Notable Irishwomen/Lady Dufferin


XI.

Helen, Lady Dufferin

(Countess of Gifford).

1807-1867.


NO matter what collection of Irish ballads we take up, whether the pretty little green-bound volume at a shilling, or the coarse broadsheet at a penny, we are sure to find one or other of Lady Dufferin's songs. The Irish Emigrant is the great favourite both in Ireland and in America, but the humour and fun of Katey's Letter is irresistible, and The Bay of Dublin, Sweet Kilkenny Town, and Terence's Farewell to Kathleen are always popular whenever they are heard. They possess in a singular degree the quality of tunefulness, they are what Carlyle calls "musical thoughts,"—something that cannot be spoken, that must be sung. They sing themselves, as all true songs should do. And so while many bulky volumes of verse, which have cost their authors years of toil, have gone down into the land of forgetfulness, these ballads, by virtue of their simplicity and truth, have lived and will continue to live for generations yet unborn. For "song passeth not away." Such ballads go straight to the heart, not only of the Irish people, but of humanity at large. There are no high-flown metaphors, they tell of homely joys and sorrows, "simple annals of the poor." Take, for example, the first verses of The Lament of the Irish Emigrant


I'm sittin' on the stile, Mary,
 Where we sat, side by side,
On a bright May mornin' long ago.
 When first you were my bride.
The corn was springing, fresh and green.
 The lark sang loud and high.
The red was on your lip, Mary,
 And the love-light in your eye.
··········But I miss the soft clasp of your hand,
 Your breath warm on my cheek,
And I still keep listening for the words
 You never more may speak.


In Katey's Letter all is joyousness and fun—fun that seems bubbling over from a full heart.

Och, girls, dear, did you ever hear,
 I wrote my love a letther,
And altho' he cannot read,
 Sure, I thought it all the betther,
For why should he be puzzled
 With hard spellin' in the matther,
When the manin' was so plain
 That I love him faithfully,
And he knows it, oh, he knows it.
 Without one word from me!

Katey has a great deal to tell about her letter, she tells how she wrote it, and she folded it, and put a seal upon it.

"'Twas a seal, almost as big as the crown of my best bonnet," and then comes the conclusion:—

Now, girls, would you belave it?
 That postman so concaited,
No answer will he bring me
 So long as I have waited.
But maybe there mayn't be one
 For the raison I have stated.
That my love can neither read nor write
 Though he loves me faithfully!

In Terence's Farewell to Kathleen there is pathos as well as fun: —

So, my Kathleen, you're goin' to lave me
 All alone by myself in this place,
But I'm sure that you'll never decaive me
 Oh! no, if there's truth in that face.

Tho' England's a beautiful counthry,
 Full of illegant boys, och, what then?
You wouldn't forget your poor Terence,
 You'll come back to ould Ireland agen!······And when you come back to me, Kathleen,
 None the betther shall I be off then.
You'll be spakin' such beautiful English
 I won't know my Kathleen agen!

Eh! now where' s the need of this hurry?
 Don't fluster me now in this way,
I've forgot, 'twixt the grief and the flurry,
 Ev'ry word I was manin' to say.

Now just wait a minute, I bid ye,
 Can I talk if you bother me so?
Och, Kathleen, my blessin' go wid ye,
 Every inch of the way that ye go!

There is not the least effort in Lady Dufferin's ballads. She seems to have thoroughly enjoyed writing them—she sang as the birds sing, because they must. Some of her society verses, though in quite a different style, are very amusing. The Charming Woman is perhaps the best, and, moreover, contains a piece of good advice at the end:

Don't marry a charming woman
If you are a sensible man!

On her father's side Lady Dufferin came of a genuinely Irish stock. The O'Sheridans were an ancient and important Celtic sept, who possessed castles and lands in the County Cavan, so that a large tract of country was marked on the map as "the Sheridan country."

