Rising Damp—Or, Remembrances Of Starting A New Life In Ireland
While I waited, I wandered from room to room. It was the house I’d had in mind since the day Lief and I had decided we’d move together to Ireland. Classically Georgian with high ceilings, a winding central staircase, symmetrical sets of tall shuttered windows in each room, plank wood floors, marble-mantled fireplace and French doors in the living room, and, from every window and every angle, views of the rolling green Irish countryside all around.
Standing in the dining room, looking out the window to the front of the house, I could see sheep in the fields and, here and there, low stone walls. Our seven acres were surrounded by many more undeveloped acres, meaning that our views were unobstructed in every direction. Not another house anywhere in sight; the only structure in view an old cow barn on the other side of our fence out back.
The nearly 200-year-old Lahardan House we’d finally found after months of searching oozed charm and potential and stood, we’d made sure, blissfully out of the path of any planned progress. No housing estate on the books for this remote corner of County Waterford as far as we could tell.
The surrounding seven acres were well overgrown, and the half-dozen outbuildings were crumbling, but we didn’t mind. We could address the landscaping, the barns, and the stables over time. To start, we needed only to make the house habitable.
In advance of the purchase, we’d tried to have the property inspected. This isn’t obligatory in Ireland. Foreigners can borrow for the purchase of real estate in Ireland, and the bank, to lend for the purchase of a piece of property, by a foreigner or a local, will require you to test for termites and a couple of other specific risks, but they won’t call for an overall inspection of the kind we take for granted when buying a house in the States. Even though no one was telling us to arrange for a formal inspection, we wanted one and asked around for the name of an inspector. The report from the guy we engaged was a dozen pages of general commentary related to his impressions of the place. “The living and dining rooms would benefit from re-decoration,” he noted. And: “The gardens might be cut back.”
As we found ourselves doing often those early days in Waterford, reading this inspector’s report, we looked at each other, shook our heads, and moved on. That is, we closed on the purchase having, it turned out, no idea what we were buying.
Property acquired, we needed someone to help with the work we wanted to carry out in advance of moving in. One of our new staff, a young Irish girl named Deidre, knew a “decorator,” as she referred to him, named Noel. I called Noel and made an appointment to meet him at the house.
The chilly, drizzly morning that Noel and I met at Lahardan House for the first time, I followed the tall, lanky, red-headed Irishman from room to room, upstairs, down the hall, back down to the living room, then again across to the kitchen, where Noel turned, finally, and explained, “I’d say there’s a bit of damp.”
“Yes, it’s very damp here, isn’t it?” I replied.
“No. You have damp.”
“I know a good damp guy. I can call him for you if you like.”
“Yes, ok, that would be great…”
That’s how I came to be, a few days later, on another chilly, misty Irish morning, wandering from room to room, imagining our furniture (when we finally got it out of storage in Dublin) and ourselves in these grand Georgian rooms. I was waiting for the damp guy.
When I heard the car pull up on the gravel out front, I went to the front door to look out. I watched as the small, bent-over Irishman got out of his little mud-splattered Toyota and began walking toward me. When he reached the portico, he paused to scrape his mud-caked boots on the slate tiles, then looked up at me, tipped his woolen cap, and asked:
“Is himself inside?”
The little bent Irishman mumbled something in the direction of the slate porch tiles that I couldn’t decipher and then continued on through the big red Georgian door into the entryway of the house and from there, without pausing, on into the living room. I followed.
“Himself isn’t at home?”
“You mean my husband? No, he’s at work…”
Before I could finish explaining Lief’s absence, the little Irishman pulled a screwdriver from the back pocket of his pants and began poking it into things. He pushed it into every piece of wood he passed, starting with the window casings, then the shutters, the skirting boards at the bases of the walls, the frames of the French doors leading to the side patio, the floor boards… With every poke, his look grew more grave. After he’d finished in the living room, he continued on, poking as he went, through the dining room, the breakfast room, the kitchen. Then back to the entry hall and up the stairs, poking every step as he climbed. On the second floor, he started all over again, poking his way through each of the five bedrooms, each of the three bathrooms, and all up and down the hallways that connected them.
“Rising damp,” he declared solemnly. “All throughout.”
“Rising damp? What…uh…how…what should we do?” I stammered.
“Got to treat it,” he replied as he walked back down the stairs and toward and then out the big red front door. As I watched him drive away, I picked up my cell phone and called Noel.
Rising damp, Noel explained, is a common phenomenon throughout the Emerald Isle, where damp from the constantly wet soil seeps into the foundation of a house and then rises up the walls until gravity gets the better of it. Left untreated, damp will rise, Noel told me, about six feet before the force of gravity halts its progress. In our house, the damp evidently had been left untreated for a very long time. Once I understood how to recognize the signs, I could see that every wall on the ground floor had been affected. Some were so afflicted that they bubbled with tiny white plaster blisters.
In addition to rising damp, we had rot, both wet and dry. We had mold and fungus, too, in every hidden and covered corner and crevice, beneath the floor boards, under the stairs, and behind the shutters.
This realization turned our simple old home make-over into an all-out renovation that extended over more than a year and that was complicated by another realization.
Five months after our move to Ireland, I discovered I was two months pregnant…
P.S. Today’s dispatch is excerpted from the manuscript for my next book, now in process. More tomorrow.