The ‘Memoir of the Le Fanu Family’1 was written by William’s father, Thomas Philip Le Fanu (Tom Le Fanu), and much of the research – particularly on the French origins of the family – on which the book is based was undertaken by my father’s grandfather, Henry Le Fanu2. The Memoir gives no date of publication but in it Tom refers to Henry’s death in 19233, so it could not have been published before then. William Le Fanu’s manuscript ‘Notes supplementing TPLeF’s family Memoir’, sketches mainly of his uncles and aunts, are dated 15 January 1990. They were prepared for my father, Richard Le Fanu, who at the time was updating the genealogical tables in the back of the Memoir. It is clear that William had already seen a draft of some of the biographical details that my father had prepared to accompany the updated family tree.
William writes about people he knew and he has an eye for the significant detail. His ‘Notes’ are perceptive and entertaining. But the repetition of given names, for example three William Richards over three generations, and William’s use of nicknames mean that it is often difficult to work out who is who. I have therefore included a pedigree as an appendix. For convenience I have started with William’s great-grandparents, the Very Revd Thomas Philip Le Fanu, Dean of Emly and Rector of Abington, and his wife Emma Lucretia Dobbin. They had three children: Catherine, Joseph Sheridan and William Richard. Catherine died unmarried. Joseph Sheridan, the novelist and ghost story writer, married Susan Bennett, daughter of George Bennett QC. They had four children. Two of these had children who survived infancy but there were no grandchildren. William Richard, William’s grandfather and a successful railway engineer, married Henrietta Victorine, youngest child of Sir Matthew Barrington, 2nd Baronet. They had ten children, eight boys and two girls, and it is mainly about these – his uncles and aunts – that William writes. The Gallery includes a photograph of William Richard and Henrietta Victorine, their ten children and the first of their daughters-in-law4.
William depicts a close family. The eldest of William’s uncles and aunts, Charlotte (Harley), kept house for her unmarried brother Victor and her younger sister Emmie at Ballymorris outside Bray – ‘which became a ‘home’ for all her married brothers and all our younger generation’5. Willie, based in London but returning every year to fish, ‘was a fairy godfather to all his nephews and nieces, especially to Lucie and to me, and very helpful with wise advice (and finance if necessary) to his brothers and sisters’.
Most of William’s uncles and aunts were comfortably off, able to enjoy country pursuits and a pleasant social life. They were no mere amateurs. William describes his grandfather as ‘a good ‘shot’ and the best salmon-fisherman in Ireland’. Of his aunt Charlotte (Harley) he writes that she ‘did nothing with her life – except salmon-fishing’: every August she used to go fishing with other members of the family on the water her father used to fish in Kerry6. William’s uncles and aunts were also interested in intellectual matters. Victor ‘was the most cultivated and the best games-player in the family. … He kept up his classics, read widely in English literature, wrote poetry and was in touch with the Irish ‘literary revival’ writers – I believe that there is a reference to him in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, but William also notes the interest of other uncles in French, Italian and Spanish literature.
Several members of the family did well in their chosen professions. William’s grandfather was a successful railway engineer in an era of railway building, known for the accuracy of his budgets and his skills in committee7. In 1863 he was appointed one of the three Commissioners of Public Works responsible for overseeing the Irish government’s Office of Works. William’s father, Tom, was a senior civil servant, becoming – like his father – a Commissioner of Public Works, and stayed on past normal retirement age to help the new Irish Free State government. Of his uncles, Fletcher (Flu) combined being an active parish clergyman and proponent of Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of Ireland with the life of a country gentleman; Willie, having initially failed to establish himself in London as a barrister, went on to play an important role in Church of England finances as Secretary and Treasurer of Queen Anne’s Bounty; and Harry made his way in the Church in Australia, becoming Archbishop of Perth and Primate of Australia.
The Le Fanus were not wealthy. As McCormack puts it, ‘insecurity and hardship were familiar faces’ within the family8. William’s great-grandfather, the Most Revd Thomas Philip Le Fanu (Dean of Emly), dependent on tithes from a Catholic peasantry who frequently couldn’t – or wouldn’t – pay, was frequently short of money when he most needed it9. His eldest son, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the novelist and ghost story writer, struggled to make a living from his writing and journalism. He lived in a fine house in Merrion Square in Dublin10 but, as William points out, the house belonged to his wife. On her death it reverted to her family. From then he leased the house from his in-laws until he was obliged to mortgage his leasehold interest to his brother-in-law to pay off his accumulated debts to him11. William describes Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s son Brinsley living a ‘tragically narrow life’ with his wife Marion ‘in a two room flat in a block of workers’ flats in Battersea’. William’s uncle Brinsley (Brum)’s engineering practice foundered when a reservoir he was building proved to be above a system of limestone caves: ‘He never complained about his sudden poverty, nor did Meta [his wife], though they both enjoyed – and had for years to do without – pleasant social life, clubs, ponies, sport etc.’.
