We were living very happily as a family in Cuernavaca in Mexico in the early 60’s in those days. My father had just inherited his ancestral pile in Co. Kildare in Ireland out of the blue when his uncle died – he had been bitten on the face by a little dog in India who he had tried to pat. Sadly, he contracted rabies and died soon afterwards.
Lt. Colonel Henry Lattin Mansfield OBE, Compte d’Audebard de Ferussac and Knight of Malta had served bravely in France in the Royal Artillery in WW1, and later in India.
By all accounts he was a superb horseman. He was leading his regiment with his officers riding beside him (followed at a slower pace by his men, horses and artillery guns) when they came to a very steep ravine and had to halt. It was about twelve feet across with a drop of perhaps two hundred feet below. The horses became scared and his officers too.
Henry turned his own horse around and galloped in a long loop to the ravine and they jumped across it. When he landed on the other side he shouted back at his men, ‘Come across you lily-livered lot. I am ordering you to jump’, but no-one would obey his order. He had them all court-martialled; and they would have been but for the clemency of the Viceroy of India at the time.
Henry had plenty of opportunities to return to Ireland on leave to visit his wife, but he opted instead to go on hunting-trips with his personal staff into the mountains of the Hindu Kush. He and his wife had not been blessed with children. That is why when he died he left his estate to his nephew, my father. The provision in his Will was that in the event of him predeceasing his wife she could remain at their home until her death, and only then could my father inherit his estate.
When my father did inherit we were living in Mexico, so he decided to go to Ireland on his own to sell the estate. Unfortunately, in those days no-one was interested in buying a huge old dilapidated mansion which had been neglected for many years.
The house had once employed a butler, a chauffeur, a cook, a couple of valets (uniformed with our family crest on their golden buttons) and several maids.
The butler (bless his soul) had been there for over thirty years until he finally tripped carrying a tea tray down the back-stairs and hit his head and died. I know that because as a young lad I used to look at the blood-stain in fascination on one of the wooden stair-steps. It was never cleaned up.
The ‘Servants Quarters’ in our house was connected to a gloomy staircase behind an actual green baze door. When we first went to live there I quickly discovered three small vacant bedrooms and a cosy bathroom and toilet which were located just above the kitchen with the Aga cookers, and was always nice and warm.
There was only one other bathroom in the massive house, shared by us all, so when I did have a bath I would just go there. Thank God no-one ever knew.
I made one of the bedrooms into a laboratory for my scientific research on local flowers and fauna, and to look after my pet jackdaws and pigeons if they were injured. It was also a cunning place where I could catch up with our new maid Mary.
I realised then that I was living at the end of an era which would never be repeated, and rightly so.
After three months of trying to sell the place my father gave up in despair, and my mother and my three siblings left Cuernavaca with much trepidation and flew to Dublin airport, and from there by road in an old black Bentley to our new home.
There was no ammunition for the pistol anywhere to be found in the house, so my father included a request in a letter to us before we left Mexico for my older brother (who was eleven years old at the time) to buy a box of 9mm bullets and bring them with us back to Ireland.
You might think this a bit strange, but everyone in Mexico had guns, and even for a small kid to ask to buy ammunition for his Dad was considered normal.
Whilst we had been very happy in Mexico, things went from worse to worse when we lived at Barrettstown. My father drank all day and night long, but to be fair to him my mother drank along in sympathy which only encouraged him more. It was not a good life for young children growing up.
One day he got the pistol out and fired it a few times into the air at ducks who were flying by on the river Liffey where we lived. He didn’t get a duck but to my astonishment he did shoot a cormorant who was in full flight at the time.
My mother was hysterical by then and told him to throw the pistol in the river, which he did with much ceremony after drinking half a bottle of whiskey before lunch.
The next day he went to Dublin to see his dentist and was gone all day, so I jumped into the river and rescued the Beretta from the mud below. I was twelve years old then and my theory was that if I didn’t do it he would.
I was not going to risk the lives of my mother or my brothers and sister.
I cleaned up the little pistol and wrapped it carefully in a handkerchief covered with gun-oil in a little metal box, and then I buried it in a location that no-one will ever find.