THIS month on Saint Valentine’s Day we pay homage to one of the strongest of human emotions with flowers, chocolates and other tokens of affection. Love and desire are powerful forces that have changed the course of Irish history many times.
Mythology gives us the tragic romances of Dairmuid and Grainne; Naoise and Deirdre of the Sorrows. It was a kingly quarrel over Derval O’Rourke that led to the Norman invasion in 1169 and Strongbow married Aiofe MacMurrough to cement his territorial claim. The last great gaelic chieftain Hugh O’Neill eloped with Mabel Bagnel, daughter of his arch rival Henry Bagnel, in 1591. King William of Orange gave his mistress Elizabeth Villiers huge estates in Ireland in 1695 and she founded Midleton Grammar School in Cork. Marie-Louise O’Murphy was a minor mistress of King Louis XV of France. The daughter of one of the Wild Geese, soldiers who fled Ireland with the defeated James II, she fell from grace when she sought to oust the king’s chief mistress Madame de Pompadour in 1755. Louise was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution but survived the guillotine to marry three times.
Charles Stewart Parnell’s love for Kitty O’Shea was responsible for his political downfall which proved a major setback for the Home Rule movement in 1886. Oscar Wilde’s love for Lord Alfred Douglas brought about his complete ruin and imprisonment on charges of gross indecency in 1895. Though he spent two of the last years of his life with Douglas, Wilde died a broken man and an exile in France in 1900. Douglas married Olive Custance in 1902, turned against his former lover and condemned homosexuality.
Republicans Michael Collins and Harry Boland vied for the affections of Kitty Kiernan but were killed during the civil war in 1922. She married the quartermaster general of the Irish Army, Felix Cronin, in 1925. The poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote Raglan Road about his unrequited love for the young Dublin beauty Hilda Moriarty in the 1950s and the American songwriter Steve Earle wrote the song Galway Girl for Joyce Redmond in 1997. Earl has married seven times and has wed Lou-Anne Gill twice.
But it is the landed and political classes who have given us some of the most exotic of Irish love lives. In 1998 lady Cosima Somerset disclosed that the ninth Marquess of Londonderry, Alistair Vane-Tempest-Stewart, was not her natural father. The peer’s first wife Nicolette had an affair with Robin Douglas-Home, nephew of British Prime Minister Alex Douglas-Home, but Alistair agreed to raise the lovechild as his own. Nicolette and Alistair parted company in 1971 when a blood test revealed musician Georgie Fame was the father of another of their children. Douglas-Home committed suicide in 1968 after an affair with Princess Margaret and Nicolette threw herself from Clifton suspension bridge in 1993. Alistair divorced his second wife, ballerina Doreen Wells, in 1989 and died peacefully in 2012.
His sister Annabel had a long affair, and three children, with financier James Goldsmith while still married to London nightclub owner Mark Birley. She wed Goldsmith in 1978 but he died in the arms of a French lover in 1997. In a candid memoir Annabel revealed that her father, the eighth Marquess who was MP for county Down, was a hopeless alcoholic who often brought stray women home and once tried to show his pornography collection to the wife of American evangelist Billy Graham. Annabel, aged 86, lives alone in London. Her daughter Jemima married cricketer Imran Khan in 1995 but they divorced in 2004. Brother Ben Goldsmith married banking heiress Kate Rothschild in 2003 but they revealed a ‘Twitter divorce’ in 2012. The youngest child Zac Goldsmith seems more settled. He married banking heiress Alice Rothschild in 2013 and was appointed to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson after the last election.
The last Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, married his second cousin Lindy Guinness in 1964 but died of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. His sister Caroline was married three times: to artist Lucien Freud, composer Israel Citkovitz and poet Robert Lowell, before losing a battle with alcoholism in 1966. Caroline’s daughter Ivana Lowell was one of the first women to accuse film producer Harvey Weinstein. She claims he chased her around an office desk demanding sexual favours.
The personal papers of his stepfather, novelist Ian Fleming, revealed the love life of Lord Raymond O’Neill’s mother Ann. She had affairs with Fleming and newspaper magnate Esmonde Harmsworth while married to Shane O’Neill and a fling with British Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell while married to Fleming. The James Bond creator disclosed that he enjoyed a sadomasochistic relationship with Ann.
The seventh Earl of Caledon’s first marriage, to the Greek shipping heiress Catherine Coumantaros, ended after six years in 1985 and he married Henrietta Newman four years later. He was part of the royal circle and the Queen was said to be displeased when gossip columnists revealed Nicholas Alexander had left his wife and family for society portrait painter Emma Sergeant. He married for a third time in 2008 to Amanda Cayzer the former wife of a banking billionaire.
A decade has passed since Irish Robinson, wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, stepped down from public life after the revelation that she had an affair with a 19-year-old caterer. The born-again Christian gave up seats in the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Bertie Ahern married bank official Miriam Kelly in 1975 but he became the first Taioseach to be legally separated when they split in 1992. His very public relationship with Celia Larkin ended in 2003 and she has forged a career in business and television.
One wonders what Saint Valentine would have made of it all. He died in the third century after defying the Roman emperor Claudius who outlawed marriage for soldiers. In 1868, a wealthy French family made a donation to the Franciscan church: a small wooden box labelled Corpus Valentini Martyris or The Body of Saint Valentine. The friars sent the relic to Saint Francis’ Church, in the Gorbals, Glasgow. In 1999, it was moved to the nearby, Blessed St John Duns Scotus, where it has a place of honour.
On February 14 it will be decorated with flowers while the faithful say prayers for lovers.
© Maurice Neill 2019