‘Dearest beloved - It is such a beautiful morning that you ought to be here and we should be walking in the garden …and if we were, what more should we do where the bushes hid us?’ These intimate words were written by the British politician, later prime minister, Ramsey MacDonald, to Lady Margaret Sackville whose initials are on the famous autograph tree at Coole.
Lady Margaret, a poet and children’s author, was introduced to Augusta Lady Gregory in London by Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a man with an eye for the ladies, and a former lover of Lady Gregory’s. Blunt had taken an interest in promoting Lady Margaret’s career.
When she first came to Coole, in 1905, she was 21 years of age, and regarded as a society beauty, and much sought after. Lady Gregory may have had an idea that she would make a suitable wife for her son Robert. But it was not to be. Fate had different plans for them both. Lady Margaret was to play a role way outside her expected social life, to such an extent that it was hidden from the world, and only revealed in letters found after her death.
Lady Margaret was a member of one of the leading aristocratic, land owning families of Britain, while MacDonald was the ambitious, illegitimate son of a Scottish servant girl, who with Kier Hardie and Arthur Henderson was a founder of the British Labour Party. They met shortly before the first world war and shared a commitment to pacifism and love of poetry.
MacDonald, then 46, was nursing a broken heart when they first met. His wife, also called Margaret, had died from blood poisoning in 1911, the same year MacDonald became party leader. By the time of their first surviving letter, dated 1913, MacDonald was already addressing Lady Margaret as ‘my dear heart.’ They both shared an intense anti war and pacifist philosophy, which were to cost MacDonald dearly.
As the full horror of the war unfolded MacDonald was forced to resign from the party accused of being a traitor to his country. He must have found some consolation as he rushed from pacifist meeting to political rally, by writing to Lady Margaret, at every opportunity. Sometimes he was writing to her twice a day. ‘My dear one,’ he wrote in June 1915. ‘That was a very loving letter I had from you yesterday. I feel its kisses. It brought you with it and I slept with my head on your breast last night after we have been in the very thickest places of the jungle together.’
Similar entries and letters continued throughout the summer. ‘Do you dream that I come to you?’ he wrote. ‘Do I come to you when you are not dreaming? Do I kiss you and lie on your breast? Give me all the news about yourself and your heart and tell me all about your love.’
One day in 1915, he thanked her for some flowers. They were, he wrote, fragile like kisses.Their affair lasted 15 years.
‘I want you always’
As MacDonald piloted his way through a rocky political career that would eventually see him become the prime minister of three governments, he had less fortune in persuading his lover to abandon propriety and marry him. It was a passion they could not make public, a love doomed to be declared in scribbled letters or stolen moments when they walked together.
But it was not only their different social backgrounds that kept them apart. Born in Lossiemouth, Morayshire, MacDonald was raised in the Presbyterian church. Born in Mayfair, London, and nearly 15 years his junior, Lady Margaret was Roman Catholic.
From his letters it appears he asked for her hand in marriage three times and was rebuffed on all occasions. ‘It was so refreshing to see you again and so hard to part with you,’ he wrote in the spring of 1915. ‘am sure it is right that we should not marry but what heartaches you give me! You are my own loved one and I want you always.’
‘But, as you say, there are friends who, if they knew, would not understand or sympathise and of course they might come to know. You know, my dearie, how much I should grieve if your love for me brought you into conflict with anyone.’
A secret world
They shared their own secret world. MacDonald created playful fantasies that spoke of how he missed her. A keen photographer who kept numerous albums, he wrote of the photographs of her hanging on his walls. ‘Your photographs are misbehaving again very badly,’ he said in July 1915. ‘One in gorgeous evening dress in a hoity-toity way says: 'You cannot take me into the jungle, poor dear, because my dress would get crushed, so I wink at you maliciously and challenge you to embrace me.'
Another says: 'Poor dear, you cannot speak to my heart because you cannot unloosen my brooch.’
When he first became prime minister in 1924 he wrote to her on 10 Downing Street embossed notepaper with the envelope - again kept by Lady Margaret - stamped ‘the prime minister’. Making arrangements for her to stay at Chequers, the prime minister's official residence in Buckinghamshire, he wrote: ‘So I shall expect to see you on Saturday to stay that night’ and, instead of the customary ‘ever, R’, signed off with five kisses.
By the time of the final surviving letter, in 1929, the hectic meetings and conferences of a politician's life appeared to be getting in their way. ‘My dear, I have been trying hard to get a moment to write but for days engagements have fitted into the hours like pieces of a Chinese puzzle. What a life!’
For her part, Lady Margaret stayed true to her strong feelings for the iconic Labour leader who she knew as a passionate, playful lover. For nearly three decades after his death, and until her own in 1963, Lady Margaret kept his letters secret - and safe.
Next week: The Fey brothers, and the Abbey Theatre.
NOTES: I am leaning on William Henry’s The Autograph Tree, published by Mercier Press on sale €15. Also Ramsey MacDonald - A Biography, by David Marquand.