Insight into soul of unique house

The fascinating story of Renvyle House in North Connemara and of its eclectic residents and guests spans some 400 years. Historian J.A. Lidwill has captured its rich past in his book A Sea-Grey House, with the title being inspired by the writings of statesman, surgeon and author Oliver St John Gogarty, who owned the house from 1917 to 1952. J.A. Lidwill’s own relationship with Renvyle House dates back to the late 1970s and he spent almost a decade working there before leaving to pursue a love of history and the classics. JUDY MURPHY meets him and Renvyle’s current owner, John Coyle to hear how this new publication came about.

Jerry Lidwill came to Connemara in 1978 for a fortnight’s holiday, never expecting his brief two weeks would turn into 10 years. The Tipperary man had been living in Dublin at the time and “was fed up of it”. So when he got an opportunity to work in the West, he took it.

Initially, he was based at the Alcock and Brown Hotel in Clifden before moving on to Renvyle House in 1979, where he settled and where Head Chef, Tim O’Sullivan, nurtured his culinary talents.

“I did my training under Tim, not that I was particularly interested in food,” Jerry says with a laugh. “I’m not a chef by calling.”

His real calling was heritage and history, which he followed by doing an arts degree at UCG (University of Galway) in the early 1990s. After graduating with a PhD in Classics, he lectured there.

But even before his formal academic training, Jerry was fascinated by the past. And, while he was working in Renvyle, a friend suggested he write a book about its rich history and the renowned people who had lived and stayed there through the centuries.

Jerry did that and the first version of A Sea-Grey House was published 35 years ago. Long out of print, it’s almost impossible to get a copy of that edition now.

Artist Joe Boske, who lives in nearby Clifden, where he runs Little Gull publishing, felt it was time for an updated, fully illustrated edition. He approached Jerry, and the owner of Renvyle House, businessman John Coyle. John gave Joe the go-ahead, knowing the project was in safe hands.

As an artist, Joe created many of the Galway Arts Festival’s beautiful early posters and while speed wasn’t his forte, attention to detail always was.

So it’s no surprise that the new publication is a beautiful book, both in terms of design – for which Joe credits graphic designer Paul Callinan – and its illustrations. There are copies of paintings by artists such as Augustus John and Joe himself, and photos of sculptures by John Coll, as well as photos of previous owners, including the renowned writer and surgeon Oliver St John Gogarty, and other important figures from the Irish Literary Revival, many of whom stayed there.

President Michael D Higgins has written the foreword to this book which, as he puts it, ‘unearths the many stories hidden in the walls and foundations of a remarkable place that has been rebuilt reimagined, restored and revived . . . .’

Pictured in Kennys’ Bookshop at the launch of A Sea-grey House: The History of Renvyle House were, from left: artist Róisín Coyle, historian and author of A Sea Grey House, J.A. Lidwell; John and Sally Coyle and Zoe Fitzgerald of Renvyle House Hotel; and Joe Boske of Little Gull, the book’s publisher. PHOTO: JOE O’SHAUGHNESSY.

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