Iris Harben, Clonriff House, Oughterard has many memories when she looks back over 90 memorable years spent between Ireland and England. Iris was born in April 1920. Her parents George de Stacpoole, Mount Hazel, Woodlawn and Eileen Palmer of Glenlo Abbey were both Galwegians. George inherited land in Meath and the family of three boys and two girls were born there. Their father fought in World War 1 in Silonica and returned to farming after the war. The children were educated in Ireland and in England.
At the tender age of eight Iris was taken on an old mail boat to Hollyhead en route to Rugby. Her father took her by the hand off the train and handed her over to a Benedictine nun who ran the Benedictine school – Prince Horpe. He got back on the Hollyhead train and returned home. Despite being left with the nuns in this small convent Iris enjoyed the carefree and caring atmosphere of the beautiful setting of her new boarding school in the Warwickshire countryside.
Later she transferred to a convent senior school in Roehampton near London. The decision to move to this school was greatly influenced by her aunt who had attended the school. Iris had a very “naughty Scotish uncle” who gave her a present of field glasses. She used them wisely – not for discovering the wonders of nature but for fun – to watch the exciting game of polo at Hurling Polo Grounds near the school. From her sunny bedroom window, four floors up, she had a splendid view of her surroundings!! Her best friend at school was Jerry Redington whose family owned the house where Sweeney’s Hotel is to day. Iris played tennis and hockey in school. Her favourite subject was history but she always regretted not having studied Irish History.
Iris spent some of her holidays with her grandmother Maud Palmer in Glenlo Abbey but she dreaded the long journey home via Hollyhead on the unstable old mail boat. She enjoyed driving during the summer in her grandmother’s chauffeur driven old Austen car to tea-parties at Hodgsons, Previte’s, Miss Brooke Leggett and Reddington’s houses in Oughterard. They travelled along a rough, dusty, sandy road from Galway to Oughterard.
Moycullen and Ross woods
Iris has clear memories of the street fairs, people weighing their produce and life stock on the huge weighing scales, sadly no longer there, in the square, visiting Annie Egan’s butcher shop and Patrick Geoghegan’s, fondly known as “Jingles”, sweetshop situated next to the Angler’s Hotel. The chauffeur loved shooting game so he invariably stopped on his way to Oughterard at Woodstock woods, Moycullen and Ross woods. Leaving his passengers sitting in the car, he would take out his gun and go into the woods in search of pheasant, woodcock or snipe. Sometime later he would return and nonchalantly continue on his journey. “ My grandmother would never make any comment on his return.”
Iris’ mother Eileen leased Errisbeg House in Roundstone about 1929 and eventually Richard de Stacpoole, Iris’ nephew bought the house and converted the stables into a picture gallery. During the Summer the family travelled from Meath with their cook and nanny to Roundstone, transporting with them food, bed linen and all the “paraphernalia” required by a family for the summer sojourn by the sea. Grandmother Palmer would wave to them from the steps of Glenlo Abbey as they passed by on the Galway/Clifden train. Arriving in Ballinahinch Iris and those who could cycle cycled from Ballinahinch to Roundstone.
While holidaying with her mother in Roundstone in 1969 Iris received an invitation to breakfast from the late General Darcy’s daughter in law at Clonriff. She kindly accepted and discovered during her visit that the house was for sale. Iris decided there and then to buy Clonriff. Padraic Faherty, a local building contractor, built the house for General Darcy in 1961. The late, P. Joe O Malley was Padraic’s first apprentice. As Padraic said,” I had a bike when I started the building. I had a car when I finished it”.
In 1961 Hurricane Debbie blew down five mature beech trees along the boundary wall at Clonriff – trees that were planted in the 17th century by the O fflaherties. There is now a beautiful view of the hills from this magnificent setting. Iris has spent her life at Clonriff creating her beautiful garden from scratch. It has been a labour of love.
An Irish woman in Czarist Russia
Geoffrey Palmer, Iris’ uncle and his wife Evelyn sold Glenlo Abbey and moved to the Pier Road Oughterard. Geoffrey was a very keen fisherman. Iris used to fish with him. Iris’ godmother is Kathleen fFrench of Monivea Castle, daughter of Robert Percy fFrench, a former British ambassador to Moscow and a Russian Countess. Recently Kathleen’s extraordinary life story, “ An Irish woman in Czarist Russia” by Jean Lombard has been published. “Kathleen was a very close friend to de Stacpoole grandparents. They referred to her as “cousin” an endearment term for someone whose friendship was valued”. They were in fact distantly related.
Kathleen’s parents separated when she was young and Kathleen spent her youth with her mother and Russian grandmother in Simbirsk where they owned several estates east of Moscow. She kept in contact with her father Robert. She was an accomplished farm manger but like many aristocrats of the time they were “asset rich and cash poor”. The farms improved under her management. Unfortunately during the Bolshevik Russian Revolution her vast estates were confiscated, her houses burned down, she was imprisoned in Simbirsk and later in Moscow. It is thought that Nadezhda, wife of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the revolution who was born in Simbirsk took her jewelry. Kathleen endured many hardships but survived and returned to Monivea in 1920 for a very short time but wasn’t welcomed in Monivea and she took a cargo boat to China ending up in Manchuria. She died 1938 and is buried with her father Robert in the ffrench mausoleum in Monivea.
Iris’ parents did ever thing in their power to secure Kathleen’s release from prison. Iris possesses the stamina and resilience of her famous godmother Kathleen ffrench. She has a vivid memory, is a good neighbour and has a keen interest in her idyllic surroundings by the Owenriff River. When asked what she liked about Oughterard she didn’t hesitate. ” I feel I belong”, she said. No greater compliment could anyone pay to this fantastic place – Oughterard.