An Appreciation : Esther Braudy Layton


THE DEATH of Essie Layton in a Kilkenny nursing home on August 17th, just a year short of her 100th birthday, brought to an end an extraordinary life that was little known to anyone other than her closest friends.

Although she had lived in Ireland for less than half of her lifespan, her connection to the country went back (by her own account) to the time of her birth. She was raised as a member of a well-off family in the American mid-west. But though of German background in the maternal line, she often hinted at a strong Irish connection, never properly acknowledged, on the paternal side. She regarded her original name (Lily Hunter) as being Irish and said she always felt she had come from an island people.

She married into the upper levels of US business society (her husband became president of a major forest products corporation). They lived first in New York and then in San Francisco, bringing up two sons, and taking in a foster child nominally of Irish-Welsh origin, but whom she felt was pure Irish.

When her marriage ended in an amicable separation, and with a new-found interest in philosophy, she planned to undertake a course in London. An Irish priest she knew in San Francisco suggested she stop off in Ireland on her way, and gave her some contacts.

When she arrived here she had the distinct sensation that she was finally “home”. A chance introduction by her Irish hosts to an engineer friend proved fateful; when she settled in London, he took an apartment nearby. He spoke of his ideas, including the generation of power from waves on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, but in the end he settled for a small machine tool business near London that Essie could also invest in, using a legacy from her late father.

As partner and financier, she took responsibility over the next 15 years for everything from the debtors’ ledger to the maintenance of the equipment (at one time, she liked to recall, the firm had the third largest heavy-duty die-cutting machine in England). The pressure was often daunting; one evening, she was so tired that she did not have the energy to come down from a high power press she was cleaning and so slept in her overalls on top of it.

But there were relaxed times too, particularly when they spent a few days on the 45ft boat they kept on the coast, often sailing to Ireland. When the time came for Essie’s next move, there was little doubt where her soul would lead her. She sold her shareholding in the company, and bought a 165-acre farm with a tumbledown thatched cottage at Ennisnag, eight miles south of Kilkenny city.

From her new habitation (the renovation cost as much as the farm itself) Essie became a notable contributor to virtually every aspect of the Kilkenny’s intellectual life, supporting even the most esoteric and hopeless of causes, but always maintaining her great good humour and incurable optimism in the face of harsh reality. Her practical side dictated a strong insistence on photographic records, particularly of the activities of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, revived by her neighbour Hubert Butler some decades previously (the original founder, James Graves, had also lived nearby).

A chance meeting with Sam McClure, then headmaster of Kilkenny College, in 1990 led to her acquiring a property alongside the college grounds, where she installed the vast files she had collected on the subject of change and continuity (change was the norm, her philosophy held, and stagnation the condition to be confronted and challenged). She eventually moved to the Newpark Hotel, to be closer to her work, and finally to Drakelands Nursing Home.

She is survived by her two sons, Stephen and James, who live in the San Francisco area, by their three sons, and by their children in turn.