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Monday, 21 April 2014
DINING & WINING THE IRISH IN THE CITY OF LONDON
"Dressed in white tie and tails, like all the other male guests, Mr. McGuinness looked like a perfect member of the British establishment. And indeed that is just what he has become."
- Wall Street Journal
"I was very close to Hitler, you know."
"Oh yes." Sir Richard coughs.
That's a bit of a shocker. Here I am in the lush pastures of County Waterford in search of the last remnants of Ireland's Ascendancy and here's one of them confessing to a relationship, perhaps intimate, with the Führer.
"Emotionally, spiritually?" I offer.
"What?" Sir Richard barks.
"You and Hitler."
"For God's sake, man," he roars. "No! Close to him physically at Nuremberg in '36. I was out there covering the rally for the Times and there he was, rather comical with all these loyal party members saluting and jumping up and down."
He peers at me across the room. "What are you doing here again?"
I'm not abashed.
"Writing about the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and their place in Ireland today."
"Oh, them." He turns away.
The Anglo-Irish, the "Last Lost Raj in the Rain", a fabled, almost extinct, dynasty of pre-independence overlords who moulder away in damp limestone palaces behind high granite walls. People who came to Ireland and, with sword and pistol, reigned over it for eight centuries and, having fallen in love with its idiosyncrasies, went native until they became unrecognisable to their British counterparts and totally irredeemable.
They had it good, damn good: a free rein to gallop away their lives in a land remote but not too far from their alma mater. But with the land reform of the late 18th century, and Ireland's independence in 1921, both leading to the break-up of their large estates, the Ascendancy entered a near century-long decline that has reduced them from 1,200 families in Burke's Landed Gentry of 1904 to 150 families in a more recent imprint, and fewer than 30 still living on their old estates. So, do the Anglo-Irish survive only between the covers of books, from Elizabeth Bowen and Somerville & Ross chronicles to the Irish Tourist Board's lurid brochures? Many have gone, "the disappeared", their names just legible on crumbling family vaults in churchyards. But some live on, and indeed prosper.
Sir Richard Keane of Cappoquin House, County Waterford, being one. "You recognise it [Anglo-Irishness] when you see it, I don't know how you do, but you do." He languidly slides one long corduroyed leg over the other and contemplates the delicate plasterwork on his drawing room ceiling. "They're bred from English women of course." He turns back to me. "So you might get a cross between a Limousin and er..." He drifts back into silence. The gravelled, glottal stop of his class can lead to some confusion. I stop him and query whether we're talking the four-legged milking variety, or the stretch, smoked-window kind, and he guffaws. "Oh, I don't know, but our pedigree goes back to King Conn."
"King Conn," he bellows and, seeing my predicament, confirms, "the ancient king of Munster, not that bloody great ape. But you're right, I would say the correct term is Anglo-Irish. Of course, I'm not one, our stock is Celtic." He pronounces it as in the football team. Indeed, the Gaelic O'Cahan, or Keane, clan are Irish. Originating in Ulster, they came to Cappoquin centuries ago. Backing the wrong horse at the decisive Battle of the Boyne, they had their lands confiscated when James II was defeated. After a spell in the wilderness, with a quick Anglicisation of name and religion, the family found its way into government service and recouped its fortune. A bear of a man, Sir Richard's posture is only slightly stooped with his 91 years. He joined "a smart regiment" at the outbreak of the second world war, and ended up on a covert mission to the badlands of Yugoslavia.
"I was dropped in to assist the Tito people. David Niven was the squadron leader but he left to make a bloody film, and I took over. Of course the arms we dropped to assist them against the Germans were used for civil war purposes. It's always confused in the Balkans."
It's also confusing to work out what's Anglo and what's Irish. "I don't think we are that different, you can't stereotype something like that. Backgrounds, experience, y'know? You never thought of it in those terms, just families that were friends. This Anglo- Irish thing is just shorthand for the difference between Catholic and Protestant. You carry the name Anglo-Irish, but people who commute between France and England don't have the label Franco-English. It's shorthand for a set of historical circumstances." He muses over the thimble-sized cups of coffee before us. "For instance, we had this house burnt down during the revolution; who in England had a house burned down since Cromwell?"
