Why the new Lord of Slane is a chip off the old rocker
John Meagher talks to the young Earl of Mount Charles and his da
Alex is in the chilly drawing room, busily putting his Blackberry though its paces. The weeks leading up to concert day at Slane are anxious ones for all concerned, and the elder son of Henry Mountcharles is doing his bit to ensure that Saturday, June 20 passes smoothly and that the last remaining "VIP Garden Party" tickets sell out.
In March, Henry Mountcharles became the eighth Marquess Conyngham upon the death of his father, Frederick, and under the peerage title system, 34-year-old Alex assumed the title of Earl of Mount Charles.
With such a grand title comes new responsibilities. His father has been a notable, and intriguing, figure in Irish life for the best part of 30 years, and now there's a sense that Alex -- Lord Alexander Burton Conyngham to give him his more informal official name -- is ready for his turn in the spotlight.
"I've been back in the country for three years now and am married with a five-month old daughter," he says, his accent confirming a childhood spent in the English public school system. "I'm getting more involved with the concerts and with our new venture."
He is talking of Slane Castle Irish Whiskey, the product of a collaboration between Alex, Henry and the late Frederick. A former employee of Irish Distillers in Australia, Alex knows his whiskey and is buzzing about the prospect of collecting the first consignment from Cooley Distillery in Co Louth. "It's a premium whiskey that we're going to price just above Jameson."
Just then, Henry strides into the drawing room. I'm somewhat surprised as I had been led to believe that Alex would be taking the interview on his own -- evidence, perhaps, of a changing of the guard at Slane Castle. But it soon becomes obvious that Henry is as much involved with the Slane brand as he has always been.
Father and son bear a striking similarity -- tall and slim, both wear their grey-streaked hair fashionably unkempt. And this morning, each sports a pair of odd socks. Henry's Armani sunglasses stay on.
My train of thought is thrown momentarily when Henry reminds me that I had once dismissively written that his concerts are passé when viewed alongside such multi-stage events as Electric Picnic. He quotes me back my line about "a field in Meath", which seems to have caused considerable annoyance. He is adamant that Slane will remain a one-day event with just the one stage. "The atmosphere and excitement over the course of a single day building up to a headline act is special -- that's why we place huge emphasis on a headline act."
Henry insists that the entire family, including Alex and his sisters Henrietta and Tamara and brother Wolfe, choose the headline act each year. Oasis, he claims, were his "dream band" for 2009 and scotches rumours that U2 were approached. "It didn't even come into my radar. I'm good friends with Adam Clayton and it was never discussed. That's not to say that U2 won't play here again at a future date."
The first Slane concert -- with Thin Lizzy headlining -- was organised against the backdrop of Bobby Sands' death and the hunger strikes. "It was an extremely difficult time," he says. "Here was this Anglo-Irish guy trying to put on a concert in his estate when there were black flags [in support of the hunger strikers] flying in the village of Slane and graffiti written on our gates -- 'Brits out' and worse -- that my children would see on their way to school.
"I got abusive, very threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. I got really unpleasant mail. Alex's maternal grandfather lived in Cornwall and was very keen for the children to move from the country. We're Irish -- I was born in Dublin. We come from a family that fought on both sides of the Battle of the Boyne, but to many I was just a west Brit. I remember, at one black-tie function, someone walked up to me and spat in my face."
I ask Alex if his privileged background ever caused him anxiety and he mentions having to justify "the title thing" when he returned to Ireland to attend university. "At Trinity I got a hard time from a couple of people and in a way I then realised we are what we are and there's no point hiding behind something we're not. I don't go around using the title every day -- I don't introduce myself as ... " -- his voice trails off -- "I'm just Alex Mountcharles at the end of the day.
"Having said that, we have a title and while I accept that people can find it challenging, I think if you remove it it's like erasing a part of Irish history. My grandfather was the seventh marquess and my father is the eighth marquess and if all goes to plan I will be the ninth. My daughter [Laragh] is the daughter of an earl, so she is a lady. The title is an important part of who I am and I'm not going to put that away for anyone."
It is a view shared by his father. "This is a very different Ireland now than the one I came back to when I returned from university in America and living in the UK," Henry says. "It was difficult to return -- and very difficult as a child to see my father being described in public as a robber baron. We are not robber barons. We have not taken one penny from the state for the restoration of this castle [after much of it was destroyed by fire in 1992]. Seeing my father so unfairly pilloried left an indelible impression ... he was a real gent, my dad. I thought to myself at a pretty young age that I'm not going to deny what tradition I'm from. Part of the journey that we have to make as a nation is to embrace all aspects of our history."
Of Scottish descent, the Conyngham family acquired land in Donegal in the early 17th century during the Plantation of Ulster. The title of Marquess of Conyngham was created in 1816 for Henry Conyngham, who at that point was based at Slane Castle.
Since the 1980s, Henry Mountcharles has been happy to be nicknamed the rock 'n' roll aristocrat. Already, he says, he has the headline act in mind for both 2010 and 2011. But don't expect Madonna to make a return to the venue. "That was a testy time," he says, exchanging knowing glances with his son. "Let's just say that if you were to ask us if we would have her back we would give you a one-word answer. No."