First Encounters: Turtle Bunbury and Hugo Jellett
‘Turtle always had this curiosity about people’
Hugo Jellett (left) and Turtle Bunbury. Photograph: Eric Luke
Hugo Jellett is director of Carlow Arts Festival and its sister events, The Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas and the History Festival of Ireland, as well as events at the Electric Picnic. He lives in Stradbally, Co Laois, with his wife Roz and children Arthur and Felix
I have a blurry image of meeting Turtle plenty of times as pre-teens before meeting him in the RDS, where both our dads were stewards. Our parents and grandparents were great generational friends. Neither of us has any interest in equestrian matters so we immediately gelled and went off in search of other things to do. And that’s how we became buddies.
I’d finished college in England by the time Turtle was what you might loosely call ‘at Trinity’. We shared a few houses during his Trinity years – I was working in Lilliput Press at the time. We lived in one particular house on Longwood Avenue; about 35 people managed to call it home.
Turtle’s a true eccentric. I have this vision of him with steamed-up glasses held together with elastoplast because he’s lost one pair and sat on the other, his shoe sole flapping off, held together by sellotape until he got his next allowance, wearing his jumper with the yarn unravelling from each sleeve, smoking roll-up cigarettes and drinking stout.
But all through his teenage years and his 20s he always had this curiosity about people. He had hundreds and hundreds of friends, made them all laugh and still maintained impeccable manners. And that is kind of what he’s ended up doing as a job. He’s a historian but really, he’s a collector of people. Turtle really is one of the country’s great listeners. He has this amazing ability to draw good things out of people and rob them of all suspicion and get them to talk about their lives.
Turtle likes to immerse himself in these situations of absurdity, sort of courts mild catastrophe. He’s a voracious diary writer who’ll throw himself into situations that produce the kind of memories most people would have to invent. He’s a curious, mischievous creature and that curiosity is probably what has led him to becoming an historian.
After we both returned to Ireland, we went to live in Kilkenny together. I wouldn’t give myself the credit for saving Turtle. He was saved solely by Ally, his wife. This beautiful creature dropped out of the sky onto his lap one day and saved him from a life of broken spectacles, wooden pubs and meandering conversations. She gave him direction that he needed.
Barring his accent, there’s no one more Irish than Turtle. He has made so many friends. We see quite a lot of him and his family and he asked me to be the god-daddy of his lovely Jemima. As you get older you realise your family and your circle of friends are really all that matter.
Turtle Bunbury is a writer and historian whose latest book, ‘The Glorious Madness – Tales of the Irish & the Great War’, was shortlisted for Best Irish- published Book of the Year 2014. He lives on his family’s Lisnavagh Estate in Rathvilly, Co Carlow with his wife Ally and daughters Jemima and Bay
I met Hugo at Horse Show Week. I’m not into horses but I’m from a family that were. I was about 15 or 16; I think there was bit of underage drinking in the Pimms garden. We bonded, I think, because we’d both been educated outside of Ireland, I in Scotland, he in England; that’s part of why we became friends but it was more because of our love of craic and merriment.
I went to Trinity; Hugo, who’s two years older, went to university in England and arrived back in Dublin towards the middle of my university career.
When I was about 22, I moved into a house with him on Pembroke Road in Dublin. He always seemed much more grown-up than I was in those days, was a bit more organised, and because he was working – in Lilliput Press – would have smart coats and suits whereas I was always scruffy.
From there we moved into a six-bedroom house on Longwood Avenue which was an exceptional party house.
We had a great send-off for Hugo when he went to New York. A year later, I headed off to Hong Kong where I stayed for two-and-a-half years. But Hugo is one of those friends, if you didn’t see him for 20 years, you’d pick up where you left off.
A few months after coming back from Hong Kong I was living at home, slightly confused about what to do and where to go, was being a bit of a recluse. Hugo – who’d also moved back to Ireland – rang and said he was on his way down to bring me out. He shook me out of my reclusiveness.
I moved to Kilkenny, lived with Hugo and his then girlfriend, then to Dublin, following poor old Hugo again – I stayed with him for a few months. My Vanishing Ireland series of books kicked into gear in 2004 – Hugo was very supportive all the way, would have read early drafts.
Hugo would have been conscious of our shared background; it would have fuelled why he and I made it our business to go to pubs and GAA matches and talk with everybody as well as going to all the la-di-da stuff. We both decided early on we really wanted to live in Ireland, to feel part of the country.
My father is a Baron, Lord Rathdonnell but I’m not the heir apparent. I’m the third son and would crawl around the floor after my brothers: my father would go “Primus, secundus, tertius” – that nickname evolved into Turtle. I’m either James or Alexander on passports.
Hugo lives about 45 minutes away from me in Carlow, is godfather to my daughter Jemima. We still have a penchant for fun. But Hugo is a rock of sense, I’ve gone to him for advice: if I had a cabinet, he would have a hot seat in it.