During Ireland's War of Independence, from 1919-1921, the IRA fired some 20 "big houses". They saw them as symbols of an alien culture and also billets for their enemy, the Crown forces. In Cappoquin's case, it survived the conflict, but was burnt out during the civil war that followed in 1923.
Sir John Keane, Richard's father, warned that there was a price on his head, only just escaped being shot by the IRA. And this despite the fact that he was a caring landlord who helped set up the national cooperative movement. "The republicans burned down houses of members nominated for the Senate. My father was one."
In a surprising act of altruistic inclusiveness, but also political expedience, the government of the fledgling Irish Free State accommodated a demoralised Ascendancy by creating an upper house in the new Dail, or parliament, specifically for them. It's still there, a haven for misfits and mavericks, although there are now few, if any, sons of the old order taking their seats.
Cappoquin was rebuilt over a 10-year period, with detailed accuracy, right down to its 18th-century plasterwork. One modern concession was a concrete roof that rebuffs the Irish weather and would prove invulnerable in the event of any further outbreak of hostilities. "You got compensation from the Irish Free State, the highest was for rebuilding. Some people sold up and left, but we decided to stay. I think one accepts what one's roots are."
After the war, Keane took up a consultancy position with ICI, and on the death of his father came back to run the farm and restore the house. "It was unfurnished and unpainted, but structurally sound."
I mention the worry and cost of running such a big house. "Costs, costs! There is the vacuum cleaner and other modern conveniences. The only disadvantage with a big house is wearing out your shoe leather walking through so many rooms!" Keane is the sort of cantankerous old grandfather we'd all like to have, shouting "What?" when it's clear he heard the question first time.
"Let me tell you about Nuremberg. I travelled out with the Mitfords and had lunch with them, and Unity said to me, 'Richard, what sort of night did you have?' I said I had rather a disturbed night with six or eight people in one room and various Nazis coming in late and taking their boots off and making an awful racket, and Unity said, 'Oh, I wish I'd had a stormtrooper in my bedroom.'" He bellows with laughter. "They were all out to shock, the Mitfords." But Sir Richard is not a nostalgist fossilised in the past, but frightfully current and rather impressed with the current economic prosperity of Ireland. "It's an enormous improvement, only a decade ago the problem was emigration, now they're coming back to Ireland. They played their cards very well in Europe, they're a very intelligent and capable race."
On that he hauls himself to his feet and dons a straw planter's hat. "Who's next on your list?"
"Brigadier Dennis FitzGerald," I reply.
"Oh, I'm afraid you'll find he's not one of them either. I don't know where you'll find the brutes." And with that he turns and ambles out through the door and off into the bushes.
This stylish insouciance, usually described as "eccentricity", is the easiest way to characterise the Anglos. Interbreeding, being trapped in ever diminishing circles and weather that hasn't improved over a period of centuries would affect anyone. Take, for example, the incumbent of Huntingdon Castle: "Isis is God in a female form, empowering the female which has been pushed out by patricians, but you can have Isis in every woman, Osiris in every man. We acknowledge the individual divinity in each being."
I'm standing in a damp field listening to a woman clad in a stately gown and cloak of many hues, on her head a tiara of recognisably Egyptian motifs and in her hand a slender wand topped with a golden Egyptian cross. She is "beautifully cross-eyed". This is not the latest in a long line of Irish rural apparitions of the Virgin Mary. This is Olivia Durdin Robertson. "Hold my hand, dear." She offers a bejewelled wrist and skips off the embankment. "We'll go inside the castle for a nice cup of coffee."
Huntingdon Castle dates back to 1625 when Laurence, Lord Esmonde, an ancestor by marriage, built the tower house on land taken from the native O'Kavanagh clan. Over the centuries, it has been added to - a library here, a chapel there - but the most startling addition is relatively recent and Olivia's work. "My late brother Derry [Lord Strathloch] was an Anglican clergyman and in 1948 he was on a train journey to Bolton and had the most extraordinary mystical experience."
