By Martina Devlin
Saturday November 22, 2008
Though a notoriously private man, Jeremy Irons invited Martina Devlin inside his restored West Cork castle and held nothing back on a dizzying array of topics from abortion and the Catholic Church to farming and marriage
Jeremy Irons is not quite like other people. Not because he has an instantly recognisable face and voice. Or because he lives in a medieval castle keep. Or because he casually mentions Dan (Daniel Day-Lewis) and John (Sir John Gielgud).
He is not quite like other people because there is an unconventional side to him, despite having been shoehorned into the British public school system.
Anyone who paints his castle walls peach is inevitably a little quirky.
Above all, he has an unguarded quality. Jeremy Irons has many, many opinions and out they come — whoosh! — without pausing to consider how they will play. Whether they will offend, make him look nutty or pretentious, or leak like a sieve under scrutiny.
On abortion: “It’s evil.”
On the Catholic Church: “I love its intransigence.”
On the gender of his castle: “It’s feminine. I felt hugged by it when I arrived last night.”
On the Dáil: “A lot of cronies in there.”
On the Georgian Society: “It has a painfully small membership and a reputation for being obstructive.”
On 30 years of marriage: “I take it a day at a time.”
On Irish farmers: “The land is farmed according to the grants, not a feeling of responsibility to what the land needs.”
On modern Ireland: “I’m saddened by how everyone is chasing worldly goods and the churches are empty.”
And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
“Sinéad is always telling me to be more careful about what I say. I just come out with things — I don’t try and censor myself,” he admits.
It is unusual to encounter someone in the public domain expressing opinions so freely on the record. But he will back down in a surprisingly humble way if you challenge him. Perhaps he has a diplomatic streak, or it could be a dislike of confrontation?
Jeremy Irons is an actor who has been famous and bankable on an international scale since the Brideshead Revisited days 27 years ago. He is presumably accustomed to entourages.
When we meet, however, there is no sign of the phalanx of PAs and PRs you normally encounter. Just Jeremy. Answering the door himself, making the coffee himself, taking pleasure in the way our jaws dropped — and stayed slack — at the magnificence of the setting.
The venue is his 15th-century castle keep in West Cork, a McCarthy stronghold built in 1458 which had been sinking into ruin since its fall in 1603. He took it on 12 years ago and renovated it, a labour of love which absorbed six years and the proceeds of several films. But he mentions, with some pride, how the director Hugh Hudson told him it was worth 20 films.
Kilcoe Castle is near Ballydehob, and only someone who enjoys isolation and the odd wallow would be comfortable living there. While it is remote, it is a location of breathtaking beauty. The twin towers of the castle rear 100ft into the skyline, perched on an outcrop of land overlooking Roaring Water Bay.
Irons sails there, and a covered boat is lying in the bailey of the castle as we arrive. Nearby is parked a modest, seven-year-old Audi, which he later hops into and drives at lightning speed along the maze-like side roads.
We cross water and press a buzzer at an imposing outer gate. A familiar voice crackles through the intercom and the gate swings open. We enter a courtyard, step outside the car — and are almost blown away by the force of the gale. There is no shelter from the elements.
Another gate opens, and a head pops out. It’s wearing little round spectacles, as though we interrupted him reading. Jeremy Irons appears in slippers decorated with a little skull on each one.
We follow him into an inner courtyard and he gestures for us to precede him up the steps of a tower. Easier said than done. You almost need to be winched up the vertical incline of the heavy stone staircase. He mentions that there are slits at the base of each step for spears to be poked out at intruders. Unwelcome guests had to fight their way up this tower, step by step.
Huffing and puffing, we enter a vast room. A room so striking you pause and look around, with so much to take in that your eye hardly knows where to settle.
You could fit a two-storey house into this room. A wooden minstrel’s gallery runs along the top, while the floor is covered in patterned north-African rugs. The sound system plays blue grass, while a joss stick burns on a side table alongside a 20-year-old photograph of Jeremy with his wife Sinéad Cusack and their sons Sam and Max, now grown-up.
“It’s a jazz riff on the medieval,” is how he describes the restoration.
A life-size wooden stallion stands in one corner — “every castle needs a horse” — while a sword is propped against a wall. Ridley Scott gave it to him as a memento from their Crusades film, Kingdom of Heaven.
