An eccentric, perhaps, but not a crackpot


BIOGRAPHY: PATRICIA CRAIGreviews The Biography of an Irish GentlemanBy Robert O'Byrne, The Lilliput Press, 216pp, €25

‘I THINK EVERYONE knows that life is not all jam in the big house,” Elizabeth Bowen wrote in 1942, and a bit farther on in the same essay she alludes to what has become the most egregious and stereotypical trait of Irish, or Anglo-Irish, big-house people: “There are a thousand legends of eccentricity.”

There are indeed, and to the general store the Leslies of Castle Leslie, in Co Monaghan, have not been behindhand in adding their quota. Most readers will have heard of Shane Leslie, who, against the ethos of his class, converted to Catholicism and home rule in the same breath (in 1908) and remained an ardent nationalist, renouncing his birthright (Castle Leslie), going about clad in a saffron kilt and forging a career as a writer of not inconsiderable repute. He doesn’t, however, get much of a look-in in the current biography, which confines itself to documenting the activities of his second son, Desmond, inheritor of the family propensity for idiosyncrasy.

Desmond Leslie was born in London in 1921 and educated at Ampleforth, in Yorkshire, but, throughout his childhood and later, he spent idyllic summers and other periods at Castle Leslie (of which his elder brother, Jack, was the heir). After a couple of terms at Trinity College Dublin, and simultaneous tuition at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he reacted against “the constraint of orthodox harmony”, Desmond joined the RAF to fight as a Spitfire pilot during the second World War. His experiences at this time formed a basis for his first novel, Careless Lives.

A later novel, Pardon My Return(1946), renames Castle Leslie “Cruiskeen Lawn”, though whether this is a joke transliteration of the Irish phrase “an crúiscín lán” (meaning, of course, “the full jug”, as in the celebrated drinking song) isn’t clear. A sense of humour was one of Desmond Leslie’s assets, though it chimes a bit oddly with a few of his outre obsessions. He was, for example, a flying-saucers devotee, and co-wrote a book on the subject that became a best-seller in the early 1950s. He was also, in defiance of his Catholic upbringing, an adherent of an esoteric religious group called the White Eagle Lodge, founded in 1936 by a spiritualist medium known as Minesta. This group provided sympathy and support for Desmond throughout the trials and upheavals of his economic and domestic life, which were constant.

Desmond Leslie was the father of six children by three women. His first wife, Agnes Burnelle, was an actress, and, in the 1960s, Desmond became briefly famous for bopping Bernard Levin on the nose during a television broadcast of That Was the Week That Was. He took this step in retaliation for a bad review by Levin of one of Bernelle’s plays. Around this time, and despite his success as an avant-garde composer of musical scores for film and television, he made the momentous decision to return to Ireland and his ancestral home. (His brother Jack, like his father before him, had relinquished responsibility for the family estate.) Things thereafter were financially fraught and emotionally entangled – at least until a second wife, Helen Strong, succeeded the first and brought a measure of stability to the home.

During the 1960s and early 1970s Desmond’s life was repeatedly thrown into disarray as a consequence of one misguided scheme after another to keep Castle Leslie afloat. The Irish government’s indifference to historic buildings was not a help. A nightclub in Co Monaghan called Annabel’s on the Bog proved not to be a good idea. Plans to build a hotel, a golf club or an artists’ retreat in the Castle Leslie grounds did not get under way. The Northern Irish Troubles erupted, putting an end to the prospect of any resource involving a tourist amenity. Parcels of land and paintings from the family collection had to be sold. Endemic improvidence, Desmond’s biographer says, highlighted his “want of entrepreneurial acumen”. This was a person who had tried to make his fortune in London in the 1940s by selling hand-made leprechauns imported from Ireland.

It was partly his multiple talents, among them his talent as a philanderer, that induced a want of steadiness in Desmond Leslie’s life. Many of his attitudes, though, were enlightened in present-day terms, including his attitude to blood sports. The jolly hunt at Castle Leslie followed a rider standing in for the fox: “no poor animals involved”. In his perfectly correct view, badgers were absolved of blame for the spread of tuberculosis. He amused himself writing humorous letters to The Irish Timeson this and other topics. His outstanding achievement, though, is his success, against the odds and in spite of every setback, in holding on to Castle Leslie. (It is now in the keeping of his daughter Sammy.) It stands as a testimony to his irrepressibility and determination.

You have to say that his was a life lived to the full, and Robert O’Byrne gives a succinct and workmanlike account of it, even if he isn’t a whale on atmosphere. Escapades and anecdotes form the bulk of the book. And it was a mistake to have recollections of Desmond Leslie by various people attached as an appendix to the main text instead of being incorporated into it. There is no index. The book is well illustrated with family photographs, but the cover, oddly, is ill designed, irrelevant and unappealing. It emphasises the follies of its subject – at least, the flying-saucers folly – at the expense of his attainments, and thereby strikes an unduly crackpot note.

Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her most recent book is a memoir, Asking for Trouble