The serendipity of opening a drawer

The serendipity of opening a drawer Lady Butler’s The Remnants of an Army (1842)
The View

One of the pleasures of an older family house is that occasionally one may go rummaging in drawers, boxes and old suitcases and find something interesting, unusual or exciting. Two weeks ago, I pulled a small painting on a wooden block out of a drawer. It depicted a winter scene in the Dutch style, showing three gentlemen standing together on frozen water in front of a ramshackle-looking cottage. Written on the back was ‘Sophia Orpen 1794’, with the numerals, especially the seven, written in the 18th Century manner. The gentlemen’s coats were in the style of the 1790s. Three years later, she married a Limerick landowner, and is my great-great-great-grandmother.

Another find a few years back, since given to the National Museum, was a framed red wax-coloured profile of King George III attended by two draped women representing England and Ireland. A Latin inscription describes him as ‘Head on Earth of the Church of England and Ireland’. Written on the back was attribution to [Nathaniel] Marchant ‘at the time of the Irish Union’. Under the 1800 Act of Union, the churches were to be united ‘forever’. Historically, such pronouncements often prove temporary, whereas other things introduced temporarily (e.g. income tax) turn out to be permanent.

Britain has no written constitution. Nothing is entrenched, not even the Act of Union, as any act of parliament can be changed by a subsequent one. Disestablishment was an early necessary modification of the Act of Union, and some Protestants, including generations back a younger sibling in my family, reacted by attending the first meeting of the Home Government Association in 1870 initiated by Isaac Butt.


Afghanistan has notoriety as ‘a graveyard of empires’. In 1839, Lieutenant David Inverarity, a distant Scottish relative, rode ahead of his troops in an Afghan Pass, despite being warned not to do so, to see what was around a bend. He was never seen again. The Irish Catholic (August 19) featured Elizabeth Butler’s painting The Remnants of an Army, depicting a disconsolate British army surgeon and sole survivor straggling home on a tired horse in 1842. Her husband, General Sir William Butler, was from Tipperary, and like her a Catholic. A letter of July 1879 in our family papers about the end of a further war expressed the correspondent’s opinion: “I cannot say how glad I was that we were out of this wretched Afghan war. The mortality has been awful & they are still dying. How utterly disgusted everyone was with the whole concern”.

President Vladimir Putin, speaking from calamitous Soviet experience in Afghanistan, warned recently that one cannot impose political standards of behaviour on other countries or peoples, regardless of ethnic and religious make-up and historical traditions, and that they had the right to determine their fate by themselves, however long it took them to achieve democracy (Financial Times, 21-22 August).

That the world’s greatest military machine ended up giving way to the Taliban graphically exposes the limitations of armed superiority in distant and difficult terrain. It is easy to go in, and the US attack had unanimous UN backing after 9/11, but finding a right time to exit may be next to impossible. Liberal internationalists or neo-conservatives wanting to reshape the world would do well to recall the lessons of the Crusades and those of imperialism. Tasking the EU with fighting wars to make up for the US is not a bright idea. Other ways must be found of addressing humanitarian crises, including a willingness to take in endangered refugees, and of discouraging the confiscation of rights newly enjoyed by Afghan women. It will be recalled that Malala, a young Pakistani champion of women’s education, who was the victim of a Taliban assassination attempt, won the Tipperary Peace Award in 2013, a year before the Nobel Peace Prize.

My grandmother, partly educated in France, collected some historic items. One was a manuscript letter of Josephine Bonaparte, wife of the First Consul, addressed to a ‘Citoyen Ministre’, recommending a young botany student for employment in plant procurement for public gardens. Her own botanical garden and rose-beds at Malmaison were famous. Napoleon regretted divorcing her for dynastic reasons. He had brothers and nephews, one of whom later became Napoleon III.

My grandmother also possessed a pamphlet containing an account of the trial in 1793 before the Revolutionary Tribunal of Marie-Antoinette, where the indictment was magnified by misogyny. The public prosecutor made the mistake of accusing her of sexually abusing her young son. She made a passionate appeal to all the mothers in the courtroom, and won public sympathy, before being sentenced to the guillotine. Robespierre was furious.


Another find was a newspaper cutting from May 27, 1930, with an account of the funeral of Henry Cole Bowen, a second cousin of my grandmother. Besides being a landowner, he was a barrister, who had been an examiner of titles to the land commission, author of a standard work on statutory land purchase in Ireland, as well as legal adviser to the Church of Ireland bishops of Cork and Limerick. He got on well with his Catholic neighbours, some of whom helped to carry his coffin to Farahy churchyard. His special pride was the rising fortunes of his daughter, the novelist Elizabeth Bowen.

The drawer also contained a 1961 Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society, which, besides a plea to protect from destruction the ESB buildings in Lower Fitzwilliam Street, prematurely reported that Bowenscourt, after it was sold by Elizabeth Bowen locally, was to be preserved. Although a photograph of the exterior showed it in good order, shortly afterwards, it was demolished. While this has been hailed in one quarter in effect as just retribution for the sins of her fathers, a fine house with a literary connection, which would have drawn visitors and given employment, is still missed. OPW put on an exhibition on Elizabeth Bowen in neighbouring Doneraile Court last summer, while An Post issued a stamp commemorating her visiting friend and fellow novelist Irish-born Iris Murdoch.