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Review: Shane Leslie, Sublime Failure by Otto Rauchbauer

Shane Leslie, the writer, was one of a number of Ascendancy figures who in the decades before independence deserted their ancestral allegiance to make common cause with the nationalism of the Catholic majority.

Shortly after graduating from Cambridge in 1908, he became a Catholic, at the same time agreeing to renounce his succession as eldest son to the family estates in Monaghan and adjacent counties amounting to 50,000 acres. He changed his name from John to Shane, learned Irish and wore a kilt. He befriended Patrick Pearse and was a governor of his school.

Leslie's American mother Leonie Jerome was sister to the mother of Winston Churchill, and Churchill, a supporter of home rule, introduced his young cousin to the leaders of the Irish party at Westminster. Leslie stood unsuccessfully as a nationalist for the constituency of Londonderry at the two general elections of 1910, losing each time by a handful of votes.

Subsequently he went to the United States to raise funds for the Gaelic League. While there, he abandoned thoughts of becoming a Dominican monk and married a well-connected American. Although it produced three colourful children, the marriage was not a success. For all his devout Catholicism Leslie was a pretty unfaithful husband; letters to one of his lovers, the Lady of Glin, are included in this book.

Counted an impractical dreamer and having suffered a nervous breakdown, he was not pushed into service in the Great War, in the first weeks of which his most promising sibling perished. He moved to the United States to counter Irish American efforts to keep that country out of the war.

He joined with Cecil Spring-Rice, the Limerick man who was British ambassador in Washington, in urging clemency towards the leaders of the Easter Rebellion. Subsequently Leslie fought a losing battle trying to maintain Irish American support for Redmond and the Irish party. The author thinks that Leslie felt compromised in his Irish allegiance because he was working for British intelligence but there is little evidence on this.

What is true is that on his return London became the centre of his life, and Catholicism rather than Irish nationalism became his ruling passion. He established himself as a Catholic writer with a biography of Cardinal Manning. He was editor of a Catholic journal called the Dublin Review until 1926 when his novel The Cantab describing young love too explicitly led to a prosecution for obscenity that was dropped only when he withdrew the book. A few years previously he had led the charge to have Joyce's Ulysses banned in Britain.

As a man of letters in London Leslie produced poetry, short stories and a succession of historical books and memoirs, read at the time and not devoid of good insights and fine phrases but now forgotten. With his kilt and interest in ghosts he was viewed in England as an eccentric Irishman and not taken all that seriously. He maintained a strong American connection, helping book dealers there to acquire libraries from aristocratic houses in Britain. Rather a showman, he made a hit on lecture tours in the United States with his stentorian, rather dramatic oratory.

While he adored celebrity and high society too much to spend his life in the backwater Ireland became, Leslie retained a benevolent, rather romantic interest in this country. He made annual excursions to Castle Leslie in Monaghan which, with his consent, had passed from his parents to his children and, happily, still survives in family ownership.

He ran the London Shamrock Club for Irish servicemen during the Second World War. He tried to persuade the former King Edward VIII, then Duke of Windsor, to settle here after it; there is new material in this book on the Duke's distaste for Northern Ireland and opposition to partition.

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As a leading member of an organisation called "Men of the Trees", Leslie encouraged afforestation. In 1961 he presented all title to Lough Derg and its islands to the diocese of Clogher and was rewarded with a papal knighthood.

Otto Rauchbauer has produced a splendid scholarly book, based on a thorough survey of Leslie's voluminous papers. There are many evocative photographs. It is, perhaps, more a critical study of his work than a biography of the man. An appendix contains an admirably edited selection from the letters that made Leslie renowned as a correspondent.

The author concludes that Leslie wrote too much without enough quality control. His reputation suffered and he has suffered an ill-deserved oblivion. He might have done better to have followed the instincts of his rebellious youth and devoted himself to the new Ireland. But he was too much a prisoner of his background to do that.

Charles Lysaght has written the entry on Sir Shane Leslie in the Dictionary of Irish Biography published by the Royal Irish Academy in November 2009

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