Writer Mark Bence-Jones left a stamp on history with invaluable works on the landed gentry, writes Charles Lysaght
Published 25/04/2010 | 05:00
Mark Bence-Jones, the writer, who has died in the English county of Suffolk, was a tireless chronicler of the vanishing world of Ascendancy Ireland into which he was born. His Guide to Irish Country Houses published in 1978 and revised in 1988 has accounts of 2,000 gentry homes (many of which had become ruins) and is a mine of architectural information and family lore.
His best-selling Twilight of the Ascendancy (1986), captures the gaiety and eccentricity of a doomed aristocracy resisting the popular nationalist movement and then clinging to a separate identity in a changed Ireland.
It is highly entertaining and also contains original material and valuable historical insights. It paints a benign picture of the relationship between the Ascendancy and other classes.
Mark was born in London in 1930, where his father, Philip Bence-Jones, the younger son of a Cork landed family and the grandson of one of the most intransigent landlords of the Land War, was working as an engineer.
The family moved to India in 1934, so giving the young Mark first-hand experience of the Raj, which he put to good use in a biography of Clive of India -- his most scholarly work -- and a book on the Viceroys.
Philip Bence-Jones had converted to Rome on marriage to May Thomas, a Catholic from Alexandria in Egypt. Mark, a cherished only child, having been confirmed in a private ceremony by Cardinal Hinsley, was sent to school at Ampleforth, where he edited a college magazine.
Lisselane, the old Bence-Jones home near Clonakilty, which had one of Ireland's finest Edwardian gardens, had been sold in 1930. So, when the family returned to Ireland after the Second World War, they settled at Glenville just north of the city of Cork, where their ancestors had first attained prominence as attorneys in the 18th Century. After Ampleforth, Mark went up to Pembroke College Cambridge, where he read history. A spell at the Royal Agricultural College at Circencester gave him enough knowledge of farming to oversee operations on the farm at Glenville.
He was delighted to live with his parents, to whom he was more than usually attached. The values and way of life of their generation remained his throughout his life. On the whole, he related better to older people than to contemporaries. He steered clear of new-fangled inventions such as the radio and television and was a stickler for traditional etiquette.
From his Cork base he managed an active social life throughout Ireland and in England, often staying with friends. In 1965 he married Gillian Pretyman, a poet who was heir to a large estate in Suffolk and a cousin of Princess Alice of Gloucester.
But Mark loved his parents and Ireland too much to abandon his home at Glenville and to live entirely in England -- eschewing extravagance, he was happy with his frugal lifestyle.
For most of his married life he divided his time between the two islands. For a time he was a regular reviewer of books in the Cork Examiner.
With his encyclopaedic knowledge of family connections, Mark assisted his friend Hugh Montgomery Massingberd in bringing out in 1976 an updated edition of Burke's Landed Gentry of Ireland.
Renamed Burke's Irish Family Records, it also contains entries for interesting Irish dynasties, such as the De Valeras and O'Higginses, who were not part of the landed gentry. When, in 1986, Massingberd started a lively obituaries section in the Daily Telegraph, Mark contributed pieces that were gracefully written and peppered with amusing anecdotes.
A devout and conservative Catholic, Mark was to be seen deep in prayer long after the congregation had departed after Mass in the village church at Glenville. He was active from the 1970s as a Knight of Honour and Devotion in the Irish Association of the Order of Malta, of which he was chancellor.
He restored rigour to the implementation of the genealogical qualifications for membership. Each spring he did wonderful work looking after the sick whom the Order took on its annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.
In middle life, Mark was often mistaken for British prime minister Edward Heath. As he grew older, he seemed like a reincarnation of the portraits of 18th Century squires often found in old houses.
Ill-health dating back to the early years of the century prevented him from completing a book on his friend, Elizabeth Bowen.
But with characteristic doggedness, he clung on, attending social events although prematurely aged and incapacitated. However, he was less able to travel and handed over his property at Glenville to his devoted younger daughter, Silvia.
Mark is survived by his wife Gill, one son and two daughters. He kept a diary throughout his life which should be a useful source for future chroniclers of social history.
Those mentioned in it need not be fearful, as he seldom spoke ill of others.