‘Every Irishman, not to mention the foreigner who visits Ireland, will carry one next to his heart’. W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, speaking about the Irish pound note which featured Lady Lavery whose beauty was renowned throughout Ireland and beyond. The portrait of Lady Lavery on Irish banknotes had been painted by her husband Sir John Lavery, the most famous Irish portrait painter of his time.
Ninety years ago, in 1927, Lavery agreed to assist the Currency Commission in the design of the first Free State banknotes. Reworking a portrait of his wife Hazel from 1909, he now cast her as Kathleen ní Houlihan, the mythical heroine of W.B. Yeats’s play of 1902, and placed her against a backdrop of the Lakes of Killarney. Indeed, I carried Lady Lavery next to my own heart for many a year, in the inside pocket of my jacket, in a weather-beaten, leather wallet, a hand-me-down from my father. However, if I’m to be honest, I initially carried her in my back pocket, next to my…well not next to my heart shall I say as I didn’t inherit my father’s wallet till later in life.
I was particularly fond of Lady Lavery because it was she who greeted me, in the post, every Monday morning in my digs when I was a student in UCD. And if I was fond of Lady Lavery, I was even fonder of, and grateful to, my late brother-in-law for sending me that pound note, once a week, throughout my student years. Although my father possessed a wallet the contents of it were thin on the ground. In short, there wasn’t much money in our house, just about enough to pay the bills and feed and clothe our family of five. And so, my brother-in-law, a successful business man, an undertaker as it happened, undertook, of his own volition, to send me a pound every week, which arrived in the first post every Monday morning. Any Monday morning blues that I may have been harbouring were quickly dispelled by the comely face of Lady Lavery on that green, pound note.
I like to think that I spent that pound note judiciously but I wouldn’t swear to it. Which is not to say that the Lady was squandered on drink or frivolities. She was not. Like the pound banknote I too was green, a young, frugal and innocent country lad; so innocent in fact that my father, under instruction from my mother, took me aside, twenty minutes before I left home for the capital and UCD, to warn me about a different type of lady entirely - the ‘ladies of the night’. A subject I most certainly wasn’t au fait with and a subject my father didn’t dwell on too long. It was like the birds and the bees all over again except no one ever educated us youngsters about those little ‘critters.’ That was left to one of the hard chaws in the neighbourhood who, for all his street-wise nous and bravado, got his facts skeways!
I have a soft spot also for Lady Lavery’s husband, Sir John Lavery, the renowned portrait painter, an honorary Kilkenny man practically, having lived the last few years of his life in Rosenarra House, just outside Kilmoganny, where Sir John died in 1941. Rosenarra House, Kilkenny’s ‘White House’ if you wish, now vacant alas, was designed by the architect James Hoban from Callan who designed The White House in Washington; a design, worth noting, based on Leinster House in Dublin. In his book: ‘Hidden Kilkenny’, author John Keane (of this parish) refers to Rosenarra House and the McEnery family who lived there (now living close by in the village of Kells) and who, to quote Keane: ‘bred the greatest Grand National horse of all time, Red Rum.’ Though I know next to nothing about horses and horse-racing, Red Rum, I have no doubt was responsible for many an Irish punter carrying Lady Lavery close to his heart. Not quite, perhaps, what W.T. Cosgrave had in mind but for some reason or other I don’t believe that Lady Hazel Lavery, that ‘Lady of Note’, would have had any objections to whatsoever.