Mellifont Avenue: James Bond and Surrealist art

‘The Arena’ (1976), Desmond Morris, Tate, London

The area between Haigh Terrace and Park Avenue in the east end of Dún Laoghaire features some of its most notable houses. Mellifont Avenue is one of the town’s grandest thoroughfares, linking Upper George’s Street with Marine Terrace and the seafront.

The name Mellifont is derived from the Latin phrase Melli-fons, meaning ‘Font of Honey’. Mellifont Abbey is a Cistercian abbey located near Drogheda, believed to be the first abbey of the order to be built in Ireland. It also housed William of Orange’s headquarters in 1690 during the Battle of the Boyne.

On June 8, 1924, a boy named Kevin was born on Mellifont Avenue to Winifrede and Thomas McClory, a well-known theatre couple. The family’s ancestry goes back to the Brontës sisters. Elinor McClory was the mother of Patrick Prunty who changed his name to Bronte when he emigrated to England in 1802. Patrick was the father of the writers Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Brontë.

As a teenager, Kevin McClory served as a radio officer in the British Merchant Navy during the Second World War. He survived a devastating attack on the Stigstad by German u-boats. McClory was lost at sea for two weeks before being rescued. When he was found McClory was severely frostbitten and so traumatised by the ordeal that he lost the ability to speak for about a year.

In the 1950s, he started working in a film studio in Sussex, becoming John Huston’s assistant on Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick. McClory became romantically involved with Elizabeth Taylor, and the couple had intended to marry, but Taylor left McClory when she met one of her seven husbands, Mike Todd.

In 1958 Ian Fleming approached McClory to produce the first James Bond film. The character was developed by numerous draft screenplays and treatments. McClory, Fleming, Ivor Bryce, and Jack Whittingham completed a screenplay entitled Longitude 78 West, later to be retitled Thunderball, which went into pre-production.

Fleming adapted the draft screenplay of Thunderball into his ninth novel, in 1961, which initially did not credit McClory or Whittingham. They sued Fleming. The case opened at the High Court in London on 20 November 1963, which McClory and Whittingham won.

The phrase colourful career is understatement of the century. In 1968, McClory announced plans to make a film about Michael Collins starring Richard Harris. It was scheduled to be shot at Ardmore Studios in 1969 but never got made, making Neil Jordan’s 1996 film starring Liam Neeson the first major film about Collins, which used the East Pier and bandstand for a scene.

McClory maintained a close friendship with the hell-raising Harris. In 1975, Harris and McClory took out a full page advertisement in the Nassau Tribune in the Bahamas “demanding an end to internment without trial” in Northern Ireland. The Conservative opposition leader Edward Heath, who happened to be visiting Nassau at the time, called a press conference where he told Harris and McClory to “ask their friends to stop murdering people.”

In later life, McLory returned to Ireland and lived in Baltyboys House in Blessington, Co. Wicklow. He died on 20 November 2006, aged 82, at St. Columcille’s Hospital in Loughlinstown, four days after the release of Casino Royale, the first Bond film to star Daniel Craig in the lead role. Monkstown resident Cillan Murphy has often been touted as Craig’s successor in the role.

I’m going to briefly talk about places of interest on opposite ends of the Avenue. Ross’s apartments are located at the railway end of the street at the corner of Marine Terrace. This site was formerly occupied by Ross’s Hotel, or Ross’s Victoria Hotel, which closed in the late 1980s, marking the end of the golden era for hotels and guesthouses in Dún Laoghaire. There used to be several hotels located around the end of the East Pier alone, and Marine Road had numerous B&Bs and guesthouses, but the cessation of the ferry service wiped out demand for accomodation. Now, there are only two hotels left trading in the town, the Haddington and the Royal Marine, and who knows if they can survive the current collapse of the tourism market.

Ross’s Hotel, corner of Mellifont Avenue and Marine Terrace, circa 1922

On the far end of the Avenue towards George’s Street, an impressive medium-sized building stands at no. 24 called Mellifont House. This was the Dublin base for one of Ireland’s best known tailors and couturiers, Thomas Wolfangel, whose family immigrated to Ireland from Stuttgart after the War. Incidentally, another Dún Laoghaire man with a German background is the great writer Hugo Hamilton, author of The Speckled People. Local references abound in his books, and we’ll return to them at some stage in the future.

Wolfangel based himself in a workroom off Grafton Street, later moving to Ballsbridge and eventually to Dún Laoghaire, where he remained until his death in 2018. Amongst his numerous commissions over the years were trousers for Katharine Hepburn and a leather jacket for Bono, which was specially designed for a U2 world tour.

Thomas Wolfangel visiting Eltinger, 2018 Photo: Leonberger Kreiszeitung

Number 24 was sold in 2018. A planning application for a change of use to an art gallery and art school recently granted by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is fascinating reading. According to RMA Architects: “Our clients were drawn to this property owing to its cultural history and suitability for their own purpose.”

The clients in question are Annie and Jason Morris. The application cover letter continues: “Desmond Morris, known largely to the public for his work and writings on zoology and sociology, has also spent a lifetime painting and collecting in the genre of surrealism. No 24 will form the home of some of this collection and will be open to the public. In addition, the main house will contain gallery spaces for changing exhibitions and two artist’s studios. The rear return will be used for art classes, in particular portfolio preparation classes.”

Desmond Morris, aged 93, currently lives in Kildare. His 1967 book, The Naked Ape, is a world-famous landmark work on human behaviour. Morris also is a highly accomplished surrealist artist, taking a fervent interest in the genre after his father died while serving in the First World War.

“I missed my father’s funeral because my mother wouldn’t let me go,” Morris told the Observer in 2008. “I was 14 and she sent me off to friends in the countryside, and so I imagined that he hadn’t really died. The grieving probably came later when I started to think about those bastards in Whitehall who had sent him off to die. It was the beginning of a lifelong hatred of the establishment. The church, the government and the military were all on my hate list and have remained there ever since.”

Morris first exhibited alongside the great Catalan painter, Joan Miró, in 1950. Here’s hoping that the next chapter of his astonishing career will see an art school and gallery open on Mellifont Avenue, installing a brand new cultural attraction on the streets of Dún Laoghaire.

Mellifont House, 24, Mellifont Avenue. Note the old ‘Wolfangel Boutique’ plaque to the right of the main door.

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