Exotic Life in the Liffey

When I was a little girl, I spent many hours wandering the stately rooms and echoing
hallways of Castletown House, admiring the elegance of the country house, skipping through
corridors and rooms big and small, noting every item of furniture and counting every secret
doorway. My mother worked as a guide there when the house first opened to the public and,
health and safety and general rules not being then what it is today, I was often left to entertain
myself there during the holidays and after school when my mother would cycle to the village
on her lunch break to collect me during my junior and senior infant years.
I was privileged with the liberty I had; if I got under the staff’s feet in the office or grew tired
of colouring, I could join the guided tours taking place, acting as a young apprentice to the
guide, much to the amusement of the visitors. If I had enough of the tours, I would retreat
into the enormous Entrance Hall, or the beautiful Long Gallery, or explore the maze of
hallways and servant’s staircases.
There was one hallway however, that I avoided when I could. It was ground floor passage,
flooded with natural light throughout the day, with creamy coloured walls and neat square
flagstones. A pleasant space, but for what lay on a long display table to one side. From the
top of its snout to the tip of its long, tapering tail, measuring at least nine feet long, rested a
snaggle-toothed and malevolent looking alligator. Its mouth had been kept prised open so that
its means of incision were displayed with an intimidating bloodthirsty threat. The glassy eyes
appeared to be so watchful and its studded back gave me the impression of it being
weaponised with some kind of punk rock coat. Its tail was slightly curved, giving the
impression that it might suddenly thrash at an unsuspecting victim. I never enquired about
where this reptilian beast came from but if I could not bypass this passageway, I always made
sure to press my back against the wall opposite the creature and make my way crab-like to
the far door, never taking my eyes from the animal out of fear that if I did it would seize its
opportunity to attack.
One sunny afternoon following the guided tour of a coachload of American visitors, one
camera-wielding enthusiast approached my mother in the Entrance Hall where I was enjoying
the bustle, and asked her in a southern drawl where that alligator had come from. My mother
smiled and asked the woman had she been down to the river in front of the house where there
is a short stretch of rapids. When the woman confirmed she been, my mother gestured
towards her colleague who was answering the group’s questions.
“A few years ago your tour guide Gillian was fishing at the rapids when she was dragged
under the water by the alligator and they got into a fierce wrestling match. As you can see
though, Gillian won!”
I don’t know which of us was more dumbfounded. The rapids, my favourite stretch of the
River Liffey where I would jump across the boulders trying to not get wet and enjoy the
liveliness of the water like a torrent of Guinness spraying into the air, and it was infested with
man-eating alligators! Who knew?
(Last year I finally learned that this alligator had in fact been shot by the third Tom Connolly
of Castletown House while on holiday in South America. I suddenly developed newfound
sympathies for the poor creature!)