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Ancestral Vices

Rosita Sweetman

Soldier, Sailor: An Intimate Portrait of an Irish Family, by Eliza Pakenham, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 312 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0297843771

Soldier Sailor has many charms. It’s a clever concept – a young member of a well-known Anglo-Irish family wishes to find out who the subjects of the oil paintings on the walls of the dining room of her family castle actually were – focusing in particular on a group, mainly military and naval commanders active during the 1798 Rising and Act of Union here and in Napoleonic battles overseas – and heads off, rootling through suitcases, trunks and attics full of letters and diaries, to find out.

It also has a clever title, and what they call in the trade “high production values”: that is decent amounts of money have been spent on making the book look and feel nice, while its author, Eliza Pakenham – only daughter of Thomas and Valerie Pakenham of Tullynally Castle, Co Westmeath, the current and eighth Lord Longford (though he doesn’t use the title) and granddaughter of the Lord Longford who was a Labour peer and who famously befriended Myra Hyndley – is as clever as she is beautiful.

Her grandmother, Elizabeth Longford, was one of the first women to stand for parliament, and wrote biographies of the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria. Her father, Thomas Pakenham, and aunt, Antonia Fraser, are both award-winning historians and authors, with Meetings with Remarkable Trees, her father’s charming book about arboreal giants, long being a firm favourite in this house. Her pedigree, in other words, is impeccable.

But the story that Soldier Sailor tells, in equal, if not disproportionate measure, is a story that has its ugly side, being the tale of how successive British administrations, aided and abetted by the Anglo-Irish, undertook and maintained the vicious ethnic cleansing and savage cultural, political, religious and economic oppression of the “native” Irish.

This 700-year-long crime has never been truly acknowledged, let alone apologised for. None of us – in England or in Ireland, even knows how many died or can quantify the natural resources (including almost every single one of our own arboreal giants), that were expropriated.

While of course not wanting to open up old wounds, or come across as an unhinged nationalist – I was married to an Englishman and my children are half-English, half-Irish – it must be said that one of the most striking aspects of Soldier Sailor is its Big House vantage point: Irish “natives” are generally portrayed as a bunch of lawless savages who were legitimately fought against, imprisoned, hanged and shot – to keep them/us from the gates of the Big Houses or getting uppity ideas about getting their/our land and parliament and country back.

This is the end of the eighteenth century and the Act of Union is being forced through, with the establishment buying votes to push it on its way, stripping Ireland of even the semblance of an independent parliament and democracy; the French are on the march (and on the seas) and the “natives”, seized with the desire for freedom from their landlords, draconian laws and unbelievable poverty, are in largely unsuccessful revolt .

Time and again we are told how the lords of the manor gathered up their well-equipped, well-trained yeomen to go out and fight the mad (or maddened?), pike-toting Irish. How the then Thomas Pakenham heard the news, while in Lady Castlereagh’s box at the theatre, of the capture and wounding of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, nephew of the Duke of Leinster and one of the very few aristocrats to jump ship and side with the oppressed. Pakenham is apparently unable to stop himself “cursing the young lunatic had not escaped abroad when he could, rather than let his dangerous zeal for democracy cause such pain to himself and others”. How in one of many bloody encounters of the 1798 Rising, this time between the rump of French forces led by Humbert and “native” Irish, versus Pakenham (leading for the Crown), Irish corpses lay so thickly on the hillsides that it looked as if the hills were covered in “flocks of sheep”, “the stripped bodies white and bloated”. Elsewhere we learn that Lord Longford’s carriage was highjacked by “rebels”, with “5,000 (more) Rebels in battle array near Dunshaughlin … Black Guards, ill-disciplined and armed with bad Pikes. But determined to Conquer or Dye every Military & Yoeman for miles around”.

I know, of course I know, that the author is quoting from family letters, written at a time when such views were robustly held and largely unchallenged, by both the English aristocracy and the Anglo-Irish. It is nevertheless remarkable to see the butchery put forth unalloyed and apparently unaffected by the passage of history. The “ill-disciplined Black Guards” were eventually and after a great deal more bloodshed and suffering to win their freedom. Surely this might cast a rather less than heroic glow over the actions of Ms Pakenham’s heavily armed, internationally experienced, wealthy soldier forebears?

Not that Soldier Sailor is exclusively concerned with “the Irish problem”; it is also about the Pakenham/Longford family, “embedded in the upper echelons of England and Ireland at the turn of the 19th Century”, and their marital, martial and maritime adventures around the globe, including the Peninsular War, the American War of 1812, The Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimea. It is also about Wellington, “Britain’s” most famous general, though Dublin-born and of Anglo-Irish parentage (“Just because you’re born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse.”).

Like all aristocratic families, the Pakenham/Longfords expended a great deal of time and effort marrying their offspring to the scions of other powerful families, and through the marriage of Kitty in 1806 the Pakenhams became connected to the most famous military man of the time, the Duke of Wellington. Pakenham males fought alongside Wellington in his unremittingly savage “burnt earth” campaigns against Napoleon through France, Spain and Portugal, razing villages and their unfortunate inhabitants – men, women, and children – to the ground.

“The debased ingenuity of man, when converted to human torment, could hardly be supposed capable of suggesting the acts of horror actually committed – every Village and Town set fire to,” wrote one Ned Pakenham. Or, as Eliza Pakenham observes drily: “Wellington’s ‘scorched earth’ policy may have been successful, but resulted in the torture and murder of the poor peasants in the retreating army’s path. “Mothers and their children were strung up above fires in an attempt to get information about food they might have hidden …”; or again, “In pursuit of the French in Spain … they came once to a small town … from which they had but half an hour before fled … after committing indescribable cruelties … there was literally dead silence – not a human creature left alive – not an animal alive.”

