The Duke, Daniel O’Connell, the yacht club and Francis Bacon’s lover

Francis Bacon, the world renowned artist once dismissed by Margaret Thatcher as “the man who paints those dreadful pictures,” was born in a lying-in hospital at 63, Baggot Street. Later in the 20th century, this area would become known as Dublin’s left bank district, or Baggotonia, where four separate Nobel Prize for Literature winners lived at some point, namely WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney. However, Bacon would ultimately become synonymous with London’s infamous bohemian quarter, Soho.

John Deakin, who photographed members of Bacon’s inner circle, used to tease Francis about being born on a street with a Dickensian sounding name and for being “lower Baggot, not upper Baggot”. However, Dublin street names are deemed to be upper or lower purely by their proximity to the river Liffey and not as a salubrity index.

All this and much, much more can be gleaned from Revelations, an epic exercise of biographical scholarship on Bacon by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, a husband and wife Pulitzer Prize winning team. It constitutes the first ever fully comprehensive biographical study of Bacon and is my choice for book of the year. Fintan O’Toole included it in a round up of best books published 2021 in the Irish Times last June, where he called Revelations one of the best biographies of recent years.

On December 5, 2021, John Banville wrote in the Irish Times: “There are not many biographical masterpieces, but in Revelations, the life of the Irish-born painter Francis Bacon, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have produced one. At nearly 900 pages it may seem daunting but it is an utterly thrilling read. Bacon was a monster but by the close of this book we admire for his honesty, his tenacity, and artistic probity.” While I would dispute Banville’s inflated contention that Bacon was some kind of monster, I’d generally agree with his appraisal of the book.

Stevens and Swan unearth the diaries of Eric Allden, a diplomat and member of the Tory establishment and Bacon’s first full-time companion and lover. They met crossing the channel to France when Allden was 42 and Bacon was 19. “He told me he was starting a shop in London for ultra-modern furniture and was going to Paris to purchase samples”, Allden wrote in his diary. “His name was Francis Bacon and he had big childish pale blue eyes.”

In 1929, Allden travelled with Bacon to Ireland to meet his family and spend some time in Killary, Connemara, Co. Galway, which the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called one of “the last pools of darkness” in Europe. They took the ferry from Holyhead. Francis ambitiously packed a a wide assortment of books and a cumbersome gramophone and a stack of jazz records, which was a considerable load to lug all the way over to the west coast of Ireland and back.

Allden was comforted by the presence of a familiar symbol on reaching Dún Laoghaire, writing in his diary: “The Kingstown Yacht Club [Royal Irish Yacht Club] is just by the quay and from its flagtstaff floated the red ensign, a welcome sight in a land where English people have been relegated as far as possible to the background.” They were concerned that the gramophone might arouse suspicions, but “the customs examination on the quay was a muddle and actually quite perfunctory.”

One of the numerous achievements of Revelations is how well it captures Anglo-Irish alienation and displacement, which segues seamlessly into the tangled history of Kingstown and Dún Laoghaire. “In the beginning there was Ireland, but not the Ireland of legend,” Stevens and Swan write. “Francis Bacon was Anglo-Irish, ‘a race inside a race,’ as the writer Elizabeth Bowen put it, ‘a sort of race carved out of two races.'”

They elaborate by describing Bacon as “that hothouse stem the Anglo-Irishman, part of an English ruling class that was both privileged and alienated, set between two worlds and shadowed by each…There would be many powerful rooms in the art of Francis Bacon, but never a settled sense of place.”

Dún Laoghaire sense of place over history has been so unsettled the very name of the town has been a bone of contention. The Royal Irish Yacht Club is one of its most historic buildings, and believed to be the world’s oldest purpose-built sailing clubhouse. The Club was founded in 1831, predating the construction of the Dublin to Kingstown railway. In its foundation year, the club was granted an official ensign by the British Admiralty of a white ensign featuring the Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Ireland beneath the Union Jack.

In 1846, the club was granted permission to use the Royal prefix by Her Majesty herself, Queen Victoria. The club built a new clubhouse in 1851, which was designed by John Skipton Mulvaney, who also designed Kingstown, Broadstone, Galway and Blackrock railway stations, and Mount Anville House for William Dargan. Despite the Republic of Ireland acquiring independence from the United Kingdom, the Royal Irish Yacht Club chose to keep its Royal title, which it retains to this day. Its roll call of prominent members makes for very interesting reading.

The club’s first Commodore was the first Marquess of Anglesey, a peerage created for Henry William Paget, who was the Duke of Wellington’s right hand man at the Battle of Waterloo. Of course, Wellington was born in Dublin into the Protestant Ascendency and the baptism font that he is reputed to have been baptised at is currently displayed at St Nathi’s church in Dundrum, as St Peter’s Church in Aungier Street was demolished years ago. 

The Duke of Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Wellington’s Irish birth was famously played down by the legendary phrase “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”, which was originally thought to have been said by the Duke himself, but historians now seem to think that this quip was actually uttered by Daniel O’Connell. More about the Great Liberator, who also happened to be a member of the Royal Yacht Club, in a moment.

According to anecdotal legend, Paget was close to Wellington when his leg was hit, and exclaimed, “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” — to which Wellington replied, “By God, sir, so you have!” His leg was so badly wounded that it had to be amputated. Paget got an artificial leg, while his amputated limb became a grisly tourist attraction in the town of Waterloo.

In addition to the Duke of Wellington, other prominent former yacht club members include Sir Thomas Lipton, a Scotsman of Ulster Scots lineage who founded the Lipton Tea Company and who was a keen sailor who became most persistent challenger in the history of the America’s Cup yacht race, which he never succeeded in winning. Lipton helped popularise iced tea (Liptonice!) and the popular practice of eating crisps with dips.

Daniel O’Connell was elected to the Royal Irish Yacht Club in 1846. One of the most famous and influential Irishmen of all time, initially I thought it was slightly odd that the so-called Great Liberator would’ve been a card carrying member of a club with such ostensible ties to the British Empire, but this doesn’t take into account the complexity of both pre-independence Ireland in the 19th century, and indeed, of O’Connell himself.

Daniel O’Connell ‘defending the rights of his countrymen in the courts of Dublin, Feb. 4, 1844’ (US Library of Congress)

Coincidentally, a literal stone’s throw form the Royal Irish Yacht Club on the other side of the railway line, which had yet to be constructed at the time, O’Connell hosted a lavish party to celebrate the passing of the Catholic emancipation act in the Anglesea Arms Hotel on Crofton Road, a former hostelry that is now the Angelsea apartments.

O’Connell’s profile and prestige as “the Liberator” was so great that King George IV reportedly complained that while “Wellington is the King of England”, O’Connell was “King of Ireland”, and he, himself, merely “the dean of Windsor.”

Of course, despite this, the King’s royal visit to Dún Laoghaire created so much hullabaloo that the town was named Kingstown in his honour, while the main street and its tributaries still bear his name and the names of his family (Clarence Street, Sussex Street, Adelaide Street etc).

The Royal Irish Yacht Club has witnessed so much history during some of Ireland’s most turbulent years. Indeed, the club and clubhouse itself has been no stranger to controversy in recent years. The Club clashed with the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company for years during the construction of the marina around the turn of the millennium.

The Harbour Company has since been dissolved and responsibility for it now rests with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. In February 2020, The Royal Irish Yacht Club Board of Trustees applied to the Council for permission to retain the colour of the walls within the front portico, which had been painted a blue-grey colour. As a protected structure of immense historical significance, much more stringent rules and regulations apply.

In May 2020, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council refused retention permission and the front facade’s original colour was restored.  

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