The social cultural & political connections of Elizabeth Burke Plunkett
Countess of Fingall
Funeral with flavour
In October 1944, the remains of Elizabeth Burke Plunkett, Countess of Fingall, arrived back at Killeen Abbey on the grounds of Killeen Castle in Dunsany, following a Requiem Mass at University Church in Dublin.
The event was recorded in the national newspapers of the day, with both the Irish Press and Irish Independent reporting on the funeral and attendance at it.
And that attendance highlighted the influence locally, nationally, and internationally, of Elizabeth, Lady Fingall, known to her friends and family as ‘Daisy’.
It was led by Captain Lennon, ADC to the President of Ireland, Dr Douglas Hyde, who accompanied the cortege to Killeen, and included M Goor, the Belgian Minister; Mr IRAW Weenick, Consul General for the Netherlands; Mr WT Dobrzynski, consul general for Poland; Mrs JD Kearney, representing the Canadian High Commissioner; Mr WT Cosgrave, the former President of the Irish Free State; his son, Liam Cosgrave TD, a future Taoiseach, while the Irish Countrywomens’ Association was represented by a delegation led by Dr Muriel Gahan. The playwright, Lennox Robinson, was also present.
The young Daisy Burke, who grew up at Danesfield, in Moycullen, Co. Galway, where her father George Edmund Burke was a magistrate, could hardly have imagined that she would have such high powered figures bidding her a final farewell when she was a young girl playing in Galway with her sister, Florence, later to be joined by a younger brother George and sister Teresa, who were sadly to die from diphtheria as children.
But luckily, she decided, in the late 1930’s, to record her life story in a memoir with Pamela Hinkson, whom she describes as her ‘collaborator’ and who today we would probably call a ‘ghost writer’. Pamela was daughter of the poet, Katherine Tynan.
‘Seventy Years Young’ was commissioned and published by Collins in 1937, and brought to life again by The Lilliput Press in 1991, reviving the story of the lady who was involved in establishing the United Irishwomen, which was to become the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.
Her life in Danesfield was privileged compared to many of the time, but not extravagant. Her father remembered the Famine, and the scenes at the door of Danesfield, when he had helped to lift sacks of flour and Indian meal onto the backs of men who staggered under the weight of them. He remembered the people dropping dead by the roadside on their way to the ‘big house’ for help, and the ‘coffin ships’ going out from Galway Bay.
“Everything the landlords had then, they shared with the people,” she wrote. “I am speaking of the good landlords, of course. Not the absentees, whose sins were to be paid for by all of us.”
It was probably this background and attitudes inherited from her father that led her to want to improve the lot of the rural Irish folk in later life. Her political, social and cultural associations surrounded her since youth – neighbours and family friends included the Martins, of Somerville and Ross fame, and her father, along with James Martin of Ross was involved in electioneering for Sir William Gregory, husband of Abbey Theatre founder Lady Gregory when he stood for Parliament in 1857.
Pursued by a Lord
In 1882, having returned from being educated in [Saint Servan] France and [St. Leonards-on-Sea] Hastings, Daisy Burke was presented at her first ball in Dublin, and it was on this visit, when she was staying with her mother in Buswells Hotel, that she was spotted on Kildare Street by Arthur James Fingall, who had only recently succeeded to the title, and apparently fell in love at first sight with the Galway girl.
The ball was being hosted by Mrs Browne on Merrion Square, and Mrs Browne brought up a young man to her, introducing him as Lord Fingall. Daisy was not aware that she had ever seen him before, or that he had asked to be introduced to her. She said he was rather shy and a bad dancer, but in spite of that, they danced more than once together, whether it was allowed or not. It was a lovely evening, and she enjoyed every minute of it.
Fingall, the 11th Earl and still only in his 20’s, had also been educated in France, where one of his tutors was Fr MacNamara from the mill at Clavinstown, and was State Steward to Earl Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant to Ireland, at this time, living in a lodge at Dublin Castle. This was a hugely important position in Dublin and Irish society, as it decided who sat where at the Lord Lieutenant’s dinners. Daisy Burke was presented to the Lord Spencer at Dublin Castle at the age of 20, by her cousin, Madam McDermott, wife of The McDermott, Prince of Coolavin, and was launched into her first season, which ran from just after Christmas, to St Patrick’s Day.
