"I couldn't entirely disagree with those who might label me a recluse," he smiles. "I'm fascinated with it because it is not something I have ever striven to be. As a writer, isolation is part of the life you lead and I think I would more readily describe myself as a farmer rather than a writer. Living where I do allows for a kind of privacy that's less and less easy to come across anymore and I find myself settling into it with greater ease as the years pass."
- J.P. Donleavy from the article "Iconic Man of Letters" by John
- The Irish Examiner, May 21, 2005
J.P Donleavy's 170-acre estate, Levington Park, lies in the heart of Ireland's midlands, County Westmeath, overlooking a pristine expanse of Lough Owel. Counter-balancing Levington Park's isolation and the loneliness that one often finds accompanying seclusion, are its historical pedigree, its ideal use as an operations center for a productive farm and its fundamental purpose: to provide a relatively interruption-free place for an author and painter to work. Speaking of interuptions, unannounced visitors to Levington Park are discouraged.
An Illustrious Past
J.P. purchased Levington
Park in 1972 and he has lived there ever since, housed amidst its rich architectural
and historical heritage.
Levington Park, now nearly 260 years old still retains much of its original fine construction, as well as charm. It is registered with the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH), which offers this detailed description and appraisal on their website —
County Westmeath - Reg.No. 15401910
Date: 1740 - 1760
Categories of Special Interest: Architectural; Artistic; Historical; Technical
Original Use: Country House
In Use As: Country House
Detached nine-bay two-storey country house with two-storey returns to rear at either end (north and south), built (or rebuilt) c.1748. Possibly including earlier fabric. Altered, c.1810, with the addition of a three-bay pedimented section, a limestone Doric porch and a Wyatt window to the entrance front (east). Pitched natural slate roof having cut stone chimneystacks and cut stone eagle finials to either end of front façade. Lime roughcast rendered walls over rubble limestone construction with projecting ashlar eaves course. Evidence of brick construction to ground floor to south gable. Square-headed window openings having six-over-six pane timber sliding sash windows and cut stone sills to front elevation (east). Lunette window with 'spider's web' tracery to eaves pediment (over porch). Variety of early multi-pane timber sliding sash windows to rear, including a number with exposed sash boxes and high percentage of surviving early crown glass panes. Central square-headed doorcase (behind projecting porch) with early timber panelled door having square-headed fanlight over with intersecting tracery. Cut stone steps to front. Interesting interior with decorative plasterwork, marble fireplaces and an early cantilevered staircase. Set well back from road in extensive mature grounds adjacent to the shore of Lough Owel. Extensive collection of outbuildings to the rear (west), arranged around a central courtyard with the house forming the east range, and main entrance gates and estate wall to the east.
An attractive and important large-scale country house, which retains its early form and character. It also retains a great deal of its early fabric, both to the interior and exterior, including a fine cantilevered staircase, marble fireplaces, decorative plasterwork and early sash windows with exposed sash boxes having crown glass. The regular front façade is enhanced by the classically proportioned fenestration, the eaves pediment and by the rather unusual and strangely robust Doric entrance porch. This fine structure has evidence of at least two distinct building phases (c.1750 and c.1810), whilst the architectural form, the mass and the detailing to the rear of this building (west) and to the two returns to the north and south, hints at the presence of pre-1700AD fabric. This building was reputedly (re)built for Sir Richard Levinge (1728-86), a noted and colourful eccentric, to celebrate his marriage in 1748. In 1827 it was still the seat of a branch of the Levinge Family, in the ownership of an R. H. Levinge, Esq. It was later the residence of Maurice Dease, who was awarded the first Victoria Cross of World War One. James Joyce wrote extensively about his visits to the house in the early twentieth-century, at a time he was residing at nearby Mullingar. It was later, apparently, in the ownership of Julie Andrews, the British actress and is currently the residence of the celebrated author J. P. Donleavy. Levington Park forms the centrepiece of an interesting collection of demesne-related structures, along with the outbuildings, the estate wall and the main gates to the east, and represents an important element of the architectural heritage of Westmeath.
