When my grandmother, May, died, she left us a little green book. It was filled with romantic images of an elegant era, of long flowing dresses and mystical places. Gradually, as I read through her memoirs, the images began to fit together. What emerged was a fairytale land of clear summer skies filled with the blissful happiness of an age of innocence.
Among the photographs was one that stuck in my mind – her family gathered in front of a beautiful house called Ardvana. The memoirs told the rest. Whilst visiting Connemara in 1907 the family had fallen in love with Oughterard. The village suited May’s father, Major Laurence Brock-Hollinshead, perfectly and so they decided to settle here and bought Ardvana House. Having retired from the army Laurence became the local magistrate to keep himself occupied, whilst every spare moment was taken up with hunting and fishing, Laurence being an excellent shot and sportsman. The house was often filled with friends and picnics were the order of the day.
The picnics must have had a lasting impression on granny, as she was famous for whisking her grandchildren off in her car, sandwiches and tartan rug in tow, at the faintest hint of any sun. I was a wide-eyed little African then and sitting, listening to granny’s stories left me spell bound. The stories that lived on in her memoirs and photographs, fuelled my obsession with our family history, which led my mother, Margaret and me to this beautiful part of Ireland.
The first sign to Oughterard left me fluttering with excitement. I was concentrating on the road when suddenly mum let out “There it is! Ardvana House!” Hidden behind the trees, was an image as familiar to me as though it had been my own home. I wanted to drive in and say, “We’re back!” but of course we’d never set foot here before.
Before long we were floating up the drive to Ardvana on a tide of emotion. It was like stepping back into granny’s photographs and I would not have been in the least surprised to have found her waiting for us. It was a surreal moment. I struggled to fight back the tears, I can’t imagine how May’s own daughter sitting beside me felt.
Ardvana began life as the dower house of the O’Flaherty’s grand home, Lemonfield. Her elegant poise betrayed her fine heritage. The current owners, were lovely people. They welcomed us with open arms and told us how they had fallen in love with the house long before they bought her. We were thrilled. It couldn’t have been a more perfect experience. Having run safari camps in the African bush, it is not hard for me to imagine life as it was in the early 1900s. There was no telephone or refrigerator and lighting was by oil lamp and candle. The local people were very poor and granny recalled them coming into the village on market day having walked for miles with their boots hung round their neck, only putting them on in the lane for respectability in the village.
Laurence and his wife, Katherine, were quite liberal parents and granny who was only 14 at the time, could wander on her own in the lovely countryside. She and her sister, Diana, would find a secluded bay on Lough Corrib to bathe. It was so remote and isolated that they didn’t bother with bathing suits and would swim in the nude there with no-one to see them but grazing cattle.
But, on 4 August 1914, England declared war on Germany and their world changed forever. At the age of 55, Laurence rejoined The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. His battalion was sent out to France where they received their baptism of fire at the Battle of Loos on September the 25/26 th 1915.
The Germans had impenetrable barbed wire defences which the artillery had been unable to cut. As they attacked, heavy machine gun fire mowed them down. Their losses were severe. Laurence was initially gazetted “wounded and missing” on September 26th.
May wrote the hollow words, “his dog howled the whole night through”. Their distraught mother, Katherine, hoped until the end of the war that he was alive as a POW. There was no such luck. Of the 24 officers, 23 were killed.
To add to the trauma, their London lawyers refused to finalise his will, as there was no body to prove that he was dead, and instead, callously suggested that he might have wanted to disappear. Years later, a private from his regiment finally revealed to the family that Laurence had been caught on the barbed wire and shot to pieces. There had been nothing left to identify. The Loos Memorial alone commemorates 20,596 officers and men who have no known grave.
Granny was never to mention the war again. The bereaved family placed Laurence’s memorial in Kilcummin Parish Church and moved back to England, too heartbroken to ever return to their beloved Oughterard.
As I opened the door of the church, I recognised his memorial. I wandered up the aisle in a dream and there stuck to his plaque was a Flanders poppy, just as granny used to have beside his photo, as though she had been there a moment ago. A knot welled up in my throat for the grief of a man I had never known. We discovered that a member of the church council was the poppy angel. His remembrance of an unknown man, touched us profoundly.
Today’s world would be unrecognisable to the family. The horse drawn carriages and railway are gone, we can send instant electronic messages to anywhere in the world and take photographs with our mobile telephones. But this corner of Ireland remains a special place that welcomed us with an incredible warmth. Still wild and beautiful, we discovered what so enchanted the Brock-Hollinshead family and it is a wonderful resting place for Laurence’s memorial.
I hope that our future generations can visit in 100 years time and find the same magic