Chatelaine of Mount Stewart who preserved great house's gardens

Sat, Dec 12, 2009, 00:00

Lady Mairi Bury:LADY MAIRI Bury, who has died aged 88, was responsible for preserving the beautiful gardens of the great house of Mount Stewart overlooking Strangford Lough that were given to the National Trust in 1957.

The house, with its many historic associations, was presented to the same body in 1977, and she continued to live there until her death. She was the youngest daughter of the seventh Marquess of Londonderry and his wife, Edith.

The garden was her passion. It is in fact a series of different gardens, including one shaped like a shamrock and planted with the red hand of Ulster, with the Irish harp cut in topiary. She was determined that the layout her mother had made should be preserved.

In the 1920s, Lady Londonderry had recorded that it was the “dampest, darkest and saddest place she had ever stayed in in winter”. She had commissioned the renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll to draw out some plans, but ended up creating the garden herself.

Lady Mairi Bury was born and brought up at Mount Stewart, which had belonged to her family since 1740. Her ancestor was the notorious Lord Castlereagh, who was responsible for getting the Act of Union through the Irish parliament. He was later British foreign secretary and had a major role in the reconstruction of Europe after the Napoleonic wars.

Her grandfather was one of the leaders of the Ulster unionist movement. His wife, Theresa, an even more ardent unionist, was said to have found political intrigue an escape from an unhappy marriage. Their house parties included the king and queen as guests; they wrote disparagingly in the visitors’ book: “Beautiful place, but very damp.”

Lady Mairi’s father was minister for education at Stormont in the 1920s. During his time in office he endeavoured to establish a non-sectarian, secular school system. He failed to get this through, resigned and left Northern Irish politics. Settling in Britain, he was made secretary of state for air – a suitable post as he was a keen pilot, and both his wife and daughter learned to fly.

His wife, Edith, was a formidable political hostess; their guests included Michael Collins, Sean O’Casey, WB Yeats, Sir John Lavery, the prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill. According to Oliver St John Gogarty, it was “a house so hospitable that after a few days you wouldn’t know which of you owned the place”.

With an indoor staff of 35, even in the 1950s, a kilted piper playing round the outside of the house to wake its occupants, and the occasional racing of the house dachshunds along the dining room table two at a time, one would have thought that few guests could have mistaken the ownership.

Controversially, her father Lord Londonderry had Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to Britain, to stay, and as a teenager, Lady Mairi went with her parents to Germany, where they visited Hitler several times. She sat next to him, but “could not speak German”, she later recalled. “It was rather difficult to understand what was going on. I thought, what a nondescript person.”

At the outbreak of the second World War, she served in the motor transport section of the Women’s Legion, which her mother had founded in the first World War. She drove pick-ups round the docks in London.

In 1940, she married Derek Keppel, Viscount Bury. They were divorced in 1958.

Living at Mount Stewart, Lady Mairi had the first thoroughbred stud in Northern Ireland, and with her horse Fighting Charlie she won the Ascot Gold Cup on two consecutive years. She also won the Irish Thousand Guineas with Northern Gleam.

She was a justice of the peace and was commodore of the Newtownards Sailing Club, and life president of Ards Football Club.

One of her interests was stamp collecting. She began when she was eight years old and had a specialised British collection which included a penny black and a twopenny blue.

Some years ago she left the Official Unionist Party, to which the family had traditionally belonged, and joined the DUP. First Minister Peter Robinson paid public tribute to “this remarkable woman”, and said how much he appreciated the support she gave to his wife and himself.

Lady Mairi will be remembered by the people of Northern Ireland for the gift of Mount Stewart, with its magical gardens that have been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people. She is survived by her two daughters.


Lady Mairi Elizabeth Bury: born March 25th, 1921; died November 16th, 2009