In the Footsteps of an Icon
To quote J.P. from his
article "From Mullingar to London," which appeared in Architectural
Digest, November, 1986, "Much as Shakespeare had done for England,
James Joyce now awakens a tourist industry that has every Sean, Finn and Patrick
tradesman, coast to coast, who may not have read more than three of his four-letter
words, now eagerly vending artifacts by the dozen in his memory. Reverently
marking the spots in Dublin city where he tippled, stopped to think or bent
to tie his shoelace. And yours truly, as much a huckster as any man, may as
well get in on the act. For James Joyce slept here. Under the same roof under
which I write."
The 2004 edition of The Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland states, "James Joyce came to Mullingar in his late teens in 1900 and 1901 to visit his father, John Joyce, a civil servant who had been sent to the town to compile a new electoral register. John Joyce worked in the courthouse on Mount St, and the Joyces stayed at Levington Park House near Lough Owel."
Parts of Stephen Hero, an early version (1904) of what would be published a decade later as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are set in Mullingar. Joyce described Mullingar as "the chief town of Westmeath ... the midland capital." He mentioned such local landmarks as the Greville Arms Hotel, the Westmeath Examiner office, the Royal Canal, the Columb Barracks on Green Road and the Mullingar train station, all of which still exist.
In the "Additional Manuscript Pages" section of Stephen Hero, the title character arrives in Mullingar on the Dublin train. Outside the station, a driver collects Stephen and they set off in the horse-drawn trap for "Mr. Fulham's house," which is clearly Levington Park.
"The trap went up the long crooked main street of the town and crossing over the bridge of the canal made out for the country. ... The road wound through heavy pasture lands and in [mea] field after field Stephen saw herds of cattle fattening. ..."
Much of what Joyce — and Stephen — saw enroute to Mr. Fulham's house (Levington Park) remains: the stone canal bridge, the small houses close to town, the pastures with cows grazing, and then the turn up the "dusty road" toward the gate lodge.
Joyce's keen eye for detail is evident in his description of Levington Park and its surroundings.
"Proceeding in this
manner along the dusty road the trap gradually drew near Mr. Fulham's house.
It was an odd irregular house, barely visible from the road, and surrounded
by a fair plantation. It was reached by an untended drive and the ground behind
it thick with clumps of faded rhododendrons sloped down to the shore of Lough
Owel. ... The gate was open and the trap turned up the drive. After a circular
tour of a few hundred yards the trap reached the door of the old discoloured
Stephen is greeted at the door by Miss Howard, the niece of Mr. Fulham. "She led the way along the hall and through a little glass door into a great square orchard, the nearer half of which was still a sunny region.... When she came back she offered to show Stephen the orchard and, Mr. Fulham returning at the same moment to his newspaper, she led the way down a walk of current bushes."
While Lough Owel merits only a geographic reference in Stephen Hero, the beautiful lake clearly made a lasting impression on Joyce during his visit with his father to Levington Park. Many years later, Joyce drops Lough Owel into the "Calypso" section of Ulysses. Leopold Bloom receives a letter from his daughter Milly who writes "We are going to lough Owel on Monday with a few friends to make a scrap picnic. Give my love to mummy and to yourself a big kiss and thanks. I hear them at the piano downstairs. There is to be a concert in the Greville Arms on Saturday. ..."
In "From Mullingar to London" J.P. writes, "I have reason to think of James Joyce when I am on my way to London. Following in his footsteps, I go from a stone-paved hall supported by a vaulted ceiling below, downward on a flight of cantilevered sandstone stairs to a great stone-slab landing, and look back up above and then down another flight of chiseled black-gray stone steps. Like him I know I will soon be crossing the great Bog of Allen mentioned in his short story "The Dead."
