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Sunday 30 April 2017

We'll greatly miss grace and beauty of Miranda

The Farmleigh life of the Countess of Iveagh leaves Downton Abbey in the shade, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

Benjamin Guinness, marries Miranda Smiley in 1963. Photo: Getty Images
Benjamin Guinness, marries Miranda Smiley in 1963. Photo: Getty Images

We have all been watching with fascination the romantic happenings of life in the fictional Great House, Downton Abbey, but it would be true to say that life in the real world of Farmleigh and Wilbury Park, former homes of Miranda, Countess of Iveagh, who died last week, was far more interesting and colourful.

Miranda was a sensationally beautiful woman with a string of lovers to her bow including a duke, a marquess, an airline tycoon, a racing driver, and a well-known Irish TV personality.

She was in a way a modern- day Scarlett O'Hara -- bright, beautiful, challenging, fun-loving and spirited, and quite literally added that frisson of 'aristocracy' drama and colour to Dublin in the Seventies and Eighties, where titles participating in Dublin society were somewhat thin on the ground.

I knew her on a couple of fronts over the years, but my first memories are of her when I was a very young girl and my mother showing me a formal photo from the English Social & Personal magazine of the beautiful debutante Miss Miranda Smiley, whose engagement had just been announced to the young Benjamin Guinness, heir to the Guinness billions, and future Earl of Iveagh.

Miranda Daphne Jane Smiley may not have had a title herself, but she was the great granddaughter, on her mother's side, of the 1st Viscount Cowdray and was brought up in Castle Fraser, at Aberdeen, an enormous Z-shaped castle dating back to the 15th century which was gifted by the Pearson family in 1976 to the Scottish National Trust. It was used as a backdrop in some of the scenes for the Helen Mirren movie The Queen.

Miranda's mother Lavinia Pearson, who was also a direct descendant of the novelist Jane Austen, inherited Castle Fraser from her father, and married Major Michael Smiley, who was one of the British prisoners of war who escaped from Colditz -- perhaps it was from him that Miranda inherited her get up and go.

Miranda and Benjamin married in 1963, he was 26 and she was 23, a golden couple to all intents and purposes, with the world at their feet. The Guinness family, however, throughout their different branches, have suffered a lot of tragedies. Indeed, Ben Guinness's father was killed by a V2 rocket in 1944 while on active service in Belgium when Ben was just seven years old. He inherited the title of 3rd Earl of Iveagh on the death of his grandfather in 1967.

Miranda and Benjamin had four children: Edward, now 4th Earl of Iveagh; the Hon Rory Guinness; Lady Emma Guinness Barnard; and Lady Louisa Guinness Ulroth.

Farmleigh, the family home in the Phoenix Park, which now belongs to the Irish State, was a vast country mansion in the middle of the city.

I remember being in it as a family home and the first thing you noticed, once you had driven up through the lush lands, past grazing cattle, to the hall door, were the rows of wellington boots inside the door of the vast hallway.

It was very much an Upstairs Downstairs world, with everything focused on the comings and goings and life around the Earl and Countess, looked after by Pollard the Butler, Annie the cook, and Pat her secretary.

Miranda always had her luxuriant tresses coiffed by Derek Milner of Cezanne Hair Studio in Drury Street. Derek knew Miranda for some 40 years, first meeting her when he was a junior hairdresser in the old Brown Thomas Department Store, which was located in what is now Marks & Spencer in Grafton Street.

"Miranda was as good as she was good looking," he said.

He recalled affectionately that he used go out to Farmleigh every week to do her hair, but she used also pop into BTs and to Cezanne.

"I remember getting Miranda ready to go to various balls with Benjamin; she would be all beautifully dressed in a magnificent gown and Rory, as a little chap, would run and jump into the ballgown. She loved life, fashion, people.

"She had a fantastic business brain but people didn't realise how very good she was to homeless men at the Iveagh Trust. If the hostel was full and there weren't enough beds, Miranda used to worry ceaselessly about this.

"I spoke to her two weeks ago on the phone, I just can't believe she is gone, we will miss her vibrancy and love of life and people so much."

