‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone’

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Beautiful Diana Skeffington

The Hon. Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington [1909-1930], the only daughter of Viscount Massereene and contemporary of Diana Mitford, spent her childhood at Antrim Castle – once a prominent feature in an area known by locals as The Castle Grounds. As a little girl Diana was a member of the Girl Guides – later becoming the leader of the Primrose Patrol- and many of her childhood companions were the children of local merchants. It was quite unheard of for a girl from her background to mix so freely with non-aristocrats. Diana’s closest friend, Sadie, was a fellow Girl Guide whose father worked as head gardener for Viscount Massereene. Escorted by her governess, Mrs. Molloy, Diana visited Sadie at her home on Castle Street, causing a scene each time she entered through the back door. Sadie’s mother was mortified as Diana passed through the scullery to the parlour; the gentry always entered by the front door and often to a small fanfare.

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Antrim Castle in its heyday. Could this be Diana and her little brother?

Viscount and Viscountess Massereene were not alarmed by Diana’s familiarity with ordinary people. At the age of 17, Diana attended a fete at Mount Stewart – home of Lord and Lady Londonderry- where she did not hesitate to lend a hand, which prompted an astonished Lady to remark: ‘There is a remarkably good looking, tall girl here, I don’t know who she is, but she is working as hard as any waitress in the restaurant.’ A year later, all of London’s high society would know who Diana was when she came out as a debutante in 1927.  Through this social whirlwind, known as The Season, Diana met Edward, Prince of Wales, who would later ascend the throne as King Edward VIII and cause a scandal by abdicating to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. It was an open secret that Edward had fallen in love with Diana. How different the current royal family’s lives would have been had fate not intervened. Diana might have become Queen consort, and our current Queen Elizabeth II would have faded down the line of succession to live the life of a minor royal.

On 15 October 1930, Diana served as a bridesmaid at the society wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. On this day, Diana asked for a glass of water – a seemingly harmless gesture. The water was contaminated and a week later Diana collapsed at her mother’s family home, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll. The diagnosis was typhoid fever and a doctor in Harley Street had been alerted of her condition and the necessary arrangements were made for her to travel to London for treatment. Hopes were raised when Diana claimed to feel better and it seemed she would be well enough to return to Antrim. On Trafalgar Day, Diana took to the street to sell flags in aid of servicemen, it was a cold day and her friends were concerned about her fragile appearance and urged her to rest. ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again,’ she joked. Suddenly all expectations of a complete recovery were dashed when Diana – still battling typhoid- developed pneumonia and her condition took a turn for the worst. The raging fever consumed her and at the age of 21 she was dead. The words of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes, following the untimely death of Lady Sybil, could have been applied to Diana’s demise: ‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone.’

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Diana’s final resting place

A solemn mood filtered through London’s social scene and, at home, the people of Antrim were in mourning for the girl they had loved so much. The funeral was held at All Saints Parish Church and the town came to a standstill; the local residents and shopkeepers lined the road to pay their respects. In her short life Diana had touched many, and the Girl Guides of Antrim walked alongside her coffin, followed by her parents, Viscount and Viscountess Massereene.

Today the small burial ground is hidden behind hedges and imposing trees and in this quiet, secluded part of the Castle Grounds rests Diana, her body clothed in her bridesmaid’s dress, in a grave purposely angled to face Scotland. Had fate dealt Diana a kinder hand she might have become a prominent figure in the history of the twentieth century. And like the ruins of the castle, and her ornate grave, the name Diana Skeffington should serve as a reminder that Antrim once played a part in a forgotten, gilded age.

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