An intrepid traveller and gifted writer who enriched the lives of every person who knew her, writes Charles Lysaght
Published 09/10/2011 | 05:00
Melosina (Melo) Lenox-Conyngham of Lavistown Co Kilkenny, who died in hospital in Waterford on October 1, was secretary of the Butler Society almost from its foundation in the sixties. She was an accomplished writer and broadcaster as well as being a lifelong intrepid traveller.
Melo was born on February 22, 1941, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where her father, a scion of an Ulster Ascendancy family, had inherited a tea plantation. She was soon on the move as a threatened Japanese invasion early in 1942 led to her pregnant mother's evacuation to southern Africa until peace returned.
Melo's life was divided between home in Ceylon, school in England and holidays with relatives in Ireland until her parents returned in the late fifties to a family home in Ravensdale Co Louth. It left her with a voice that was perhaps more of the Empire than Irish or even English.
Missing out on university, she worked her way around the world doing a variety of jobs before settling in Ireland. She inherited a property in Kilkenny around 1970. For many years she rode out with the Kilkenny Hunt.
But, in truth, her interests were less sporting than literary. The most formative influence on her subsequent life was her maternal uncle Hubert Butler, the Kilkenny writer, and his wife Peggy, sister of the actor Tyrone Guthrie. Melo shared their interest in writing and they inculcated in her an interest in the history of her own people in Ireland and a belief that they still had a role to play.
She involved herself in the Butler Society, which was largely the brainchild of Hubert Butler. Its foundation in 1967 coincided with the gift of Kilkenny Castle to the nation by Arthur Butler, Marquess of Ormonde. Since then, the society has held triennial rallies in Kilkenny attracting Butlers from Britain and further afield reliving the ancient glories of the family.
The sustained fortune of this most successful of Irish family rallies was largely the work of Melo as the society's secretary. Efficient without being officious, and with a gift for friendship, she attracted participants to return and injected enough novelty into each rally to make them glad they had done so. She attended gatherings of Butlers staged in Britain, Spain, Germany, the United States, Canada, Argentina and New Zealand.
A strange diffidence prevented Melo from realising her own literary potential until middle life -- she was writing for a long time before she offered her first finely crafted short story for publication. Her confidence was greatly enhanced by her success as a broadcaster on RTE's Sunday Miscellany, delivering short, pithy talks in her characterful voice. Their content varied from tales of colourful relatives, such as great grandaunt Eleanor who was abducted by 'Woodcock' Carden, to personal reminiscences, sometimes gently self-mocking, that lost nothing in the telling.
It was a sadness to Melo, as well as a loss to listeners, that in recent years the producers ceased to accept the talks she submitted to them.
A long-standing fascination with diaries, first stimulated by reading those written around 1830 by Callan schoolmaster Humphrey O'Sullivan, led to her anthology being published in 1998. These represented only a fraction of the diaries she unearthed. Together with the diary she herself kept and an unfinished book on the houses of Kilkenny, they bid fair to be a valuable literary legacy.
Melo was diagnosed with cancer six or seven years ago. Always reserved about her feelings, she shrugged off her misfortune, penning hilarious articles on her experiences in hospital -- she was a sharp observer of the foibles and absurdities of humankind.
In remission, she resumed her travels, sending witty postcards to friends. She wrote articles about her journeys and also found a new niche penning anonymous obituaries for the Irish Times and Daily Telegraph, the last of which appeared little over a month ago.
Melo is survived by her brother Vere and sister Eleanor Grene. At her funeral service in St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, on Tuesday, there were evocative tributes from nieces and nephews recalling an understanding and sympathetic aunt who had enriched their lives. She was buried in Ennisnag churchyard near her uncle Hubert Butler.