A lord's journey through fires... for Henry Mount Charles
Next month, he will host a massive concert at Slane Castle. Lord Henry Mount Charles tells how he summoned up the spirit of his ancestor who fought at the Battle of Waterloo, to deal with the fire at the castle and now his cancer - and how dealing with cancer has shown him the true meaning of life
It's a good Anglo-Irish yarn," Lord Henry, the 8th Marquess Conyngham, begins, sitting down on the sofa overlooking his grand back garden that in a few weeks will play host to The Foo Fighters and Hozier et al. Although he and his wife Iona spend "several nights a year here" in Slane Castle, they actually live at the other end of the estate, on the far side of the river, at the actually grander Beauparc House, once the home of the Lambart family.
"It is actually 35 years earlier than Slane Castle because it dates back to about 1750." The last Lambart to live there was a gentleman called Sir Oliver Lambart, who, explains Lord Henry Mount Charles was "a wonderful if somewhat retiring and eccentric individual." The fullness of his eccentricity was revealed when he died in 1986 - and to Henry's "total and utter astonishment" - left the property to him.
"But he never told me," Lord Henry smiles, mischievously.
A year or so before he died, Sir Oliver and Lord Henry had a drink in the very room in which I am talking to the rock 'n' roll aristo.
Oliver had sold a couple of landscapes from Beauparc House by Thomas Roberts. "They eventually ended up in Sotheby's in London and I bought them," Henry explains, "I had them hanging either side of the fireplace here. So he walked into the room to have a drink. He went slightly pale when he saw the two pictures. I knew he had another four. I said, 'Oliver, if you ever decide to sell them, please give me first refusal.'
"He looked at me in a very odd way with an enigmatic smile on his face. I thought, this is very strange."
Lord Henry says that several years later, when Sir Oliver died, "I was actually having lunch with Bono and Larry Mullen in the restaurant we had in the castle on a Sunday, and a solicitor from Dublin appeared in the main hallway and officially informed me that he would soon have some news of importance for me."
Going back to his lunch with the lead singer and the drummer in U2, Lord Henry thought to himself, "this is very peculiar. . .."
So it proved.
After Sir Oliver's body was lowered into the ground, the solicitor tapped Lord Henry on the shoulder and told him the news of importance. "I was in a state of complete and utter shock. We were then faced by the monumental challenge of restoring the building. To put it in context," he adds, "I spent more on it than the entire inheritance was worth but in essence it saved our lives because if we hadn't been sleeping there when the castle caught fire in 1991 we would have been burnt with it."
Tamara, the daughter of Lord Henry and his wife Iona, had been born earlier that year (she now works for Google in Dublin) and the family moved to Beauparc House "because it was the sensible thing to do with a young baby," he says. "And the move saved her life and our lives." He has no doubt whatsoever that had they been sleeping in the upstairs bedroom "we wouldn't have had a prayer of getting out." The drawing room that we are sitting in now was totally destroyed during the fire. "Over the years, we are gradually bringing things back, bringing the castle back to life. There," he says pointing to over the mantle-place, "you have a painting of King Billy by Wyck. That painting was actually hanging in Beauparc House."
I ask him if he took it down off the wall and brought it to Sotheby's how much would it be worth.
"I never discuss the value of things. Particularly if you have had the great good fortune to have inherited a lot of very beautiful things and they are destroyed in front of you - reminding myself of the value of things can be a little distressing. But suffice it to say, I have actually two paintings of King Billy - and that is not the best one!"
"But at the corner there," he says pointing, "are two Conyngham daughters painted a good many moons ago - my daughters don't dress up like that any longer!" he laughs, referring to Tamara and Henrietta, 38, who lives in the UK with her husband Tom Lichfield, son of the late Lord Lichfield, and their two sons.
Henry also has two sons: 40-year-old Alexander, Earl of Mount Charles, who runs the Slane estate with his wife and is also managing director of Slane Castle Irish Whiskey; Henry's other son Wolfe - "he is either 36 or 37, I can never remember which!" - lives in London and is married "to a beautiful Brazilian girl." He is about to open a restaurant called Wolfe in London.