Wars aside, it was actually the story of Eliza Pakenham’s great-great-great-aunt Kitty Pakenham’s marriage to the Duke of Wellington that first drew me to Ms Pakenham’s book. In one interview she describes talking to “Granny”, the then 95-year-old Elizabeth Longford, about Kitty. The young Eliza felt the story had never been properly told, with Kitty hisotrically presented as vain, foolish and a source of embarrassment to her “great” husband. “Granny just looked me in the eye and said, ‘You will be the one to do it.’”

It’s a wonderful story of course, the ancient and aristocratic grandmamma telling her beautiful niece, she will be the one to save “poor Kitty’s” reputation, but even here, I’m afraid, I have to do battle with the author, though in truth the unfortunate Kitty’s marriage to the duke was probably doomed from the start, with Wellington himself exploding (to his mistress) when asked, years later, why he had married: “Is it not the most extraordinary thing you ever heard of! Would you have believed that anybody could have been such a d…..d fool? I thought I should never care for anybody again, & that I shd be with the army, & in short I was a damn fool.”

Wellington had fallen in love with Kitty Pakenham in the bloom and beauty of her youth, been thoroughly rebuffed in his advances by the then Lord Longford, gone off soldiering and to India, become a man of the world and an army general on the up and up. Twelve years passed, with Kitty remaining at home with her mother and sisters, and now at 33, considered an “old maid”. Enter, Jane Austen-style, a third party, who on hearing of the duke’s continued interest in Kitty, engineers a rekindling of correspondence between the two, followed by their meeting and very soon after their marriage.

Mostly it was a disaster. While the Pakenham males benefited hugely from the connection – brothers and cousins embedded in Wellington’s growing armies and later in the political sphere – Kitty it seems was mostly miserable. Shy and gentle, she did not relish the company of the rich and famous, gave away large sums of money to those in need and hated the whole business of politics, royalty and intrigue.

After years of berating and bullying by the duke, she was reduced to a white-haired, nervous wreck, so desperate for approval she wrote pleading, overwrought letters to his mistress, Mrs Arbuthnot, insisting that all she wished for was “his” happiness. She needn’t have worried: while she, Kitty, wept and fretted at home and brought up a second family, his brother’s children, Mrs A was entertaining the great man to a celebratory birthday dinner.

Robert Peel, then home secretary, was “sickened” by the duke’s treatment of his wife, who in the time-honoured fashion of philanderers, when he wasn’t yelling at her was complaining bitterly to his mistress: he had “tried repeatedly to live in a friendly manner with [Kitty], had determined that he wd. commnunicate all his projects to her and endeavoured to make his pursuits and interests the same as hers; but … that it was impossible, that she did not understand him … and that he found he might as well talk to a child”.

Strangely Ms Pakenham seems to come down on the side of those who say Mrs Arbuthnot was nothing more than what, rather creepily, in those days was known as a “fireside friend”. So let’s get this straight: the husband (the by now extremely famous and powerful duke) is living openly, lavishly and publicly with another woman, complaining loudly and bitterly of his wife’s incompetence and childishness and of her “not understanding” him – and there is “nothing going on”?

This is a curiously counter-cultural assessment of a long-term public adultery, which ended, as it so often used to, in Kitty’s premature and pitiful death, with one last tragic twist. Within hours the duke, writing to his mistress, told how, in her last hours, Kitty’s bony hand had snaked up his sleeve to check whether an armlet she had given him twenty years previously was still there. Gruffly, the duke remarked that she could have checked at any time in those twenty years and found it in place. But are we being asked to think that because of this one, unbelievably poignant gesture by a dying woman, that the duke was honest and faithful and Kitty something of a fool?

My reaction to Soldier Sailor seems to leave me out on a limb, since nobody – either in Ireland or in London – seems to have taken Ms Pakenham to task either for her unreconstructed historical perspective or her lack of feminist values. No doubt she thinks of herself as Irish – which is wonderful; for the past several years she has lived in Dublin, apparently very happily, with her husband and young family, and hopes to start an historical centre in Tullynally, based on the family archive. But while she was born in Tullynally, the family left for England when she was only four, thereafter returning to Westmeath only for “the holidays”; her life, education (she’s a graduate of Corpus Christi College, Oxford), her entire intellectual formation up until now have been in England.

It is one of the central problems of Soldier Sailor, which might more accurately be sub-titled “An Intimate Portrait of an English Family in Ireland” that the author’s perspective is actually English rather than Irish. The author herself is English rather than Irish in her sensibilities. And while of course we need all the analysis and understanding we can get of our terrible past, we might hope to be spared an account whose subtext is that, really, the old boys were magnificent the way they ran the place.

They weren’t. They were the masters of war, part of a British war machine that raged across Ireland, Europe, India and Africa, part of a system that brought Ireland to the horrors of the Famine within a few years of this book’s end and which caused the horrific deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention the final death of our culture and language.

The men Eliza Pakenham writes so affectionately about were soldier-colonists, who grabbed the biggest houses and the best land, and were awarded titles and honorifics by the Crown in proportion to their efficacy at keeping the “natives”, here and around the world, under the heels of their well-polished boots. And though these days the masters of war mostly run banks and multinationals and wear suits from Armani rather than suits of armour, the grabbing, killing and manipulating continues.

Is glorifying them – then or now – really on?


Rosita Sweetman is a writer and journalist. She has published three books, On Our Knees, a look at Ireland in the 1970s, Fathers Come First, a novel, and On Our Backs, a look at sexual attitudes in 1980s Ireland. Her new novel will be ready for publication in the autumn.

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