Iris Harben: a life 12 April 1920 – 5 March 2019
Written by Johnny Harben and Katherine von Werner
Iris was born in 1920 at her grandparents’ home, Glenlo Abbey near Galway. Iris remembered as a child sitting on the demesne wall at Glenlo Abbey and watching all the carts full of turf trundling towards the city. Her father was George, fifth Duke de Stacpoole. Two uncles, Roderick and Robert, were killed in World War 1 and are commemorated in Ballymacward Church near the site of another Galway family home. Iris’s father George met Eileen Palmer of the Galway mills family when out hunting.
She had two older brothers: George, sixth Duke, who died in 2005, and Derek who was killed in action in 1944. Her sister Clare and husband Pat Rome had a house near Roundstone, and she died in 2004. Clare’s twin was Peter de Stacpoole of Walterstown, County Meath who predeceased Iris by just a few days.
Iris’s story is an Irish Catholic story set in the Big Houses of the past. To tell it briefly is to give context to Iris’s life at a time when such life stories are no longer seen as elitist but of interest to new generations who are open-eyed and curious about the recent history of their country.
The family was originally from Normandy and had come to England in 1066 with the Conqueror and were granted land around the town of Stackpole in Pembrokeshire. Stacpoole fighting men went to Ireland with Strongbow in the 13th century and soon came to prominence as churchmen, merchants and administrators in Cork and Clare. One forebear in the 15th century died on his way to Rome to receive the pallium as Bishop of Limerick. Others were Sheriffs of Limerick.
In the 18th century George Stacpoole of Craigbrien, County Clare, left Ireland with a sizeable portion of the family money. A proud, venal man, George became Count George de Stacpoole after befriending the exiled King of France at his home in west London. Count George and his son also established family homes in France and Italy, and they imported a pack of staghounds to the French chateau.
Membership of the so-called Black Aristocracy and strategic spending in Rome on church and bridge repairs, not to mention secret diplomatic missions, earned the papal dukedom that Iris’s nephew Richard proudly bears to this day.
The third duke, Stanislaus, became a priest after his wife’s death and was Domestic Prelate to Pope Pius IX. Stani’s sister stands out in the family history: the extraordinary Countess Georgina de Stacpoole. Georgina was a formidable spinster who sponsored St John Bosco, as he became, for the building of a church in Battersea, south west London. During its construction Georgina lived on-site in a tin hut the locals christened ‘The Countess’s Iron Cottage’.
The money was running out at the end of the 19th century and by the time the de Stacpoole’s went back to live in Ireland the family fortunes were only buttressed by good marriages, including Iris’s grandfather’s marriage to Pauline MacEvoy and her father’s to Eileen Palmer.
As Iris grew up, she had a great love of horses and would later become an accomplished huntswoman. Her playground was the stable yard of Tobertynan House, a crenelated castle-like house that was her family home near Rathmoylon, County Meath. There she had the complete attention of Stone, stable boy and jockey, and Needham the gardener.
Her father trained racehorses on the good line of country around Dalymount. When Iris was 12, Thomond II, a de Stacpoole horse, was runner-up in the Aintree Grand National, a feat repeated the following year. By the time she was 18 Iris had hunted with both the Meath’s and the Galway Blazers.
Iris did not have a close relationship with her parents: like many of her generation and social position she was effectively brought up by nannies and governesses. Her childhood was in other respects a happy one, if sometimes lonely. She went to boarding school in England from the age of 10, travelling on the mail boat from Dublin to Holyhead.
Iris had a favourite nanny, Miss Finlay, and when Iris was at school it was only Miss Finlay who remembered her birthday and used to send her a barm brack and a card.
When Miss Finlay told Iris’s father that she was going to America to marry her sweetheart, the duke drove Miss Finlay to the docks, a half day’s travel in his open top car. Little Iris went with them. Miss Finlay was wearing her best hat, mainly because it would be crushed if she packed it and she wanted to meet her fiancé in New York looking her very best. On a bend in the road the wind suddenly snatched the bonnet off her head, pins and all. Iris cried out, begging her father to pull over so that they could go back and get it. Her father refused. Miss Finlay and Iris were both devastated.
