Patrick Skene-Catling

Old-style Irish enterprise

Irishness is perceptible almost everywhere, if you look with eyes half closed, especially in China, Israel and the Latin Countries of the Mediterranean. Irishness traditionally means, above all, a strong sense of family and its web of interconnections, to furthest cousinhood and tribalism. However, there is not much Irishness in northern Europe, except for the pseudo-Irish pubs, and there is a lot less than there used to be in Ireland itself before the Celtic Tiger’s beguiling introduction of materialistic conformity, and the thraldom of early marriage, easy mortgages and credit consumerism. In the era of television homogenisation, Irish eccentricity no longer flourishes as it did, but is still sentimentally memorialised now and then by those no longer young.

Diana Duff’s charming indulgence in nostalgia, a memoir her publisher classifies as travel writing, is so Irish one needs to be reminded that it is nonfiction. There is no reason to doubt its veracity, but there are early passages in which the Anglo-Irish big house of her childhood and the people who live there seem to be caricatures as broad as figments of Somerville and Ross — leaves from the figment tree.

Her father was the heir to his family’s ‘200-year-old estate’ in County Cork, which must have been twice that old. According to Diana, it was where Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene. Anyway, it was certainly very old, and, in spite of its ‘chilly formality,’ ‘beautiful in its own way’. There were the obligatory ‘sweeping terraced lawns, peacocks and flowering shrubs and a vast velvet green croquet lawn’. The high stone walls surrounding the demesne were built to give work to the local peasantry during the Great Hunger. Twentieth-century visitors, including Eliz- abeth Bowen, Vita Sackville-West and the Duchess of Devonshire, came to admire the celebrated gardens.

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