Towards the close of Annabel Davis-Goff’s rather marvelous 2003 novel, The Fox’s Walk, set in Ireland in 1916, a British army officer invites a couple of women to take a drive with him in his open-topped motorcar. ‘“You,” Captain Blaine said to Mrs. Coughlan, “will sit here” – he indicated the back seat – “like the Vicereine”.’ Within a few years, such a simile would become redundant, since in this country the role of vicereine ceased to exist but for at least two and half centuries previously, the title had been employed to describe a succession of women who, to varying degrees, had left a mark on Ireland.
Until the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, and the appointment a year later of the first Duke of Ormond as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the crown was only intermittently represented in this country. And even for a century thereafter, the holders of the office might only spend short times in Ireland. Under those circumstances, the presence of their wives here could not be assured. It was only in 1767 that permanent residency was made obligatory for anyone appointed Lord Lieutenant, and spouses were thereafter more than likely to accompany them. Throughout much of this period, Lords Lieutenant were almost invariably English: there was no Irishman in the position between the appointment of the Duke of Tyrconnell (1687) and that of the fourth Earl of Bessborough (1846). Thus their wives were also non-native. Likewise, after the time of the Duke of Tyrconnell, no Roman Catholic held the viceregal office until the last man to do so: Lord FitzAlan of Derwent (April 1921-December 1922). In 1825 there had been a considerable disquiet in Dublin official circles when the then-Lord Lieutenant, Richard, Marquess Wellesley, had married the beautiful American widow Marianne Paterson (née Caton) who was Roman Catholic. As representatives of the British government both Lords Lieutenant and their spouses were required to be conservative (even if they were members of the Liberal party) and certainly not to espouse any radical causes. Inevitably, this hampered even the most intrepid of vicereines and confined their activities to those assured to cause least offence (although, even in the days before Twitter, there were always some observers of the viceregal court who relished taking umbrage at even the most innocuous behaviour).
Just like royal consorts, vicereines were expected to take their cue from their husbands. As the late R.B. McDowell wrote, ‘the vicereine was often an energetic and influential patroness of good causes in her own right’ but some were more active than others. During her husband’s second term (1905-15), the Countess of Aberdeen, for example, was an ardent promoter of Irish crafts (also of Home Rule, for which she was much criticised). She also campaigned indefatigably for the eradication of Tuberculosis in Ireland. Not everyone appreciated her efforts: in 1914 Arthur Griffith wrote that it was Lady Aberdeen rather than ‘the babbling creature who wears the title’ who was the real Lord Lieutenant. However, more usually it tended to be in more genteel areas such as the encouragement of indigenous decorative arts and fashion that vicereines found an outlet for their energy. They could always guarantee personal popularity by ‘dressing Irish’. So, in May 1779 the Countess of Buckinghamshire (who had been born a Conolly of Castletown), announced her intention of dressing exclusively in Irish fabrics at a charity ball. Four years later, her successor Mary, Marchioness of Buckinghamshire requested that guests attending a ball in Dublin Castle would dress solely in Irish fabrics. At the start of the 19th century, The Countess of Hardwicke ordered a quantity of patterned calico from a Mr Clarke of Palmerston to use as wall covering in the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin’s Phoenix Park: some thirty years later, she published a book The Court of Oberon with engravings by Irish artist John Samuel Templeton, to raise funds for the poor and distressed of this country. In 1880 Queen Victoria presented the Duchess of Marlborough with an award to acknowledge the latter’s work in creating a fund to alleviate ‘extreme misery and suffering among the poor.’ Charity work of one kind or another was perhaps the most consistent characteristic of successive vicereines, although some engaged more actively than others: in 1704 for instance, the second Duchess of Ormond was responsible for establishing the first workhouse in Dublin (on the site of the present St James’s Hospital). The challenge for them was to make an impact – and ideally a difference – without overshadowing the authority of their spouses. Regardless of gender, anybody married to someone in a position of power will testify that remains a difficult task.
Vicereines of Ireland: Portraits of Forgotten Women is an exhibition continuing at Dublin Castle until September 5th . The show has been curated by Myles Campbell, who also wrote the excellent accompanying catalogue.