"That God was a woman, my dear! He came back to Ireland and set up a shrine to Isis. Now follow me, please." We set off along a panelled corridor, down a whitewashed stairway into the very innards of the old tower house. "Welcome to the Temple of Isis." Olivia executes a low bow.
What was a complex of cellars and storerooms has been converted into an Aladdin's cave of cabalistic symbolism. Every nook and cranny has been turned into a shrine, complete with altar, statue and associated finery. The central area is dedicated to Isis herself. It's not at all creepy but, with the tinkling bells and kitsch hangings, resembles what I imagine the "head" shops were like back in the 1960s. "Yes, they're all here, every deity of every religion, every symbol and every character you could wish for. We get a thousand hits a month approx [on our website]; we're in 93 countries with 1,600,000 members worldwide. You can be in a religion and join us, we have no dogmas."
It's not the first time the cellars have been used for extracurricular activity. "The butcher, a very jolly man, had taken our castle during the Troubles, but when the Free State took it back during the civil war, they court-martialled him and locked the cook in the dungeon. I thought that very severe."
Her parents, she says, were liberal, very English. "Dad was an architect, and that was considered weird if you were a gentleman. They moved to Dublin and that's how I met Yeats and that lot."
An obvious sign of the Anglo-Irish confusion is the number of "official Irish" writers who were seed of the Ascendancy. Wherever one goes, one is assailed with the usual suspects peering at you from every theme bar and huckster's shop. Shaw, Singe, Beckett and Wilde, all sons of the Ascendancy. And although wrapped in a Celtic renaissance shroud, Yeats's roots were firmly planted in Anglo-Irishry.
I wondered whether Olivia's ethereal lifestyle acts as balm for a guilty conscience, on behalf of her class?
"I felt I belonged to rather a wicked class because I was pro the poor people, and we stole their land and everything they had. I think by nature I was a dissident. Luckily I thought our family conscience was fairly clear, but I did get the feeling of being a settler, it was like being in South Africa."
I don't want to hurt this gentlewoman's feelings, but do people think she's mad?
"Oh God, yes, people think we're mad. Men think it [the veneration for Isis] is unmanly, and women accept it more. The great mystery of life is where we go when we're dead. We help people to develop clairvoyance and be able to communicate with the so-called dead themselves."
The castle and Olivia have both appeared in Stanley Kubrick's majestic Barry Lyndon. "Oh, he was a very nice man, Stanley."
"And dead," I offer.
"Yes, very dead."
I suggest she tries to contact Stan, and she's grateful for the prompt. "Very good idea, dear, I'll try and reach Stanley, very, very soon." As I leave, she waves me off with the wand, her tiny form silhouetted by the dark avenue of trees fading into the mist.
There are many preconceptions about the Ascendancy. The most common might be that they piled into Ireland during the 15th and 16th centuries as adventurers and mercenaries, to settle this land and drive its inhabitants to "Hell or Connaught". This is all true. The various "plantations" during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I laid a generous seedbed, but there have been British settlers in Ireland since pre-Christian times. However, the first real invasion came in August 1170, with the blessing of Henry II and the pope, under the leadership of Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, Lord of Pembroke, aka "Strongbow". This was, unusually, an "invited" invasion, summoned by one Diarmuid MacMurchada, King of Leinster, who required back-up in his internecine wars with the many other regional kings who crowded Ireland. Over the centuries, these Anglo-Normans became part of the woof and weft of the country, "more Irish than the Irish".
The FitzGeralds, or as historians call them, "Geraldines", are a fine example of this breed. Despite the name being so recognisably Irish, the family's roots are far from Glenshallan Forest where Brigadier Dennis FitzGerald DSO OBE is the last male descendant of Ireland's premier peer, the Duke of Leinster. A red setter barks our arrival and Dennis is already standing to attention at the doorway. If service in the Irish Guards does nothing else, it bestows a posture that sets you up for life. He looks every inch the brigadier in his blue turtleneck, regimental tie and homespun trousers. "They're 60 years old," he confides, "and not a crease out of place." His speech, like his moustache, is clipped. A career soldier, Dennis saw action with the Guards throughout the war.
