A whirlwind romance, coping with a family heartache, running a wedding venue business ... and why she'd love to drive 3,500 miles to Iran
The mistress of Ballyscullion Park in Co Londonderry tells Lorraine Wylie of the shock when her son James was diagnosed as profoundly deaf and autistic, why she loved living in Tehran and her fond memories of Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney
Situated on the shores of Lough Beg in Co Londonderry, Ballyscullion Park may not be the largest country manor in Northern Ireland but it is one of the most beautiful. Surrounded by ancient woodlands, with views that take in the Sperrin mountains to the west, the Antrim hills to the east and the Mournes to the south, it would be hard to find a more scenic spot.
Today, Ballyscullion Park is home to Richard and Rosalind Mulholland and their four children. When I meet Mrs Mulholland she begins our conversation with the interesting revelation that she used to be Mrs Palmer!
"Yes, our original name was Palmer but we changed it to Mulholland," she smiles, and gives me a brief run down of the Mulholland family tree.
"My husband's grandfather, Sir Harry Mulholland, grew up at Ballywalter Park," she says. "But as the younger son, he didn't inherit the estate, so he and his wife came here to live. They had two children - Michael, whose son Brian is now the current Lord Dunleath at Ballywalter, and a daughter Patsy.
"Just before the Second World War, Patsy married an English army officer by the name of Tim Palmer and the couple had two children - Richard, who is now my husband, and his sister Clare. Richard's mother had always been keen for him to take the Mulholland family name but Richard didn't want to do so while his father was alive. Then, when his father passed away in 1989, we changed our name to Mulholland. Richard had always felt more of a connection with this part of the world and his mother's side of the family. He was just 21 years old when he came here to live with his grandmother."
The history of the property is no less convoluted. Back in 1787, it was the panoramic vista that sold the site to its original owner, Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, known as Earl Bishop. By all accounts the Earl was a flamboyant character, with a taste for fine art and palatial mansions. His previous build, Downhill House, situated on the north coast overlooking Benone and Downhill Strand, reflected the era's love of wild and dramatic backdrops, a type of landscaping known as "sublime".
But trends changed. Instead of a window on nature's wilder side, people wanted softer scenes of rolling hills and green pastures.
It could be argued that Earl Bishop's plans for his Ballyscullion palace, which included a facade measuring 350ft wide, a double corkscrew staircase and a central rotunda containing 365 windows, went from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the end, his dreams came crashing down. In 1803, the Earl died while travelling in Italy and, according to records, remained eccentric to the last by requesting his body be shipped back to England in a casket filled with sherry.
His cousin, Sir Hervey Bruce, inherited Ballyscullion palace but couldn't afford the window tax and, in 1813, the property was demolished. Some architectural features survived and the massive portico now forms part of St George's Church in Belfast.
The present house, built in 1840, remained in the Bruce family until 1938 when it was purchased by Sir Harry and Lady Mulholland. However, just two years into their tenure, their rural idyll was turned into a military base for both British and American armies.
Today it is once again an oasis of tranquillity. Its land is still regularly commandeered - but only by flocks of whooper swans which spend the winter feasting on its nutritious grass. Rosalind clearly knows her history and moves effortlessly from the story of the Mulholland family tree to the legend of the local rag tree.
"There certainly is a lot of history around here!" she tells me. "For example, out on Lough Beg, Church Island is where St Patrick reputedly founded the church of St Taide. It's a ruin now but there is a stone with a hollowed imprint of what is supposedly St Patrick's knee, caused when he knelt down to bless the site. As the story goes, people would go there, take some water from the lough, put it on the hollowed stone, dip a rag in it and dab it on their warts. Apparently it worked with other ailments too but was particularly good with warts. Then they'd tie the rag to the 'rag tree' and, as the material rotted, so their ailment disappeared."
Thank goodness that we now have easier ways to treat a verruca - yet, even today, on the first Sunday in September people continue to make a pilgrimage to the site and the rag tree. But, as Rosalind recalls, one visitor to the tree might be disappointed in waiting for their cure.
"On one occasion we went up for a walk and there was a red, nylon pair of knickers tied to the tree," she says. "I thought, whoever left them will have to wait a long time to get better because nylon will never rot!"
At 57, Rosalind could pass for a decade younger. She puts her youthful complexion down to Northern Ireland's good country air but it's probably more to do with genes.
As we chat she recalls her childhood.
"I was born in Armagh, at my grandmother's house, Hockley Lodge," she reveals. "It's a nursing home now so I suppose I could retire there! My mother was like a salmon, she returned home to breed so my four brothers and I were all born at my grandmother's place - the same house, same room and same bed. My youngest sister was born in Iran because my father, who was a civil engineer, was working there at the time. He worked all over the world. He was in a different country for the birth of the first five of his six children."