With varying fortunes the family went on till we come to Dr. Thomas Sheridan, the friend of Swift, and by profession a schoolmaster. He used to spend months with Swift in Dublin, and Swift constantly went to Quilca, a country house which belonged to Dr. Sheridan. Esther Johnson (Stella) sometimes brightened the evenings with her presence, and witty talk flowed abundantly, for Sheridan as well as Swift excelled in conversation. Not a day passed that he did not make a rebus, an anagram, or a madrigal. Lord Cork says he was "idle, poor, and gay, and completely ignorant of the value of money." Of the doctor's illustrious grandson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, there is no need to speak, for his fame is world-wide. Moore has well described him in the following lines:—

The pride of the palace, the bower, and the hall—
The orator, dramatist, minstrel, who ran
Through each mood of the lyre, and was master of all.

As a dramatist, Sheridan takes the highest place, and two of his comedies, The Rivals, and The School for Scandal, hold the stage at the present day. His romantic marriage with the beautiful Miss Linley, of Bath, has been made recently the subject of a novel by the well-known Irish novelist, Mr. F. Frankfort Moore, and is called A Nest of Linnets. Tom Sheridan, Lady Dufferin's father, was one of those very clever people who seem as though they ought to make a figure in the world, and end by doing nothing in it. He was always ready with a repartee. One day, when his father, who never had any ready money, threatened to cut him off with a shilling, he said, "You don't happen to have that shilling about you now, do you, sir?" He married Caroline Henrietta Callander, daughter of Colonel Callander, of Craigforth and Ardkinglas, who was the authoress of several novels, one of them being Carwell, in which the hero is hanged. This gave rise to a hon mot of Sydney Smith's, who said, "he knew Mrs. Sheridan was a Callander, but he was not aware she was a Newgate Calendar!" She accompanied her husband to the Cape, where he died, and she, with her elder daughter, Helen, afterwards Lady Dufferin, returned to England. Rooms were granted to the widow, who was left badly off, with seven children on her hands, at Hampton Court Palace. The three daughters were all tall and stately, and all dowered with remarkable beauty. They were often called "the three graces," and "the fairest of the lair."

Lord Lamington says in his book, "In the Days of the Dandies," that no one who ever met Lady Dufferin could ever forget her rare combination of grace, beauty, and wit. Caroline, the second sister, afterwards the Hon. Mrs. Norton, was a brunette, with dark burning eyes, a clear olive complexion, and a pure Greek profile; the youngest, who afterwards became Duchess of Somerset, was unanimously elected Queen of Beauty at the Eglinton tournament. Her large deep blue eyes, black hair, and pink and white complexion, gave her quite a different type of beauty from either of her sisters. Lady Dufferin used to say as a girl, "Carrie is the wit, and Georgie is the beauty, and I ought to be the good one, but I am not!" Both she and her sister Caroline early showed a taste for verse-writing. Before either of them were twenty-one, they received £100—£50 apiece—from Power the music publisher, for twelve songs, which they had written solely for their own amusement. Helen Sheridan was brought out at the early age of seventeen, and before she was half through the London season, Captain Blackwood, then an officer in the Royal Navy, met her at a ball, and fell in love with her. As he was a third son, without any expectations, the match was not considered at all a good one, but it came off, nevertheless, and the young couple were married at St. George's Church, on the 4th July, 1825. They started for Italy the same day, and eleven months afterwards their only child, the late Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, whose loss is still deplored, was born at Florence. So great was the danger of Mrs. Blackwood, as she then was, that a consultation was held as to whether her life, or that of her child, should be saved. Overhearing it, she cried, "Never mind me, save my baby!"

Wonderful, indeed, was the love between mother and son. She was so young that she was taken for a girl, until she was heard consulting with a friend whether her baby's ribbons should be pink or cherry-coloured.

Lord Dufferin says that "it is not every son that can remember his mother's coming of age;" he did, and celebrated the event by nearly poisoning himself by eating laburnum berries. During the six years of Lady Dufferin's married life she spent a wandering existence, sometimes in Italy, sometimes at a cottage at Thames Ditton, and sometimes with her mother at Hampton Court. Her husband was generally at sea, and his visits had to be few and far between. She paid several visits to Clandeboye, to her husband's great-uncle, James, Lord Dufferin, and her presence brought sunshine into the dull existence of a common-place North of Ireland family. Her musical talent would have made her an acquisition anywhere, for she sang delightfully, and had such a good ear that if she went to the opera, she would be heard singing all the airs from it next morning.

