I was in Birr over the Christmas and chatting in Dooly’s I recalled that it will be 59 years this weekend since the first visit of a Royal princess to Ireland – Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones- and that was the first royal visit to Ireland in over thirty years. The son of Anne, Countess of Rosse (by her first husband), Anthony Armstrong Jones, married the Queen’s only sister in May 1960. It was a grand affair and the Countess of Rosse, always one for beauty and glamour, was the finest dressed of the three mothers-in-law present at the royal wedding. The happy couple visited Birr six months later on New Year’s Eve 1960. The town of Birr witnessed an influx of pressmen never seen before in the midlands and perhaps not till that EC meeting in Tullamore ten or fifteen years ago.
The Crown and the telephone exchange
Any of you who looked at The Crown series will be clued into the goings on of the royal family in the 1950s and how ‘correct’ the young queen was. What is surprising is that the queen’s telephone switchboard operators made such a blunder in putting her call to Princess Margaret through to Dooly’s Hotel in Birr and not to Birr Castle. What a battery of telephone exchanges were shown in that fine television series. The young queen’s advisor ‘Tommy’ Lascelles would not have made that mistake and given a pass to American journalists looking for the Man of Aran or Darby O’Gill in Dooly’s Hotel, Birr. That grand old hotel, once known as The Royal Arms can trace its origins back to 1747 and was completed in the same year as the monument to the Duke of Cumberland.
Dramatis Personae for a Donegan play
Would we sue today for a perceived slight or get the hotel included in a ‘fun tour’ of Birr? Dramatis personae for such a tour or a play by young Michael Donegan would include Commander Crocker of the Princess’s bodyguard (on all three visits to Birr in 1961, 1962 and 1965) and Fred Hoysted, the chauffeur to the sixth earl of Rosse (died 1979) who later wrote a memoir of his time at Birr Castle and of which a copy, according to the Mildand Tribune, was sent to the Queen by a well-wisher after her outstandingly successful visit to Ireland in 2011. I remember to hear that Birr Sergeant of the gardai, John Flaherty, had charge of security for the Princess. He had been in the old IRA but joined the Civic Guard in 1922. I am sorry I never got down to Birr to talk to Frank Egan about the royal telephone call after he became the owner in the late 1960s. But back to the royal visit.
On arrival in Birr on 31 December 1960 in what was a private visit the Princess Margaret and her husband were greeted by upwards of 2,000 people and every room in the town was filled with pressmen and security.
Above Princess Margaret, Lady Rosse and her son Anthony Armstrong Jones (ennobled as earl of Snowdon in October 1961).
Sunday service and a visit to Cloghan
Earlier on Sunday morning the Princess made a surprise visit to St Brendan’s Church for the 8.30 a.m. Communion Service. She then toured the town, and on Monday did a 25 miles trip in Lord Oxmantown’s (the present earl) Fiat 1100 via Cloghan and back to Birr via Taylor’s Cross. On both occasions she slipped through the tight security cordon of uniformed Gardai and plain clothes detectives.
The shooting party on Tuesday at Killeen included the Earl and Countess of Dunraven, Adare friends of the Rosse Family; Lord and Lady Rupert Neville, friends of the Princess, Miss Muriel Wieler, daughter of the Governor of the Tower of London and a friend of the Rosse family; Count Barromeo d’Agga and Sir Anthony Weldon, Bart.
The Princess and her husband attended the shoot as also did the Countess of Rosse.
The Queen’s Phone-call to Dooly’s Hotel Cited in Action against “Newsweek” Magazine.
When Queen Elizabeth II rang up Birr on New Year’s Day, 1961, to inquire how her sister, Princess Margaret, was enjoying her holiday with her husband at Birr Castle, she was given a ‘wrong number’ and the call was taken by a Daily Express journalist Seamus Brady, at Dooly’s Hotel. The Castle number: 23. The Hotel Number: 32.
The incident was recalled, in the High Court in Dublin in June 1962 when Messrs. P. & H. Egan, Ltd. Tullamore (proprietors of Dooly’s Hotel. They had acquired it from a relation of our family by the name of Clavin in the early 1900s) brought an action against Newsweek Inc., Building 444, Madison Avenue, New York, for libel in certain references made to the hotel in reporting the Royal phone-call in their issue of January 1961.
When Mr. Justice Murnaghan and a Jury met to hear the action it was announced that a settlement had been reached in the sum of £1,500 and a sum for costs; and having heard a statement in open court from counsel for Newsweek Mr. Justice Murnaghan gave judgement accordingly.
The offending Article as Published
Reprinted from the International News Magazine ‘Newsweek’ dated January 16th, 1961.
The ‘Joneses’ in Ireland
Shortly before closing time the phone rang. No one paid attention, Probably Mrs. O’Halloran, and it was the fault of Dooly’s bar that himself was on the drink again?
Once more the phone rang.
Barman Seamus Brady wiped his hands on a tired towel. Slowly he took the receiver off the hook. At the click, a cultured English voice broke in over long distance: Sandringham here, May I speak to her Royal Highness?’’
Brady looked about the bar, it’s over shot spittoon, the fly specks on the window, the regulars happily arguing, and O’Halloran snoozing peacefully in his chair. No Royal Highness here, as far as he could see,
“And who did you say it is?” ’Brady asked into the phone.
“The Queen here”
“Would you now” said Brady to himself. Aloud he said and what number wo’d you be calling?”
