James Williams writes: The novelist Evelyn Waugh was perhaps the best known of the fugitives seeking shelter in Ireland from the socialist storm brought about by the election of a Labour government in Britain in 1945. Fresh from the popular and financial success of his threnody for the Anglo-Catholic aristocracy, Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was violently out of sympathy with the Attlee administration:
The French called the occupying German army ‘the grey lice’. That is precisely how I regard the occupying army of English socialist government.
Like Yeats, Waugh came from a middle class family and had a reverence for aristocratic lineages and ancestral seats. While he shared Yeats’s detestation of ‘the filthy modern tide’, he did not have the poet’s sometime regard for a peasantry untouched by that tide. In a letter to The Bell in July 1947 in response to a recent article on his work, Waugh acknowledged that ‘perhaps your reviewer is right in calling me a snob: that is to say I am happiest in the company of the European upper classes.’ England’s upper classes, he wrote elsewhere:
[are] the sole, finished product of what is thought to be English culture … they provided not only the statesmen and admirals and diplomats but also the cranks, aesthetes and revolutionaries; they formed our speech, they directed our artists and architects; they sent adventurous younger sons all over the world; they created and preserved our conceptions of honour and forbearance; all mention of the middle and lower classes might be expunged from our record and leave only trifling gaps.
As for the working class:
I don’t know them, and I’m not interested in them. No writer before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesques or pastoral decorations. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started to suck up to them.
Waugh’s quest for a home in Ireland spanned the years from 1945 to 1947 and was concentrated in the period from December 1946 to June 1947, during which he made three visits to the country. The first indication of his interest in moving to Ireland came in May 1945 when he wrote to his wife, Laura, to say that he was thinking of buying a castle about twenty miles from Arklow from a friend with an adjoining property. His wife seems not to have shared his enthusiasm for the move at this stage as several weeks later he told her that, unless she changed her mind, ‘I will not … make you live at a distance with a sea-crossing from your children’s school.’ As Waugh’s distaste for England’s new political and economic dispensation grew, his interest in relocating to Ireland returned. In October 1946, he made enquiries about purchasing Gormanston Castle in Co Meath – ‘1806 Gothic, fifteen bedrooms, chapel, seductive “unfinished ballroom”, 124-acre park’. The estate, which had been home to the Preston family since the fourteenth century, had been put up for sale by the widow of the sixteenth Viscount Gormanston. She had subsequently remarried and was anxious to sell the estate as it was in financial difficulty. Encouraged by positive reports from friends, Waugh decided to pursue his interest in the property. In a diary entry for November 9th,1946, he wrote:
Throughout the day constantly recurring thoughts of Ireland. Not so much of what I should find there as what I would shake off here … The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce an increasing poverty; that this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive. As a bachelor I could contemplate all this in a detached manner, but it is no country in which to bring up children.
Waugh would not have been the writer he was, however, if he was not able occasionally to see past his congenital spleen. Two weeks later he wrote in his diary about an address he had given to a group of grammar school students:
Considering afterwards what I had said, it seemed to me that I simply gave vent to peevish and otiose complaints about modern times. To escape testiness – that is why I am going to Ireland.
Waugh travelled with his wife in early December 1946 and the couple visited Gormanston Castle on December 5th with Terence de Vere White, their newly appointed solicitor. According to one account, the visit yielded an encounter with a worker from the estate that could have come from one of Waugh’s early satiric novels. When Waugh remarked that it was sad to think of the place changing ownership after so many centuries, the farmhand replied that ‘his Lordship never came to this place but to kill somebody’. On receiving a valuation of £13,000 for the property along with an estimate that a further £5,000 would be needed for repairs, Waugh gave de Vere White instructions to bid for it at auction. In a comic twist that even he would have struggled to devise however, Waugh did not go through with the purchase. On the boat back to England, he read a report in an evening newspaper that Billy Butlin had bought a site for a holiday camp at Mosney, adjacent to Gormanston. Butlin, a former fairground operator, had opened his first holiday camp in England in 1936 and by 1947 had added four more. Along with Irish patrons, the Mosney camp was aimed at holidaymakers from Britain seeking respite from the food rationing still in force there. The news killed Waugh’s interest in Gormanston instantly. The levelling lower class world he loathed was tailing him to the retreat in which he had planned to escape it. The barbarians would be at his gates in bathing suits and with their buckets and spades. He would waken not to the sylvan sounds of birdsong but to the booming strains of ‘good morning campers’. Shortly after his return, he wrote to Nancy Mitford:
The Irish trip was enjoyable but unsuccessful. Gormanston Castle was vast and grim and haunted and I had decided to buy it when just in time the announcement appeared that Mr. Butlin has purchased a site within a mile of it for a Holiday Camp. Well you would have thought that an added attraction with your love of the mob but not so me so I was able to cancel the sale just in time.
