Fabulous tales and characters would thrill Irish 'Downton'
The astonishing thing about Downton Abbey, which returns to our screens this month, is its international appeal. You would think that a yarn about a bunch of snobs in Yorkshire might garner a loyal following among some nostalgic old dears who meet up for cream teas, but hardly rival the fan-base of Manchester United.
The secret of Downton's success doesn't lie in the dazzle of one particular star, but in an unbeatable formula: story and character. And escapism.
Granted, the Irish storyline in the last series of Downton was weak and inaccurate, with the actor Allen Leech as some kind of half-hearted republican fleeing from the 1920s Troubles and then settling down with Lady Sybil.
Yet every time I turn on a new series of Downton, I am reminded what fabulous stories and characters could be found in a parallel period drama set in the Irish gentry. My mother's favourite Ascendancy character – the Earl of Clancarty, Baron Kilconnel – flourished in 1900s Galway. Clancarty married a chorus girl, the beautiful Belle Bilton. Alas, she died of cancer, faithfully nursed by her husband to the end.
Such stories abound and they cry out for drama treatment: from Lord Castletown, known as 'Barnie' Fitzpatrick, who fell madly in love "with a Galway fisher-girl" (and learned Irish), to Lord Doneraile, a popular hunting man who also kept a pet fox. But the fox bit him and gave him rabies: Doneraile went to Paris to be treated by Pasteur, but grew bored of the process and died rather horribly.
Some of the Ascendancy had nationalist sympathies – Emily Lawless, the poet, whose brother was Horace Plunkett. He became a Home Ruler (and was burned out of his Foxrock mansion).
Most melodramatic was the case of Albinia Brodrick, whose "background was as socially exalted as it was impeccably unionist". Her uncle was Lord Midleton, her cousin Lord Bandon and her brother had been Secretary of State for India. But Albinia joined Sinn Fein and became a passionate republican.
When her uncle Bandon was kidnapped and Castle Bernard burned out, Alba was nursing the IRA wounded and sheltering men on the run in her Kerry cottage.
Her family pleaded with her to intervene on behalf of Lord Bandon, but Alba replied that she'd have to talk to "our leaders" – the Sinn Fein commanders – first. How dramatic is that?
There was always more than a sprinkling of Catholic gentry. And some mixed marriages were accepted, but often they caused trouble (and this was before the 1908 Ne Temere decree). When the Earl of Bantry married a Catholic, one of his sisters cut off all contact – permanently. There's a sparky example of dramatic conflict.
The twilight years of the old Irish Ascendancy are pure drama. Think of the visual impact of a TV scene like this.
Some time after Oakgrove in Cork was burned out by the IRA, the unmarried sister of its owner – the mad John Bowen-Colthurst – received a message to go to a mysterious address in Cork city.
She was shown to an upper room where an "Aladdin's cave of jewellery from various country houses" was stored. She was told she could take whatever was hers, or her family's, from the cache.
What a picture. What a tale.