Lady Dufferin was left a widow in 1841. At Rome during the Easter ceremonies at St. Peter's, in her widow's cap with a large crape veil over it, she created quite a sensation. Mrs. Somerville says that, "with her exquisite features and oval face, anything more lovely could not be conceived, and the Roman people crowded round her in undisguised admiration."

By the death of his brothers, her husband had succeeded to the title, and she now devoted herself, more than ever, to her only son. She always accompanied him in his visits to Clandeboye, and she joined him in his yacht during a cruise in the Mediterranean. He had just published his "Letters from High Latitudes," and she embodied her experience in a book that she called "Lispings from Low Latitudes, or extracts from the Journal of the Hon. Impulsia Gushington." This was published in 1860.

It was not surprising that such a very attractive woman as Lady Dufferin should have many offers of marriage, but, brilliant as many of them were, she resolutely kept to her determination of making a home for her son, who was rapidly coming to the front of public life. One of her admirers was the Earl of Gifford, a man 14 years younger than she was, who had first made her acquaintance when he was with a tutor, studying for Cambridge. He was depressed and morbid, and Lady Dufferin, with her wonderfully sympathetic nature, understood and cheered him. And so an affection began which, on his part, knew no change, and lasted for twenty long years.

He asked her to marry him, but she refused, and she might have persisted in her refusal if it had not been for an unfortunate accident. In the effort of preventing the bole of a tree from crushing some workmen who were removing it, Lord Gifford sustained such serious injuries that he never recovered. Lord Dufferin had now married, and when the party returned from Ireland, they found Lord Gifford hopelessly ill. He was removed to their house at Highgate, and now, at last, Lady Dufferin consented to marry her faithful lover at his earnest request. The marriage ceremony was solemnised in Lord Gifford's bedroom, on the 13th Oct., 1862, and two months afterwards he passed away in his 41st year, holding, as Lord Dufferin says, " the hand of her, to whom he had clung for sympathy, support, and comfort from boyhood."

Writing of this marriage. Lady Dufferin said, "It gives me the right to devote every day and hour that God spares him to his comfort and relief, and the right to mourn him openly, whose loss I shall never cease to deplore as the dearest and most faithful of friends."

We hear sometimes of the romance of real life, and surely if ever there was a romance this was one—an affection, sanctified by suffering, which had borne the test of time, and which at last found its reward. Lady Dufferin—or to give her her new title, Lady Gifford—did not long survive. Four years afterwards she was attacked by cancer, and though there was a temporary rally, she knew that her days were numbered. In a journal that she kept for her son she says:—

"The last day at Clandeboye was full of sweet and bitter thoughts to me. I walked round the lake, and took leave of all the old (and new) places. I sat upon the fallen tree and looked long at the tower, the monument of your love."

Her last days were spent at Highgate. She took great pride and delight in seeing her son's letters in the Times on the Irish land question. When they were published as a book, he says, she was "too weak to do more than read the title and fondle the book a little, as though she were stroking the head of a child." Beloved and loving to the end, she passed away on the 13th of June, 1867, in the sixtieth year of her age.

"Thus went out of the world," says Lord Dufferin, "one of the sweetest, most beautiful, most accomplished, wittiest, most loving, and lovable human beings that ever walked upon the earth. There was no quality wanting to her perfection, and this I say, not with the partiality of a son, but as one well acquainted with the world, and with both men and women. I doubt whether there have been any who combined, with so high a spirit, such strong unerring good sense, tact, and discretion."

She was the most womanly of women. No thought of fame, no wish for it, ever seems to have crossed her mind. And yet to those who do not ask, the wished-for boon sometimes comes.

In the backwoods of America, in the swamps of distant lands beyond the seas, the ballads of the Irish Emigrant, and of Terence's Farewell to Kathleen, may often be heard. And surely this is fame.