The Protestant Ascendancy was coming under increasing pressure through the Nineteenth Century. The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 and Catholic emancipation opened the way to the creation of a Catholic middle class, and the establishment of the Irish Free State in December 1922 brought down the final curtain on the Ascendancy. Two of William’s uncles made their career outside Ireland: Willie in London as Secretary and Treasurer of Queen Anne’s Bounty, and Harry in the Church in Australia. Only one of William’s generation, Brum and Meta’s eldest son Brinsley, made his life in Ireland. There are now no Le Fanus living in Ireland.
JLF, 14 June 2022
(Memoir, page 59) – Susan Bennett 13, wife of Joseph Le Fanu14. There is more information about her in W. McCormack’s ‘Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland’; McCormack wrote to me lately that a revised second edition is coming out next year15. Though I have known several of the Bennetts, McCormack got more details from others of that family. The house in Merrion Square (marked as J.S. Le F’s) was inherited by Susan from her father.
‘Ellie’ Le Fanu’s  writings are listed in the Bibliography (Memoir, p. 80). She and her husband Pat Robertson  (sometime Colonel in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders) lived at Bray, Co. Wicklow, where we also lived; I can just remember him, an amusing ‘character’, and I knew all their children, half-a-generation older than mine16 – Frances (‘Fairy’) rather bullied her brothers and sisters, she wrote at least one story published in a Dublin paper, and a play performed there (I could give you particulars, but you probably do not want to deal with Robertson). Only the elder brother married, and there were no grandchildren.
‘Emmie’  married her first cousin George Bennett . My father knew and liked him – he was a master at Rugby (where he had been a boy himself) and his main career was as Head Master of Sutton Valence School in Kent17. I knew their two daughters very well. Emmie, charming and clever, married twice (1) Fred Darton, a partner in the famous publishing house and quite well known as a writer himself – in the early 1920s the marriage was annulled (Fred was heart-broken, I believe) when Emmie fell in love with a Mr Shuttleworth – but this marriage was brief. She died from a tumour on the brain in 1925 and Shuttleworth shot himself in despair at her death. The second daughter, Ida, never married. She became a lay sister in a Catholic sisterhood at Bruges, which escaped in 1939 to Birmingham, where she died in 1968 in her eighties. She was a kindly, dull woman – I kept in touch with her, as I was her trustee.
(Memoir, page 52) – ‘Phillie’  – educated at Rugby, and said to have been a charming clever young man, became an alcoholic and a wastrel. He sold or pawned most of his inheritance (my grandfather 18 salvaged what he could of portraits and family papers) including Quilca, the little estate in Cavan where Swift wrote Gulliver while staying with Thomas Sheridan19. Drink ruined Phillie’s health, and he died of pneumonia following a chill, only five years after his father.
(Memoir, page 59 at foot). Brinsley  (always called Bush – rhyming with Thrush) was a worthy, respectable, rather good looking man, without any ‘push’ or ‘gump’. What little money he ever made was from was from drawings for W.T. Stead’s ‘Books for the Bairns’ series – after Stead went down with the Titanic in 1912, he got no more work – he was a very mediocre artist. Marion  was a brave cheerful woman, who never complained of their tragically narrow life – living in a two room flat in a block of workers’ flats in Battersea. The dates of their deaths have been inverted in Burke’s Irish Family Records – he died in 1929 and she in 1935 (I was their executor, – they left almost nothing).
(Memoir, pages 57, 60-61) – William , my grandfather. Reputed one of the most amusing and popular men of his time: a good ‘shot’ and the best salmon-fisherman in Ireland. A very close friend of his Sheridan cousins Caro Norton and Helen Dufferin and of Helen’s son, the famous diplomat and viceroy20. (Memoir, page 61) – Henrietta (Barrington) , universally known as ‘Banky’, was the youngest of the large family of Sir Matthew Barrington. Matthew inherited the family iron-master’s business in Limerick, founded what is still a leading solicitor’s firm in Dublin, became Crown Solicitor for Munster (and made a fortune in his frequent state trials in that rebellious period), earned the baronetcy bestowed on his father in 1831 and built his mock (Walter Scott) castle at Glenstal near Limerick21.. His family formed for two or three generations a most united clan (or self-admiration society!). My father grew up in Dublin among 35 first cousins.
