Friday 19 January 2018

Surviving the pack mentality

Sarah Caden

Brothers Duncan and Dudley Stewart are the product of a bizarre upbringing, writes Sarah Caden...

Brothers Duncan and Dudley Stewart are the product of a bizarre upbringing, writes Sarah Caden

'THERE was nothing normal about it," says Duncan Stewart, in reference to the upbringing shared with his five siblings in the Dublin mountains.

"No, there was not," agrees his brother Dudley, laughing.

"We were a hunting pack," Dudley goes on, "because it was a question of fending for ourselves and survival of the fittest. The best way to survive was for the six of us to unite."

The two laugh again at the memory of it all and before Dudley can add another wry comment, Duncan is at pains to point out that they absolutely loved the life they lived.

As they detail the various facets of their lives, the Stewart brothers clearly attribute their sense of individuality, their passion for pushing the envelope and determination to be different to the influence of their mother, Sheila Fawsitt. The daughter of Arthur Griffith's aide-de-camp, she was, says Duncan, one of these prolific people with perhaps too much energy, a one-time nun, actress, songwriter, author and singer, who placed less emphasis on practicalities than she did on ideas and individuality among her children.

"We call her Duncan's mother," says Dudley, a comment that in another family would suggest that Duncan was her pet, but here means that he, of them all, has inherited a tendency towards what his brother calls the airy-fairy.

It is the characteristics shared with their mother, Dudley says, that saw Duncan become a TV personality and an architect, where Dudley and their other brother, Ercus, took to engineering and the law. Again, in another family, such comments might be seen as one brother's criticism of the other, but in the Stewart family, difference is something to be celebrated and admired.

The six Stewarts (the girls are Brigitta, Julitta and Yvette) were born and partly reared in Clonmel, where their father, an army man, was stationed. Eventually, however, they moved to the Dublin mountains, which isolated them greatly, but where their parents felt they could give them the type of upbringing they wished for them.

"Duncan's mother believed in survival of the fittest when it came to kids," says Dudley, the younger by five years. "So long as she was distracted by writing songs and running funky restaurants down town, then we could run wild."

Together, they explain that she thought nothing of the six-mile walk to the bus that would take them to the Irish-speaking Scoil Mhuire in Parnell Square and even less of the fact that during the heavy snows, they would walk all the way to town.

"I remember my mother saying one day, 'We're not going to eat food today, we're going to go outside and hunt for berries and live off nature,"' remembers Duncan, now a father of five. "So we headed off up the banks of the river and found flockenberries and mushrooms and whatever was going."

They're very matter of fact about it all, but one has to wonder if, as children, they resented what they knew, even then, was the unorthodox way of life imposed upon them. "Only in the way that all foot soldiers resent their commanding officers," says Dudley.

He recalls being still at school when Duncan was going through his rebellious stage. A student of architecture at UCD, Duncan set up RAGE (Radical Action for Good Environment), a movement that culminated in the occupation of buildings in Dublin's Hume Street which were earmarked for demolition. The brothers share with each other and the rest of their siblings, a strong sense of right and wrong and a commitment to improving the way we manage our lives and environment. Nonetheless, Dudley saw Duncan's chosen route as something against which he wanted to rebel and so he joined the army. The way you do.

They recall with some glee the disaster that was Dudley's army career, which culminated in a border incident that saw their father, then Chief of Intelligence in the Irish Army, being called to Dundalk to sort it out.

From there, the army recommended Dudley study engineering and so he attended Kevin Street in uniform, until it became too embarrassing and he left the service. Dudley's academic career eventually brought him to the top hydroelectric college in the world, where he became involved with wind power, upon which he continues to work.

Duncan points out, with some pride, that Dudley was a quarter of a century ahead of the world on developing and promoting wind power, while Dudley, in turn, observes that Duncan had his own practice and a position lecturing in Bolton Street by the time he was 23.

The TV career is now a decade old and while Duncan still does not regard himself as a proper presenter or TV star, Dudley regards it with some amusement as the logical role for their mother's son. And while Dudley chose engineering as a way of being distinct and different from Duncan, their chosen paths have grown complementary over the years.

Duncan and Dudley have maintained the closeness enjoyed in childhood through shared projects in adulthood. In terms of design, Duncan has been helpful to Dudley on his wind-power projects in Bangladesh and Africa and, latterly, in setting up Quest Campus, an adult education college in Charleville Castle, Tullamore, where Dudley lives with his own family.

In turn, Dudley has supported Duncan's endeavours and both also lend their minds to brother Ercus's extremely successful career in employment law.

Their contribution may seem oblique, Dudley suggests, but all three minds are clearly compatible and, as a family, there is a definite sense of responsibility to a better world.

For all their different careers and personalities, the pack mentality is unchanged, according to the brothers. They maintain a strong sense of individuality and their influences still, for the most part, come from within the unit.

"We never really became aware of outside influences, I think," Dudley comments, with a laugh. "Or else all we have in common is that a bit of our brain is missing."

At which Duncan laughs, but does not disagree.

The House, Interiors and Garden Show, of which Duncan Stewart is creative director, runs today and Monday at the RDS, Dublin

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