Eminent historian of Irish ascendancy

Sat, May 8, 2010, 01:00

Mark Bence-Jones:LIKE SIR Walter Elliott in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, many of the owners of country houses in Ireland have “found consolation and an interest that never fails” in reading the history of their family in Burke’s Irish Family Records.

Mark Bence-Jones, the genealogical researcher who has died at the age of 79, was the most eminent historian of the social mores of the Irish ascendancy in its decline over the last 100 years.

His most important and popular book is The Guide to Irish Country Houses, first published in 1978, in which he recorded more than 2,000 of the “big” houses, though alas many of these have been demolished.

The book, which ran to six editions, shows his encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish social history and architectural information, and is illustrated with many photographs of the houses in their heyday. The entries are larded with anecdotes, making it a readable and fascinating gazetteer.

Bence-Jones was born in London where his father, the descendant of an old Co Cork family who won a Military Cross in the first World War, was working. On marriage to Bence-Jones’s mother, who was partly French and had been brought up in Egypt, he converted to Roman Catholicism. When he retired to Ireland, he made a chapel in his house by knocking down the walls of three servant’s bedrooms and installing stained-glass windows by Patrick Pollen and Stanley Tomlin, while the altar was carved by Séamus Murphy.

Bence-Jones himself was always a devout Catholic and an active Knight of Honour and Devotion in the Irish Association of the Order of Malta. At one period he was chancellor.

Most of Bence-Jones’s early life was spent in India where his father was a civil engineer and, during the second World War, head of the engineering school in Lahore.

In 1945 the family returned to Ireland. Lisselane near Clonakilty, the old Bence-Jones estate, had been sold, so they bought Annemount, a house overlooking Lough Mahon in Cork. Two years later it was destroyed by fire, and the Madonna in the small oratory upstairs was untouched by the flames.

Col Bence-Jones then bought Glenville Park in Co Cork. It is a large rambling Italianate-styled house; the grounds, planted with rhododendrons, slope steeply down to a stream. Ezra Pound had stayed in the house with a previous owner, and stole a book from the library.

Bence-Jones went to school at Ampleforth, and then to Cambridge to read history. He finished his education with a course at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, before coming back to live with his parents and direct the farming operations at Glenville. Over the next eight years he wrote three novels, all of which are now out of print.

In 1965 he married the poet Gillian Pretyman, who was heir to Orwell Park in Suffolk. From then on he spent only part of the year in Ireland. When here, he and Gillian hosted numerous parties and went on a round of visits.

Glenville, which has remained an archetypical Irish country house in a time warp of the 1950s, is pleasantly decaying, with its original 19th century faded lemon and grey wallpaper – “A few solemn portraits, A few brown photographs” – piles of books, old magazines and vases of fresh flowers from the garden.

Unlike most houses of that period, the bath water ran hot. The kitchen was never the centre of the house, and Bence-Jones is reputed to have told some guests that he did not know where it was. It was more likely that he did not know where anything was kept in the kitchen.

Bence-Jones adhered to the manners and etiquette of a previous generation. Sherry was drunk in the armoury, a hall decorated with suits of armour. After dinner the ladies withdrew, leaving the gentlemen to the port.

There was much conversation, as both he and Gillian were exceptional raconteurs. He told humorous anecdotes, or traced the relation of a guest through the branches of a family tree in his high-pitched voice, which will be remembered by all who knew him.

The Bence-Joneses made frequent trips abroad, where they would stay with their myriad of friends. On one occasion they arrived in a South American capital to stay with an ambassador, and found the airline had mislaid their suitcases and that a revolution was in progress. This meant they could not leave the embassy and had to squeeze into clothes belonging to members of the diplomatic corps. At night Bence-Jones gallantly took the side of the bed nearest the window, where any bullets were likely to enter.

In his best selling 1987 book, The Twilight of the Ascendancy, Bence-Jones records the decline of the Irish gentry. Though a melancholy tale, it is enlivened with many amusing stories such as when a 77-year-old Tyrone landlord was taken hostage. He got his own back on his captors by singing God Save the King and some of the Penitential Psalms in their ears, and neither appeals, commands nor threats of death would make him desist.

Predictably with his background in India, one of Bence-Jones’s interests was the Raj, about which he wrote three books: The Palaces of the Raj(1973), Clive of India(1974), a biography, and The Viceroys of India(1982) which was a best-seller.

Our ancestors vanish.

A few memories,

A few stories, then a blank.

What were they like?

So wrote Gillian Bence-Jones in a poem called Runs in the Family. But Mark Bence-Jones has filled many of the blanks in his books by leaving descriptions of the lifestyle of a class of people in Ireland that were once significant, but now have been stripped of any collective influence they once had.

His wife survives him, as do a son and two daughters.

Mark Adarye Bence-Jones: born May 29th, 1930; died April 12th, 2010