In the old Brown Thomas, Private Lives was a really exclusive little section, up a few steps to the back of the store. Here, there was also a private room for top customers of the store and Miranda Iveagh was, without any doubt, the top customer.

She would be looked after by BT Director, Cecily McMenamin, and Paula Kelly. Her clothes were absolutely fantastic, and she was the perfect clothes horse; tall, slim, beautiful, with dark auburn hair, twinkling eyes, and a wonderful soft, plummy voice.

She indulged her passion for clothes in Private Lives, and in London, favouring designers such as Sonia Rykiel, Jean Muir, Georgio Armani, Valentino, Michelina Stacpoole, Yves St Laurent, Bruce Oldfield, Belville Sassoon, Anouska Hempel and Thierry Mugler.

Wonderful daywear would come from Rykiel, Muir and Armani, whilst fabulous ballgowns of luxuriant silks and lush velvets would be created by Lorcan Mullaney of Belville Sassoon, and by Anouska Hempel, who also went on to open the Hempel Hotel in London.

In the late Seventies, Miranda and Benjamin's marriage deteriorated; she confided to friends of his declining health and alcoholism.

This was a world that revolved around what was then the glamorous Grafton Street, Brown Thomas, West Jewellers, Louis Wine, the Buttery and Layfette Room in the Hibernian Hotel, and the Saddle Room in the Shelbourne Hotel. Miranda's Diary in Image magazine, with its happenings of Dublin society life, was inspired by her.

She had an affair with dapper, good-looking and charming man about town and racing driver Vivien Candy, who sadly died a year or so ago. It was perhaps this liaison which prompted her to buy, in 1981, a racy red De Lorean gull-wing car, of which she had many happy memories of driving her kids around, and which she held on to until earlier this year when she sold it.

After her liaison with Candy, she had an affair with a well-known Irish television personality, and she and Benjamin divorced in 1984.

Although divorced, they remained close, and he spent the final months of his illness with cancer at her then home in Cottesmore Gardens, in Kensington, London, before dying aged only 55 in 1992.

Miranda, it is claimed, was the love of Ryanair founder Tony Ryan's life. He admired her not only as a fantastically beautiful woman but for her amazing business brain. Perhaps it was for her that he originally bought Castle Lyons Estate at Newcastle, Co Dublin, for she certainly had a huge input into the restoration and creation of this wonderful house.

Her taste was unfaltering and exquisite, and it was she who guided Ryan in the world of art and antiques, and in creating a truly classic estate.

She moved to London, selling Farmleigh to the Irish government, which she said to me "was the right thing to do", and she bought a Georgian townhouse at Cottesmore Gardens in Kensington.

She subsequently sold Cottesmore Gardens when she bought a Palladian mansion, Wilbury Park, in Wiltshire, in the late Nineties for something of the order of £7m and spent the next few years restoring the property to its former glory -- indeed, so well that it was the overall winner of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Building Conservation Award in 2006.

Around 2005 she formed a relationship with the 9th Marquess of Londonderry, brother of Jemima Khan's mother Lady Annabel Goldsmith.

Londonderry himself had a rather complicated and tragic marriage background in that what was thought to be the first child and heir to the title by his first wife Nicolette turned out, at 14 months old, to be the son of singer Georgie Fame, whom she later married. But some 20 years later, she went on to take her own life.

Londonderry was then married to a ballet dancer, Doreen Wells, but that also sadly ended in divorce some years later.

Within the last 18 months or so, Miranda developed a tumour on her spine and, despite a valiant fight against the cancer and treatment in the USA, she died in Wiltshire last week.

Whilst based mainly in England, she used to return to Dublin for meetings, staying on occasion at The Clarence Hotel. For her 70th birthday she hosted a party at the Guinness Store House, which in essence was really a farewell party for old friends.

Those who attended included New York Banker James Mellon, Des and Pat O'Malley, Sean Rafferty, Lord and Lady Rosse from Birr, Derek and Joan Milner, and many others.

The legendary beauty and grace of Miranda Iveagh will be greatly missed.

Sunday Independent

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