Charlotte  always used as if her real name her childish nickname ‘Harley’. She was a woman of very sharp character, well educated by a German governess, but did nothing with her life – except salmon-fishing. After her parents’ death she made a home for her unmarried brother Victor  and sister Emmie  at Ballymorris outside Bray – which became a ‘home’ for all her married brothers and all our younger generation. She spent every spring in London, where she had many friends in her brother Willie’s  circle, and every August fishing with him and others of the family on the water her father used to fish in Kerry.
‘Tom’ , my father, was for some years, during his service in Dublin Castle, clerk to the Irish Privy Council – the de facto government. After he became official secretary to the Chief Secretary (in 1910)22. he had to spend nearly half the year at the Irish Office in London. He was due to retire in 1922, but voluntarily stayed in service to help the first ‘Free State’ government, till 1926. After retirement he was governor of the Dublin Blue Coat School (‘The Royal Hospital of King Charles II’) and of the Alexandra College (the girls’ ‘sixth form college’), and lay member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland23.
My mother ‘Flory’  was born in Melbourne, where her father, the Revd James Sullivan, had emigrated with his bride of 17 (he was, I think, 36) – but her health failing, they came home in ’62, and she died in ’65. He then became Rector of Askeaton in Limerick – he was of the Clan of O’Sullivan More, which is prolific in West Limerick and North Kerry. Mother was a botanist, an expert on mosses; Lucie and I gave her collection of dried flowers and mosses to the National Botanic Garden at Glasnevin. She also took a part in all local do-gooding work in Bray parish – district nurse, orphan school etc. – but was completely unsanctimonious, in fact very sociable with innumerable friends. Her chief interest was gardening.
Fletcher (‘Flu’)  went to Sandhurst after Haileybury and was commissioned in a Lancer Regiment (I believe), but after a year or two resigned and read for the Church at Trinity College Dublin. He was a good games player and a keen sportsman – and maintained a double life to the end. He was, I am told, an excellent parish clergyman, particularly interested (and successful) in the reform of alcoholics and the encouragement of young men. ‘Off duty’ (so to speak) he was a country gentleman, fond of a good story, well read in French (including ‘risqué’ novels) and Italian and Spanish.
His first parish was at Lisadell in Sligo on the wild north west coast, where he organised a cricket club on Gore-Booth’s estate and became a close friend of the younger generation – Jocelyn (who inherited the baronetcy) with whom he travelled abroad collecting plants, Constance – afterwards Countess Markiewicz the rebel leader – and her sister24. Most of his life he was Vicar of St John’s, Sandymount, a prosperous Dublin suburb – the church was a trustee church founded by Lord Pembroke for Anglo-Catholics within the Church of Ireland. His services were broken up by angry extreme ‘Paisleyites’ as they would now be called – but he loved a fight, and he fought them to the House of Lords – and won! ‘Janie’  was a clever, amusing woman. She had tuberculosis as a girl and remained a malade imaginaire. They had no children, but a very happy married life.
‘Willie’  (the most usual Irish abbreviation, cf Willie Orpen, Willie Yeats, Willie Arbuthnot-Lane – as they were known to their intimates) – the ablest ‘all-rounder’ of the brothers. After Cambridge he had a scholarship to the Bar, read in Lord Wrenbury’s chambers, said to be the best of their time, but failed to get briefs, having chiefly Irish connections. IFR25 implies that he was in junior posts at QAB26 but I am fairly certain that these were fairly brief preliminaries and that he was Secretary-Treasurer for most of his service. There is a history of QAB by his successor (which I read many years ago but do not have27) – it suggested that he was a very able administrator. Certainly he was very busy in his last years preparing a large reform scheme of Church finances, which led after his death to the absorption of QAB into the Ecclesiastical Commission, and a greatly improved salary scheme for the clergy. He was a life-long sportsman, shooting and fishing in Ireland and Scotland every year. He also, in a consortium with three friends, rented a partridge shoot in Norfolk and was a keen yachtsman, often with Erskine Childers28, the travel part of whose ‘Riddle of the Sands’ is based on some of their trips. During World War I he served on National Service Tribunals; he was a Governor of Haileybury. He was a good amateur singer and used to give private recitals, collected etchings and read widely, particularly Italian poetry. He was a fairy godfather to all his nephews and nieces, especially to Lucie and to me, and very helpful with wise advice (and finance if necessary) to his brothers and sisters. A large, cheerful, even witty man after the pattern of his father.
