Thursday 14 November 2019

A style icon, a landlady and a friend to tenants

An exhibition of Lady Sligo's Famine letters reveal that she had a clear sense of duty, says Clodagh Finn

Lady Hester Catherine de Burgh
Lady Hester Catherine de Burgh

Clodagh Finn

In 1845, Lady Hester Catherine Sligo wrote to her estate manager at Westport House, Co Mayo, asking to be sent a box of fine gowns, her "largest and showiest fans" and a wreath of whites roses.

She described what she wanted in detail - a gown of red-cherry-coloured poplin and others in blue silk, pink satin and mousseline de laine (a very fine French wool), and she issued strict instructions on how they were to be packed so that the wreaths would not be squeezed in transit.

Clearly, this was a woman who always made an impression. The mistress of Westport House moved in the highest circles and led the way in fashionable society.

Her grand parties in London were "numerously attended" to quote one newspaper and, in the 1830s, Churtons gallery in Dublin was selling her portrait to the public.

She was, you could say, a celebrity with a following.

Yet, when her own tenants were hit by the catastrophe of famine in the 1840s, the second marchioness of Sligo responded with generosity and empathy.

An exhibition of previously unpublished letters has travelled from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and opens in Westport House on Tuesday.

Some 20 letters describe the tragedy of the Great Hunger through Lady Sligo's eyes, revealing her to be a socially aware woman with a keen sense of duty.

In May 1845, she writes, with one or two word omissions, to her estate manager at Westport, George Hildebrand: "I fear there must be a great deal distress & poverty about Westport now that there is so little money spent in the Town, & I do not all grudge the money you gave away in charity for me."

Four months later, she sends the following description from Clontarf, Dublin: "I am sorry to say there is in this country a blight on the potatoes, which has caused the stems to turn black, & wither - I believe it was caused by a frosty night we had a fortnight ago. It has occasioned a rise in the price of potatoes here, which shows there is some anxiety on the subject… Let me know whether the potatoe crop in Mayo is affected?"

She goes on to comment that stormy and wet weather would be very bad for the harvest and requests that tenants be given good-quality warm blankets. Yet she still needed her gowns and silks for daily life.

"Lady Sligo was clearly, as my students would say, 'fashion forward'," says Professor Christine Kinealy, founding director of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University.

Prof Kinealy was the first person in more than 100 years to read Lady Sligo's letters when the university bought them from Kenny's bookshop in Galway six years ago.

They went on display at the university last April and now Prof Kinealy, whose family is from Mayo, said she is delighted that they will be seen in Ireland.

A portrait of Lady Sligo painted by French artist Louis-Leopold Boilly in the early decades of the 19th Century shows her wearing a French Empire-inspired gown in a pose that is the picture of confident elegance.

"Her oriental-inspired turban shows her to be cutting-edge and slightly daring," Prof Kinealy adds. (Interestingly, her daughters would grow up in an era when women were covered up, neck to toe, in frumpy, restrictive outfits).

It's hard to believe that this was a woman who would witness slavery and then famine before going on to run one of the biggest houses in the west of Ireland after her husband died in 1845.

She had married the second Marquis of Sligo, Howe Peter Browne, in 1816 and the couple went on to have 14 children.

In 1834, Lord Sligo was appointed Governor of Jamaica and the family spent two years there while he worked to abolish slavery. When they arrived back in Westport, the townspeople lit bonfires to welcome them home. That popularity is evident right down through the decades.

There's an account, in 1857, of "rejoicings" at Westport - with bonfires, gay and brilliant illuminations - when Lady Sligo visited in late October.

The article in the Tuam Herald says "her ladyship's former acts of benevolence and Christian charity in this locality has endeared her name to a grateful people".

During the Famine, Lady Sligo's eldest son kept the workhouse open and, with a cousin, paid to have a shipload of food delivered to the starving people of Mayo.

The county was one of the hardest hit. Between 1845 and 1851, the population fell by 29pc, which was much higher than the national average.

Lady Sligo herself fell on hard times, too. In 1847, high taxes forced the family to close Westport House and grounds and move to a much smaller house in the town. She also writes that the family could no longer afford to have a carriage.

Now, Lady Sligo's letters have come back to Westport and, remarkably, her former home has stayed in the Browne family since it was built in the 18th Century on the foundation of a family castle that belonged to pirate queen Grace O'Malley.

Lady Sligo's great-great-great granddaughter Lady Sheelyn Browne said: "This exhibition captures a very personal insight into one very privileged generation of the Browne family who, in 1845, were unexpectedly landed with a huge sense of duty. Thankfully, they followed the family motto Suivez Raison and did do the right thing. They rolled their beautifully ironed linen sleeves up and did their absolute best to ease the desperate situation in their home town, both practically and financially."

United States ambassador Kevin O'Malley, whose grandparents emigrated from Mayo, will open the exhibition on Tuesday. It will be on permanent display at Westport House.

Sunday Independent

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