The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.
In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.
Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.