"But the intriguing thing about that painting of [the two ancestral Conyngham daughters] is that it is by an artist called Wissing," Lord Henry continues, "and a larger version of that picture was hanging there prior to the fire. It was destroyed during the fire and my mother found that painting in Christie's in London and gave it to me for my 50th birthday. So that is a rather wonderful story.
"And underneath it is a painting of the castle actually during the fire which was given to me by my youngest brother Patrick," he continues. "When Patrick first gave it to me I nearly busted it over his head because I was still so upset at what had happened. But I am now very grateful to have an artist record the event.
"People say you should have post-traumatic stress counselling; I never did that," he adds "It took a while. I've got over it now."
Henry's wife Iona, once known as Lady Iona Charlotte Grimston - whom Henry married in 1985; his first marriage to Juliet Ann Kitson ended in the early 1980s - pops her head around the door to say hi. ("It will be our 30th wedding anniversary next year", he says proudly). When Iona leaves, I ask Henry was there anything she said to him when she first saw the fire. He shakes his head about that dreadful night.
"It's a very peculiar thing," he begins. "I drove across the bridge at Slane. It was the middle of the night. I looked up and the entire riverside of the building was engulfed in flames. So I knew - obviously - that what we were facing was catastrophic. But somehow I just went into a battle mode. Adrenalin is an extraordinary thing. You just become almost a different person.
"It is like somebody else took over my psyche for the period of the fire itself. I don't know what it is. I sometimes wonder whether it is in my DNA. My great-great-great-great-grandfather led the charge of the heavy cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo. I have his portrait hanging here in the dining room and I sometimes wonder whether there wasn't part of him in me.
"For a time after that," he adds, "I was really quite depressed. That period was very, very dark. I drank too much. I got my head in a very bad place. It's all in the past now.
"Then Denis Desmond - who is a good friend of mine - said to me, 'Do you want to go back into rock 'n' roll?' (The David Bowie concert in 1987 was the last gig at Slane, until Lord Henry and the aforementioned Denis Desmond, head of MCD, put on Guns N' Roses in the summer of 1992.)
He mentioned his great-great-great- great-grandfather at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and subsequently going into battle mode for the fire at Slane Castle in 1991.Did he have to go into that same battle mode for what he is currently going through with his cancer?
"Yes, but in a sense it's different. First of all, I'm that much older. You equip yourself to deal with things. What is a common denominator is actually learning the rhythm in taking a day at a time. You don't try and jump the fence that is five in front of you. You jump the one that is in front of you," he says.
"And when you get over that you say, 'Great, let's jump the next one.' Certainly, as far as my health is concerned, which was a hell of a shock when I first discovered it, that was the way in which I approached it. I suppose, I've always had a slight warrior spirit. My life has been a mixture of great good fortune and adversity. I just try to see my life as a journey."
"I sure as hell hope it's not…" he says, pausing. "That it is going to go on for a good while yet. You have to look at it as a voyage of discovery. Actually, in a sense that enables you to cling on to hope. We all need hope. We all need people who will talk about the future. The past is very important, in what we can take and learn from it, but we mustn't live in the past. We must look to the future."
During his illness, the point at which it was most difficult to retain such a philosophical view of life was, he says, during chemotherapy.
"It affects everybody differently but it is difficult. There is no getting away from that."
"But the way I found in which I could best deal with it was to keep constantly reminding myself if I was feeling and moving into a very dark place - which did happen - that it was the toxicity that was doing it; that I wasn't really in a dark place. That somehow outside of this room - even if all the curtains were drawn and all the doors were shut - there was a light through that door. Then the light gradually became visible. But it was a bit of a battle."
Was it like he would draw back the curtains and there would be another set and then another set of curtains? And it wasn't easy to get to the light?
"No," he grimaces at the memory, "it was not easy."
Asked about the psychological place he was in, Lord Henry says: "Pretty bloody dark."
"I felt quite suicidal at times; but behind those suicidal thoughts - "
I interrupt him and ask him to qualify what he has just said about suicide.
"I can qualify it by saying: 'I can't deal with this. I haven't got the energy any longer to go on.'"
