Irish Times July 2012
Edel Morgan explores Molly Keane’s Dysert cottage, which now holds writers’ retreats
When the writer Molly Keane moved to Dysert, a cottage overlooking Ardmore Bay in Co Waterford in 1950 with her two young daughters Sally and Virginia, some might have seen it as a comedown. After the sudden death of her husband Bobby a few years earlier following a routine operation, the family had to leave their country pile, Belleville in Cappoquin, because its upkeep had become a drain on limited resources.
Keane’s daughter, Virginia Brownlow, who was a small child at the time, remembers Ardmore as “a little bungalow clinging onto the muddy banks of a hill, with no electricity” but says moving never felt like a loss. “The Anglo-Irish big house was a constant theme of my mother’s work but she wouldn’t have wanted to live like that again,” she says.
Keane called in a local builder to transform the seaside bungalow into a split-level hideaway with flagstone terraces and rooms that made the most of the mesmerising sea views. “She had left the big house, had lost my father and aged 36 hurled herself into transforming the place,” says Brownlow, who remembers builder Jack O’Brien drawing the plans for the house “on the back of a fag packet”. Keane financed the project with the money she earned from a West End production of her 1949 play Treasure Hunt.
The cottage was a magical place for children with winding pathways, lush wild gardens, secret hidey holes and sloping lawn. “We had complete freedom,” says Brownlow. Keane was an accomplished cook and an enthusiastic gardener who designed the wild flowerbeds at Dysert.
It wasn’t all Martha Stewart-style domesticity, Keane loved to throw a good party and had a glittering social life that largely floated on alcohol. Her high-profile friends included Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Elizabeth Bowen, Micheál Mac Liammóir and West End theatre impresario and childhood friend John Perry. Fred Astaire’s sister Adele kept her in style by sending “mercy parcels” of clothes from the US, which she had altered.
Keane had a run of success with her plays and novels written under the pen name MJ Farrell until a critical mauling for her 1961 play Dazzling Prospect which was directed by Sir John Gielgud, shattered her confidence. She didn’t write for 20 years until a sensational comeback in her late-seventies.
It is now more than 60 years since Keane moved into the house with her daughters and it is still pretty much as it was when she lived there. In the atmospheric sitting room there are paintings of the original sets of her hit plays and a drawing by her friend Derek Hill of her beloved Chihuaua. The kitchen is old Irish country style with a Stanley range, pots and pans hanging from hooks and a dresser full of mismatched tea sets. Downstairs is the study where she was interviewed by her friend Russell Harty in front of the soot-stained open stone fireplace.
The house becomes a writers’ retreat from August 13th-19th and on September 8th, there’s a talk on silent film by award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow, Virginia’s husband. There’s also a film script writing workshop with Scottish film-maker Ian Sellar on October 13th and 14th.
Dysert is also available as a holiday let and children are made welcome with a cupboard full of toys, although there’s no TV. Ardmore has cliff walks, one of the finest round towers in Ireland, a sandy beach and another one at nearby Goat Island (recently listed by The Irish Times as one of the top 25 beaches in Ireland). It’s also near the swanky Cliff House hotel where drinks on the terrace will blow the cobwebs off – if not your writer’s block – then your wallet.
When Keane found success again in her seventies with Good Behaviour, a novel her friend Peggy Ashcroft persuaded her to have published, she would joke that the best thing about it was “a big fat cheque darling”. In truth she revelled in her return to the limelight and was generous with the proceeds, buying her daughters Magimix food processors out of one of her advances.
By her early eighties, she was still partying into the small hours to the consternation of her daughter. “I would sit at home and think is she coming home or has she had a stroke?” Keane published three novels during this period. She died in 1996 aged 92 and is buried in Ardmore.
The annual writer’s retreat, supported by Waterford County Council, runs at Dysert from August 13th-19th and costs €275. It includes a welcome dinner and a talk by guest writer and poet Grace Wells. Kevin Brownlow’s talk on silent films on September 8th includes lunch and costs €60 if you book before August 24th. The two-day script writing course on October 13th-14th costs €199 and includes lunch both days.