Queen of Georgian Ireland


It's doubtful any location could be more fitting for the launch party of Carola Peck's Mariga And Her Friends than the Tailor's Hall in Dublin. The forthcoming book celebrates Mariga Guinness, who died in 1987, through a collection of memories and anecdotes, but the building itself is perhaps the most fitting monument of all, for the guild hall was just one of many landmarks saved by Mariga and her husband Desmond Guinness through the organisation they founded, the Irish Georgian Society.

"It's peculiarly apt," says their son, Patrick Guinness, of the choice of venue for the launch on Thursday.

"The restoration of the Tailor's Hall was a collaboration between Mariga and Maire Comerford, a Cumann na mBan survivor of 1916. The friendship was typical of Mariga. Although they lived very different lives they got on like a house on fire - adored each other. When Mariga died, I found a book by Maire among her papers that was dedicated to her."

Mariga was born in London in 1932, the daughter of Rosemary Blackadder and Prince Albrecht Von Urach, a member of the junior branch of the royal house of Wurttemberg in south-west Germany. Albrecht had been brought up in a castle, Schloss Lichtenstein, in Stuttgart, but he and his new wife had no one base, moving between London, Germany and Venice. It could all have been very different. Prince Albert of Monaco had promised to assign Albrecht the principality in the absence of a direct heir, but the massive shift in European politics in 1918 changed all that, and Prince Albert was forced to sign a treaty whereby the succession could only pass to French or Monegasque citizens. Instead, Mariga's parents worked peripatetically around Europe as journalists. Albrecht was also an artist for some years.

Patrick Guinness and his sister Marina heard stories from their mother's background as children, but there were large gaps in what they knew. "The missing bits didn't bother me," Patrick says with regret. "I suppose I always thought she would live to a ripe old age and I could fill in the pieces I didn't know. When she died so young (aged 56) and so suddenly, that wasn't possible any more, but there were boxes of journals and letters written by her mother that I never knew existed. Sorting through them became a process of grieving as well as research for me."

The letters and diaries of his grandmother, Rosemary, cover one of the most fascinating periods of Mariga's young life. The family had moved to Japan by 1935 when Albrecht had taken a job reporting on the growing Far Eastern crisis for the German government. For him, it meant a lot of travel - particularly in China, as it was the start of the Japanese incursions there that would result in full-scale war in 1937.

Although Rosemary and the young Mariga, an only child, were settled in a beautiful house in Kamakura, Rosemary's letters home showed her increasing isolation. She was ill-suited to the life of the colonial wife and in late 1937 decided to get more involved in local politics. Convinced Emperor Hirohito was being misled by his generals in the increasingly violent conflict, she decided to tell him so - in person. Perhaps she also hoped her family would be sent home, something she longed for but which Albrecht wouldn't hear of.

Taking the five-year-old Mariga with her, Rosemary entered the palace buildings and got some way into the Imperial palace before being seized by guards. Arrested and injected with a massive dose of morphia, she was put on a ship to Europe, still unconscious. Although Mariga eventually also returned to Britain, travelling alone on a Japanese liner at the age of six, the family was never really together again. Rosemary sank into a deep depression, which was treated in 1941 with a lobotomy from which she never fully recovered. She died in 1975 in a mental hospital in Scotland. Albrecht continued working abroad and Mariga lived with her godmother, Hermione (Mymee) Ramsden, an old-fashioned Fabian and spiritualist. "Japan was Mariga's first exposure to beautiful buildings and architecture and it greatly affected her," Patrick says. "I think it's also true that it was something she and my father Desmond had in common - they had both had messy childhoods and somehow buildings were the only thing that endured. For both of them, buildings meant permanence."

Mariga met Desmond Guinness in Oxford in 1954. He was the son of Lord Moyne and Diana Mitford, who later went on to marry Oswald Mosley, leader of the fascist party in Britain. Desmond was a student, Mariga part of the social whirl.