It is an unexpectedly snug room. We know the wind is howling outside, we can see how choppy the sea is from slit-like windows more suited to firing arrows than admiring the view. But only music breaks the stillness.
Jeremy says the reason is that the walls range between three feet and seven-feet thick. He sleeps at the summit of the tower — essentially seven rooms piled on top of each other: “It’s wonderful to hear the wind howling when you’re in bed at night. But that’s the only room you hear it in.”
Like any anxious home owner, he remarks on how relieved he is that it stayed leak-free during recent rain storms.
It is informal and easy, sitting here with him. He removes his spectacles, kicks off his slippers and rolls a cigarillo, the first of many. There is no wedding band on his left hand, but he wears a signet ring on the little finger. A silver bangle glints on his wrist.
He lights up and the opinions come thick and fast. Here he is on the lines on Sinéad’s face. They have been married for 30 years, incidentally, yet he pronounces her name in an odd way: ‘shin-add’.
“Sinéad has grown more beautiful as she has grown older,” he announces.
Oh dear. It’s generally a bad sign when men come out with that.
But he goes on: “As a person, she has become easier and wiser. She was very pretty when she was young, but she was complicated. She has grown easier in her skin as she has grown older and that shows in her face.
“I think it’s a more interesting face now than when I first met her. It has lines, which I like. In LA, I find so many people who have nipped and tucked and their faces have lost all semblance of humanity. Your face has to show what it has lived through.”
Jeremy takes his marriage “a day at a time” and erupts into laughter at the reminder that this is the AA slogan. As far as he is concerned, the best thing about being married for so long is all the shared history. “You could never know that again with someone else.”
Jeremy Irons was born 60 years ago in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the son of a tax consultant. He boarded at Sherborne public school, where a teacher suggested he join the armed forces — a career path he declined to follow.
Instead, he starred alongside David Essex in the musical Godspell and made the seminal Brideshead Revisited TV series (he has no curiosity about seeing the new film version).
He went on to appear in a raft of films, from The Mission to The French Lieutenant’s Woman to Lolita. Reversal of Fortune bagged him an Oscar. The Lion King brought him a younger audience.
TG4 and his love of fiddle music are the reason Jeremy has agreed to the interview — he learned to play traditional fiddle for the Faoi Lán Cheoil series, in which personalities attempt to master a traditional musical instrument. The experiment culminates in a live performance.
Established fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh tutored him over a six-month period, including flying out to film sets for lessons. The two of them would sit in his trailer, practising his diddly-eyes between takes.
Jeremy puts his stripy-stockinged feet on the coffee table and is at his most animated when talking about fiddle playing, and how he feels the music connects to some wellspring of Irish identity.
He wanted to learn the fiddle to take part in impromptu sessions in the pubs dotted around this nook of south-west Ireland.
He has had a home here for 20 years and is genuine in his desire to integrate into the community, although mistaken when he says that he can be anonymous in West Cork. That face is never nameless. That woody voice never goes unidentified.
If Jeremy is left alone, it is because of the instinctive Irish reluctance to let anybody think they are important enough to be recognised. Yet here is a man who could live anywhere — and he is happier in a medieval castle in wet and windy Munster than in a Beverly Hills hacienda or a New York penthouse. And this castle, which was derelict, has been reclaimed as a home.
“My desire here is to place myself in the community,” he says. “I do it in many ways. I sail here, I’m a joint master of the hunt, I had a station mass in the castle last year and 65 people came; we partied afterwards until all hours.
“The community is extraordinary. People live apart, but come together for births, marriages and deaths. I really respect that.”
He describes English society as fragmented, and responds to the sense of community here: “I felt I had come home when I first came here 20 years ago. I know a lot of English and Europeans feel the same about Ireland, but not all of them last the course. Some find they can’t take the weather or the lack of a real work ethic — people here work to live, not live to work — but I love it.”
Jeremy does not look his age, partly because he moves in a nimble way (he does yoga, “although not as much as Sinéad — she’s brilliant”). When he smiles, his teeth are stained from all the roll-ups, and it is interesting he has chosen not to take the mainstream Hollywood route of whitening.
He returns often to a discussion of Catholicism, which seems to fascinate him. He had the local priest in to bless the castle when work began. It’s not that he believed it was haunted, he just thought it sensible to lay to rest any uneasy spirits in view of the fact that men were on scaffolding 100 feet above ground. He has never felt any spectral aura, although a guest spoke of “a sad female presence”.