She attended many balls with Fingall and his sisters, Mary and Henrietta, who also lived with him in Dublin, and also joined the Plunkett’s hunting in Killeen, where Fingall met her and the Fitzgeralds, family of Lord Edward Fitzgerald from the train at Drumree for a hunt ball at Killeen. It was after this visit to Killeen that he asked her to marry him, in a handwritten note as she returned to Dublin.
Her parents weren’t hugely in favour, her mother thought she was too young, her father thought Fingall needed to marry into a more monied family as Killeen was quite dilapidated at this stage. But Fingall wasn’t worried about that. They married in the Archbishop of Dublin’s private chapel in Rutland Square, honeymooned in Paris and London before returning to Killeen for a rousing reception from staff and Fingall’s sisters, and of course, Mrs Jones, the housekeeper who ruled the roost.
Support and Social
Through her husband’s role in Dublin, and his hunting connections in Meath, Daisy Burke, now the Countess of Fingall, became closely associated with many of the significant figures of the day. As well as encountering the representatives of the British administration at the time, she also had dealings with many of those fighting for Irish freedom, a cause with which she was sympathetic.
She met Charles Stuart Parnell on two occasions, once when he was coming out of Morrison’s Hotel on Dawson Street, cold and aloof looking, and a friend introduced her to him as a great admirer of his.
His face was still cold, she recalled. I think his glance at me was unfriendly. Did I not belong to the class and people that were opposed to him and hated him, all the more because they had played cricket with him and entertained him a few years earlier, when he was a young man doing the things that they did.
He said something like: “I can hardly believe that… from one of Lady Fingall’s class,” looking down at me in that cold way.
I stammered out in a great hurry: “I know, Mr Parnell, that you really love Ireland,” and was overwhelmed, having said it. But he smiled suddenly, and the effect of his smile was wonderful. I understood then how his followers felt about him. He took my hand for a moment, then remembering he was in a hurry, jumped up in the outside car that was waiting, and drove away.
The second time she saw him was in 1891, when he spoke at a meeting in Navan, and she went to watch him from the window of Mr Cooney’s tailor’s shop. It was the only time she had a quarrel with Fingall, as she called her husband in print, as he mustn’t have approved. She noted that Parnell looked like a sick eagle that day, and indeed, within months, he had died in Brighton.
Through a hunting friendship with Mrs Willie Jameson of Athlumney, Navan, the Countess became very friendly with her brother, Douglas Haig. When she knew him first, he had just joined the 7th Hussars, and spent his leave hunting from Athlumney. He wrote to her from the South African Wars, and from the French manoeuvres. They were dull, impersonal letters, all about tactics and such things she said, and she got bored of them. But once, at a dinner in London, when Arthur Balfour was criticising Haig, later to be Field Marshall and then, Earl Haig, for his leadership skills during the War, she attacked Balfour and left him in no doubt of her attitude towards his views.
Chaperoning future Countess Markievicz
Back in Dublin, Daisy took Constance Gore Booth to parties. ‘Constance then was a wild, beautiful girl, and all the young men wanted to dance with her,’ she wrote. ‘She was lovely and gay in her youth at Lissadell, hunting and dancing, and she was the life and soul of any party’. Lady Fingall often chaperoned her and stayed the night with her and her mother, and recalls an amusing incident when they had to remove a drunken soldier from outside their house in Harcourt Terrace.
Constance went to Paris on a small legacy left her by an aunt, to study art and live in the Latin Quarter. There, she met Polish count, Casimir Markievicz, whom she married. She and Casimir came to Killeen on their honeymoon, and when they arrived, Daisy recalls Casimir sat down at the piano in the hall and thumped the keys and roared a song to his own accompaniment.
Lady Fingall recalls that the last time she saw Casimir was at Constance’s funeral. “I watched the procession pass, from the Arnott’s House in Merrion Square, where we all had such good times in other days, when that house was at the centre of hospitality in Dublin; and where I remembered often Con and her husband singing and playing the piano, while the daughters of the house, Mary and Vicky, played the violin and cello.”
No stranger to royalty
On the other side of the coin, Daisy Fingall, through the Jamesons, and Lord and Lady Londonderry, who held the Lord Lieutenancy at Dublin Castle at one stage, became acquainted with King Edward. She was quite often invited on small shooting parties in England and Scotland, and often dined with the King. When he and Queen Alexandra paid a coronation visit to Ireland in 1903, the Plunketts were involved in entertaining him, and Horace Plunkett’s chauffeur had to fix the king’s car when it broke down in Connemara.
