3 MARCH 1961, Page 13

The Last of the Fairfax-Carews

By PATRICK CAMPBELL TFIE extraordinary information arrived the other day that Otto Skorzeny, the scar- faced Nazi adventurer who rescued Mussolini from his Alpine prison with the help of a light aeroplane, was now contemplating a swoop on my father's house in the Dublin mountains—not, however, with the intention of scooping up his Lordship and holding him to ransom in the High Tyrol but with the equally serious purpose of finding a property on which he could settle down and end his days without premature inter- ruption from the nuclear bomb.

The news, received by telephone from neutral Eire. took me aback in front-line London.

'You don't mean,' I said, unable to maintain my composure, 'Otto's heard something? He's the boy who would know.'

It turned out that the scar-faced Nazi adven- turer had not appeared in person, but had dele- gated the task of reconnaissance to his wife. 'A decent, fair-haired little woman,' my father said. '1 showed her all over the place, but I think she found it too small.'

I remarked that the world had come to a pretty pass when the wives of scar-faced Nazi adventurers passed strictures on the living con- ditions enjoyed by neutral Irish peers. 'I adjusted the price to meet that aspect,' my father said, 'but I think I went a little too far. She said they had several alternatives in Kildare.'

'Otto's really determined to get out from under, then,' I said. 'It must be a serious emergency. He'll find the social life of Ballymore Eustace a bit skinny after the heady clack of the maracas in Rio de Janeiro, Havana and Estorilf 'It looks,", my father said, 'as though the re- treat from Moscow has broken out all over again.'

'God help them all,' I said soberly. 'When my turn comes to be cauterised let it be on the Copacabana beach rather than in Slattery's Select Lounge and Bar in Cahirciveen.'

The first and original retreat from Moscow took place in 1945. Spearheads of the English aristocracy, perceiving that they were about to get their usual reward for helping to win a world war—a Labour Government, penal taxation and a serious shortage of butlers—began to pour into Southern Ireland in check caps and sheepskin overcoats, looking for country seats on which they could re-establish the gracious way of life.

Ireland seemed to offer everything. Miles of hunting country untrammelled by wire, virtually free shooting and fishing, limitless staff, crude until trained, but ready to work for no more than its keep. Furthermore—and it was, perhaps, one of the most pleasant prospects of all—income tax was not only lower but it might also be pre- sumed that the naturally happy-go-lucky character of the natives would extend itself to the collectors, so that a glass of whiskey and a cheery chat could probably take the place, for years, of sums due.

The English opened up the big drawing-rooms in the Georgian houses. They threw the bicycles and the broken agricultural machinery out of the stables. They installed lighting plants and mended fences and ordered new curtains from Dublin. They bought uniforms for the parlour maids, and put new equipment into the kitchen, though there were certain difficulties with wet turf. A social round began to develop. There were local race meetings and point-to-points. There was bridge and gin-rummy and, of course, once a year the rather fabulous Horse Show balls in Dublin.

Frankly, though—and one did have to face it —it did seem to be curiously hard work.

One would have thought, for instance, that the local villagers would have mucked in a shade more enthusiastically. One would have imagined, without blowing one's own trumpet too much, that they would have been pleased at the pro- spect of regular employment, now that the big house was once again a going concern. And yet a peculiar kind of lethargy seemed to possess them, so that to get the simplest thing done, like the repair of a fence or the clearing of a ditch, meant nearly a week of chivvying and harrying, together with hours of absolutely pointless argu- ment about whether or not the job should be done at all. This field had never been ploughed in living memory, so that no good would come of disturbing it now. To the Irish, scientific farming seemed to mean leaving a lot of cows in a field for several months and then selling them, at fairs attended by really rather dreadful drinking, for whatever they could get.

Rather quickly, the pleasure seemed to go out of the whole thing. As war-time restrictions began to ease all the maids left to get jobs in London pubs. Most of the able-bodied men had already gone, to build roads and blocks of flats all over England.

Even the social life started to die out. After a while it became something of a bore to drive thirty-four miles through unlit country lanes on a winter's evening for a glass of sherry with one's nearest reasonable neighbours. One by one the English sold up and stole away, back to Hamp- shire, Leicestershire, Suffolk and Wilts where at least, however difficult it might be financially, some kind of decent traditions were still left about the nature of country life.

And now, I reflected, thinking about Scar- faced Otto, the rush was beginning all over again, this time away from the Bomb. Unless, I thought, he brought some of his fellow scar- faced adventurers with him he was going to find life exceedingly sombre on the outskirts of Ballyhaunis, Kinnegad or Tullamore, particu- larly if his nearest neighbours were survivors of the first great retreat, like the Fairfax-Carews.

The Fairfax-Carews stayed on. They live— again I improvise at random—in Reanascreagha House in the middle of 150 acres of undrained grassland in West Cork, and they're certainly going to die there, the way things are going now, Reanascreagha House—the Fairfax-Carews still have difficulty in pronouncing if with convic- tion—is a huge, square, red-brick box in the classic Georgian style. It has a grey slate roof and tall, white windows. It is deVoid of Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, roses round the door or other prettinesses one would find on similar country seats in Chiddingfold, Melton Mowbray or Wendens Ambo. Irish country houses pre- serve the nakedness of their starkly classic lines because Irish farm labourers don't have the time or the knack for gardening and flowers.