“Is this Birr 2”
“No” said Brady. “Wrong number lady. This is Birr 32 –Dooly’s Bar”
From the other end of the line- a sharp click.
If that click sounded impolitely abrupt it was because Queen Elizabeth II, telephoning from her country home, Sandringham, to Birr Castle (Birr 23) in Ireland, had many reasons to be upset-and a wrong number to a hotel bar in the town of Birr (population 3,300) was only one of them. What had started out as an Anglo-Irish friendship-building venture and a self-styled “second honeymoon” for her sister, Princess Margaret, and her husband, Anthony Armstrong-Jones was getting out of hand.
The Incidents: Everything had begun well, a friendly crowd of 2,000 had welcomed Margaret and her consort at Shannon Airport. This was in contrast to what happened 32 years before when British royalty paid their last visit to Irish soil. Three Irish patriots, tried to burn down Portumna Castle that time. Now the Irish were happily applauding the fact that the “Jones’s: were going on vacation for ten days in Birr Castle where Tony grew up and where his mother now lives with her second husband. One relator even started the rumor that the royal pair planned to buy the property in the neighborhood. The Tourist Bureau was immensely pleased. So were the newsman and photographers who swarmed around the couple wherever they went. But it was they who precipitated the first crisis when Margaret and Tony attended matins at St. Brendan’s Protestant Church. A crown of 700 instead of the usual 100 attended service and a melee developed. Police bopped a few heads, a photographer’s camera was smashed, one woman fainted, and Margaret herself was half-pushed, half-pulled into the church.
Two days later- with the press still hot on their trail- another incident occurred. This time Billy Wallace, one of the “Old Margaretonians” was responsible. At the pheasant shoot, he let fly a spray of birdshot at a rising cock and hit a nearby cop. The cop’s heavy overcoat fortunately absorbed most of the impact, but again the press had a field day for itself.
At this point a distressed Margaret asked for help, and the royal family promptly fired off a terse communique requesting that Margaret and Tony be left alone on an “entirely private and family holiday.”
At Dooly’s bar, Seamus Brady read this pronouncement and turned to the regulars. “We had better pay attention to this, he said. I’ve talked to the Queen on the phone, you know.”
Ed. Note:-The telephone call referred to was received by Mr. Seamus Brady of the Dublin Staff of the: Daily Express” and the Head Porter in the hotel at the time was Mr. Stephen Doherty).
Messrs. Egan complained that by this publication the defendants meant that their hotel and premises, including the public bar, were dirty and unhygienic, that their hotel was frequented by uncouth persons and staffed by careless and inattentive personnel and they permitted drunkenness on their premises and that the company and their staff were unsuitable persons to carry on a hotel and licensed premises.
“Newsweek” in their defence denied that the words complained of, were capable of the meaning alleged or of any defamatory meaning and they said that the words complained of were not actionable without proof of special damage.
They further denied that the plaintiff’s had been injured in their credit or their business by the words contained in the article.
Witness and Jurors
All the witnesses for both sides were present, including witnesses from America who were to give evidence for Newsweek.
A Jury having been sworn to hear the action, it was announced to Mr. Justice Murnaghan that the matter had been settled on terms that Newsweek were to pay a sum of £1,500 damages and costs to Messrs. Egan and to publish an adequate apology.
Mr. T. B. Hannin, SC. For Messers Egan, said that in addition to the payment of the sum of £1,500 and a sum for costs, Counsel for Newsweek Incorporated would make a statement in open court.
Newsweek apologies in open court
Mr. Peter Nugent, S.C. for Newsweek, said: I am instructed by the defendants to say on their behalf that they deeply regret that the article of which complaint is made should have given offence to the plaintiffs. It was certainly not the intention of my clients to defame or cause injury to the plaintiffs nor to suggest their hotel in Birr fell short in any way of the high standard for which they are justly renowned.
“Mt clients in their desire to repair any damage they may have unconsciously have done to the plaintiffs have agreed to pay £1,500 and costs and they sincerely trust that this statement made in open court on their behalf will undo any harm they may have unwittingly caused to the plaintiffs”
The late Terry Adams and Tom Hannin SC the team for Dooly’s
With Mr. Hannon were Mr. W. O’B Fitzgerald, S.C. and Mr. Sean Gannon (instructed by Mr. T, B. Adams, Tullamore) for Messrs. Egan, and Mr. Francis Murphy (Instructed by Messer’s, G.D. Fottrell & Sons) was with Mr. Nugent for Newsweek Incorporated.
Thar first royal visit to Birr marked the end of the gloomy 1950s and put Birr firmly on the tourist map and a prominence it has never lost. Next year the town and castle celebrate Birr 400 as does Tullamore. The year 2022 will mark the 275th anniversary of Dooly’s Hotel in Birr – a considerable achievement. What stories it could tell. I recall my mother making her way with us children to catch a glimpse of the fairytale princess in the cold winter days of January 1961. The queen and her sister were so young to have so much responsibility thrust upon them. Margaret was only 30 when she came to Birr. Her sister did not visit Ireland for another fifty years and what a successful trip it was. Let’s hope that out of all this Brexit business some good may yet come. I hope to be back in the Molloy Country in Offaly in the spring and I am looking forward already. So many happy memories and more years to come I hope. Wishing you all the best for 2020 and the years ahead. Finally, thanks to my friends in Offaly History who helped me with the pictures and the technical stuff. A great crowd they are doing wonders for our local history. I have to write about the O’Molloys if I am spared a few years more. So many of them still around Birr.