Many years ago I found the courage to ask the late Lady Molly Cusack -Smith whether she had posed nude for the famous artist Augustus John during his many sorties into Galway and the west. She looked at me very hard for some time. Then said in a very cross voice: “How dare you, HOW DARE YOU ask such a impertinent question!”
I was only following up an intriguing reference to Lady Molly and the artist mentioned in a biography Two Flamboyant Fathers published 1966. It was written by Nicolete Devas*, formerly Macnamara, whose father ‘Fireball’ Macnamara shared wild escapades with Augustus looking for poitín and girls in the Claddagh, and among the Cios Fhearraige villages in the long summer evenings of the 1930s and ‘40s. ‘Fireball’ had decked a hardy turf hooker into a schooner of sorts called the Mary Anne. Nothing gave him more pleasure than sailing in rough seas with terrified girls onboard. But Lady Molly wasn’t afraid. At the age of 17 years, she was a ‘great friend’ of the two men, ‘ a wild one, she was experienced at sea and on the hunting field with the Galway Blazers. With Molly at the tiller the Mary Anne climbed 30-foot waves, like a cat climbing a wall, in Molly’s words...’
Augustus John had rented studio space from Bishop O’Dea at the top of Prospect Hill (opposite Lohan’s Chemist today ). His reputation was such, however, that the terms of the lease specified that he was not to paint nudes on the premises. Amazingly, Augustus endeavoured to abide by the rules. Instead, he rented rooms in Baily’s Hotel (now The Imperial ) and brought his models there. Nicolete tells us that Augustus painted Lady Molly wearing a toreador hat, a white bainín sweater and orange skirt. ‘ Nobody liked the painting, with reason doubtless, for Augustus was rarely at his best when the model was too attractive. Molly with her white skin and black hair was a striking-looking woman. Augustus called her The Tulip of Tuam.’
Augustus had a reputation (which I am sure is not true ), for suddenly throwing down his palette and paints and diving on his models.
I mentioned the Galway Blazers last week, and as this is hunting season I thought I’d have more to say on its progress. But the ground has been so hard of late, they have only been out on one occasion since Christmas. The Blazers hunt a country which spans an area of about 25 square miles embracing part of Kilconnell village, east of Oatfield to Cappatagle Crossroads, off to Gurtymadden and the Ranamacken covert. Much of the land is arable, with gorse and hazel scrub, but criss-crossed with stone walls.
A feature of the Blazers is their fine half bred Irish sport horses, many of which take these stone walls at their ease. Watching them spread across the countryside, they take off over a wall and automatically kick back to give them extra leverage over the stone. I don’t know if they are trained to do this, or not, but these fine creatures are the pride of the hunt.
There is no finer rural scene than to come across the Blazers as they set forth. There are no jeans, runners or windproof jackets. God forbid! Everyone is immaculately dressed in heavy carnation red (but called pink ) buttoned jackets, white britches, polished boots and peaked caps. It’s a tradition that goes back to the 1840s, when the hunt earned its appellation ‘Blazers’. After an exuberant celebration at Dooley’s Hotel, Birr (still a welcoming stop for the traveller ), the hotel was burnt to the ground.
An urgent case
The hunt has had a great attraction for the clergy, many of whom came from farming families and were used to the chase. Fr Tommy Keys, headmaster for a time of Garbally College, kept his hunter at the school. It was his pride and joy, and he was a fearless member of the Blazers. There was a mighty row one day when some boys brought the horse into the school, wearing his top hat!
Poor Fr Loughnane was the curate at Newmarket-on-Fergus, and hunted with the Clare hunt. He wore his hunting ‘pink’ jacket under his vestments so he could make a quick get-away after Mass. Unfortunately, a parishioner was asked to postpone the baptism of his child, as Fr Loughnane pleaded that he “ had a very urgent case” to attend to. The parishioner spied the ‘pink’ jacket and complained to the bishop. Fr Loughnane was forbidden to hunt with the Clares again. But he could not be stopped. He would drive into county Galway using the most deserted lanes and pathways, for fear of detection; and happily rode with the Blazers until well into his eighties. His much loved horse was called Orangeman.
Childen like gundogs
Not only do you need luck and skill to clear those walls, you have to be tough. Although today many of the women riders are as charming and as feminine as you would be delighted to meet, Nicolette Devas described the daughters of yesterday’s landed gentry as ‘a feudal race of he-women. In the 20th century they are still as tough as their forebears must have been in medieval times, when the qualities of men were required to keep the home fires burning. The children were treated like gundogs; master knows best.’
Lady Molly belonged to this race. Born Mary Adele O’Rorke, she was a descendent of the ancient O’Rorke of Breffni. She was an only child, and she always claimed ‘thoroughly spoiled’. Her father owned a pack of harriers. He farmed and hunted in north Galway. Following a row at home she ran away to Paris, and studied haute couture. She always dressed impeccably, and was a brilliant horsewoman. She was the first woman master of the Galway Blazers. She once brought crowds at the RDS to their feet as she led the Blazers into the jumping arena. She founded the North Galway Hunt, where she was joint master for 38 years. She married Lord Dermot Cusack Smith, and lived in the Georgian Bermingham House near Tuam. Her annual hunt balls were famous. They went on for several days, ending in Paddy Burkes, Clarinbridge, for oysters.
There wasn’t much money, but she lived with a certain Spartan style. When money was particularly scarce, she would retire to the gatelodge, and rent the house. There was a sensation when Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful stayed there in the 1960s. She drove a noisy Volkswagen Beetle into Tuam for provisions, and large gins in Browne’s pub. She was respected and feared for her caustic wit and legendary put downs, many of which are too rude to mention here.
Shortly before she died on February 17 1998, I met her making slow progress with one of her legs in plaster. I said I was sorry to her so discomforted. She looked at me hard. I was ready to run. She said, very emphatically : “ I broke my leg GOING to a party, not COMING from a party.”
* Nicolette, daughter of Francis ‘Fireball’ Macnamara, was born in Ennistymon House, Co Clare in 1911. When her father later abandoned his family, she was brought up by Augustus John and his extended family in Bohemian style on an old farm near the New Forest, Hampshire. Her sister Caitlín married the poet Dylan Thomas.