"I was at The Bridge Too Far thing." He nods. "I was in the book, but never made it into the film. Do come in."
Glenshallane is a fine, mid-18th-century hunting lodge. A pretty exterior gives way to an interior of Turkish carpets, regimental drums emblazoned "Irish Guards" and, of course, the portraits. Some Anglos sell off the "big house" and move into a smaller, more economical space - it never works. Oil paintings meant for grand salons are crammed into poky boxrooms and rare folios used to nestling on wide library shelves end up stacked on teetering coffee tables, their nutritious leather bindings prey to the compulsory labradors. Not so with the brigadier. "I dislike being called Anglo-Irish," he trumpets. "I'm Hiberno-Norman, and it's very accurate when you consider the first FitzGerald arrived in Ireland in 1157 and we've been here ever since. Our roots are in Italy, the Geraldines, they spread their wings. One branch went to France and then came over here with Strongbow."
The Geraldines and other Hiberno-Normans have a pre-eminence among the Anglos, a sort of premier division status as the "originals". Most of the Ascendancy have titles and peerages made defunct with the Act of Union in 1801 and independence in 1921. Yet they jealously guard them (take, for example, the Knight of Glin, Lord Fingal and the Duke de Stacpoole). The FitzGeralds may have been loyal to the Crown and (after the Reformation) Protestant, but there is always a kink in these long family lineages. In Dennis's it was the second Duke's younger brother, Lord Edward. Having absorbed revolutionary ideals in the Paris of the 1790s, he returned to Ireland and became a leader of the United Irishmen movement. He was arrested and died during their ill-fated rebellion of 1798, becoming an inspiration to republicans ever since.
The brigadier stops in front of the iconic portrait of his rebel ancestor. I mention that there is a likeness between them, around the same slightly bulbous eyes, though obviously they had different allegiances. "Oh I see!" he tilts his chin. "Me in the British army and him in the rebel forces. Still..." he looks up into Lord Edward's face, "I'm very proud of him."
Lord Edward was not alone among his class in supporting Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Theobold Wolfe Tone, a Dublin barrister and son of the Ascendancy, was the Che Guevara of Irish republicanism. In 1796 he sailed with a French invasion fleet from Brittany to Ireland. At Bantry Bay in County Cork, bad weather held the armada back, while one Richard White, a local landowner, mustered loyal volunteers to rebuff the invaders. The weather did not improve, the French turned back, and Ireland escaped rebellion for the time being. For his "spirited conduct and important services", a grateful George III created White a baron and later Earl Bantry.
His descendant Egerton Shellswell-White - "Egg" - is bent over a table muttering to himself as I enter Bantry House. "That's two hundred and forty four pounds fifty pee for the house, and twenty-six pounds fifty for the..." In loose blue blazer, open-necked shirt and flannels, he looks like an old jazzer counting the takings at the 100 Club. As you peer at the ancestral portraits, one stands out bold as the brass trombone the figure depicted is holding. On closer inspection it's not really an oil painting at all, just one of those photo jobs, all soft focus on heavy weave art paper. His first and, if he admits it, his real love is jazz. There's an appealing air of raffishness about Bantry House. In the rococo drawing room, the carved cherubs that support the massive mahogany table are chipped and their gilding faded. As the sun splays through the long windows, it shows up a fine layer of dust. In one glass case, the robes and coronet of the last Earl droop and tarnish; in another a letter from Horatio Nelson, requesting a new foresail, is brittly fading. Old felt tip announces: "Spot the mistake on the map and get a free chocolate bar. One per family."
"How's your lip?" I ask, attempting some jazz speak.
"As much as I ever had one," he sighs. "It's part of the reason I took this all on really. I'm an unskilled man in his mid-60s - where else would I get a job that allows me five hours' practice?" Egg's mother Clodagh first opened Bantry's doors to the public in 1945. "Sixpence to get in, and now it's £6," he says. "They'd turn in their graves if they knew that. It was a tiny thing that grew and grew."
