INTERVIEW:Selina Guinness grew up with the name, but not the fortunes associated with the brewing dynasty. Yet she turned down a huge cash offer for fields at her home, Tibradden House. KATHY SHERIDANmeets a guardian of the land
RUSH HOUR IS in full spate. As streams of cars and SUVs lurch along the damp, suburban roads and roundabouts of south county Dublin, the directions to Tibradden House seem implausibly rural. Yet, a couple of minutes later, we are climbing Mutton Lane, past the gate lodge and up an avenue into the same misty, mountainy landscape that Thomas Hosea Guinness would have surveyed when he married into Mary Davis’s money more than 150 years ago.
Great swathes of majestic trees, planted by Thomas to please his bride, still crown the stream that runs down the hill and through the fields of St Thomas, a sister farm of Tibradden sold in the 1970s to Major McDowell, a former chairman of The Irish Times, to pay the rates.
The Belfield water tower and RTÉ television mast are clearly visible. Just seven miles from Dublin city centre and a few minutes from the M50, sheep safely graze in Tibradden’s tranquil, jewel-green fields. To property developers, it must have twinkled like a fabulous, unopened Christmas present. In 2004, Selina Guinness, Thomas Hosea’s great-great-granddaughter, was already noting the daily zigzag of their helicopters across the Kilmashogue valley, surveying the land.
Two years later, she records in her soon-to-be-released book, Bernard McNamara’s emissaries were offering so much money for 20 acres, that “we could renovate and extend the lodge, handsomely renovate the main house, restore the gardens and still have enough money left over to be financially secure for the rest of our lives. We would be rich.”
Though not remotely precious, it is with reluctance that she names the offer at “over a quarter of a million an acre”, totalling well over €5m for 20 acres. The extent of the riches laid temptingly before her are as authentic a thread of Tibradden’s history as the grouse-shooting, semi-feudal, rebel-chasing habits of her ancestors. The interwoven tragedy of the Kirwan family, long-time stewards and occupiers of the gate lodge, would bring its own financial pressures, not to mention the voracious, money-pit of Tibradden with its leaking roof, flaking walls, exploding boilers, episodic electricity and unheated expanses.
There were no Guinness millions to call on. The original brewer’s eldest son, the Rev Hosea spawned a line of respectable, upper-middle-class solicitors and clergymen, from which she springs. The nearest Guinness relative is about a fifth cousin, she says, adding that she met Marina and Patrick Guinness for the first time recently, at his book launch.
She is clear about who and what she is: a PAYE worker lecturing at the Institute of Art, Design Technology, the daughter of a solicitor, reared in The Coppins in Foxrock, sent to national school in Deansgrange, who played on the greens with her friends and went to Tibradden for Sunday lunch – a house for which she makes no great claims. “It’s not Castletown House . . . more of a rectory,” she says, albeit one with marble pillars in the hall, splendid plasterwork and dusty portraits.
But Tibradden had its stately rituals. “It was always a performance of itself. There were two institutions – one was coming to tea, served at 4.30pm in the drawingroom. And the other was Sunday lunch. There was something wonderfully comforting about knowing there were these institutions of orderliness, that were also a performance of hospitality, a performance of gentility. Yes, it was manners, drawing-room manners, dining-room manners, but there was a lovely generosity in that. It was all about trying to think of ways not to offend people.” Her bachelor uncle Charles would start humming tunelessly if a visitor introduced a topic he judged difficult for himself or his mother.
When she baulked at boarding school, it was agreed that she could live in Tibradden with her grandmother and Charles, and attend St Columba’s. After Trinity, London, Budapest and Oxford, she found herself packing to move back to Charles in Tibradden, this time with her Belfast-born husband, Colin.
In strikingly beautiful language, without milking emotion, her sense of family and her love for her uncle, is revealed as he goes into decline.
Afterwards, among his belongings she found a book she had given him, The Radetsky March by Roth and a postcard marking his place on page eight, which describes a far distant time before the Great War when “everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten”.
When the estate came to her, she and Colin knew nothing of farming, except that costs were twice as much as earnings. The realities of life on the land have forged in them a profound respect for farmers. “There is such a gulf of understanding, particularly between Sunday walkers and ecologists who think they are admiring and glorifying the triumphs of nature, whereas I now realise what they are looking at is the triumph of toil and work and legislation. They don’t see the fact that if there wasn’t a series of ditches dug underneath the pastures at four-foot intervals, draining it, 200 years ago, they would be looking at a bog. And the trees they were looking at and admiring, they were planted as hedge trees. And yes, they are nice trees, but at some stage, someone abandoned the hedgerow, which is why they can pick elderflower and make their elderflower cordial. And the brambles they love as a work of nature is actually a terrible consequence of someone not having the money to trim the hedges properly. So all the things that I glorified as natural and wild, quite often are the symptoms of someone’s economic crisis. That’s how I began to look at the land.”
Her view of REPS – the grant for following prescribed environmental regulations – is that it is ultimately a modest retirement wage. It’s that hard-won understanding of a disappearing world that marks her weaving of the tragic story of the Kirwans of the gate lodge into hers, one told with dazzling honesty and self-scrutiny. She perceives representations of the old repeatedly reappearing in a different guise. Where she saw McNamara’s representatives as “emissaries of modern times”, she realises that Susie Kirwan must have seen her in exactly that light.
In an interview that touches on many maddening issues, such as the commodification of homes and land and the realisation that the McNamara plan was never for a golf club but 1,000 houses, she rarely shows anger. The exception is for an estate agent who suggested if she enjoyed rural life so much, why not sell the place for a fortune and move “to the real country in Kildare or Wicklow . . . ” In her head, she finished his sentence – “where your sort belong.”
It was the familiar echo of historical resentment that often blindsides my conversation with strangers, she writes. How is that? “I suppose I would be very conscious that when people hear my voice, they say, ‘oh you’re English’ and I learned to reply: ‘No, I’m not English, I’m posh’.” She believes that the “myth of Ireland as a classless society”, leads to a need to confuse posh with English. And the sense sometimes was, ‘you don’t have a right to live where you’re living. You did it off the back of someone else.”
That sense doesn’t come from farmers, she stresses. So who does she get it from? She pauses. “There are people locally who saw me in the fields with Teagasc inspectors and their measuring tapes and they were very worried that I had surveyors in, looking to sell the land. So they invited me and Colin for tea to their rather large new house. The woman said, ‘my husband and myself have just been chatting – and we don’t understand how two people on PAYE salaries could live in that house. So we were just wondering are you going to sell?’. And I thought ‘wow, you’ve got opinions’.”
As the developers faded away, exhausted by her conditions and the imploding bubble, she felt only relief. Today, further down the valley from the field where Tibradden’s sheep are grazing, the land that McNamara bought from Major McDowell remains mint-green and undisturbed.
Next day, the producers of Foyle’s War would be shooting scenes for the ITV series in Tibradden, which by movie alchemy, is to be a house in London’s Pall Mall. Who knows if the McNamara lands and the valley will be left in peace? Or if some big-budget Hollywood movie types come scouting for a new locations?
The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a house, a farm and a family, by Selina Guinness is published next week by Penguin Ireland, €19.99.