Meet the ancestors


During the week she has a regular home in Ranelagh. At the weekend she lives in a castle. Fiona McCannmeets Eliza Pakenham, granddaughter of the seventh Earl of Longford, who has written a vivid account of her extraordinary family .

Driving up to Tullynally Castle on a foggy autumn morning after an evening spent tucked under the covers with Soldier Sailor, Eliza Pakenham's vigorous account of the lives of her ancestors, is an eerie experience. The drive through the rolling midlands is flanked by mist-covered cobwebs clinging to ancient trees, and a thick fog that lends a myopic quality to the landscape.

The path winds by lush green lawns dotted with majestic oaks and birches that seem untouched by time, leading to the grand turreted castle that was once the home of soldiers, sailors, lovers and lords, all of whom seem suddenly present and breathing in the vaporous morning air.

The castle, when its outline becomes clearer through the Co Westmeath mist, is an impressive, fairytale edifice of granite and grandeur that speaks so eloquently of times past that it seems to erase the present. But, inside the stone walls, life pulses aplenty. Dogs are barking, frisky as they are led outside for their daily constitutional. Eliza Pakenham's three children are swarming through the cavernous rooms of their weekend home, easy in the heavy air of history. Gabriel, the youngest, is doodling, a charming five-year-old clutching crayons in his fist. Close inspection reveals his drawing is not of the standard square house with triangular roof but of a turreted castle, clearly delineated in bright colours. For Gabriel, castle is synonymous with home.

Pakenham, granddaughter of the seventh Earl of Longford, takes me through to the kitchen, not her favourite room but warmer, she explains, than the library. It's a big, airy room devoid of imagined scullery maids and tankard-swilling footmen, and it feels almost ordinary, and very much lived-in. For Pakenham it's important that her childhood home remains as such.

"I like feeling that everything is still very much in use, and that there's nothing of the museum about Tullynally," she says. Nothing of a museum, yet the marks of generations past are everywhere. Swords belonging to Pakenham's ancestors hang haphazardly along the walls of the castle's enormous Great Hall. Portraits of its previous owners, sombre in their military garb and powdered wigs, line the dining room.

These are the people that adventure through the pages of Soldier Sailor, an account of this extraordinary family of lords and ladies who lived through Napoleonic wars and Irish rebellions, and daily dramas of love and loss. They may be long gone, but for Pakenham their presence is still palpable in the estate which was once their home.

"If I walk down the garden and I see a beautiful oak or beech tree, I know that that was a young tree when these friends of mine, as I think of them now, were walking down the same path, and it's very comforting to feel that as a continuation," she says. "Nothing has changed, and that's lovely, and I hope it will remain like that."

There's a timeless quality to Pakenham herself, something almost Brontë-esque about her porcelain skin and the delicate blond curls that gather around her soft features. She has spent her 40 years coming home to Tullynally, as a child and now as an adult with her own family, returning from their house in Ranelagh, in Dublin, every weekend. And in this home that creaks of history she seems almost eerily comfortable with the weight of its past, and eager to make it part of a living, vibrant present.

"You sit at a desk where your great-great-grandfather was writing his accounts, and the same blotter that he was using is underneath your piece of paper, and that's a very nice feeling," she says, and then continues matter-of-factly: "It can be slightly spooky, and we did have a little visit from the ghost of a dead butler on millennium eve. Although that was quite strange it was also comforting in its way." Her tone is confidential and sincere. Pakenham is as comfortable discussing ghosts as she is chatting about central heating.

"I saw a lady's head in my bedroom about two or three years ago, and I knew that this was a ghost looking at me, but I wasn't frightened," she recalls. "I was actually rather flattered that she'd decided to visit, and I thought she was just reminding me that they're all here too, that Tullynally isn't just ours; it belongs to everyone who's ever been here."

It's a sudden and spooky reminder of the generations that once populated Tullynally, formerly known as Pakenham Hall, and that are apparently keen to ensure they are not forgotten. But Pakenham is not remotely cowed by the appearance of phantom heads in her bedroom - having spent four years researching the lives of Tullynally's former occupants for her book, she even invites such tete-a-tetes.

"I dreamed about Ned [ Pakenham] as though he was alive and well when I was writing about him, and I would love to have a nice affectionate chat with him," she says of an ancestor who died at the head of his troops in the Battle of New Orleans. Ned - or Gen Edward Pakenham as he was officially known - is clearly one of Pakenham's favourites, and as she came to know him through his correspondence with his family, her relationship with this kindly man who lived two centuries ago blossomed.

"He left a whole run of letters from the campaign against Napoleon, writing back to his mother and brother," explains Pakenham. "You read his thoughts week after week and you become extremely close to him as a result, and when he is suddenly killed it's absolutely devastating, because it's like you've lost a friend."

Ned's portrait hangs proudly in Pakenham's favourite room in the castle, a warm wood-lined library with floor-to-ceiling shelves of ancient books, among them a first-edition Jane Austen and a heavy, leather-bound Bible dating back to the 18th century, where births and deaths are painstakingly recorded.

Many of the books are autographed by Elizabeth Cuffe, the woman who began the dynasty that inspired Soldier Sailor, and also started the library, and whose literary inclinations have clearly been inherited by her descendant. Pakenham's love of books and their contents led her to Oxford, where she read English, after which she worked in publishing and wrote an unpublished novel before beginning Soldier Sailor.

The book took four years of research through papers, libraries and archives, and also a house in Howth, in Co Dublin, where a cavity in an attic wall revealed old tin trunks containing letters and even a memoir, which shed a huge amount of light on her subjects.

Although the research was hard work, Pakenham says other aspects of the story made her task easier. "There was such humour and character in this group of siblings that I didn't have to do very much to make them come alive. They were jumping off the page at me from the word go."

Pakenham also uncovered a few secrets. "Often people want to make a bit more out of something just to make it more exciting, but sometimes you'll find the opposite: that something has been hidden away that's a tragedy or a dramatic story that for reasons of diplomacy has been suppressed," she says.

Her research led her to a number of such instances, including the discovery of "illegitimate" children, and one "legitimate" child who had been erased from official history because of an illness. "He doesn't exist on the family tree simply because he was born with curvature of the spine. He spent all his short life being treated for this disability, and died at the age of 18, yet his name isn't up there."

Other characters had been given short shrift, dismissed from family lore for too long. "In the case of my five-times great aunt, who was married to the Duke of Wellington, I felt that a very shabby account of her had been given in histories that had been written previously, and I felt that I needed to find out more about her and give her a fuller character. Every time I read something written by her I thought, 'Yes! This shows the real Kitty,' because often her letters were extremely witty and charming."

At other times Pakenham came across events that didn't show her ancestors in the best light, but she was adamant to give a true account of their stories. "There were some things that I found out that I didn't necessarily feel very proud of, but I felt that I had to give the real version and not gloss over these things. When you read about the period of civil war in 1798, for example, it is quite disturbing to imagine someone who appears so charming in their letters charging forth with a sword to literally cut people down," she says.

Her extensive research into her family tree brought her close to the characters in the past, in whom she even found traces of herself. "I often laughed out loud when I found little phrases that sounded so like either myself or my father," she says. "There were women writing to each other about how they couldn't get their accounts together or how their children were driving them mad during the coach journey between Dublin and Tullynally, fighting in the coach, and I thought: 'This is me driving up from Ranelagh to Tullynally every Friday night!' "

Soldier Sailor is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20 in UK