Rosalind has fond memories of childhood holidays at her grandmother's house: "Imagine, 13 cousins all running wild, building dens and having a ball. We also helped out with their herd of pedigree Hereford cattle. Fun times!"
Among Rosalind's favourite memories are the years she spent with her family in Tehran.
"It was in the Sixties, around the time of the coronation of the Shah of Iran and the whole city was festooned in lights," she says. "I mean, imagine the Christmas lights in Oxford Street magnified by ten and it'll give you some of idea of what it was like. Truly magnificent. It was an extraordinary place. It was quite westernised under the Shah so there were a lot of modern buildings, shops etc. Our house was situated on the outskirts of the city and straddled two very different worlds. Turn left, and you'd find yourself in a modern city with brightly lit windows and people dressed in fashionable clothes. Turn right, and you'd be in the desert where life continued in the same old ways and women wore the traditional black chadoors."
Their three year sojourn in exotic Tehran ended with an uncomfortable journey back to Northern Ireland.
"My family, meaning my parents, six children and a teenage cousin all piled into an Austin Cambridge Countryman and travelled 3,500 miles back to Armagh. My father described the journey as a nightmare. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of that journey and, to celebrate, I'd love to do it in reverse."
Today, as well as helping to run a successful wedding business, the mum of four is also a talented artist. But back in those early years, before she became mistress of her manor, what were her dreams?
"I don't think I had a specific plan, I tended to make it up as I went along." she laughs. "Back then, the only careers that seemed to be on offer was either nursing or teaching. I studied English Literature at St Andrews in Scotland, mainly because my father went there and it was as far from home as possible!
"I was quite interested in art and fashion and design. After my degree I went to London to do a dress making and pattern cutting course. I was very keen on going into the theatre. Perhaps if I'd remained in London I might have ended up working with costumes in the Royal Opera or even in films. But, as it happened, my cousin in Armagh was getting married and she asked me to make her wedding dress. Our great-grandfather had brought this gorgeous old silk brocade back from China in 1870, and she wanted me to use it. I was delighted to have the opportunity and the dress turned out beautifully."
Her cousin's wedding was to prove the turning point in her own life.
"I came over for the wedding and met Richard, who was one of the guests. He invited me to a New Year's Eve fancy dress party, which was hilarious. We still laugh about it."
Was it love at first sight?
"No," she laughingly admits. "In fact, the first time I saw him, he didn't make much of an impression. But the second time, it was the complete opposite. I thought, this is the man I'm going to marry. Richard is such a kind, honest man. He's also remarkably hardworking. From the age of 21, when he first came to Ballyscullion, he worked tirelessly, building up a dairy herd, running the farm and improving the land. I don't think many young men today could do it."
The couple had been going out for three weeks when Richard invited her on a trip to America.
"Apparently, the idea was that we'd go to America to see how well we got on. If at the end of two weeks we were still happy, Richard was planning to propose. It didn't quite turn out like that. We flew out on Independence Day and, the next day, on the shores of Lake Clearwater in Maine, Richard proposed. It was very romantic. We were engaged on July 5 and married on September 29, 1984!"
Did she make her own wedding dress?
"Yes!" I sense there's a story coming up. "My dress had all these lovely little silk roses that I had tacked on, ready to stitch in place. One of my friends told me there was a superstition about brides making their own dress, but she couldn't remember the details. Anyway, I continued sewing my roses in place and had just reached the last rose when another friend visiting from Australia asked if she could help. Normally I'd have refused, but I let her sew on the last rose. Next day, my friend rang to say she'd found the superstition and it said that to avoid bad luck, a bride should never sew the last stitch on her own dress! Fortunately, quite by chance I hadn't!"
Nine months later, life got even better with the arrival of their first baby.
"We were married in September and our daughter Olivia was born the following June! Life just got busier and we were incredibly happy."
Eighteen months later, the birth of their son James added to their joy. But, within a year their lives had changed forever.
"James was ten months old when we discovered he was profoundly deaf. Initially, we didn't think anything was wrong with him. He'd even passed his seven month hearing test! So we went from suspecting nothing to total shock at the news. He had hearing aids fitted, but still wasn't making progress with language. We had taken him everywhere, first to a Harley Street doctor then to Manchester University Hospital for further tests. Later we took him to Holland to a school for the deaf in St Michelgestel, which specialised in deafness associated with other problems.
"He was five when we discovered he had autism. That was another shock, but it also helped us make sense of the way he was. His teacher favoured the natural aural method and was opposed to sign language, but this was totally unsuitable for James, and he lost valuable time. Richard and I did a sign language course and James's communication developed, but he would get very frustrated trying to understand and be understood. You know, people sometimes say, poor you. My answer to that is, it's not poor us, it's poor James, he's the one who has to cope."
