Jeremy and Jennifer on the boat landing at Westport House in the 1970s.
The widow of the late Jeremy Altamont talks exclusively to The Mayo News ahead of the second anniversary of his death
THAT special daily walk from Rusheen House down the old Carrowholly track to the shore and back along the edge of the stilled ocean edging the pristine parklands of Westport House was part of their circle of life together. So too were their ramblings through the sylvan setting where, over the decades, he dragged her along from tree to tree to check if the chainsaw was needed after a winter storm until in the end she knew every knoll and clipped crevice as well as he did.
Soulmates for over 50 years, it is hardly surprising that Jennifer Browne, Lady Altamont, still misses Jeremy terribly. But as the second anniversary of his death approaches on July 13 next, she is still fragile but philosophical, grief-stricken but grateful and, naturally, excited about the fact that a new granddaughter has just been brought home next door, adding to the brood of strong women whose famous forebear, Gránuaile, remains a strong familial icon.
We are sitting in the living room of Rusheen House, cradling cups of coffee, with the clear outline of Croagh Patrick framed perfectly by the large back window.
JENNIFER Cooper and Jeremy Altamont were both aged 16 – with birthdays four days apart – when they first set eyes on each other. Each August her stepfather, Tom Fairhurst, used to rent Delphi Lodge and its fishery, from the owners of Westport House.
This was familiar territory for Jennifer since herself and her younger brother, Mick, an acclaimed sculptor, spent much of their time with their maternal grandmother – especially during World War II – whose home was in the nearby Connemara village of Cleggan.
“I just knew at first sight there was something special between us. I thought he was gorgeous. The first thing he said …. it was so romantic,” Jennifer is laughing “are you the athletic type? Have you climbed any of those mountains? He might as well have asked me ‘are those teeth your own’.”
It would be three years later (1959), after ‘an odd little letter and things and wondering would I ever meet him again, and then a visit to London, where I was working’, before the nascent romance developed further.
“He invited me to a fundraising dance in the house for the local Catholic Church and so I came back to Connemara and gathered a group and we all came to the dance. My first sight of Jeremy was moving chairs around, dressed in a tweed suit. I think I was dancing with Packie McLoughlin [one of the longtime loyal workers on the estate] and at some stage Jeremy came along and asked, ‘May I borrow your partner?’.
“After that I remember him coming to Connemara with his accordion and my grandmother [Doris Lushington-Tullock] loved him. I think his parents, Denis and José were quite suspicious of my intentions and thought we were both young and foolish,” muses Jennifer.
But their relationship was blossoming and, as Westport House first opened to the public, they became engaged in 1960 and were married the following year in a tiny church in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on October 27, 1961. With the second tourism season over at Westport House, they moved into the south-wing flat, which, Jennifer recalls, was pretty basic by modern standards.
“But it was somewhere to live. His parents were living at the top of the house and we got on well but I was still lonely. Of course, I had my grandmother in Connemara and my uncle, Graham and a lovely couple, the Doyles, who worked at the house, lived in the north-wing. They were very good to us.”
The young couple were still living in the flat when Sheelyn was born in 1963 and Karen in 1964. Jennifer clearly remembers the linoleum floors, the twin-tub washing machine and all those cloth nappies.
Ultimately, the move to Rusheen House in 1969 – originally called Ivy Cottage and home to Jeremy’s great-great Uncle John, who developed the estate’s farm – made life easier for the busy household and growing family. The couple’s third daughter, Luckie was born that year, while Clare was born in 1974 and Allanah, the youngest, in 1980.
At the time, Jennifer recalls, Jeremy was under a lot of pressure trying to run the business, which initially was literally a tour of the house and the tea rooms, to which Jennifer supplied drop-scones. She says that ‘it was hard-going during those early days but they were a young couple, in love and that kept them going’.
Rusheen House afforded the family more privacy – when living in the flat one day Jennifer had heard a loud banging from the other side of an unused door and discovered a priest on the other side who was trying to find a way out of the Gents toilet.
“When Sheelyn was small he decided to take a sabbatical [from the house] after he was offered a job in Ardmore Studios. It sounded way more glamorous than it was, he was a runner but would sometimes come home to the house we rented in Blackrock, wearing outfits from a crowd scene.”
On their return Jeremy embraced the challenge of developing the house and grounds as a fun-family tourism destination.
FROM wrestling with llamas, when they had a zoo, to horse-drawn caravans, creating Pinky Rabbit and Black Cat, Jeremy was forever coming up with new ideas to help make Westport House a unique experience.
“We weren’t social people even though Jeremy was gregarious, had a great sense of humour and did crazy things, like bringing Pinky Rabbit on a train to the RTÉ show, ‘Play the Game’.
“In the middle of the night, he would waken me up and say, ‘Jen, I have just had a great idea. A giant pink rabbit’. I would say, ‘For goodness sake, will you go back to sleep’,” she recalls, smiling. The following morning the quirky idea would not have abated: “We’ll have a giant pink rabbit. It has to be incongruous with the surroundings so that we will shock people who have come to see heritage and they will realise it should not be all serious.”
So, Jeremy found a woman called Colette O’Shaugnessy who made a life-size Pinky Rabbit, who still exists and comes out to play with the children at Easter.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, the indefatigable Jeremy ‘was a loner too’.
He would suddenly say: “I’m off to do Mweelra or the Delphi mountains and he would wander off for the day.”
But it was always back home to a new project. The famous train ‘so that visitors could see more of the lake’.
That was one winter’s project as Jeremy went out with some of the men and other friends and dug the track for the train, which had been made in England.
“He was always the visionary and I was always the realist because sometimes the ideas were crazy and I would think: ‘How are we going to survive this?
“It wasn’t until Allanah was six that Jennifer found the time to become more involved in the house and ran a little antique and craft shop. Around them was ‘a team’ who were largely like an extended family.
Among them were Eileen Fahy, Noreen Heraty and the late Mary McNeela, whose recent death was a huge blow for Jennifer and her girls.
The two eldest daughters, Sheelyn and Karen, decided to return home from living abroad in the early noughties
“It was their wish to come back and they gradually took over the reins, Sheelyn with the house and Karen with the campsite and parklands, Allanah developed Gracy’s later on.
“Jeremy let go more than I ever thought he would because the house was his life. So we started going off to auctions buying second-had books and antiques and we’d sell them at the house. He also continued working in the gardens and on the trees,” Jennifer says wistfully.
Indeed, he always worked, she adds, he was such a strong man and even after the diagnosis of a tumour, we tried to stay positive and active.
“I remember one day we went on our special walk along the shore road and he was so out of breath. From then on, we kept on the flat for our walks. We would do little drives to Connemara and now the roles were reversed.”
Four months before he passed away, Jeremy said he’d like to get out of the country, so Allanah and Jennifer planned the trip.
“Our GP asked were we sure we wanted to do this. The answer was ‘Yes’, so I took all the wretched tablets and his injections and we headed off to Roscoff by boat.”
During the holiday, Jeremy was ‘poorly but positive’.
“Roscoff was important for him. It was a bit of happiness in the middle of the illness.”
During those last months, the spring and early summer of 2014, they lived in hope and Jennifer ensured there was a ‘little silver lining each day’ for her sweetheart, soul-mate and sometimes infuriating creator of crazy ideas.