Pages from history

 

CURIOSITIES:Lavish costumes worn by pageboys at Dublin’s viceregal court have come to light after 100 years, writes MICHAEL PARSONS

THINK DOWNTON ABBEY is posh? Well, the opulent world of the fictitious Edwardian country house is no match for real-life Dublin 100 years ago. The lifestyle and trappings of Ireland’s ruling class in the early years of the 20th century is revealed in an extraordinary stash of ceremonial costumes which has come to light. Lavish uniforms, once worn by pageboys in Dublin’s viceregal court, vividly evoke the pageantry and privilege of the British administration in Ireland, which was swept away in the aftermath of the first World War, the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence.

The uniforms, stored in a leather suitcase,miraculously survived a house-fire two years ago and were salvaged by a descendant of a tailor from Robinson Steele – the Dawson Street outfitters which supplied the military and aristocracy. Unseen for almost a century, they will be sold at auction by Sheppard’s in Durrow, Co Laois next month.

A rare photograph of two pageboys wearing the uniforms – taken by Chancellor of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, a photographer “by appointment” to the viceregal court – is also to be auctioned. Unfortunately the image, apparently taken during a visit by King Edward VII to Dublin, was not captioned. Does anyone recognise these boys?

Pageboys were drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy. Boys were recruited from about the age of eight and served for one or two “seasons”. They were essentially stroll-on players in the elaborate ceremonial ritual which surrounded the “court” of the viceroy – the British monarch’s representative in Ireland – and took part in state occasions at the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) in the Phoenix Park and at Dublin Castle. How different – how very different from the home life of our own dear President.

A unique personal account of the pageboy experience was recorded by Sir John Evelyn Leslie Wrench (1882-1966) of Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh, in his memoir An Irish Interlude, who recalled: “When my mother told me that I was to be page to Lady Zetland, I was then eight, I was agitatedly happy. I did not know why I was chosen but it seemed a great honour and the grown-ups were pleased. Besides, very exciting events lay ahead. I was to have my hair curled by the viceregal hairdresser, Worn, in Stephen’s Green; I was to have a wonderful St Patrick’s-blue and white silk suit, with hanging cape and tassels and a gilt sword and a hat trimmed with ostrich feathers; and I was to be in attendance at the Drawing Rooms and at St Patrick’s Ball – though what St Patrick would have said to all this finery I did not enquire”.

The bespoke pageboy uniforms were modelled on the “celestial blue” robes, lined with white silk, worn by the knights of the Order of St Patrick – also tailor-made by Robinson Steele and the fabrics used included silk and Irish poplin, stiffened with silver wire braiding. Irish crochet was used to create “cavalier style” lace collars, tied with silk ribbons, and matching cuffs. To ensure the boys were protected from the elements outdoors, each wore a little wool overcoat. Their tricorne hats were decorated with exotic ostrich feathers and lined with soft kid leather.

Sadly, the uniforms have not survived fully intact. Some items – such as the satin slippers and gilt swords are missing. According to Irish costume and textile historian Maireád Johnston, the uniforms are “extremely important and unique” with no known other examples in any museum or private collection.

Names sewn into the uniforms provide clues about the identity of some of the pageboys: “William Westenra” grew up to be Lord Rossmore, of Rossmore Park, Co Monaghan; “Master A Weldon” became Sir Anthony Weldon, 7th Baronet Burdett, of Dunmore, Co Carlow; and “Master Tom Arnott” was a son of Sir John Arnott, founder of Arnott’s department store and one-time proprietor of The Irish Times. A fourth name label, “Master Greer” refers to either Eric or Frank Greer of the Curragh, who were pages of honour at the investiture of the Marquis of Waterford as a Knight of St Patrick in 1902. The Irish Timesdescribed the little brothers as being “dressed in blue doublet and white hose, with bonnets adorned with ostrich feathers”. Both boys grew up to be soldiers and were killed in the first World War. How to value such items? They could be viewed as priceless pieces of memorabilia that offer an insight into a lost world which is part of the country’s complex history. But ultimately, auction-goers will decide. The black-and-white photograph of the two unknown pageboys has been assigned a pre-auction estimate of €200-€300; the three uniforms, €400-€600 each. They will go on view at Sheppard’s saleroom in Durrow, Co Laois from Saturday, March 3rd and will be sold at auction on Tuesday, March 6th.