Did he say that to Iona? Or did he say to himself, 'I'm going for a walk and I'm not coming back.'
"Well, actually, getting out the front door would have been a problem. I just had no energy. I just remember lying on a sofa," he says now, sitting on the very sofa now. "I couldn't read. I read a great deal, normally.
"I couldn't concentrate. I was actually saying, 'What's the point any longer of this? This is too much.' It was losing the will to battle on, underneath. And yes, I did talk to my wife about it. What you would also do is you'd try and protect your closest and dearest from the darkest points. Because they are trying to bolster you up. And in a sense they are also trying, because it is a distressing thing. It is not just for the person," he says putting his hand against his heart.
"You are somehow tapping into your inner soul to get through this and it is exhausting. But you are also trying to keep other people going and that feels at times like a responsibility; it is not a bad responsibility.
"So it was a struggle and I make no apology for saying it. But it is the constant recognition that this is poison. It is like, I am injecting poison into you and it is going to screw with your brain. And in it goes and you have to constantly remind yourself that I have done this to you. That kept me going."
The mind can play tricks, I say. "Oh sure it can, but as long as you keep repeating that to yourself. Which I did - almost out loud at times."
How long ago was that? "Oh, very recently," he says adding that it all started off on a holiday in Palm Beach, Florida, in January, 2014, with the discovery of a kidney stone - "which actually saved my life because I ended up in ER at two o'clock in the morning. They doped me up to the gills. I had great fun emailing my friends from the trolley."
The radiographers in the hospital spotted something on his lung that they didn't like the look of. The biopsy he had when he returned to Dublin proved to be cancerous.
"They removed the lower lobe of my right lung in St James's just after St Patrick's Day last year. I was advised then that that was going to be the end of it, and that they really would be able to resolve the problem surgically, because it was quite a small tumour. But unfortunately there were traces of cancer in the lymph nodes," he says.
"So then…the chemo and then the radiation. It was pretty tough being told that, you know [he had more cancer] when I thought I was [in the clear.] And as we are talking here today [on a Monday afternoon], I had a Cat scan on Friday and I get the result tomorrow. So my head while I'm talking to you now has a big buzz in the back of it."
The following day, Henry got his results, which weren't good. I thought it best to wait for a week for our next chat, by which time, mercifully, the winds of fate have blown in his favour. "I'm in pretty good form," he smiled, "because there was an awful panic after I saw you. The Cat scan that I had, showed something on my right lung.
"I thought, 'Oh, Sweet Jesus, I am going to go through that awful carry-on that I had just got through.' But then I had a Pet scan and it appeared it had started to shrink and it appeared that this was a result, most likely, of a chest infection. I can tell you I have never been so delighted in my life to be diagnosed with a chest infection!" he says with a laugh.
"So we had a roller coaster week last week. I saw my oncologist this morning and everything is grand. I have some scarring on my lung, which I knew about, and then I have to have another scan in another three months. The process will be ongoing but at least I have jumped the next fence, which is a monumental relief both to me and to my dear wife.
"This is the sort thing you go through. It can do the head in a bit.'
How is his head now?
"My head now is in a good place," he says.
"We continue on. I think that I now have an intensity. I want to live every day that I have left as well as I can. You recalibrate your brain In a sense, the adversity has brought me into a better place. And that sounds a bit like I have suddenly found God or something like that; but adversity does this to people. It takes them sometimes - not always - to a better place.
Has he found God?
"In a sense, I have always had a belief in something. I mean, I was quite religious in my youth. I am not in a conventional sense any longer. I worked in an Anglican mission at one stage, between school and university, it was a very moving and spiritual experience working for a man with real vision," he says of medical missionary Anthony Barker. "The interesting thing is, some of the elements of that have returned to me but not in a conventional sense. But that is what I mean when I say a recalibration. It is a rediscovering of some of the more important motors in one's existence."
The Foo Fighters with special guests Kaiser Chiefs, Hozier, Ash and The Strypes play Slane Castle on May 30. Tickets, €79.50 inclusive of booking fee, are on sale now. Buy online: www.ticketmaster.ie
You can watch Barry Egan's interview with Lord Henry Mount Charles on independent.ie
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