, she has converted her home into an immensely cheerful place that might even soften the heart of a tin-capped undertaker.