Brinsley (‘Brum’)  and ‘Meta’ , his wife – Lewen29 will have told you about his parents. ‘Brum’ was the least intellectual of the family. His private practice as an engineer began well but foundered when a reservoir he was building in the north of England proved to be above a system of limestone caves. He never complained about his sudden poverty, nor did Meta, though they both enjoyed – and had for years to do without – pleasant social life, clubs, ponies, sport etc. He worked as an engineer for the Irish Office of Works from before the time my father became one of the three Commissioners at the head of the Office.
Victor  was the most cultivated and the best games-player in the family. I knew him very well all my life. He kept up his classics, read very widely in English literature, wrote poetry and was in touch with the Irish ‘literary revival’ writers – I believe there is a reference to him in Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. He was a keen forester and (encouraged by my mother) became a good field botanist and gardened. Towards the end of his life he took up the local agency for Lord Pembroke’s great Dublin estates, and also the lesser property of Lord Plunket (whose mother Victoria Blackwood was a Sheridan cousin30). Victor was a very quick-witted conversationalist. My father, who worked very hard all his life, was fond of him but thought him very lazy!
‘Harry’ 31 - Stephen32 or one of his sisters will have told you about him. I was told by old friends in Bray and Enniskerry that he was in physique very like his father33 - a large genial man fond of outdoor life. He was a very able administrator, an ‘ecumenist’ before the word. He told me he used to tell his clergy ‘I am not an intellectual or a theologian, and most of us ought not to be – but there are good theologians in all the churches, Catholic, Anglican or non-conformist – find the one you most admire and read and listen to him’.
His first wife  was a very happy-natured, clever woman, quite a good amateur painter – Stephen I know was devoted to her (and found his father a bit too demanding). Margery died when Philip was born and Winifred Whiteley volunteered to be his ‘mother’ – I think that she would have married Harry straight off, but it never occurred to him till many years later. She was a good-hearted but essentially dull woman – Philip of course loved her, but I think the elder ones – Stephen, Mary and Claire – did not care much for her, though Mary was very friendly to her. She came ‘home’ two or three times in her widowhood, and I kept up with her in regular correspondence.
‘Frank’  was a medical student in TCD34 when he went for a holiday to stay with a college friend, Hardress Waller, at the Wallers’ country place Moystown in King’s County (“middle west” of Ireland). Both boys caught typhoid, and Frank died although Hardress recovered. [Hardress’s sister Dorothy (Mrs Edward Vaughan) was a very dear and kind friend to me in my twenties and thirties].
Mark (‘our’ Mark)35 will have told you something of his grandparents, I expect. There is a very good account of both of them in Richard Baker’s life of Michael36. Hugh  was an able man, but a bit cantankerous and accident-prone. My father thought he had ‘the best brain of all of us ten brothers and sisters’. Poor chap, he had a long painful illness (cancer of the kidneys) – I saw him often, going down for weekends the first years I was working in London 1927-29. D’or  was a splendid character – quite a central figure in the whole family. Of their children Barbara  and Michael  had very good brains but I found Peter and Anthony more congenial. Peter  was sent to farm in South Africa, which he hated – picked up sleeping sickness and died at 21. Anthony  was a fine tall young man, a keen sportsman with plenty of ‘character’, happily married with two baby boys (Joe and Anthony, who I suppose never knew him) when he was killed on the Anzio beaches37.
Emmie  was intelligent and cultivated, but had some psychological ‘gap’ which made it difficult for her to organise her life. She was excessively introspective – my father used to call her worries ‘spiritual indigestion’. She trained as a painter in the early 1900s in the art school kept by Augustus John and William Orpen in Chelsea – most of the teaching was done by Ambrose McEvoy – and made several life-long friendships there. She came to London every spring till the late 1930s, when her psychological troubles became more acute. She exhibited her paintings in most years at the annual summer show of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin.
William Le Fanu
15 January 1990
The names of family members that William discusses in his Notes are picked out in bold. Nicknames (or the given name used by William in his text) are included in brackets, while the numbers in square brackets refer to the number in the family tree at the back of the family Memoir. I have added, in italics, surnames of immediate descendants.
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