Adele Astaire’s golden era at Lismore Castle uses cookies. By continuing to browse this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Click here to find out more or Close


Adele Astaire’s golden era at Lismore Castle

Often referred to in a dismissive way as the sister of Fred Astaire, Adele Astaire, was a superb artiste in her own right.

Sunday, 28 December 2014
6:00 PM GMT

By Eugene Dennis

Adele Astaire, often referred to in a dismissive way as the sister of Fred Astaire, was a superb artiste in her own right. A formidable lady, the present scribe encountered her twice.

The first was at the famous Mall Seat, Lismore of a Sunday morning in the 1950s. She was spitting feathers over a couple who'd camped on the inches and allegedly burned her trees. I smiled inwardly at the lady's innocence and the sense of irony that 'twas an outrage for anyone to burn Castle trees; Castle trees had made virtual pyromaniacs of most of the town's residents, including myself. Trees, like water and its content (fish!), implied as natural resources. Well! However, she felt I might have some info on the couple now bivouaced in the North Mall. I demurred and anyway, was excited as my mother had won money on the Sunday Press crossword. I scooted away as a Garda arrived on a bike. I could hear, 'Ye burned my tree' from the lady as I receded.

The second time I encountered Adele was dancing on the Glencairn Road with her brother Fred. I wrote that up for Sunday Miscellany as 'Hoofers at the Crossroads.'

Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932 and became Lady Cavendish and chatelaine of Lismore Castle. Most writings on Lismore Castle and estates is formal or management oriented e.g. The Lismore Papers: 'tis hard to get a feel for the daily routines of the principals and indeed the workers within the hallowed walls. Castle workers have been reticent though no great effort was ever made to write 'Days in the Life' pieces.

The late Duke Andrew, wrote a chapter on Lismore in his memoir: It is fine but reeks of absentee landlordism and horses. A motivation ‘to get intimate with the Castle’ impels one, all in the guise of doing respectable social history, hence the use of local lore, hearsay, gossip and conjecture. The era of Adele Astaire is defined and can be focused on, though now fading fast from currency, into history, to become history.


Few enough in Lismore would have recognised Adele as a goddess; she hadn't danced in any films, apart from performing to great acclaim onstage in New York and London, though she did make several audio recordings. From city goddess to country chateline; it sounds like a rerun of the old fable, city mouse versus country mouse. To risk a pun, Adele being a hoofer, took it in her stride, to the manor born. Imagine a newly married woman descending on her new home whose rooms have never been properly computed, part of which dated back to the twelfth century, a real castle, similar in majesty to Chateau at Amboise on the Loire where the French kings lived. A castle with its toes in the Irish Rhine, the salmon-teeming Blackwater. 'Twas said Lord Charles just shot a pan out a window in the morning for a trout and in the evening for a salmon. 'Twas also said if you fell into the river, fish'd hold you up till you were rescued!

Adele loved to watch the balletic salmon leap; they mirrowed her own terpsichorean leaps and pirouetting. But then salmon were salted into the local culture, the 'Jackie White yarn’ often retold. On the basis that someone is always hearing Beethoven's fifth symphony for the first time, we'll tell it here. Jackie lived in a Warren cave above the river. Jackie, surprised one morning early by the Duke out for a constitutional. 'You're out early, Your Grace' said Jackie, walking stiffly as he had a freshly poached salmon down his trouser leg. 'Yes, Whitey, looking for an appetite for my breakfast' said his lordship. 'And how about you, Whitey?' 'Looking for a breakfast for me appetite, your Grace' replied Jackie, slithering gingerly past the Duke.

The chatelaine had five miles of river of her own to enjoy. She could, as a local poem has it:

‘… drink in the peace, the raucous obscenities of distant crows,

The pungent smell of larch bark, a young squirrel juggling a mobile!

Liquorice All-Sort trees in their stockings of moss.

The great mountain tumbler, the Owenashad, checking its stride

Before cool elision with the Irish Rhine’.

She further became mistress of 2,000 acres of farmland, grazing c.400 cattle and 1,000 sheep with equal expanses of woodland, mountain and a hatchery thrown in. In the 1930s there were over 70 outdoor workers – wood rangers, bailiffs, fishermen, farmhands, sawyers and general operatives, plus ten indoor employees. John 'Parrot' Doherty was a kind of handyman who cut kindling all day and declared he was privileged to work for the Duke and would do so for nothing; he became a kind of eponymous 'castle lackey.'

The gardens were the most ancient and beautiful in all of Ireland. Gay with clematis, magnolia, wisteria and lilac. Gorgeous azaleas, zinnias and rhododendrons, Californian poppies, dwarf cinerarias and spuds, the most divine 'earlies' in the Deise, dug with love by Mick 'Lala' Crowley or Jimmy Melligan and a 'toile' thrown in 'for the pot.' And there's the oldest arcade of yews in Ireland dating back to the Norman times and an ancient beech in the courtyard. What an inheritance!

And as an old republican who was detailed and willing to burn down the castle in the times of the Troubles said, 'what a shame 'twould have been, thank God we baulked..' In fact, ‘the great dissuader’ was Tim Duggan, a local and significant Volunteer leader, but crucially, a man of vision, if insufficiently recognised.

