Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Meet the couple who partied with Jerry Hall, married on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and now live in an historic manor in Aghadowey

Rohan and Joan Boyle tell Lorraine Wylie how their country home, Bovagh House, was once occupied by two golfing champions, a distinguished naturalist and the Royal Navy's youngest admiral

Rohan and Joan Boyle at Bovagh House in Aghadowey
Rohan and Joan Boyle at Bovagh House in Aghadowey
Model Jerry Hall
Bovagh House
Rohan and Joan Boyle at Bovagh House in Aghadowey

By Lorraine Wylie

Situated near Aghadowey in Co Londonderry, Bovagh House is one of Northern Ireland's oldest and most beautiful homes. Set against a backdrop of lush green countryside, the 18th century manor retains all the hallmarks of Georgian architecture, including an elegant, uncluttered facade, sliding sash windows, a sunburst fanlight over the entrance door and, on the first floor, a gorgeous Venetian window.

Exact dates are unclear but experts agree that Marcus Beresford, then 1st Earl of Tyrone, built the property during the 1740s.

Bovagh House may be typical of 18th century country manors but there's nothing conventional about the people who have lived there. From politicians and lichenologists to golfing champions and submarine heroes, all were unique and interesting characters. Current owners, Rohan and Joan Boyle, are no exception. With tales of ferrymen gone AWOL and banana beer brewed on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, Bovagh's latest custodians are every bit as intriguing as their predecessors.

Gathered round a dining room table, big enough to accommodate a dozen guests, Rohan served coffee while Joan teased him about the lack of biscuits. He may have forgotten to buy shortbread but Rohan's potted history of Bovagh House and the surrounding countryside went down a treat.

"The O'Cahan clan owned most of the land around here, including Bovagh townland. Following defeat of the Irish Lords and the Flight of the Earls in 1607, this terrain was confiscated and eventually became part of the Plantation Scheme. It was wild back then!

"In 1611, Manus McCowy Ballagh O'Cahan was among the Irish 'natives' to be awarded freeholds and was allocated 1,000 acres, including Bovagh.

"According to the Ordnance Survey Memoirs, written in the 1830s, he sold Bovagh to Tristram Beresford, for a horse, a fine suit of clothes and a trifling amount of money.

"I don't know the exact date but records show Bovagh as belonging to Beresford in 1639. By all accounts, when Marcus Beresford, 1st Earl of Tyrone, built the house, it was never intended as a principal residence.

"The Beresford family was one of the most influential in Ireland with properties all over the place. Over the years, Bovagh was used to house family members, their representatives or it was let out."

The Hezlet family purchased the property during the mid-19th century but before delving into their legacy, it's worth mentioning some of the more exceptional residents, among them Admiral Sir Theobold 'Toby' Jones who managed to cram three careers into one lifetime.

"Sir Theobold Jones was just 13 when he joined the Navy," Rohan explains. "At the time the Napoleonic Wars were ongoing and life at sea was treacherous. The teenager managed to survive several battle engagements.

"At 16, he escaped with his life when the ship he was serving aboard was set on fire during the night."

Having reached the rank of commander at 25, then captain at 38, Jones decided that 40 was a good age to enter the stormy waters of politics, becoming MP for Londonderry in 1830. At 67, his political career had run its course but instead of retiring, Theobold embarked on a voyage of scientific discovery.

"As well as an Irish officer in the British Navy and a politician, Theobold Jones was also an avid fossil collector and notable lichenologist," Rohan tells me.

"He spent his retirement years, compiling the first comprehensive catalogue of Irish lichen, laying the foundation for Irish lichenology."

A magnet for scientists and nature lovers, the nearby coastal town of Portrush has been attracting golfers from as far back as 1888 when The County Club first opened with a nine-hole course. Seven years later, having netted, not one, but two royal patrons, HRH Duke of York in 1892 and three years later, HRH Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII, Portrush was well and truly on the golfing map. Such princely endorsement warranted a new name and The Royal County eventually evolved into today's title, Royal Portrush Golf Club. Now, in the wake of Irishman Shane Lowry's recent triumph at this year's Open Championship, golf is the only topic in town. As Joan points out, well over a century ago it was also a major talking point at Bovagh House.

"I was keen to know more about the women who had lived at Bovagh, the type of things they did and what they had accomplished so I began researching and was amazed when I discovered the Hezlet women," she says. "These ladies were just incredible. The mother Emily Mary Hezlet (nee Linzee) was a talented golfer and introduced her daughters, Florence, Violet and May, to the sport. Seventeen-year-old May, or Miss May, as she was known, proved the most accomplished of the four and in 1889 won both the Ladies' Open Championship and the Irish Ladies' Open Championship. What an achievement for such a young woman. At 22, May wrote a book called Ladies' Golf and used the opportunity to promote equality for women on and off the course.

"She was obviously a progressive thinker and ahead of her time. May Hezlet made an enormous impact on the world of women's golf but I think she was a real inspiration for all women of her era."

In 1899, May married Church of Ireland minister Rev AE Ross. Interestingly, during that same year, American Herbert Melville Harriman took the US Amateur Open Championship and, in a strange turn of events, ended up a resident at Bovagh House.