Mitford replied that she was sorry about Gormanston, adding that even ‘I couldn’t stand Butlin quite so near though of course I’m glad to know that it exists.’ This was a common sentiment among the sniffier sort of English socialist. In 1948, the future leader of the British Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, took part in an excursion organised by the National Union of Miners to one of Butlin’s camps near Scarborough where the party’s annual conference was being held. He wrote: ‘Very efficient, organised, pleasure holiday making. Everybody agreed they would not go there.’
Though the fearful prospect of a neighbouring holiday camp killed Waugh’s plan to purchase Gormanston, it did not end his interest in moving to Ireland. Immediately after his return to England in December 1946 he visited an estate agent to put his home at Piers Court in Gloucestershire on the market. Following a stay in America from late January to March 1947, he made a second visit to Ireland from April 29th to May 7th. During this trip, he viewed at least eight properties in Westmeath, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Carlow and Tipperary. One of the properties he visited, Lisnavagh House, a Gothic revival mansion in Carlow, caught his interest. He made a further trip with his wife in June 1947, when he again visited Lisnavagh and inspected several other properties. In late May, he wrote to John Betjeman that he had almost decided to purchase Lisnavagh. On June 1st, he wrote to another friend, Lady Mary Lygon: ‘Soon I will have paper printed with LISNAVAGH Co CARLOW on it.’ On June 4th, he told Penelope Betjeman that he was negotiating for the property. A week later he visited it again, noting in his diary that the agent for the house had tried to induce them not to purchase it, but that ‘Laura liked it and so did I’.
During a visit to Scandinavia from mid-August to early September 1947 however, Waugh abandoned his plan to settle in Ireland. He wrote of the decision in his diary:
During my tour I decided to abandon the idea of settling in Ireland. Reasons: (1) Noble. The Church in England needs me. (2) Ignoble. It would be bad for my reputation as a writer. (3) Indifferent. There is no reason to suppose life in Ireland would be more tolerable than here. My children must be English. I should become an anachronism. The Socialists are piling up repressive measures now. It would seem I was flying from them. If I am to be a national figure I must stay at home. The Americans would lose interest in an emigrant and the Irish would not be interested.
It was not a decision he would come to regret. Five years later, he wrote to Nancy Mitford:
Among the countless blessings I thank God for, my failure to find a home in Ireland comes first. Unless one is mad on fox hunting there is nothing to draw one. The houses, except for half a dozen famous ones, are very shoddy in building and they none of them have servants’ bedrooms because at the time they were built Irish servants slept on the kitchen floor. The peasants are malevolent. All their smiles are false as Hell. The priests are very suitable for them but not for foreigners. No coal at all. Awful incompetence everywhere. No native capable of doing the simplest job properly. No schools for children. Above all the certainty that once one pulls up roots & lives abroad there is no particular reason for living anywhere. Why not Jamaica? Why not Sicily? Why not California?
In a follow-up letter, he added: ‘More about Ireland. You have no conception of their mole-like malice. Detraction is their passion.’
Given Waugh’s own propensity for mole-like malice and his passion for detraction, it can be said that, on these counts at least, he would have been quite at home in Ireland. Bibulous, curmudgeonly and quick to give and take offence, he would have found no lack of like spirits in the Irish literary world. On the evening of his visit to Gormanston in December 1946, he had gone to the Abbey theatre, but left after one act of ‘an unintelligible peasant comedy’. He would have remained similarly aloof from the play of Irish life and likely have come to loathe it. Waugh was still at the height of his powers in the late 1940s and 1950s, the years in which he wrote the Sword of Honour trilogy based on his wartime experiences. Had he moved here, we might have had a comic masterpiece to put alongside his friend Henry Green’s novel, Loving, about life above and below stairs in an Irish castle during World War Two. It was not to be however: Waugh was spared Ireland and Ireland was spared Waugh.
Sources for quotations
Michael Davie (ed). 1995. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (London: Phoenix).
Mark Amory (ed). 1982. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh (Penguin: Harmondsworth).
Selina Hastings. 1994. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (London: Sinclair-Stevenson).
Patrick Comerford. 2016. ‘An insight into how Gormanston Castle has seen many changes over the centuries’, www.patrickcomerford.com/2016/10/an-insight-into-how-gormanston-castle.html .
Charlotte Mosley (ed) 2010. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (London: Penguin Classics).
David Kynaston. 2007. Austerity Britain 1945-1948: A World to Build (London: Bloomsbury).