After the end of the conflagration known as World War II, Esse Layton came to Ireland from Chicago via a short stay in England. It was just to be a short visit to see what we were like on the far side of the Atlantic. She stayed over half a century, over half of her very long life. She fell in love with us: land, landscape, the way we lived, the way we talked, the way we coped with life and living in those far off days now dismissed as veritably primitive since we became accustomed to the exotic gimmicks of the short lived tiger.
Farming was in her genes. So a woman of wealth as she was, she very quickly bought a farm in Stoneyford, a bit remote from the main road but she settled in to what she always called her ‘traditional Irish homestead’. True, it did have a half-door and a yard surrounded by the usual farm buildings, but the interior fittings revealed a highly sophisticated American lady with dollars.
The love affair with Ireland continued even when she lamented the changes the later decades of the century wrought on us. With the friendship and support of an ever-growing cohort of like-minded people, especially Daisy Phelan of Kilkenny Archaeological society, Nell Prendergast of the National Museum and Helen Roe of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland she studied our history and put her unique slant on its interpretation. But the living Ireland was more important to her. This she recorded in a myriad photographs all labelled with details of where and when. An active member of Kilkenny Archaeological Society she accompanied us on trips abroad, on week-ends away from home, day bus outings and near-by local fixtures. She would arrive festooned with cameras telling us you needed different lens for different angles. Surprises always – because Esse could suddenly appear in front of a group, order all to ‘hold it’ and snap us into posterity. One of the volumes of photographs in the Rothe House library is Esse’s work. The idea of a photographic record of Kilkenny in the Spring of 2000 was the late Dorcas Birthistle’s. The collection is there as a permanent picture of Kilkenny frozen in time.
Esse made a film of Jerpoint Abbey as it was in 1970 when all the Cistercians in Ireland assembled there. To get the shots she aimed at in that huddle of beautiful antiquity she often was there before the sun rose so that she could get its rays on lichened wall or semi-hidden niche invisible in ordinary day light. In the early days after the opening of Rothe House when funds were short and furnishings sparse she was exceedingly generous with money, advice and time. She even organised one of our Christmas parties held in the Phelan Room, a transformed ‘chamber’ warmed with a yule log, lit by candles, perfumed with mulled wine and the spice of mince pies. All enjoyed the festive occasion, the work of Esse who arranged the music – which she loved – and the activities. She enjoyed being chef d’equipe for the event. Her last years in Drakelands Nursing Home were serene. She loved visitors and phone calls with the news of life around her. She was buried in the small graveyard of the church of St. Peter’s at Ennisnag, quite near her home-stead, but far from her birth place in the mid-west of USA. The Abhann Ri is close at hand singing on its perpetual journey to the sea as Esse sleeps under the green soil she loved and made her own peace.
From ‘An Archaeological friend’
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