I point out that a castle would have witnessed so much pillaging and marauding, it should be inundated with sad female — and male — presences. And he laughs along good-naturedly.
But back to the Catholic Church. “It has gone through a difficult time, with the reputation of some of its priests in tatters, but everyone is tarred with the same brush. I’m saddened by that. The difficulty was the church held such power and absolute authority,” he says.
“The great thing about the Catholic faith is that it’s unwavering. If you take the Pope’s stance on abortion, it’s the only one that’s been constant within western religions.
“Others have said abortion is allowed — it’s not an evil. You only have to abort a child to see what it does to a woman’s spirit. You can never say it’s right. Sometimes abortion is the lesser of two evils, but you can never say it is not an evil.
“If you stop saying that, where do you draw the line?” he continues. “Do you say because a family has a lot of children that there are too many and it’s all right to kill one? We have to accept that there is a difference between right and wrong.”
When asked if he would consider becoming a Catholic, he insists he is “not a club man”. He was brought up Church of England, but regards himself less specifically as Christian.
“I know I’m a blow-in,” he answers, on the question of whether this castle and community are home. He has homes elsewhere, including in Oxfordshire. And Sinéad has an “artisan’s cottage” in Dublin city centre.
She has a son in Dublin, the aspiring politician Richard Boyd Barrett, whom she gave up for adoption 40 years ago. They were reunited several years ago. It certainly puts Jeremy Irons’ views on abortion into context.
“It’s wonderful for Sinéad, who has always been political, to discover that the son she has re-met has very much her instincts. I see her in him. She’s been married to a man who is apolitical so now it’s lovely for her to have someone to talk politics with,” he says.
“We talk a lot about politics when Richard is about. He was only 120 votes off getting into the Dáil [in the general election last year]. Not bad for a Marxist. It would be great fun to see a Marxist in the Dáil.
“What’s needed are well-educated people with convictions. If, in any way, a little bit of his attitudes rubbed off, it would be a positive thing for the country.”
When it’s suggested he must be a lively addition to Irons’ family, Jeremy says: “He has his own family — he is not really part of my family.” But he adds: “I’m very proud of him. But I’m not a Marxist. We would have disagreements.”
Jeremy is mannerly. He offers tea or coffee several times, and when we finally accept, he leads us into the kitchen. It’s a comparatively small room on a half-return, with an empty dog basket under the window.
The dogs are in Oxfordshire: he is only in Kilcoe for three days, and due shortly to fly to Santa Fe to make a film with Joan Allen. She plays the modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe and he is cast as her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, instrumental in having photography recognised as an art form.
Jeremy makes the coffee himself, with Bewley’s ground coffee. Imran Khan tried to make me tea once and hadn’t a clue which cupboard to find the mugs in, or where the tea bags might be. We gave up in the end. But Jeremy knows his way around his own kitchen.
He takes organic milk from the fridge, insisting it’s the only kind to use. Local oatmeal biscuits are set in their packet on the table, alongside pottery mugs.
Looking at him move from kettle to cupboard, you can see he is extraordinarily thin with narrow hips and shoulders. He cuts an elegant figure, even in a zipped jumper chosen for warmth rather than style.
Why is he so drawn to Ireland? He surmises it’s to do with an inherent wildness in the people and landscape. The spirituality matters too.
“I have a little bit of Irish in me, but I come from a very solid Anglo-Saxon background,” he says. “But I have a side that’s very anarchic, wanting to live beyond the rules. I was brought up in a very strict way with the public school method of training people to run an empire that no longer exists. I had a reluctance to toe the line.”
On our way out, we pass some buoys in his yard painted a variety of pastel shades, instead of the usual orange. I jokingly wonder if they were testers for the castle walls — the peach hue is a controversial choice. He laughs and admits his neighbour, when invited to reveal which colour he would have chosen to paint it, plumped for grey.
But Jeremy Irons feels a splash of Mediterranean brightness adds some verve to the landscape. A bit like the man himself.
Jeremy Irons features in Faoi Lán Cheoil on TG4 on Wednesday, November 26 at 10.30pm with a repeat next Saturday at 8.10pm
– Martina Devlin