The Humours of Sir Shane Leslie
This column by Jonathan Smyth remembers Monaghan writer, poet and wit Shane Leslie and his Cavan cousins who lived in Drung...
A fabulous wit and a great walker are among two of the many ways that Shane Leslie the famous poet, writer and diplomat of Monaghan descent may be remembered. He was born John Randolph Leslie in London on September 24, 1885, and as a man changed his first name to the more Irish sounding Shane.
Leslie succeeded his father John as 3rd Baronet on the Castle Leslie Estate in Glaslough, Co Monaghan (Shane’s mam Leonie Jerome was incidentally a sister of Winston Churchill’s mother). Leslie lived an eventful life and, among his claims to fame, was delighting an audience on how he lived for a period in Russia with the literary master Leo Tolstoy.
Politically, his experience of various world cultures led Leslie to embrace a socialistic outlook. He was in every way his own man and more times than not followed his own heart rather than the expected tradition he was born into. Converting to Catholicism and standing albeit unsuccessfully as a Home Rule candidate for Derry are two examples of his independent thinking.
The Leslie ancestors originally came to Glaslough in 1665. However, the present-day building called Castle Leslie was built to replace an earlier manor house, which they had demolished. According to Monaghan County Museum, the Glaslough branch of the family was founded by Bishop John Leslie who came from ‘the Isle of Lismore, near Mull, in the Highlands of Scotland’.
Today, Castle Leslie, which is situated amidst 1,000 acres, is a high-end hotel. It hosted the former Beatle Paul McCartney’s wedding to Heather Mills in 2002. Among its other famous visitors were Michael Collins, W.B. Yeats and Mick Jagger. The Historic Houses of Ireland group’s description of the property mentions that the Castle Leslie Estate is now ‘led and managed by Brian Baldwin and Sammy Leslie’, under the supervision of ‘The Leslie Foundation’.
Over the county border and into Cavan, Leslie’s cousins lived at Corravahan House in Drung where a number of years ago my mother and I attended an event during Heritage Week at which the present owner Ian Elliott gave us all an insightful presentation from the elegant surrounds of the library on the history of the Cavan branch of the Leslies and the fascinating contents of the preserved diaries of Charles Robert Leslie.
Corravahan House was formerly a Church of Ireland vicarage and, after the Revd Marcus Beresford vacated the property in 1854 on his appointment as Bishop of Kilmore, the vicarage door was opened the following year to a new clergyman, the Revd Charles Leslie. Drung’s new incumbent was the second eldest son of John Leslie of Castle Leslie. Like his predecessor at Drung, the Revd Charles Leslie was appointed Bishop of Kilmore, in 1870, but died before he could take up residence in Kilmore See House.
Corravahan House remained the home of Charles ‘widow and her sons. One of their sons, Charles Robert Leslie, a former British army officer, looked after Corravahan House and estate following his father’s death and it is his diaries that provide a valuable insight to life at the house. Further info on the Leslie branch at Corravahan can be found at www.irishhistorichouses.com
Shane Leslie’s famous wit was mischievously brilliant and regularly graced the pages of newspapers at home and abroad. In February 1927, London’s ‘Weekly Despatch’ contained one of his written pieces where the topic discussed was ‘ugly men’ and to quote from Leslie’s pen, he says: ‘By a mercy of nature ugly men are never in the least ashamed of themselves, but rather the reverse. I only knew one ugly man who was ashamed of his looks, and he used to wear the most preposterous checks and gaudy clothes in public.’
Another interesting example of Leslie’s humorous observation can be found in an account he gave on an Irish Ball held in Dublin among the upper echelons of British and Irish society. In 1910, he wrote that ‘a good many years ago’, he attended the said Ball at the Royal Hospital, Dublin, and the gathering differed somewhat to an ordinary court ball with its usual open invitation to the public at large while this dance was only offered to the select few.
Leslie who was a convert to socialism did not make much of the pomp and ceremony on display and from his description we sense his feelings as he elaborates on the manners of the participants. He evinced: ‘But here we see real royalty, and such high society as had managed and squeezed in from Dublin and all over Ireland’ and that ‘the only really smart women there were, of course English, and the only presentable men English officers whom he thought, ‘by a strange irony’ appeared to be ‘the only people not dying to be presented’.
Dancing requires a certain level of fitness and Leslie himself was no stranger to a good old-fashioned romp along the roads by ‘shanks mare’. Bursting with energy as a young university student, Leslie’s feet once hit the street with such zest that he walked 56 miles from Cambridge to Berkhamsted, a route completed ‘between breakfast and dinner’. Then another time while back in Ireland he trekked through the night on foot from Dublin to Gorey, a journey of some 60 miles. His feet were certainly made for walking.
Green, Orange, and Lough Derg
Prior to the outbreak of the First World War Shane, in his memoir ‘Long Shadows’, says that his father had control over some 20,000 Monaghan and Cavan Orangemen and that only ‘the gentry’ had the power to take charge of all the ‘frantic hotheads’. He recalled how the men of green and orange affiliation were, by then, arming themselves via illegal gun-running and how they sometimes during a drill would run short of weaponry and would ironically go and borrow from their neighbour whether they be Unionist or Nationalist.
Another interesting fact is that the Leslie’s possessed the deeds to Lough Derg, Co Donegal, for many generations until 1960, when it was, that Sir Shane handed over the islands to the Catholic Bishop of Clogher. In return, the Pope awarded Shane Leslie a papal knighthood making him a Knight Commander of St Gregory.
It must be said, that his fantastic collection of books is well worth revisiting and celebrating and I think it would be a shame if they were not re-published some day.
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