Bantry has become a successful enterprise. There is accommodation for 20 in the old stable block and during the summer months there is a concert season that plants its billowing marquee on the terrace. But when Egg took over Bantry in 1980, it was far from stately. "The wings of the house had effectively collapsed, no floors, the stairs had all gone." The restoration has been a long and slow process. Recently EU funding has helped with the gardens. He's candid about money is Egg. "We've got £100,000 from the EU for the restoration of the gardens, but it cost £600,000 and our turnover is about half a million."
We wander through to the Rose Room with its tapestries reputed to have been woven for Marie Antoinette on her marriage to the Dauphin. What about this allegiance thing, where does he stand?
"Oh, I suppose Anglo-Irish is the term, but with me it's Bantry first, and Ireland or England second."
He stands with trombone, gazing on to the lawn and beyond. "When I was a child, I used to pretend the house was a ship and look through the windows over the bay."
I'm beginning to feel sadness for this breed's troubles, and that's problematic. For they are in essence the spawn of mercenaries, court favourites and criminal thugs who ethnically cleansed my own people from their centuries- old town lands. And though the passing centuries have lent a glamour now faded, the fact remains that those acres of parkland are stolen property.
One man who hasn't yet allowed commercialism to enter his west of Ireland demesne is Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth who, at 48, is a younger member of the Ascendancy. A concoction of Jeremy Paxman and Angus Deayton, extremely tall, he bends his upper body toward you with a big grin. "They wanted, not every night of the year, but nearly, medieval banquets here in the dining room." Peals of laughter. We are standing in the spartan dining room of Lissadell House, County Sligo. Surrounding us are full-length portraits of Josslyn's family and retainers painted directly on to the walls. Josslyn stands beside one and blends in alarmingly.
"Casimir did these back in 1911, he called himself a count but wasn't really. So Constance wasn't really a Countess." Countess Constance Markiewicz née Gore-Booth, society beauty, muse to Yeats, revolutionary, Sinn Fein MP and another "republican icon", is Josslyn's most celebrated ancestor. As a leader of the 1916 Easter rebellion, she only just escaped the firing squads. She became the first woman elected to the British parliament back in 1919. True to her Irish republican ideals, she refused to take her seat.
Josslyn shows me her signature carved with a diamond into a windowpane. "There was something unfulfilled about her," he says. "She tried painting and she was hopeless, she tried acting and she wasn't very good, she tried marriage and she wasn't very good at that, so she became a revolutionary, and in some respects she was quite good at that. It appealed to her as she was a histrionic figure and liked cutting a pose and wearing funny clothes. Like most women of her class and age, she was completely uneducated."
Unlike most Irish country houses, Lissadell dates from the mid-19th-century Greek revival period that eschewed unnecessary embellishment. That severe style and the lack of a protective cloak of trees emphasise its stark, almost modern appearance. Yeats, nearly a local boy, visited the house on at least two occasions and left a poignant impression of the house and Constance: "The light of evening, Lissadell/ Great windows open to the south/Two girls in silk kimonos, both/beautiful, one a gazelle."
When Josslyn first visited his legacy, the house had lost that ambience. "I can remember waking up in the small hours, not to the sound of water dripping into one strategically placed bucket in the corridor but more than you could actually count. It was a shambles." The estate had come close to extinction. At the beginning of the century, Lissadell was reduced from 30,000 to 2,500 acres, the bulk of which was later taken over by the Land Commission. The family failed to adapt to a fast changing post-independence Ireland and suffered the consequences.
Constance's nephew Michael, heir to the estate, suffered a nervous breakdown and was made a ward of court, and his younger sisters took over the day-to-day running of the estate. These genteel ladies, innocent of the harsh reality of estate management and farming, suffered the humiliating experience of having their cattle herd seized and the estate's woods cut to pay debts. Josslyn stepped in to save the family inheritance.
