Valerie Pakenham, writer on Ireland and its culture who painstakingly restored Tullynally Castle – obituary
Valerie Pakenham, who has died aged 83, claimed “always to have hated proper writing”, but nevertheless achieved considerable success with her books, many exploring the history and culture of Ireland. This was her adopted homeland where, with her husband Thomas, she restored his family seat Tullynally Castle and its gardens, in Co Westmeath, opening them to the public.
She was the granddaughter of William Berry, 1st Viscount Camrose, proprietor and editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph from 1928 to 1954, and the printed word was in her blood. As a young woman she was not satisfied by the preferred route of finishing school, and instead went in 1957 to St Anne’s College, Oxford, to read Modern Languages.
On graduation in 1961, she won a talent contest for budding writers run by Vogue. Her prize was a place in the copywriters’ pool at the magazine, the first step on a career ladder that quickly led to her becoming Shirley Conran’s assistant on the Ideal Home page in the Daily Mail, a haven, she later recalled, in what was otherwise “a bastion of male dominance”.
After her marriage in July 1964 to Thomas Pakenham (her older sister and fellow writer, Linda, had married one of his best friends, Laurence Kelly), the focus of her life switched from England to Ireland. On the death three years earlier of his uncle, Valerie Pakenham’s new husband had inherited what she once described as his family’s ancestral “huge, damp and semi-ruinous” Gothic castle. Thomas’s father, the Anglo-Irish Labour peer and prison reformer Lord Longford, had decided to forgo the inheritance and skip a generation to avoid double death duties.
Thomas Pakenham was already making a name for himself as a writer, his celebrated The Mountains of Rasselas, published in 1959, the result of a year spent living in Ethiopia. Newly settled in Ireland – first in a flat in Dublin and then at Tullynally – the young couple built a life around their shared and enduring enthusiasms, writing and researching, and reviving their turreted stately home.
With its grey limestone walls, it was, Valerie Pakenham remarked candidly, “probably not to most people’s taste”, but for her it appeared “a romantic Sleeping Beauty castle wrapped in woods”. She had, she said, “fallen under the spell of the Big House”, something she believed was best captured in the writings of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen.
It was not all romantic reverie, she said: “When I arrived, its hundred or so rooms were empty of life [and] I developed new muscles from months of pulling up brambles by their roots and hacking back laurels and rhododendrons.”
Her style of restoration work was very much hands-on. She recently remarked to her sister-in-law, the novelist Rachel Billington, that she had at some stage painted most of walls in the castle, its turrets and the various properties in its grounds.
This lifelong project was undertaken alongside her husband – whose greatest enthusiasm was for filling the gardens with exotic trees and flowers – and, as they grew up, their four children. But there was always a book project on the go as well, often as slow-burn as the restoration project itself, but undertaken with painstaking research – the part of writing a book that she said she did enjoy.
“I found it agony to write,” she confessed in her contribution to a collection of essays published following the death in 2019 of her sister, the historian Linda Kelly. “I would sit arranging and rearranging my card-indexes on the window-seat, first at one end of the room, then at the other – anything to escape writing.”
When she did get down to it, the results were acclaimed, notably with Out in the Noonday Sun: Edwardians in the Tropics in 1985, and later, in 2017, for her edited collection of the letters of her ancestor by marriage, the prolific and pioneering Irish novelist (especially for children) Maria Edgeworth.
In between, with her husband she wrote A Travellers’ Companion to Dublin (1998), but her most enduring book is The Big House in Ireland (2001), complete with photographs by Thomas. It traced the troubled past of such properties as resented symbols of colonial subjugation, some of them burnt to the ground during Ireland’s war for independence, but now being embraced, as she had been, by the Irish. “New democratic Ireland,” she wrote, “no longer denounces the Big House, but seems to marvels at it.”
Valerie Pakenham – her husband inherited his father’s earldom on his death in 2001, but they did not use the titles – was born on November 13 1939 in the early months of the Second World War, the fourth of five children of Major Ronald Guthrie McNair Scott and his wife, Mary Cecilia Berry of the newspaper dynasty. She was evacuated with her mother to America in her early childhood, and then brought up on the family farm at the “stockbroker’s Tudor” Huish House in Hampshire.
School at Southover Manor in Sussex did not stretch her and after a brief spell in Paris – where she complained that her blonde hair and good looks caused her to be asked repeatedly if she was Swedish (her paternal grandmother was) – she ended up at Cuffy’s, a stuffy finishing school in Oxford.
She rebelled and insisted on going instead to the university. Terence de Vere White, the Irish literary editor, described her as “the loveliest girl I have ever seen” after their meeting.
Her brief career in journalism had its downs as well as ups. “I knew nothing of homemaking or even cooking,” she wrote of her time working with Shirley Conran on the Mail. “I had only ever cooked frozen peas and scrambled eggs.” The two women did not get on.
At a dinner hosted by her sister Linda and her new husband, she was introduced to Thomas Pakenham. A year and a half later they married, on July 23 1964. Their daughter Maria was born the following year, then Eliza in 1966, Edward (always known as Ned) in 1970, and Frederick (Fred) in 1971.
The couple kept a home in west London during their children’s education at English schools, but Tullynally was always the core of their family life, latterly being remodelled to provide homes for their children and grandchildren within its walls.
Warm, emotionally astute and welcoming to all, including the various cultural societies whom she invited to use the castle and its gardens for their fund-raising activities (including the Derravaragh Music Association, which recently commissioned a portrait of her to celebrate her long-time patronage), she was a calming, witty, patient, and unassuming presence in her extended high-profile family.
Valerie Pakenham’s last book, Exploring Ireland’s Middle Kingdom, was published in 2021, telling the history of Meath, where its author spent almost six decades of her life and was happiest among its hills and loughs. “My greatest pleasure,” she enthused in her introduction, “is swimming with swans and grebes for company in a sparkling Westmeath lake.”
She is survived by her husband Thomas and by their four children.
Valerie Pakenham (The Countess of Longford), born 13 November 1939, died January 22 2023