No doubt the area's golfing facilities were a major attraction but it was probably love rather than sport that motivated Herbert to up sticks and move to Northern Ireland.

Rohan, who works as a business and environment journalist and editor, sums up the facts: "Herbert Melville Harriman served with the American Expeditionary Forces during the First World War. Twice divorced, he met Red Cross nurse, Sarah Jane Hunter, and the couple married in 1921. Sarah Jane's father was originally from Aghadowey. Incidentally, Herbert's sister Anne married William Kassam Vanderbilt, one of America's wealthiest families. The marriage was Anne's third and made her stepmother to Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough. Herbert lived here at Bovagh House until his death in 1933."

Bovagh's hall of fame would not be complete without mentioni ng Second World War submarine ace, Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet. At 36, Sir Arthur was appointed the Navy's youngest captain and its youngest Admiral at 45. His acts of bravery during wartime are well documented but Hezlet is also known for his contribution to safety at sea. In 1942, his work with midget submarines led to the Hezlet Rail - a bar and strap that prevented men from being washed off casings. He passed away at Bovagh House in 2007, aged 93.

To date the property has had just three owners and I'm keen to know more about its most recent. Joan is first under the spotlight.

"I come from Mamba, Marangu, Tanzania, which is located on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. My maternal grandfather was senior chief of Vunjo, a central part of Kilimanjaro region, until Tanganyika achieved independence from the UK in 1961. Although the 'chiefs' no longer have power, at one point (pre-1900) they were absolute rulers. My father is an amazing person. He left Tanzania in 1961 to pursue his studies, culminating in a PhD in plant genetics at the University of Nottingham. He returned to Tanzania and was eventually appointed head of department of crop science at the University of Dar es Salaam. 

In 1977, when I was three, my father was recruited by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in Rome where he became assistant director-general.  Growing up, I loved living in Rome. It was wonderful to be surrounded by such beautiful classical architecture and have the opportunity to visit art museums and absorb all that incredible history. It had such an enormous impact on me that I went on to study history and Italian at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, as an undergraduate in 1993; my speciality was the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence."

Born in 1972, Rohan grew up at Ardnagle House, near Limavady. The family may be newcomers to Bovagh House but, as he explains, the Boyles have been in Northern Ireland since the 17th century.

"The first of my family on record is James Boyle. Records show that he was admitted a freeman of 'Newtownlimavady' in 1664. As the story goes, he came over from Scotland and worked as a tanner. But in 1688, things here were getting a bit hairy.

"So James decided to return to Scotland and booked a ferryman from the Little Island of Cumbrae (in the Firth of Clyde) to come and collect the family. Then, he bundled up his tanning gear along with his leathers and left them at the mouth of the River Roe to wait for the ferryman. Unfortunately, the guy didn't turn up and poor James's stuff was stolen. He was furious and he actually sued the ferryman!"

The eldest of three, Rohan enjoys working as a freelance journalist, but as a young lad he had other plans.

"Well, yes, I did toy with the idea of becoming a park ranger and putting a stop to the poaching of elephants. Failing that I thought I might like to become a marine biologist. I watched a lot of nature programmes then."

Joan had loftier notions. "I planned on becoming president of Tanzania," she laughs. "Then I discovered I loved debating. I remember doing this debate on the subject of battered wives and it really made me think. I wanted to become a lawyer and defend people. But then of course, I went and did corporate law."

Now a solicitor, Joan commutes between her job in London and her home in Aghadowey.

So how did the couple meet?

"We met in London in 1999," Joan recalls. "I was working as a trainee solicitor at the time. My friend, who was a model, was taking part in a fashion show, some kind of fundraising event. Her fiance spotted this as an opportunity for a free party for all his friends. Somehow, Rohan and I ended up at this amazing event, having a wonderful time. There were some famous faces there, including Jerry Hall."

"I'd like to point out that this was not our lifestyle back then," Rohan jokes. "The party was just a freebie!"

"Friends introduced us," Joan adds. "We hit it off immediately and sat up until 5am, talking and laughing with our friends. I thought Rohan was great. There was a definite spark and it was all pretty instantaneous, no great build-up or courtship. Just over two years later, we were married at Rohan's family home. The following year, we all went to Tanzania to have a ceremony and for Rohan and his family to meet our friends and neighbours."

A party on the slopes of Kilimanjaro sounds like fun.

"It was!" Rohan enthuses. "It is the most incredible place. At 1,800 metres above sea level, the landscape is like nothing I'd ever seen before. Honestly, everywhere is so lush and fertile, I wouldn't have been surprised if a dinosaur had appeared around the corner. There were banana trees, coffee trees, the soil is bright red. It is truly beautiful."

At 5,895 metres above sea level (19,341 feet) Kilimanjaro is Africa's tallest mountain. Although, strictly speaking, it isn't really a mountain. Developed from layers of accumulated fallout from volcanic eruptions that occurred a million years ago, Kilimanjaro is technically a volcano.

Nowadays two of its three volcanic cones are extinct but Kibo, right at the summit is merely dormant. It's reassuring to know that Kibo last erupted around 360,000 years ago and apart from a slight rumble 200 years ago, it's been quiet ever since.

