An art installation, featuring glass potatoes, in memory of those who lost their lives during the Famine.
Hundreds of story suggestions hit my inbox every week, but as soon as I heard about the Memento Mori I thought it would work wonderfully on TV, so I went to Strokestown House in Co Roscommon to find out more.
My trip west was in May 2021, the morning after I handed in the final version of my novel, The labyrinth of Belladonna, to my editor. My book is set in Hollowpark Hall, a fictional Palladian mansion in Co Roscommon and tells the story of two women, Deirdre Fitzmahon who lives in the house during the famine and Grace, a nanny who works as a nanny for the Fitzmahon family in 2007. One of the characters, Isla, happens to be a sculptor and works in a tower, a free-standing structure located a bit away from the main house.
Hollowpark Hall is not based on any particular house but was inspired by a number of places I have visited during my years with RTÉ. From concerts at Slane Castle to festivals at Stradbally Hall, Lego exhibitions at Castletown House and tours of Russborough, I had the chance to visit some of the finest buildings in the country and get a glimpse of life in the wings. However, although I set my book in Roscommon – partly inspired by my childhood visits to Lough Key Forest Park – the only large house I don’t remember visiting was Strokestown.
I was met in Strokestown by manager John O’Driscoll who informed me that although much of the main house was still closed due to Covid restrictions, the art exhibition itself was housed in a separate building from the main house. A tower, he told me, as he led the way through the park.
“Yeah, it’s right over here.”
“There is a sculptor who works in a tower, on the grounds of the house but separate from it?”
John must have noticed that I was turning a little pale, and I explained to him that my book, now finished and delivered to its publisher, contained exactly that story. Well, coincidences happen, don’t they?
Filming the art exhibit went really well (watch it here) – artist Paula Stokes told her story beautifully and the glass potatoes themselves were as evocative as I had heard hoped.
When we were done, John showed me around and told me more about the history of the house, which of course is also the location of the National Famine Museum. The similarities with my book kept coming. A notorious landlord hated by the locals…a family moving between the countryside of Roscommon and the bright lights of London…even the structure of the building could have come straight from the pages of The labyrinth of Belladonna. The more John talked, the more I found myself nodding, yes, it’s in the book, yes, that too. There are coincidences, of course, but that day, I had the impression of going through the pages of a novel that I had already written.
I wrote most of The labyrinth of Belladonna in 2020 when covid restrictions meant I couldn’t be more than 5,000 away from home, let alone travel across the country doing physical research. Instead, I had to depend on Google and my own memories. I have no recollection of ever visiting Strokestown House before, although I guess it’s possible I was there as a child and somehow absorbed its mysteries. But whether that is in fact the case, or whether the similarities to my book are simply coincidental, my trip to Roscommon that day showed me that, despite the lockdown, my imagination – or something else? – led me in the right direction.
The labyrinth of Belladonna by Sinead Crowley is published by Head of Zeus.