Iris had an astonishing memory and in her later years she and her brother Peter would talk about their childhood at Tobertynan, particularly their lives outdoors. There were tennis courts by the summer house and for hockey. Peter was the groundsman removing the cowpats from the lawn and supplying walking sticks and umbrellas for games of hockey.
There was quite a contrast between Iris’s two grannies: Pauline de Stacpoole (nee MacEvoy) at Mount Hazel, Woodlawn, and Maud Palmer (nee Head) at Glenlo Abbey. Pauline was saintly; she insisted that the household meet every evening to say the rosary. Iris remembered that one evening her nanny put Iris’s new slippers to warm by the fire in the nursery. While they were all downstairs praying a cinder fell out and burnt one of them – Iris was heartbroken!
Granny de Stacpoole had a handbag full of keys like a gaoler and every morning went down to the kitchen at Mount Hazel to check on everything and up to the top of the house where stores of household goods like soap were kept. A car was hired for church at Ballmacward and afterwards to the shop in Woodlawn to collect the things ordered the previous week, including cuts of meat.
Granny Maud at Glenlo Abbey was kindlier; she would buy the children sweets in Galway and take them bathing at Salthill or Furbo where she would fuss if the children went in much further than ankle deep. All the children were in awe of the chauffeur William (who subsequently went with Eileen to Errisbeg and whose room next to the kitchen is still called ‘William’s House’). On Galway trips to shops like Moon’s and Mrs Deasey’s fish shop William would say – when he felt Maud was dilly-dallying: “Now, ma’am, you’ve been here long enough”.
Trains between Enfield, Woodlawn and Ballynahinch took the family, friends, cousins, dogs and bikes, between Tobertynan, Mount Hazel and, after 1929, Errisbeg House in Roundstone. Granny Maud used a bathing machine on Salthill beach and the family erected a diving board on the deserted rocks of Gurteen bay.
Iris’s devotion to her Catholic faith was underpinned by her schooling from the Benedictine nuns of Princethorpe near Rugby and then at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton, west London. Every May at home there was a village procession to the shrine built by the MacEvoys in the woods at Tobertynan, cared for then by the Passionist order, a tradition that continues to this day.
To the end of her life she always slept with her rosary beads and no church went unpassed on car journeys without her making the sign of the cross.
Iris profited from her expensive education to the same extent as other girls of at that time: hardly at all. At the age of 18 she would have believed that her future lay in a good marriage and a big house to look after. In 1939, Iris ‘did the Season’ in London under the care of her Aunt Gertrude. She enjoyed a glamorous social life and was reputedly the last Irish girl to be presented at Court to their Imperial Majesties as a ‘debutante’, a custom later abandoned by Buckingham Palace.
When war broke out Iris signed up with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse. She told of a hectic scene in theatre when the surgeon’s belt came loose. The surgeon bellowed “Nurse – my trousers!” and Iris asked “Up or down Sir?” “UP, you fool!” shouted the surgeon. In common with many women, the war spelled liberation for Iris. She was based in St Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea, with her best friend Ida van Cutsem, and was meeting new and interesting people every day and working in the temporary hospitals set up in stately homes such as Carlton Towers in Yorkshire.
In 1943 Iris found she was pregnant by a married doctor. Frightened and alone, Iris was befriended by the Lentaigne family in London where her daughter Katherine was born. She experienced the terrors of the London blitz: on one occasion a ‘Doodlebug’ fell on the railway track right in front of a train on which she and Katherine were travelling.
Iris’s family back in Ireland cut contact with her and only her uncle Hubert, a decorated veteran of World War 1, offered to give her a home at Ardvarna, a house he had rented in Oughterard.
As time passed, Iris’s relationship with the family improved though she was always regarded as something of a free spirit. Iris liked this reputation and encouraged her nephews and nieces, as well as great-niece Serena, to call her ‘the Mad Aunt.’
