Hazel Lavery – the Vicereine Who Never Was (exhibition: Vicereines of Ireland, at Dublin Castle 31 May-5 September 2021)

It’s always a delight to read the autobiographical outpourings of artists, especially when they’re being straightforward as opposed to indulging in self-mythology. In the excerpt below, the Irish painter Sir John Lavery describes how he was very nearly appointed Viceroy of Ireland. His Irish-American wife, Hazel, would have loved to have been installed in the Vice-Regal Lodge, but John himself amusingly downplays his own potential. He confesses to being very proud that Winston Churchill had bruited the idea of his appointment as Viceroy. John “had vague thoughts of Velasquez as Ambassador for Philip IV, Vandyke and other artists in diplomatic positions”. But in the end he seems pretty relieved that the appointment came to nothing. As he puts it, “There could have been no one more unfitted for the post than I, believing as I do that the more nations and religions there are, the greater the opportunities for disorder.” Though Hazel was never Vicereine, John’s portrait of her as the personification of Ireland (above) was reproduced on an Irish banknote (see below, after the excerpt). This post marks the opening of an excellent-looking exhibition at Dublin Castle, Vicereines of Ireland, which should be well worth seeing now that the world is slowly getting back to normal.


One Sunday morning, some months after Michael Collins’s death, Kevin O’Higgins, perhaps the greatest diplomat of them all and the one pillar of strength left, was shot down on his way to Mass. The following letter to Hazel makes even sadder reading now than it did when she received it. 

BAILE ATHA CLIATH 1/9/22 

DEAR LADY LAVERY, 

Your letter of Wednesday reached me here yesterday. I have been recalled from the Army and have been asked to take on “Home Affairs.” I can well imagine how greatly shocked you must have been at the tragic news. There are times when the only safety-valve is work, things so terrible that one dare not stop to think on them. There is work enough to our hands, God knows, and there is the clear duty to carry on and endeavor to save Michael’s achievements for the country from destruction. 

. . . Childers is no fool. He knows that when he destroys property, bridges, railways, etc., he infuriates the people, but he is prepared to go on infuriating them, hoping for a social and economic collapse, hoping for a point when the people will kick out blindly at an intolerable condition qua intolerable condition regardless of the question of who caused it. He and De Valera know that their following is mainly criminal, in motive and in act, but they are prepared to go on using that criminal instrument in the hope of crumbling foundations. This is ghoulish but I think it is true. 

On the whole I think the odds are against their success the next two months will decide that. Our Parliament meets on the 8th. Is there any chance of seeing yourself and Sir John on that occasion? I wish I could write you in cheerier vein, but the position is too grim. Of course it was grim before the winter of 1920, for instance and we weathered it. One thing you may be sure of there will be no quitting, and no trifling with the bond of the two who are gone. We will get on with the work and you, whom Michael loved so well, will pray for our success, and will help when you can in the way that only you can. I wish you could realize how much all here appreciate your help and sympathy. 

Greetings, 

KEVIN O’HiGGiNS 

It was one of O’Higgins’s ambitions that Hazel should be in the Vice-Regal Lodge. He carried the measure in London, the week before he died, but I very much doubt if it would have passed the Dail. A couple of days before he was shot and they went on pouring lead into him as he lay on the ground I met Winston, who said, “Well, John, are you getting ready?” Pretending that I did not know what he meant, I said, “Ready for what?” “The Vice-Regal.” “That’s a dream of O’Higgins’s,” I said. “Anyway, we are in favor of it here,” answered Winston. I must say I was very much surprised and, of course, swollen up with pride that it had really gone so far. On the other hand, Ireland is a great country for prejudice and fault-finding against institutions such as Viceroys and Governor Generals. I think we have too much sense of humor to go in for that sort of thing with the seriousness of the English. I remember when Tim Healy was appointed, someone mentioned it to A.E. “Useless expense,” was the poet’s curt and Irish reply. 

Hazel’s first sight of the “Lodge” was when she went to stay with the Wimbornes. She was thrilled by its beauty, which reminded her of the White House and the eighteenth century she loved. From that moment there was no other Ireland for her. She wandered about Ireland in a dream, finding out that she was really Irish; the Martyns of Galway were her people, and it waspurely by accident of birth that America claimed her. When she first met Edward Martyn she told him this. He looked at her and said, “You can’t be a relation of mine, we never had a beautiful woman in our family yet.” He hated women. She could not rest until she had explored every corner of the land. To her it was the Ireland of Yeats, James Stephens, A.E., Lennox Robinson, Synge, and the rest. Hazel’s Ireland was as unreal as a mirage in the desert. 

Although we received many anonymous and threatening letters, I do not believe that there was a youth in Ireland so misguided as to turn his gun on a woman. Had she been allowed to reign and had her health held out, she might have succeeded. I should have been no use. I had vague thoughts of Velasquez as Ambassador for Philip IV, Vandyke and other artists in diplomatic positions, but saw the absurdity of it all so far as it concerned me, and told Kevin so. There could have been no one more unfitted for the post than I, believing as I do that the more nations and religions there are, the greater the opportunities for disorder. 

Hazel broke down when Kevin was assassinated. Apart from the tragedy, it shattered her dream of the Vice-Regal Lodge. I was terribly sorry for her, for if there ever was a woman qualified for the position of Vicereine of Ireland at that period it was Hazel. When I realized her disappointment I felt I could have given up the paint brush for the simple joy of seeing her great gifts gloriously framed for the benefit of the Ireland of her own creation, which may indeed have been the real Ireland. At the same time I had a selfish sense of relief that the life I had lived for over half a century, and the one for which I was best fitted, was not to be disturbed. 

After O’Higgins’s death Mr. Cosgrave and the currency commission hit on the idea of recognizing Hazel’s services, and commissioned me to paint her portrait to be reproduced on the bank notes which, as President Cosgrave in his charming way said, “every Irishman, not to mention the foreigner who visits Ireland, will carry next to his heart.” 

She admired Cosgrave and realized that no other states man could have done what he did in bringing Ireland in touch with the rest of the world, and forming out of the chaos the most stable government in Europe at the time. To rise up as he had done, in the midst of a bloody revolution, without any of the machinery of a governing body, to bring together in peaceful conference men whose chief argument was the gun, was an achievement of which history can show few to equal. But for him Hazel’s memory in Ireland might be soon forgotten. 

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