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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Obituary: Sir Jack Leslie

Disco-loving WWII veteran with a passion for travelling who was loved by many, writes Barbara McCarthy

Sir Jack Leslie's funeral cortege goes through the grounds of Castle Leslie
Sir Jack Leslie's funeral cortege goes through the grounds of Castle Leslie
Jack Leslie as a young officer
Sir Jack with his ‘chevalier’ letter

Barbara McCarthy

'It was like the final scene of El Cid mixed with Downton Abbey," Mark Leslie said of his 'Uncle Jack's' "stunning" funeral at his home in Castle Leslie, Monaghan last week.

Prancing black-plumed horses pulled a Victorian hearse carrying 99-year-old World War II veteran Sir Jack Leslie along the driveway of his home, which was lined with members of staff dressed in tartan livery.

An Uilleann piper played Gaelic laments as Sir Jack was laid to rest at sunset on the family plot while mourners in black coats and top hats looked on.

After a celebratory banquet for 200 friends and neighbours, a perfect full moon rose above the lake on the demesne, and his grave was baptised with Champagne to end what has been a cinematic experience. The scene mirrored the front cover of Jack's memoirs, Never a Dull Moment, for which he painted Glaslough Lake by moonlight.

"Words can't describe our bittersweet joy at the manner of his living and dying," Mark Leslie said of his funeral. "I'm still basking in the golden glow of his departure.

"Jack was such a special person, who was loved by many. He never said a bad word about anyone, not even the people who captured him and brought him to prisoner of war camps in Germany."

The outpouring of condolences since his death at the dawn chorus last Monday morning in the arms of his nieces Antonia and Sammy Leslie were a testament to the tall aristocrat.

Electro DJs mourned the loss of Ireland's 'oldest raver' on social media pages; Withnail and I star and host of the TV show Hotel Secrets, Richard E Grant, saluted the "incredible Sir Uncle Jack"; couples who previously got married at Castle Leslie thanked Jack for making their wedding "so special"; while the Irish Guards wrote: "Guardsman stand down. Your duty is done."

Born John Norman Ide Leslie in New York in December 1916, he was the eldest son of Shane Leslie, a diplomat and writer, and Marjorie Ide, a well-connected American whose father was the governor general of the Philippines.

'Jack', as he was called from childhood, remembered catching Spanish Influenza and almost succumbing to a 106-degree fever as a two-year-old, before he developed a mastoid some weeks later, which left him deaf in one ear.

He also remembered travelling to Liverpool with his parents and sister Anita on the Cedric White Star Liner in 1919 and "running" to the port holes as people shouted "Ireland" when they saw the coast of the country that was to be his home.

When he arrived at Castle Leslie, he was greeted by his grandparents, John Leslie, 2nd Baronet, and his wife, Leonie.

Jack, who never married or had children, was raised surrounded by lords and ladies and attended Downside school in the UK, as Eton was too Protestant for his Roman Catholic convert father.

His family lived mostly in London, and Jack recalled summers in Co Monaghan with many house parties and interesting guests.

After he left Cambridge University, he attended an unending series of debutant balls while dreaming of becoming a Viceroy of India before World War II got in the way. "Jack went straight to war in France from a party in St James's Palace in 1940," Mark Leslie said.

In his book, Jack described the Battle of France as "utterly horrendous and ridiculous" at the same time. "We heard shells 'roaring like trains being driven over us'. A nearby cow began to 'moo' loudly, which made my friend and I laugh at such a coincidence of terror and absurdity," he wrote of one experience.

He spoke of hollowing out trenches and opening fire at German tanks, who reciprocated with machine guns and cannons. "I thought, 'Is this the end?' And I prayed 'Oh God, save us.' Then a German sergeant stood over us with a stick bomb in his raised arm shouting 'Aus. Aus.'"

Jack ended up as a prisoner of war in Germany for five years before he managed to get a postcard to Winston Churchill, knowing that it could get him killed, but doing so to save his men.

They were eventually released from the Bavarian camp of Mossberg in 1945 and he returned to Glaslough a hero. But it wasn't until November 2015 that he was officially honoured, when he was made a chevalier (knight) of the Ordre national de la legion d'honneur, France's highest honour, which was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802,

In the years after the war, he looked after the castle, planted thousands of trees and "fixed things," he said, before he headed to the US in 1949 on an adventure.

This included coast-to-coast travel where he took up work as a vacuum cleaner salesman in the mid-west and a kitchen porter in a hotel in Houston, Texas. He even bought a pair of fashionable new blue jeans, which he thought would be handy for work around the castle back home. "He loved it," Mark said. "It was the perfect antidote to war and captivity."

During the 1950s, he got struck with a travel bug and took a trip around the world taking in Iran, Burma, India and the South Pacific, where he could "smell the pineapples as soon as he got off the plane".

"Back then you could just walk into a hotel and they would have a room for you," he said. After returning to Europe, he bought a 1,500-year-old monastery just outside Rome called the Badia di San Sebastiano di Alatri.

"I fell in love with it at first sight," Leslie said of what was to be his home for over three decades, before he returned to Castle Leslie in 1994. "I still visit the Badia every summer for six weeks. It's lovely, but it can get very hot."

Not willing to settle into retirement, 'Uncle Jack' ran ghost tours round the castle and washed dishes with cold water as Castle Leslie opened its doors to paying guests during the mid-1990s.

He also discovered a passion for dance music. "The music gets into your bones and makes you want to dance," he said of what he famously called "boom boom music".

He spent every weekend "clubbing" in local discos and became the subject of numerous documentaries. The 'disco king of Ireland' celebrated his 85th birthday in Manumission in Privilege in 2001, the world's biggest nightclub in Ibiza. "They asked me on stage and I had to dance in front of 10,000 people. I had an amazing time. It was fantastic," he said of his time on the Balearic Island.

Jack rose to global notoriety when he unwittingly let slip the wedding plans of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills outside Castle Leslie in 2002. "They're getting married on Tuesday, but it's a secret," he innocently announced to the world's press.

Speaking of his own life Jack, who was a watercolourist, ecologist and restorer of old buildings, once said, "I am extraordinarily grateful. My life has changed over and over again in ways that no one - least of all me - could have foreseen, or predicted."

Sunday Independent

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