The Eye of the Beholder
Levington Park has been
visited by scores of journalists interviewing J.P. Although most have been
kind to the house, handing out compliments where compliments are due, a few
others have been downright insulting, obviously not taking into consideration
that the house is nearly 260 years old and mantenance as well as restoration
are lengthy and costly processes.
Here are the impressions of a few fair-minded journalists:
From “PW Interviews J.P. Donleavy” by Amanda Smith, Publishers Weekly,
Oct. 31, 1986
“Donleavy shows us about his home, many-roomed and expansive, here papered, there painted in Irish style of bright colors, especially orange. The rooms are almost sparely furnished and clearly functional: one large room is filled with huge floor cushions for the children to fall about on, a lovely dining room looks out on Lough Owel in the green distance. There's an unusual stone floor in the upstairs hall, a swimming pool and nine bathrooms and, of course, the room where Donleavy writes. The downstairs hallway contains the only private Guinness bar in the world, installed when Wine and Food magazine was doing a story."
From "Only for the Moment Am I Saying Nothing: an Interview with JP Donleavy" by Thomas E. Kennedy, The Literary Review Vol. 40 No. 4, 1997
"This interview was conducted in Donleavy's 25-room mansion in Mullingar, about sixty miles from Dublin. I was admitted by a housekeeper into a spacious, comfortable sitting room where a high-heaped peat fire was already burning. I sat on a cozy sofa before the fire and a wall of pictures, and a marble fireplace with tall ivory carvings. On a side table, a Handel concerto and a photo of Donleavy with someone wearing a patch on his eye and a beard. All the paintings seem to be signed by Donleavy himself, and enormous coloured pillows are spread all across the great plank floor. On another side table, a leather bound book by Gay Talese, another of Darcy Dancer. The coffee table is a walnut plank across two small mill wheels with a Fortnum and Mason catalogue on top of it. Alongside the fireplace, a basket of peat and andirons. Snapshots here and there, a boy, a strange-looking sheep; on the wall a great brass tongs stretched open, looking like something Skully might wish to use on Sebastian Dangerfield. Above the mantle, an ornately framed mirror. As I wait, from time to time the telephone rings with a kind of giggling sound. On one radiator, a pewter fish. To one side of the room, a grand piano of dark wood."
Man Who Loved Women" by Patricia Deevy, Irish Independent,
Aug, 1, 1999
" [The] house is huge and rambling and the formal ensuite bedrooms at the front give way to smaller, more lived-in rooms in the two back wings. (The house is big enough to include an indoor swimming pool, sauna and gym facilities: he is a big fitness fan, who can kick well above his own head. Each day he does boxing exercises.) Some of the bedrooms are as the most recent child-in-residence left them. In one a drawing by Galena is framed. A large reception room awaiting redecoration is empty but for piles of toys in the brash and fondant colours of child-friendly plastic."
All in a Day's Work
J.P. finds Levington Park
more of a haven than a place of lonely isolation. For it is here that he has
written many of his novels, nonfiction and stage and movie scripts (see JPD
- Author for details).
And it is here where the painter J.P. Donleavy creates his highly valued watercolors and drawings, his reputation as an artist (see JPD - Artist for more) and the frequency of his exhibitions constantly growing.
And upon the lush, green grass surrounding the house, graze a herd of 50 - 80 prized beef cattle as Levington Park has long been a farm in addition to being a bastion for the arts, a farm worked by J.P. himself with minimal help from the outside. (See JPD - Farmer for more.) Taking a firm stance against Genetic Modification in agriculture, J.P. declared Levington Park the first GM-Free farm in Ireland in 2004.
Onward, With Class
It's only fitting that J.P. Donleavy should own Levington Park and have lived there for so long. One can draw parallels between the two, house and man. Both have weathered many a storm over the years and still stand tall and strong. Sometimes misunderstood and certainly underestimated, both have had to withstand the unfair criticisms and judgments of those with an axe to grind as well as the pissy cattiness of educated eejits. It's a symbiosis between man and land, an ideal melding of worker and workplace, an exemplar of style in a world that could damn well use some exemplars of style.