Lady Mairi Bury
Prominent member of the Northern Ireland aristocracy, passionate horticulturist and DUP supporter
Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00
Lady Mairi Bury, who has died aged 88, was the youngest daughter of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and lived most of her life at the family home, Mount Stewart, overlooking Strangford Lough in Co Down, Northern Ireland.
Mount Stewart has many historic associations and boasts one of the great gardens of the world. As a passionate horticulturist herself, Lady Mairi Bury was determined to preserve the layout that her mother had created after the First World War.
From "the darkest, dampest, saddest place I had ever stayed in winter", Lady Londonderry created a garden -- or rather, a series of gardens, including one in the shape of a shamrock with a centre piece in the form of the Red Hand of Ulster planted with begonias. The tops of the hedges have been cut into ambitious topiary, depicting an Irish harp, a schooner in full sail and a 14th-century hunting scene.
Mount Stewart has belonged to the family since 1740. The family wealth came from a judicious marriage through which they inherited Wynyard, a large estate in County Durham with extensive coal mines.
An ancestor was Lord Castlereagh, whose manipulations secured the passing of the Act of Union between England and Ireland and who, as British foreign secretary, played a major role in the reconstruction of Europe after the Napoleonic wars. He later became insane -- it was said because hot buttered toast disagreed with him -- and cut his throat with a pen knife.
Mairi Bury was born Mairi Elizabeth Vane-Tempest-Stewart on March 25, 1921. Her grandfather, the 6th Marquess, was one of the leaders of the Ulster Unionist movement, though he distanced himself from the fact that smuggled arms, to be used in the resistance to Home Rule, were concealed in his yard. His wife, Therese, went to look at them. "Each bundle containing five rifles, bayonets and ammunition and were all German Mausers. I thought them the most beautifully packed bundles," she wrote.
Renowned for her parties, she entertained King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Mount Stewart, giving up her own bedroom so that the King could have the only bathroom in the house. In the visitors' book, the Queen wrote disparagingly: "Beautiful place, but very damp."
Lady Mairi's father entered Northern Irish politics and was minister of education at Stormont in 1923, but was unsuccessful in his attempt to establish a non-sectarian secular primary school system. He returned to British politics as Secretary of State for Air, a post to which he was particularly suited as he was a keen pilot -- as was his daughter Mairi, who piloted her first plane at the age of 12.
Mairi's mother, Edith, was a formidable political hostess. The house parties included such diverse guests as WB Yeats; the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth; Michael Collins; Winston Churchill; and Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, who became infatuated with his hostess, signing his letters to her: "Your attendant ghillie".
According to Oliver St John Gogarty, it was "a house so hospitable that after a few days you wouldn't know which of you owned the place". (A mistake, one would have thought, few ordinary guests can have made, as Mount Stewart had an indoor staff of four footmen, a groom of the chambers, a butler, numerous housemaids and kitchen maids as well as a kilted piper who played in the early morning round the outside of the house and later at dinner.)
Controversially, in a lone effort at appeasement, Lord Londonderry invited the German ambassador, von Ribbentrop, to stay (he was known as "the Londonderry Herr"). And, as a teenager, Mairi went with her parents to Germany, where they visited Hitler.
She sat next to him on a sofa, but was unable to converse as she did not speak German. She said later that she thought him "a nondescript person", and she described Himmler as like "a shop-walker in Harrods".
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Mairi drove pick-ups in the London docks while serving in the motor transport section of the Women's Legion, which her mother had founded during the previous war. In 1940 she married Derek Keppel, Viscount Bury, son of the 9th Earl of Albemarle, and had two children before the marriage was dissolved in 1958. Living at Mount Stewart, she had the first thoroughbred stud in Northern Ireland -- with her horse Fighting Charlie she twice won the Ascot Gold Cup. Many of her forebears had been famous racehorse owners; Sir Henry Vane Tempest had commissioned Stubbs to paint his horse Hambletonian after it won at Newmarket, and the picture now hangs in Mount Stewart.
Though the gardens were given to the National Trust in 1957, and Mairi Bury handed over the house and most of its contents to the Trust in 1976, she continued to live there, retreating into her private apartment as the public came through the door. Visitors were greeted by a "naked" cockatoo in the hall (it was addicted to pulling out its own feathers). When not in its cage, it would perch on its mistress's shoulder.
One of Mairi Bury's pastimes was philately, which she discovered at the age of eight, and she built up a remarkable British collection with a particularly fine selection of Penny Blacks.
Though the family traditionally belonged to the Conservative and Unionist party, she felt that the Good Friday Agreement was "infamous" because, in her view, it did not safeguard the interests of Northern Ireland. She therefore changed her allegiance to the DUP.
Lady Mairi Bury, who died late last year, is survived by her two daughters.