How is James now?
"Communication is still difficult for him. Although he has done well. He's 31 now and attends Parkanaur College near Dungannon. He works in the garden centre and the upholstery workshop, and loves cooking. He is happy there, but he loves being at home. On the whole, he's quite a happy fellow and the whole family adore him. But I think having a child with special needs or one who is ill can be particularly hard for siblings. Very often, the child whose needs are more complex becomes the sole focus of attention. I can remember once taking Olivia to her school medical and the nurse examining her and pronouncing her fit and well. Then she asked about James and suddenly it wasn't about Olivia any more. Once again, the spotlight was back on James. Yes, I think that's a hard one."
How has Rosalind coped?
"Everyone reacts differently. When a child is diagnosed, you have to change your whole vision of their future. It is a very bumpy ride. You always grieve for the child you don't have, especially as their contemporaries go through the normal stages of life and education. And there are always fears for the future at the back of your mind. But the best advice is to love and enjoy your child for who they are. All children are special and unique. And having a family member with a disability does help produce a broader kindness and understanding in the rest of the family."
What are the rest of the Mullholland brood doing today?
"Olivia is 33 and has a degree in Accessories and Millinery, but is currently working as a project manager for UCL Hospital Trust. She's getting married next year, here at Ballyscullion, out by the ruins of Bishop's Palace. It's a very magical and enchanting place.
"Our other daughter, Cordelia, she's 29 and lives in Italy where she's married to an Irishman, Ian McKinley, who plays rugby for Italy. Ian lost an eye when he was 21 (he was playing for Leinster when he was trapped at the bottom of a ruck and someone stood directly on his eye). He's a great chap and the pair of them love Italy. Cordelia teaches English to some private students. Last but not least is George, he's 26 and is a trainee chef. He also works in landscaping so he may come to work for us, which would be lovely."
Ballyscullion estate has witnessed many changes over the years. In 1976, its future as a dairy farm seemed certain, but a decade later, the couple had to find a new direction.
"Richard spent 10 years building up the farm but after TB was spotted, we came out of the dairy business and Richard became a tour guide. He took historical groups and parties all over Ireland. We still take bookings from a variety of organisations, including the Women's Institute. They come here, Richard gives them a tour and a history talk while I cook and provide a meal. Twenty-five years ago we decided to go into tourism and we built six holiday cottages in the courtyard. It's amazing the number of people who have stayed here. We've had everyone, from Bill Oddie to Isla St Clair and the Hole in the Wall Gang at Ballyscullion!"
The area around Lough Beg and Lough Neagh is one of Northern Ireland's unique treasures. It's listed as a Site of Scientific Interest and a Ramsar site, attracting conservationists from around the world. I can understand Bill Oddie's interest in the local flora and fauna but the Hole in the Wall Gang don't seem the type to be wading through wetlands in search of Irish Lady's Fingers or any other exotic orchid. Perhaps they were looking for inspiration or just hoping to give their head peace!
Rosalind remembers them well.
"It was back in the early days when the Belfast lawyers were just starting out. They'd come up here to hide away for the weekend and write their sketches. They were really very good. I remember on one occasion, when Cordelia, who was around three at the time, opened the door to them and came running into the house shouting, 'daddy, daddy, the men have come to fix the hole in the wall!' It was very funny."
Just up the road from Ballyscullion Park, the little village of Bellaghy is the birthplace of literary genius and Nobel Prize winner, the late Seamus Heaney.
Rosalind has fond memories of the man, who gave her a special gift. She shows me some beautifully crafted postcards, little watercolours, depicting local landscapes. I'm impressed by her artistic talent. She points out the piece of text on each card.
"Seamus Heaney chose the text to go with each landscape," she points out. "In fact, I have a number of lines of poetry that he gave me to use and I haven't got round to it yet. I'm still considering the best way to make the most of them. I also have some beautiful letters from Seamus, such an encouraging and inspirational man. I was very lucky to have known him."
Steeped in history and surrounded by beauty, it's understandable why people would choose Ballyscullion as a wedding destination. But what does Rosalind enjoy about this particular venture?
"The wedding business is such a happy business to be in! The best part is getting to know the lovely brides and grooms, and on the day, seeing all their plans becoming reality. We're planning a Valentines' Ball next month and have invited all our couples to come back and enjoy the venue again without the effort of organising it. They are encouraged to wear their original wedding dress and suits and to invite a table of special friends and family. Proceeds are in aid of Marie Curie and we have fabulous prizes, including a ride in a hot air balloon over Ballyscullion!"
The venture is obviously soaring.
For further information, go to www.ballyscullionpark.com