Iris met her English husband Eric at a hunt ball in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Twenty years her senior, Eric was typical of the sort of ex-army Englishman who dreamed of escaping the drabness of post-war England to a life of farming in the greenness of Ireland. He was a wealthy man: his grandfather had helped to found the Prudential Assurance Company in the 19th century. He had one connection with Ireland through the marriage of his sister Eve to General Dorman-Smith (later Dorman O’Gowan) of Bellamont Forest, County Cavan.
Eric and Iris were married in 1947 in Chester and set up home at Crover House on the shores of Lough Sheelin in County Cavan. They enjoyed success in cattle breeding: Hereford bull calves from Crover won prizes in Dublin and London and were sold to South America.
Eric and Iris had three children: Sally, Johnny, and Julia born in 1948, 1951, and 1953 respectively. But Eric was an alcoholic and the relationship was difficult. Eric, known as ‘The Major’, would like to let his hair down with the farm men in the local bar. This sometimes embarrassed the locals but Eric was good company and he was buying the drinks, so why not?
One night he was asked if he had fought in the first as well as the second world war. He told them that he had been 18 in 1918 and so had just missed ‘the Big Show’ but that he had done his bit for King and Country by coming over to Ireland with an outfit called the Black and Tans. Stunned silence was followed by a hasty retreat when Iris, summoned by the bar’s owner, came to pick him up to take him home. He was lucky: other Brits and Anglo-Irish families had their houses burned down for less.
The marriage foundered and Iris left Crover with the children to be with her family at Tobertynan. Crover was sold and Eric moved to Jersey where some of his family lived. As a Catholic, Iris could not divorce Eric and court battles were fought in London for custody of his children. On one occasion when he was granted permission to see the children at a hotel outside Dublin he hired a private plane to ‘kidnap’ them. At Croydon aerodrome they were met by court officers and the story was covered by major British newspapers.
Iris was greatly supported at this time by her sister-in-law Anne who lived in Kent and was another free spirit. A member of the illustrious Dease family of Westmeath, Anne was separated from Iris’s brother George, the future sixth duke. Iris and her children spent a few happy months with Anne and her three children, Richard, Biddy, and David. Then Iris agreed to join Eric in Jersey to attempt a reconciliation. It did not work out and eventually she came to a financial agreement with Eric and was able to buy a house on the river Thames near Oxford. A decade of relative calm followed. Eric paid for his three children to attend Catholic boarding schools in England and they spent part of every school holiday with him in Jersey.
Most summer holidays were spent back in Ireland, staying at Errisbeg House in Roundstone, enjoying all the fun and social life of Connemara with the likes of the Church, Morris, and Leonard families. From their home by the Thames, her daughter Sally went to work in New York and met her future husband. Iris arranged for the wedding to be held in Dublin and the honeymoon in Connemara, with all the family meeting up for a holiday together in Roundstone.
On her way back to England after this holiday Iris stopped in Oughterard for breakfast with friends and greatly admired their house, Clonriff. She was told that it was for sale and it didn’t take her long to decide to sell her house in England and buy Clonriff despite the wrench for the children from their lives in England. Oughterard had little to offer the teenagers, especially in winter.
From then on Iris didn’t see much of her children and their families: Katherine in Germany had two children, Armin, who took from her an abiding interest in the de Stacpoole family, and Eddie; Sally lived on the Isle of Wight with three children, Jonathon, Sam, and Harry; Johnny in Norfolk had Marcus, Henrietta, and Hubert; and Julia in France had Benjamin, Gabrielle, and Daniel.
In her early years in Oughterard Iris created a much-admired garden at Clonriff, as she always did wherever she lived, and took an active part in the life of the town when it suited her. Iris was a voracious reader and was always keen on self-improvement: she took watercolour painting classes and then a computer course in Oughterard aged 88.
She had the good fortune of having her close friend Ursula Crofton, of the Dillon-Mahon family, as a neighbour and she saw a lot of her own family: her uncle Hubert; her uncle Geoffrey Palmer, who lived on the Corrib after Glenlo Abbey was sold; and Geoffrey’s son Johnny, who lived in Moycullen. Her sister Clare’s children Derek, Sue, and Andy, and cousin Peter Griffiths were among other regular family visitors. Her beloved nephew David came in May for the fishing for many years, often accompanied by Iris’s brother Peter. She paid regular visits to her nephew, Richard, in Roundstone and he remained her rock to the end.