The Gore-Booths, irreverently known as the Gore Blimeys, had long been regarded as "good" landlords. During the great famine of the 1840s, Sir Robert Gore-Booth practically bankrupted himself helping his starving tenants. Apart from mortgaging the estate, he spent £57,000 helping them to emigrate and £34,000 importing grain. That's about £1.5m in today's money. Now in kinder times, Josslyn says, "Living in a hugely uncomfortable house in a rather challenging climate, you either become an alcoholic, a lunatic or a recluse. There was a tendency in the past for families like mine to marry into similar families who lived in the same county, and the chance of marrying a cousin, sometimes a first cousin, was quite high. It produced some geniuses, but it also produced some other more tragic figures."
In his days as a City headhunter, Josslyn's opportunities to demonstrate any hereditary eccentricity may have been few. In Ireland, it's most manifest in his dress: the shirt is regulation tattersall check, but his trews are of a striking cherry red, possibly moleskin, and end a good distance above his polished brogues to reveal fine wool socks. An eye-catching enough look to mark him out. Is he Irish or British or Anglo-Irish or Hiberno-Celtic, or what? "I'm not going to answer that one straight. I consider myself Anglo-Irish or British, if you like. Emotionally I'm a Unionist, but pragmatically I'm not sure."
The house's recent history of peeling paint and threadbare carpet is now over. He takes us through the gallery. Strips of fresh paint are visible on the fading banana yellow walls. "We're working from the top down." He points upward: "The roof's secured, and now we have to get the right shade of yellow." In other rooms, portraits are stacked on the floor awaiting the skills of the restorer. He stops, spins around and adopts his hands-on-hip pose. A pronouncement is imminent. "My ambition is - have you got that thing on? Good - my ambition is that I want Lissadell to remain the idiosyncratic home of my family in the west of Ireland. How's that?"
One man who has carefully noted the minutiae of all things Ascendancy is Mark Bence-Jones, an accomplished writer whose roots are firmly embedded in West Cork where his family have held property since the 18th century. "I think the term Anglo-Irish is misleading," he says. "One has a certain feeling or allegiance to Britain - the two countries are too close not to. I think they've always considered themselves Irish. I'm Irish." Bence-Jones has written a trawl of books on the subject, but perhaps his best is Twilight Of The Ascendancy. The Anglos' demise was as much for economic reasons as it was for political, he says. From the Land Act of 1879 to the Wyndham Act of 1903, power was given to tenant farmers to buy their land from the landlord at a fixed price. In one five-year period, some 22,938 occupying tenants did just that. The fixed price was eminently fair to the landlord who also enjoyed a 12% government bonus. "And a lot of people wasted the money," Bence-Jones concedes. By the 1920s, a lot of the families were financially at an end. Professions that were acceptable to this old warrior caste - army, navy or colonial office - now failed to bring in enough to maintain the lifestyle of a race bred for excess.
"They sold up and went to live in smaller houses on the outskirts of Dublin, and some did go away. But I never heard someone say, 'My grandfather couldn't bear staying on after independence.' "
I leave Bence-Jones and pass through the green southern counties where crumbling demesne walls and derelict gate lodges mark out the old estates. But as the physical remnants of yesterday's Ascendancy become tomorrow's archaeology, the strident structure of the new upper order erupts all over the place. Ranch-style bungalows and plastic colonial palazzos are the signs of their wealth and prestige. The new overlords are the Celtic Tigers who, with names more likely to be O'Mara and Dunne than DeButler and DeLacy, have filled the vacuum left by the Anglos. Native born and bred, usually, even if nominally, Catholic, from rural peasant or small town shop-keeping backgrounds, they are in their own way despised as much as their predecessors were.
As an egalitarian and republican, I should be glad that they have wrested back our country from the foe. But I'm not, for the new regime has managed to achieve something the Anglos never really did. Namely to sterilise, fillet and gut a unique culture, environment and spirit that survived eight centuries against ridiculous odds. And all this destruction for the fool's gold that is "prosperity". Maybe there's something in it when the Anglos say they have loved this country like no other.
As I travel through an Ireland that has become nothing more than a vulgar second-rate amusement park, it's ironic yet poetic that the only glimmer of civilisation visible is that golden amber glow of the Ascendancy in descendancy.