Later that year, at an Irish exhibition in London, Lady Fingall had a stall selling Irish cigars made from her own tobacco grown at Killeen with Sir Horace. The King, touring the stalls, stopped to chat with her, and bought one of the cigars.
“I was attacked afterwards for selling him a cigar which might have blown his head off,” she wrote. “But I expect he was wise enough not to smoke it.”
I suppose some of her other friends, such as Countess Marcievicz, would have been happy if he did!
King Edward always looked forward to meeting the countess at dinners, and never scratched her off a list presented to him for a dinner. At Lord Iveagh’s place, Elveden, where she often stayed, she was sitting beside the king at dinner, and her maid, watching from the gallery above, described seeing him, ‘a big fat man, shaking with laughter’ as he sat beside Lady Fingall. He used to call Daisy ‘a jolly little lady’.
Another time she recalled making him laugh when she danced a jig in the hall at Elveden, taught to her by the blacksmith from Dunshaughlin – Paddy ‘the Gah’ Foley.
Hostess at Horace’s
Daisy Fingall’s ability to mix with shamrock and crown was legendary. Through Horace Plunkett, of the Dunsany Castle family, and a very close friend of hers, she encountered many of those involved in the fight for Irish freedom. She regularly played hostess at Horace’s home in Kilteragh, Dublin, which was to be burned down during the troubles.
At one stage, Mr and Mrs George Bernard Shaw were staying at Kilteragh. Lady Fingall got a phone call from Lady Hazel Lavery, who was staying with her husband, Sir John Lavery in the Salthill Hotel, Monkstown. Lady Lavery was the figure who appeared on Irish currency for years, and was well known for her associations with Michael Collins.
“Do you think Sir Horace would like me to bring Michael Collins over to supper tonight?” Hazel Lavery asked. She did, and the gathering also included the Shaws, WT Cosgrave and John Dillon. It was just days after the death of Arthur Griffith.
Lady Fingall recalls that Collins was not at all an eloquent man, and her recollection of the dinner is that it was very quiet, almost dull. The guests left early because Michael Collins said he had to be in Cork next day. A car with an escort followed them. They went for a drive in the mountains, and Collins left the Laverys back at their hotel saying: “I will be back in Dublin next week.”
He was back the next week, to lie in state in the Chapel of the Sisters of Charity at St Vincent’s Hospital.
Philanthropist and Activist
A liberal unionist, she became active in the promotion of Irish agriculture, industry and culture. She was a founder member of Plunkett’s Irish co-operative movement, was first president of the United Irishwoman in 1912–21 and president, by co-option, to its successor the Irish Countrywomen’s Association until 1942. She presided at suffragette meetings in Dublin, was a founder of the Irish Distressed Ladies Committee, and served on the board of the Irish Industries Association. Newspapers and journals often documented her work with these causes as well as many others such as the Conservative & Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, Soldiers & Sailors Help Society, Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation, Irishwomen’s Reform League, Alexandra College Guild, Irishwomen’s Industrial Conferences, with social columns often also describing her fashionable attire.
A friendship with Máire Ní Chinnéide, forged through theatrical circles, led to her accepting the patronage of Camogie Association of Ireland from 1910 to 1923. She served largely in an honorary role attending few meetings of what was then known as Cualacht Luithchleas na mBan Gaedheal.
Other acquaintances of Lady Fingall’s included the writer, HG Wells, and Mrs Wells, whom she entertained over dinner in London, and WB Yeats, whom she often met through her Galway cousins, the Martins.
Patron for Sir Hugh Lane
Many years since the sinking of the Luisitania, we recall Hugh Lane, the founder of the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, whom Lady Fingall patronised. He was last seen helping women and children off the liner struck by a German torpedo off the coast of his native Cork on 7th May 1915. He was among the 1,198 who died, many of whose bodies were never recovered.
Killeen Castle was not a very homely place to live in when the Fingalls married, as the previous earls had lived abroad or spent a great deal of time away from Killeen. On her arrival there, the young Countess Fingall had set about making it presentable following its long years of neglect. She trawled through the rooms in the massive castle, and discovered treasures hidden away in trunks and locked in rooms, which, along with Sir Hugh Lane, she resurrected and restored.
