Big Interview: Historian Thomas Pakenham talks about his late friend, Lady Dufferin – Belfast News Letter

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(Scroll all the way down for information on the lecture; also for a link to further tributes to Lady Dufferin)
Camerata Ireland, under the guidance of the great pianist Barry Douglas, has lined up a joyous cast list of musicians and singers for the week of August 20-27. But one great friend to the festival — ever since the first one in 2001 — will be missing.
The Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, the painter, founder of Clandeboye Yoghurt and chatelaine of Clandeboye, sadly died in 2020, aged 79 (keep scrolling down for more of this article).
There is no danger, though, of Lindy Dufferin, my dear godmother, being forgotten. Barry Douglas, a close friend of Lindy’s who played a moving version of Carrickfergus at her memorial service in Bangor Abbey last year, will host ‘A Celebration of Lady Dufferin’ on the first night of the festival.
The concert features Brahms, a favourite composer of Lindy’s. Among the performers will be the renowned soprano Ailish Tynan, who sang at her memorial service in St Margaret’s, Westminster.
The festival will also feature the first Lindy Dufferin Lecture, given in memory of Lindy. The speaker will be her great friend of nearly 60 years, Thomas Pakenham, the award-winning historian and tree expert who lives at Tullynally Castle, Co Westmeath. He gave the main address at Lindy’s London memorial service.
The author of The Boer War and The Scramble for Africa, Thomas also wrote the bestseller Meetings with Remarkable Trees. Thomas often visited Lindy and her head gardener Fergus Thompson at Clandeboye and admired her trees and garden.
“She loved trees,” Thomas says. “After all, she was an artist. So she would have taken more trouble with design than most gardeners. She boldly cut down that avenue of trees leading to Clandeboye. I think that showed she was a serious gardener. Of the amateurs, there are two kinds: those that have too much respect for nature and daren’t cut down a nice, healthy plant, although the design calls for it to be removed. Lindy was very serious about that.”
Thomas travelled all round the world with her, looking at trees in places as far afield as the Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Caucasus and Wakehurst, Sussex, run by Kew Gardens.
“The visual world was so much alive to her,” he says. “I found her a wonderfully easy companion. She was wonderful to be with. Very witty.”
Thomas first met Lindy at Russborough House, Wicklow, the country house belonging to Sir Alfred Beit, in 1964. She and Sheridan (the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, the art dealer who sadly died in 1988) had just got married, as had Thomas and his wife, the writer Valerie Pakenham, who has just written Exploring Ireland’s Middle Kingdom: A Guide to the Ancient Kingdom of Meath.
Thomas remembers: “We were given written instructions by Sir Alfred: ‘Lindy and Sheridan to go shooting. Thomas and Valerie to take the dogs for a walk.’
He was immediately struck by Lindy’s charm: “She was a star. She was a glittering figure.”
Lindy did much to revolutionise the arboretum at Clandeboye.
“The 1st Marquess, who did everything in style, got himself a fashionable arboretum,” says Thomas. “There are giant redwoods, some rare trees and some magnificent common trees. There are a number of Irish champions at Clandeboye.
“Lindy cleaned it all up. When I first saw it, it was a jungle. By the time she’d finished with it, it was a very impressive place.”
Lindy could also be very mischievous. Thomas recalls a lunch up in Helen’s Tower, the fairytale tower perched above Clandeboye, built by the 1st Marquess in honour of his mother.
“There was a terrific thunderstorm,” Thomas remembers. “There were four guests, all male. Lindy, her eyes shining in the reflected light from the thunderstorm, said, ‘Isn’t it exciting to be here with the two most interesting people in Europe?’
“And we all looked at each other, wondering who the other interesting one was!”
Thomas recalls too another visit to Helen’s Tower with the director of Kew Gardens, a South African journalist and Catherine FitzGerald, the garden designer who lives at Glin Castle, County Limerick. The party walked back from Helen’s Tower to the house. On the way, they passed a large, shallow pond.
Thomas recalls: “Eyes shining with mischief, Lindy said, ‘Let’s go for a skinny dip.’
“The unfortunate Director of Kew was told he couldn’t avoid this. The ladies undressed at one corner of the pond. The gentlemen at the other. We all met in the middle of the pond. The ladies were modestly veiled up to their necks by the water. When we got to the middle, I said to the director of Kew, ‘You’re cheating – you’re wearing your spectacles.’ At which, Lindy said, ‘And I’ve got my hearing aids in!’”
(Scroll all the way down for information on the lecture; also for a link to further tributes to Lady Dufferin) Thomas, now 89, is currently writing a book about arboretums – particularly his own arboretum at Tullynally, which he has been building up for 20 years.
He says, “Every tree has a story, even if it’s planted out in a garden. An arboretum is really packed with stories.
“There’s an analogy with a picture gallery. If you went into the National Gallery, you’d see excellent description of the pictures.
“Not just the painter and dates, but clear themes and the movements they belonged to.
“An arboretum needs the same thing – a series of compartments, each one with its own concept or theme, properly described with good labelling.”
“With my arboretum, I’ve been groping and fumbling for 20 years, gradually realising mistakes I’ve made.
“Like pictures, you can move trees about. You can dig up trees that are up to 15 years old with a digger. Some of them will survive. It’s a brutal business.
• Thomas Pakenham will give the Lindy Dufferin Lecture as part of the Camerata Clandeboye Festival, 7pm, August 20, Ava Gallery, Clandeboye Courtyard, Clandeboye, Bangor BT19 1RN. Tickets are free but limited. Please register with [email protected] A Celebration of Lady Dufferin is being held, as part of the Camerata Clandeboye Festival, at 7.30pm, August 20, Banqueting Hall, Clandeboye. Tickets cost £32.50. It is possible to attend both events
Link to further tributes to Lady Dufferin


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