As a second son, Desmond did not feel the family brewery could offer him a living and once married the couple decided they wanted to farm in Ireland, where Desmond had so many family connections. After renting Carton house near Maynooth for a couple of years, they decided to buy Leixlip Castle in Kildare in 1958. In the same year, they founded the Irish Georgian Society, having been inspired by Maurice Craig's book, Dublin 1660-1860. It was the start of a golden time for Mariga. She and Desmond worked tirelessly to save Ireland's Georgian heritage, restoring not only Leixlip but also Castletown House, the Conolly Folly, Mountjoy Square, the Tailor's Hall and countless other Georgian terraces and interiors throughout the country. Under Mariga's guidance, flocks of volunteers would arrive to paint the walls of Castletown or scrub a building, and she ensured that funds for it all kept flowing.

Peck's book is full of anecdotes by friends and admirers including the Knight of Glin, Desmond Fitzgerald, and art historian Madame Olda Fitzgerald, architect Anne Crookshank, Jeremy Williams and the Honourable Hector McDonnell. None quite succeeds in summing up exactly what made Mariga, the German princess, so unique. Roland Pym recalls a journey to a dance when someone got sick all over Mariga's green spangled dress; not the slightest bit fazed, she concocted a dress out of branches and leaves and was heralded as the belle of the ball.

Patrick hesitates when asked to describe his mother. "I think the key word that would sum her up is spontaneity - nothing was ever planned and the most marvellous things would just fall into place. I think people were amazed at this woman with her cut-glass accent and her appearance of airs and graces - but that was just the way she was. She had the most amazing talent for finding out what people were good at or interested in and getting them talking - she certainly brought a lot of colour to people's lives.

"As a mother she was neither brilliant nor terrible, but she was certainly unconventional. She showed us things we would never have seen had we had a more mundane childhood. We were sent to the local national school and were completely integrated with normal village life. But at the same time there would be visits from the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Princess Margaret and the Rainiers of Monaco. Everything was taken in her stride. I think it was a happy childhood."

Although most of the pen portraits in Mariga And Her Friends are happy ones, there is a pervading air of sadness to Mariga's life. In the mid-1960s there was a divergence between her and Desmond, and in 1969 she left for London and a new partner, Hughie O'Neill, now Lord Rathcavan.

"I think my mother always thought she would spend her old age in Leixlip, so although she loved Hughie, she was never quite willing to make the split. Of course, you can't have your cake and eat it and there was eventually a divorce that was very messy and dragged on for ages."

Desmond and Mariga Guinness finally divorced in 1981 and Mariga moved to Tullynisk House, on the grounds of the Rosses' estate in Birr, Co Offaly. Although she began to put down roots and make friends there, she never really reached a state of calm or happiness before her death.

"I think the greatest tragedy of her life was that she didn't re-invent herself after the divorce; that she didn't say, `I have overcome greater things than this'," says Patrick. "The loss of Leixlip affected her greatly - I think she had persuaded herself it would always be there and when it was gone it had a huge impact on her psyche.

"She also drank quite a bit towards the end. She was one of these people that always woke up clear-headed, so it didn't matter too much, but it did make it difficult for her to deal with the world commercially. In a way, the dream had died for her."

Several people in the book call Mariga Guinness unique; others recall being enriched by her acquaintance; her grand-daughter, Jasmine Guinness, a model, contributes a heartfelt post-script that describes her as "an inspiration to us all".

The book is more than just an habitual canonisation of the dead: Mariga does indeed come across as an unusual, vibrant, inspirational, charismatic - and infuriating - woman. "I don't think the world was quite ready for her yet!" says Patrick.

In 1989, she collapsed on the ferry home after a tour of Portmeirion in Wales and was injected with penicillin, to which she was allergic. She died shortly afterwards. She is buried at the Conolly Folly, one of the IGS's first restoration project, and lies near the three houses she loved: Carton, Castletown and Leixlip Castle.

"The OPW, who now own the Folly, have suggested more than once that she be moved, but I always say `No, you took it on with her there and she's staying!' " Patrick says.

Mariga And Her Friends by Carola Peck, published by The Hannon Press, price £25, will be launched in the Tailor's Hall, Dublin, on Thursday.