One of the most incredible facts about Kilimanjaro is that, from base to summit, it has six different climate zones.

The third largest ethnic community in Tanzania is known as 'Chagga'. Living in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, they are primarily an agricultural society, using traditional farming methods dating back thousands of years. As well as bananas, they grow a variety of crops, including yams, maize and the famous Arabica coffee. Joan tells me about the wedding etiquette of her Chagga heritage.

"Invitations have to go out to villages for miles around. They all come to celebrate and if you don't invite them, it's considered very bad manners. I could have worn a special dress for the ceremony but I decided to wear a lovely outfit I bought from Monsoon.'

Rohan remembers the booze.

"There was huge quantities of banana beer. It's brewed in a great, yeasty sort of barrel and you drink it from what's known as calabash gourds. The gourds are made from fruit vines which are dried out to make a sort of cup or drinking vessel."

Banana beer is used in rituals and celebrations throughout east Africa. Depending on local tradition, the recipe may vary slightly but the chief ingredient isn't the common or garden banana found in the supermarket. This beer requires a grander sounding fruit known as the 'East African Highland' banana. Once mashed, the bananas are sometimes blended with sorghum (a type of cereal) before adding millet or maize.

What does it taste like?

"I remember as a child, I really wanted to try it," Joan chuckles. "I couldn't wait until I was old enough to taste it. Somehow, I thought it would taste of bananas which it definitely doesn't. It's difficult to describe the flavour but I've actually grown to like it."

What did Joan's friends and neighbours make of Rohan?

"They loved the whole family. They got on particularly well with the people from Northern Ireland. Somehow they formed this instant connection and danced and partied together all through the day and into the night. It was great fun."

Rohan's Scottish clan came in for special attention.

"The villagers were particularly fascinated by my uncle who wears a kilt. They just couldn't get over the fact he was wearing a skirt and couldn't take their eyes off him. They kept going over to have another look. It was so funny."

Born in Tanzania, raised in Rome, now living in Aghadowey, I wondered how Northern Ireland compares to the more exotic places. Bearing in mind Kilimanjaro's six climate zones, perhaps our four seasons in one day doesn't seem so bad.

"I love Northern Ireland," Joan says. "When I first came here I couldn't get over how green everywhere looked.

"It's a beautiful place, especially here in this part of the country. As well as incredible scenery, there are lots of things to do and the people are so friendly. Rohan and I have made some good friends."

Joan, who is fluent in English, Swahili, French and Italian, recalls how, on a visit to Dublin, one word got the better of her.

"We bought a local newspaper and I came across the word 'Garda'. I remember looking at it, trying to figure out what it meant. I had to laugh when Rohan explained!"

Initially when the couple left London and moved to Northern Ireland, they rented a place at Strangford Lough. Rohan recalls how a family visit led them to Bovagh House.

"On that particular day, we hadn't planned on visiting the property at all. But as we were in the area, we thought we might as well take a look. It was a sunny day, the grass had been cut and we simply fell in love with the place. We bought the house in 2010 but didn't move in until 2013 when renovations were out of the way. Interestingly, when we first started the work, I came across a letter in PRONI (Public Records Office of Northern Ireland). It was dated 1804 and written by the 2nd Marquess of Waterford to his relation, Sir George Hill of Brook Hall in Derry. In the letter, the Marquess was complaining about the state of the house, how it needed a new roof and how awful the garden was. I remember thinking it ironic that, 200 years later, I was thinking the same thing!"

Today, Bovagh House has been transformed to its former glory. The old Marquess would be delighted by the authenticity of its high ceilings and wooden beams. The Aga cooker, underfloor heating, wood burning stove, 42-inch television, access to Sky channels and Wi-Fi throughout are all 21st century comforts. No doubt the Marquess would find technology baffling but there is one feature he'd recognise instantly. Tucked away among the outbuildings is the estate's original 'thunderbox' aka 'sunny dunny' or in more familiar terms, the outside lavatory. However, the one at Bovagh House is different to other examples from the 19th century. I asked Rohan what, apart from its gothic windows, makes their thunderbox special.

"It has two chambers, separated by a thin wall. However, each chamber is designed for multiple occupancy. One side has a double seater and the other one has three seats.

"I suppose people were more relaxed about these things in days gone by."

With three children, Alice (15), Lily (13) and 10-year-old George, plus full-time careers, the family has a hectic schedule and at the moment, Bovagh House with its 35 acres of mature grounds is listed on the property rental site, Airbnb. However, things could be about to change.

"We're thinking of dipping a toe into the wedding venue business," Rohan shares. "We're lucky enough to have an amazing place here and we'd like to make the most of its potential. At the moment, there is nothing concrete but if we ever did do anything we would want it to be a bit different from what is already out there."

Finally, Rohan offers a nugget of information and links the present with the past.

"After my mum died, my dad re-married a family friend, Bridget Cramsie. Bridget's former husband was Sandy Cramsie, the grandson of Florence Hezlet, one of the famous golfing sisters at Bovagh House."

Perhaps with this bridge between the generations, Bovagh House has come full circle.

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