As Iris grew older she was never less than flirtatious when a handsome man was around. Those who were there that day will tell you of their embarrassment when the film director, John Huston, and his daughter, Angelica, came for lunch from their house in Clarenbridge and Iris, several ahead on the gin and tonics, jumped uninvited onto John Huston’s lap.
Only one man moved in with her, Dr Peter Daley of Oranmore. He cramped her style and was famously stingy – so he had to go. But not before she had taken revenge on the good doctor for his meanness by sinking his boat moored on the river in Oughterard.
Iris never lost her deep interest in her family. She helped her uncle Hubert, together with Ursula Crofton, to write a de Stacpoole family history in the 1970s. This book supplied much of the material for an illustrated family history which her son Johnny published with her help in 2014. Iris helped Jean Lombard to write her celebrated history, An Irish Woman in Czarist Russia, about Iris’s godmother Kathleen Ffrench of Monivea, published in 2010.
She was interviewed on several occasions by RTE radio recalling the past. One such programme was about the supernatural in which Iris retold stories about her mother’s belief in the fairy folk and how one visitor to Errisbeg House had been served tea by invisible hands.
Above all, Iris was a gifted and knowledgeable gardener. Like her mother, Iris never travelled any distance without trowel and secateurs in the boot of the car, always prepared for a little light thieving in the gardens she visited. Nicky McClintock of Cashel, daughter of Alan McClintock of Tipperary who was probably Iris’s closest friend, and herself very close to Iris, said that “she was well-named wild Iris”. Elizabeth Culley of Cleggan recalled a rose that Iris gave her and that she planted by her front door “always the first to flower with a gorgeous scent, a constant reminder of a special person”. Iris’s greatest achievement was a 100-yard herbaceous border against a red-brick demesne wall at her home on the Thames, where her neighbour was the Poet Laureate John Masefield.
Iris’s gift for making friends never deserted her. Local friends like the Geoghegans, Columba Corbett, Vivienne Dick and Irene and John Byrne joined those to whom she was particularly devoted: Rosie Pretty at Cashel, Veronica Anderson of the Marks family of Recess, Denny and Louise Wardell and the Simonds family who were always so close to the de Stacpooles.
Friends and family from further afield would come to stay on their way up to Connemara. Iris hung a sign on the front door that read: ‘Friends welcome, relatives by appointment’.
By the time she was in her 90s, Iris’s health was deteriorating, not helped by a fall in 2013 when she cracked her coccyx. A team of carers marshalled by the redoubtable Mary Molloy of Camp Street began to look after her, working in shifts to stay overnight in the room next to hers on the ground floor at Clonriff. Work in the garden gave way to watching sport on television and a strange fascination for the trial cases of Judge Judy.
In 2014 Richard took her to Lourdes with the Order of Malta pilgrimage. After a tiring journey including the plane journey from Knock, Iris was met by one of the nursing helpers at the hostel where she would be staying. The nurse asked her if she needed anything and Iris promptly replied: “A large gin and tonic please”.
In 2016 Iris was admitted to An Teaghlach Uilinn nursing home in Moycullen where she received extraordinary care from the devoted staff. To begin with she had many visitors but inevitably, as she became more disorientated and sleepier, these visits became fewer and fewer. To the very end, her most devoted visitor was Linda McDonagh who had been one of her carers at Oughterard and with whom she shared memories that often went back to the family home in Meath.
In her last days at Clonriff, Johnny would take her on drives around the Corrib and Iris would tell him that if he took the next turn left, the road would lead to Tobertynan.
May she rest in peace.
This article is based on a draft written by Johnny Harben (son) and Katherine von Werner (daughter) dated June 2016, and subsequently revised by Johnny in March 2019. If anyone wants to share any memories of Iris please contact Johnny by email or post with your stories: firstname.lastname@example.org; 58a Mount Pleasant, Norwich NR2 2DQ.