The house, set like a barracks on a bare sweep of gravel, looks out, across the park, a treeless immensity of long grass through which the avenue runs to the village of Reanascreagha, a mile and a half away. Agricultural enterprise is represented by a small herd of black and white cattle, attended by a donkey, sheltering under a hedge in the middle distance.

The main—and, indeed, the only—feature of the landscape is the Cloghnasally Mountains, a low range of desolate hills ten miles away to the west, but seldom visible because of the rain. The Fairfax-Carews don't mind. It's a long time since they've looked at it, because they live in what used to be the butler's pantry at the back.

Nearly all Irish country houses, including Reanascreagha, face due north. There's an absurd story, which is certainly true, that most of them were designed by an Italian architect who forgot what he was at, and so laid all his main rooms to face away from the glare of the noonday Mediterranean sun. In Ireland, it had the effect of plunging them into permanent dark- ness. Whatever sunshine did appear went to warm and cheer the staff, stowed in pantries, stillrooms and attics at the rear.

The Fairfax-Carews converted the butler's pantry in their second year. It makes a cosy den, of about the same size as you'd find in a small London flat. Apart from the cavernous main bedroom upstairs, heated by three paraffin stoves, they no longer use the rest of the house.

Here they sit on a winter's evening, listening to Joe Loss's Band Parade. Unfortunately, Reanascreagha House is too far from the coast to pick up free BBC television, but the radio is better than nothing. In a way, it enables one to keep in touch.

Both boys are at Eton. It's a long way away, but there didn't seem to be any Irish schools at all, of the same type. Now that they're getting older Julian and Jeremy spend more and more holidays with school friends in England, but the Fairfax-Carews don't really blame them. There isn't all that much to do in West Cork.

Giles Fairfax-Carew no longer hunts. One isn't a snob when it comes to blood-sports, but chasing a drag with a lot of terriers in the pack makes the whole thing a rather unrewarding shambles. Giles has also given up shooting and fishing. The bag was rather too mixed—snipe, hares, rabbits, trout, pike and nothing at all— and in any case the day always seemed to finish up with a poker game in some chap's house miles from anywhere, and lasting until breakfast time, an entertainment far too tiring after a long day on the bog.

The Fairfax-Carews don't go out at all, really, any more. When, if ever, they visit one of the eleven pubs in the village immediate silence seems to fall. It's not that they're unwanted. It's just that everyone stares at them as if they were visitors from outer space, about to do something absolutely extraordinary. And they never have the opportunity to break the ice because the land- lord always shows them into the front parlour, with the lace curtains, mumbling something about the lady wouldn't like it in the bar. The Fairfax-Carews have spent many hours in the front parlours of the eleven pubs in the village, alone with two glasses of sherry on a tin tray, listening to the roar of song and conversation coming from the Select Lounge. It wasn't much fun, so they don't do it any more.

They don't go visiting, either. All their own English friends went back to England years ago, and the nearest big house is twenty-seven miles away, near Macroom. It's unfortunately been taken by an American tycoon of some kind and though it's got eighteen bedrooms and a lake the American seems to treat it just as a weekend bunting lodge.

The Fairfax-Carews went over there to a cock- tail party once, and while absolutely everything was laid on it wasn't a very successful evening. All the other guests were American so they all knew one another and no one talked much to the Fairfax-Carews. Until, that is, Giles got cornered by the host who wanted to have his opinion about things like the Book of Kells, Blarney Castle, the Royal Hibernian Academy, Michael Collins and peasant weaving in the Claddagh—purely local matters in which Giles had no great interest, but about which the American was embarrassingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. '

Towards the end of the party the host got the whole staff in—there were a surprising number of them—and got them to sing songs in Irish and dance jigs, while plying them with drink. The whole thing became really rather a shambles, with several large policemen in the kitchen with their caps off, drinking stout out of a barrel. And when, for politeness' sake, the Fairfax-Carews asked the American and his wife to dine with them the following week they found that the whole house-party was leaving by air from Shannon in a couple of hours' time, to race at Longchamp before going on to Venice by car. So the Fairfax-Carews sit in their snug little den, listening to Joe Loss's Band Parade, while the wind and the rain howl in from the Atlantic, battering the stark facade of the great Georgian house.

Fortunately for themselves, they're getting odder.and odder. Giles wears bedroom slippers, drinks in the morning and spends most of his time doing petit point. Mary has started a small garden in a sheltered patch behind the barn and talks to her flowers, using pet names. Being out in the rain so much, she's not nearly as pretty as she was. They had a Labrador called Bruno, but he died.

Next week, the Fairfax-Carews think they might go up to Dublin. Sailor Beware is being presented by a touring company at the Olympia Theatre, but it might all be too much of an undertaking.

They've ceased to be a matter of interest to the village. As Mrs. Morrissey, who comes in at unpredictable moments to help with the house- work, observed the other day, `Ah sure God help them, they're nearly one of us.'

I wouldn't be at all surprised if old Scarface, now reported to be settled near Kilcock, hadn't had some of his jagged edges blunted too.