She described Lane as ‘young and full of enthusiasm’. He was a nephew of Lady Gregory, whose house at Coole was for so many years a centre of Irish culture, and being poor and having a flair for pictures and furniture, he had taken himself, when little more than a boy, to London, where he worked for Colnaghi.
Back in Dublin, and busy with his plans for a gallery of modern art, Lady Fingall wrote that he was practically starving himself so that he might buy pictures.
“I asked him down to Killeen to feed him – he repaid my hospitality fully,” she says.
Hugh Lane and I got to work on Killeen together. I do not know how many weekends we worked. He would arrange a room a dozen times and rearrange it, before he was satisfied.
Lane offered her advice on how to decorate a castle: castle walls should be left as much like stone as possible; it was permissable to hang tapestry against them or arras of brocade or velvet; and he admired the hand-printed papers in the bedrooms – some of the earliest ever made. He also said there should be no flower beds near a castle – they would be out of keeping with a fighting castle. Trees and shrubs, one might have. And he allowed a water-garden at a little distance, a continuation of the moat.
Lane, the equivalent to today’s interior designer, had Lady Fingall send old brocade to London to have made into a screen, and got Hicks, a famous Dublin cabinetmaker, down to put delicate little shelves in the alcove.
“We brought down the books which had been in a small room at the top of the house and turned the big room next the drawing room into a library,” Daisy writes. “Hicks made for it some beautiful book cases of old mahogany, to Hugh Lane’s design.
She said Lane exhausted her. “He had been working himself all the week, and then he came down and worked us all weekend. The servants forgave him even the sin of breaking the Sabbath, because he was so attractive and charming that he would whistle the birds from the trees. I have a memory of Russell, the carpenter (an ancestor of the Navan plumbing family), sweating under his orders. And Curtin the perfect butler, helping to drag furniture about, although he had never been engaged for that.”
She said that Lane made her “jolly well work” for him in return for all the work he was doing, and she had to give parties for his gallery idea, and collect people and money to help him.
Lane had a number of ideas for a gallery, including one spanning the Liffey drawn up by architect Edward Lutyens. But ongoing difficulties with the administration of the day and Dublin Corporation led him to loan 39 paintings, mainly Impressionist, to the National Gallery of London.
In 1914, he became head of the National Gallery in Dublin. By an unwitnessed codicil to his will, he gave the city a second chance to secure the pictures, in return for a gallery. In 1915, he was asked by Lloyds, the insurance brokerage firm, to give expert opinion on paintings damaged by a fire on a New York ship. He was reluctant to go, as it was wartime, but he travelled, and returning to Ireland a month later, aboard the liner Lusitania, Sir Hugh Lane was drowned off the west coast of Cork. It is reported he was carrying valuable art work back with him, but that has never been proven.
Lady Fingall wrote: “The last time I ever saw Hugh Lane was on a February day during the war, in his beautiful Chelsea house on the river. Almost immediately after that he sailed for America, having first made the famous codicil to his will, leaving the pictures he had willed to the London National Gallery in a pique, back to the country he loved. But unfortunately, he failed to have it witnessed, and on his return journey, he went down in the Lusitania. So the pictures are still held in London, and an empty room awaits the Lane collection in Dublin at Charlemont House.”
This was the situation until 1959, when Taoiseach Sean Lemass brokered a compromise whereby, every five years, half the bequest would be shown in Dublin. In 1993, the agreement was changed so that 31 of the paintings would stay at the gallery, and in 2008 the entire collection was put on display together in Dublin for the first time, and the works continue to be shared.
Following the death of her husband in 1929, Lady Fingall took up residence in a townhouse at Mespil Road, Dublin, where she entertained on Thursday afternoons. Terence de Vere White has included a charming picture of these occasions, and of an ageing, fragile but still vivacious Lady Fingall, in his autobiography, A Fretful Minder.
We would like to thank our local Irish Countrywomen’s Association guild in Moycullen for partnering with us on this project and we are very grateful to Galway Community Heritage and Irish Community Archive Network for facilitating the exhibition of our work at the National Museum of Ireland Country Life as part of the 2018 Our Irish Women celebrations. We would also like to acknowledge with greatest appreciation the kindness of John Donohoe, News Editor of Meath Chronicle, for sharing with us the content of his talk on Countess of Fingall which was delivered in August 2015 to mark the 50th Anniversary of Dunsany ICA.