An Irishwoman's Diary

"All these highs and lows

"All these highs and lows." What would Charles Hughes and his ilk make of that irritatingly catchy single, now best known as a Fáilte Ireland advertising jingle, released by indie-rock band The Laundry Shop?, asks Lorna Siggins.

Indeed, what would Hughes make of the current effort to sell his adopted south Mayo home? "Destination captures your heart" reads the slogan on the little lunch bag posted out to the press recently as part of a new marketing campaign.

A new biography suggests that Hughes would have been, well, ever so slightly horrified at this sort of "branding". For many years, the leading Mayo businessman and personal friend of former president Eamon de Valera had a fundamental antipathy to the idea of developing tourism as an economic concept. His main fear was that it might only encourage visits by "upper-crust English types" who would patronise the "natives", according to the story of his life published recently by Áine Ryan and Harry Hughes.

That story began in a small cottage six miles from Westport in 1876, when Charles was born the youngest of five children to parents Owen and Bridget. The couple were like thousands around them, struggling to escape from poverty in the decades after the Great Famine and living in fear of their landlord, the Marquess of Sligo. When Owen Hughes died suddenly at the age of 62, his older sons took over the running of the family farm at Lankill, and Charles left school to work as a draper's apprentice.


Fast forward to 1904, and on August 13th of that year a young Charles placed an advertisement in the Mayo News, announcing his purchase of Mrs Lennon's business at Bridge Street. Just four days later, he married Ms Jennie Armstrong, and so began a union which was to lead to some of Westport's most successful businesses, including the Irish Sewing Cotton Company Ltd, the Reliable Shoe Company Ltd and the late 20th-century clothing brands, Portwest and Carraig Donn.

As his biographers note, it was not an easy time to be setting up in business - particularly challenging when he found himself in Frongoch prison camp after the 1916 Rising. The camp was not his natural home, historian Tim Pat Coogan explains in his introduction. "The infamous playing of the 'orange card' which de-railed the peaceful introduction to Home Rule to Ireland led to the staging of the revolution which should never have happened," Coogan writes. As a result, men like Hughes all over the island were "driven from the shores of constitutionalism to the world of secret societies, drilling and militant republicanism".

Hughes survived the Anglo-Irish War by going on the run in 1920 and 1921, dodging official attention by working as a salesman on the road. Sean Staunton, former Mayo News editor, says that the "business as usual" approach was typical of the man, whether he was in Frongoch, whether he was in middle of a trial or whether he was organising a clean-up after the Black and Tans bombed his shop.

It was thanks to the Mayo Newsthat the biography proved to be so "easy" to research, according to the authors. In 1933, the paper recorded Hughes's change of heart about the perils of tourism. He had been asked out for a sail in Clew Bay and, like so many of those fortunate to view this island from sea, gained an entirely new perspective. "It forms an event in one's life to have seen this place," Hughes said, also alluding to the words of the writer and Westport visitor William Makepeace Thackeray: "Were such beauties lying upon English shores, it would be a world's wonder; perhaps if it were on the Mediterranean or the Baltic, English travellers would flock to it by hundreds. Why not come and see it in Ireland? Westport is only one day's journey from London, and lies in a country far more beautiful to most travellers than France or Germany can be."

The life of another "youngest son" of Mayo would have required a very different kind of research.

Writer Anne Chambers was given exclusive access to 16th- and 17th-century manuscripts held by Lord Sligo at Westport House for her biography of Theobald Bourke, otherwise known as Tibbot-ne-Long.

Tibbot's parents were Grace O'Malley and Richard Bourke, and he was so named because he was born on his mother's ship in 1567 - and saved from a certain fate of slavery by Barbary pirates. At that time, the English conquest of Ireland was well in train, and the political dimensions of this have been charted by Chambers in her highly successful biography, Granuaile.

The pirate queen's son was no "clean-cut hero", Chambers says, and his story fits uneasily into our illusory perceptions of the past". Thanks to his "Machiavellian mind", he was to survive the double dealings of his opponents, both English and Irish, to become one of the most powerful landowners in Ireland after the Flight of the Earls.

Chambers's historical thriller, Shadow Lord , is published by Ashfield Press at €15. Charles Hughes: Lankill to Westport 1876-1949, by Aine Ryan and Harry Hughes, is published by the Hughes family at €20, and all proceeds from its sale will go to the Westport conference of the Society of St Vincent de Paul.