We're told by the local snoopy Google of the time that Adele was called at 9.30am, met with cook of the day, then room and flower inspection, and then to the gardens. She'd deal with correspondence after that. She had a black and white goat called Gwendolin which she'd bottle feed with Parrot's help. After lunch she's off for a five-mile stroll, handkerchief on head in peasant fashion according to the witness of Kate Pender, a great goat-lady herself. Lord Charles was sometimes in tow with Tilly the dachshund and Moscow described by 'Snap' Parker as 'a well bred mongrel of unknown origin!' She loved walking, plus the encountering of nature. As Aubrey de Vere wrote in his Lismore sonnet:

‘A meeting of bright streams and valleys green; Of healthy precipice; umbrageous glade; Dark, dimpling eddies, 'neath bird-haunted shade’.

On returning she'll practise her dancing to the electric gramophone as butlers Bennet and Pollard slip gingerly by. Then a piano session. Lord Charles made to listen but skips it when she starts skipping. Music and dancing were her balm. Wonder did she know 'twas William Congreve, born in Lismore Hotel (a castle outpost), according to Henry Eeles who wrote: ‘Music hath charm to soothe the savage breast.'

Being the kind of earth mother she is she'll then start knitting, look in on cook, don an apron and get flowered up.

Though not a horsey woman in the aristocratic way, she loved her passive chestnut Bandwagon. She'd bring it to Niall Darragh to shoe and enjoy Niall's country lore. A horse, Niall'd tell her, is so intelligent; put a nail in a scoop of meal and it'll leave the nail, a cow though will swallow it'! Or he'll tell how 'the hare sleeps with one eye open and t'other closed'.

She loved the way local people talked and would engage them, just to hear the sayings and the enigmatic ways of saying. She'd report back to Charles: 'Me money went with the wind like the bark of a dog'; '... 'me stomick hittin' off me backbone with the hunger...' ; 'You don't have to be a corpse to go to a funeral'; 'never sow spuds too far near each other.’

In the afternoon she'd read for a while: the chick lit of the day if one is to go by the titles. She'd maybe go up town to post a letter, have a drink in the Blackwater Vale Hotel (now Roches) which she in fact owns, if proprietored by Noonans - a kind of early franchise. She's in bed by ten but she'll read. Not a great radio woman, 'just for the news.' A bridge club tried to enlist her but she said she hated the game. Though a gregarious lady, the artificial sociability of cards palled. There might be other unstated reasons: the 'futile cards' perhaps in Patrick Kavanagh's encapsulation.


Lord Charles was a huge gee gee fan and a big benefactor of the horse industry. The annual point-to-points were held on their land. Adele loved Tramore track and would pay homage at the Master McGrath monument on her way.

With Lismore Estates came two village schools endowed since the Rentcharge Act of 1838. Best of all was a trip to the flicks and arrive 'in Dungarvan in the rain' re Betjeman poem, to see her brother's films. 'Twasn't unusual to have a dinner party and then all off to see the film. And Fred was often in Lismore, as was the mother of the Astaires and other distinguished visitors like J F Kennedy in 1947. A tragic-heroic figure, Adele. She lost her first child in 1933 and twins in 1935 and her husband in 1944 at 38. Lord Charles was sadly an acute alcoholic, but a popular and splendid type of man. Adele then married Col Kingman Douglas, a banker who was assistant director of the CIA. The Colonel died in l971 and Adele in 1981.


What a life! Most certainly the female jewel in the crown of Lismore Castle covering centuries. Fred Astaire's art was a stunning, metaphysical thing, indeed Adele recoiled from his perfectionism, though Fred admitted she was in fact his greatest dancing partner.

This author met a man, Mr Frank Walsh from Carrick-on-Suir, who danced with Adele in a London hotel c1940. He said, 'I felt I was a good dancer; in the three minutes with Adele I felt I'd become a great one!' She had the great honour of being inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1972. The road less travelled she took was well marked by her passing along it. From being a commoner in remote Nebraska, to a member of the aristocracy with fame as a dancer and entertainer in between. Her fame as an entertainer was a trade off against lacking any blue blood. She required no curtsying to, though such had nearly died out by the 1930s. She was her own dynamic self, very American in her self assertion and demeanour. Nancy Mitford said of the Americans that she wished she could understand them; the typical Americans are so dynamic, so interesting - so dull. Adele was anything but dull; there are no typical Americans. The tenure of Lord Charles and Lady Adele may have foreshadowed the present era which is open, welcoming, democratic.

Lord William and Lady Burlington or as William says 'call me Bill'; to which the late lamented Johnny Coleman said 'Yeah, call me Bill... even send you the bill!' Bill loves the hurling, handling the cupla focal 'with aplomb!

‘Twas known that Adele liked to shock, be it friend or stranger, so pity a callow youth reading a paper at the Mall Seat long 'go, not to mention the dangerous strangers who allegedly damaged her trees! A short Christmas article couldn't do justice to our admirable Adele; a better placed scribe, even one with revisionist credentials, could dig deeper into the golden era of Adele at Ireland's most enduring residence, Lismore Castle. After all, history purports to tell you how it was, literary bits how it felt. Together we probably get the best picture. Nollaig Shona!

blog comments powered by Disqus