Mariga Guinness


Taken from The Irish Aesthete. No copyright infringement intended

Taken from The Irish Aesthete. No copyright infringement intended

She would have been the Queen of Lithuania had the Kaiser won the war


A German princess more in love with buildings than with people, Mariga was born in 1932 to Prince Albrecht von Urach and his wife, a bohemian Scotswoman named Rosemary Blackadder. Boasting an illustrious lineage, she was the great-great niece of Elisabeth ‘Sissi’, Empress of Austria, the great niece of the Queen of Belgium and the great granddaughter of the first King of Lithuania and a Princess of Monaco – Mariga rightfully held claims to the Principality of Monaco, the Kingdom of Lithuania and the Medieval Kingdom of Jerusalem. She was also a descendant of Marie Antoinette). And in spite of her imperious name – Marie-Gabrielle Sophie Joti Elizabeth Albertine Almeria Wurttembern, the Princess of Urach – Mariga’s childhood was far from privileged. Her father had been expected to succeed the throne of Monaco, but in the aftermath of WW1 this idea had been abolished, this Prince Albrecht came of age with no money and little prospects. A genealogist suspicious of her Royal claims, studied her lineage to discover that Mariga was indeed related to every Royal House in Europe. She was, in fact, more Royal and the House of Windsor.


Mariga’s first childhood memory was of living in beautiful buildings whilst her father carried out the duties of a foreign diplomat and journalist. The first of which, was an elegant house in Kamakura, Japan, where she lived with Rosemary, who felt increasingly isolated from the stuffy embassy staff and the Japanese who did not mingle with foreigners. Through Rosemary’s knowledge of art, Mariga, at the age of three, was taught to look upon things as an artist. Trapped in her lonely life, in a foreign country with foreign customs, Rosemary’s mental health deteriorated, and she begun to imagine that Emperor Hirohito was being misled by his generals. Entering the heavily-guarded Imperial Palace, she clutched Mariga’s hand, and in the other she held a diplomatic passport. Arrested by guards and sedated with a massive dose of Morphia, Rosemary was put on board the Scharnhorst en route to Europe. It was a memory that was to haunt Mariga for the rest of her life. She, too, was returned to Europe, travelling alone on a Japanese liner at the age of six, while her father remained in Japan.


Virtually an orphan, Mariga’s family life was dissolving around her. She went to live with her flamboyant godmother Hermione (Mymee) Ramsden, an old fashioned Fabian who held a lifelong interest in spiritualism, seances and practicing the Ouija board. This unusual upbringing included seventeen governesses (one of which was an exiled Ethiopian princess), all hired by Mymee, in a bid to educate the girl. And, when she was old enough, Mariga was sent to a boarding school in Scotland – ‘I am glad you are not a little girl here with me, it is horrid,’ she wrote to Mymee. Eventually Mymee withdrew her from the school and she passed her School Certificate from home.


When the war ended, Mariga thought she would join her parents in Germany. As she grew older she realised this could never happen. Rosemary had been institutionalized and diagnosed as having schizophrenic tendencies. Following a botch lobotomy, her memory was frozen in time and she failed to recognize her teenage daughter. And her father, Prince Albrecht, had remarried and had two children. This, Mariga learned indirectly, and her pain in discovering her father’s betrayal is apparent:


‘I have been reading some of the letters that you wrote to Aunt Mymee from Japan and I began to realize how trying and bouleversant things must have been for you and how you deserve all the happiness you may have from your second marriage. Please forgive me if I have been unkind about it….Then when I heard about your marriage in such a horrible, indirect way, you, my God of Perfection, were tumbled forever I thought into the dust. It was a frightful shock. It seemed the end of all things – a violent and horrid awakening from my charming dreams.


When the war ended, Mariga was sent by Mymee on a tour of Europe where she witnessed for the first time the old world aristocracy that her birthright afforded her (though she had been excluded from) and the once grand buildings that had been destroyed by air-raids. The buildings left more of an impression. Her father urged her to contact her relatives, and slowly Mariga became acquainted with her Royal cousins, aunts and uncles, and although many were distantly related, she felt relieved to belong to a family. Returning to London, she attended the Monkey Club (a finishing school) where she lived at More House, a Catholic hostel. At More House she met her cousin Prince Rupert Lowenstein, who would later introduce her to her future husband.


When Mymee died at the age of 84, Mariga was, once again, alone in the world. Having considered herself the girl’s parent, Mymee remembered Mariga in her will and fixed her with an income of £1 per day. Possessing great intelligence and a Patrician beauty, she modelled for pin money and studied a domestic course at Oxford. While in Oxford she met the young and married the extremely handsome Desmond Guinness, son of Lord Moyne and Diana Mosley, and scion of the brewing family.


Mariga’s first visit to Ireland was at the invitation of Mark Bence-Jones in 1953. She arrived wearing a ball-gown, having come straight from a party in London to catch her early morning flight.  ‘Ireland is heaven, everyone is so dotty and delicious and no-one dreams of taking anything seriously; except, perhaps, the Horse Show,’ she observed. Two years later the Guinnesses moved to Ireland, where they bought Leixlip Castle, their own version of Versailles, in the village of Kildare. Leixlip was painstakingly restored, with Mariga donning rolled-up jeans and perching on ladders in her bare feet to paint the ceilings. She littered the rooms with her favourite objects; mismatched china, enormous seashells, classic at with old family photographs and gaudy costume jewellery draped around the bathroom with the Floris soap.

The Mariga picnic of potted shrimps and bottles of wine was well known and always extended to whoever might be in sight from Mick Jagger to the local farmer. Meals were entirely moveable – I remember her once sweeping the knifes and forks, bread and cheese and pate off the dining room table and into the car, so that there would be time for a meal on the way to the airport. – the Countess of Rosse


Mariga brought a new, enduring international panache to Irish life and she positively exported a fresh awareness of Ireland to the chicest circles in Europe and America. During those legendary society parties, Mariga and Desmond hosted at Lexilip, she loved to wear authentic Victorian costumes – long velvet skirts, high-neck blouses ruffled with yellowing delicate lace, eighteenth-century military coats and corsets which supported her rigid, Queenly stride. Desmond adored socialising, but Mariga was more at ease with inanimate objects: stuffed birds, elks’ heads and books. Though their taste differed in entertaining, they were united in their passion for saving Ireland’s historical buildings, and, in 1958, Desmond and Mariga founded the Irish Georgian Society. Sir Humphrey Wakefield recalled, ‘[She] would have been stunning in Hollywood – she could radiate a mood, from scorn to delight, to fill a room. She immersed herself in a whimsical world of beautiful objects: possessions and buildings were her armor for the outside world. She feared insanity, she knew it plagued her family and ran through her very veins: ‘I am related to the Wittelsbachs and a little bit mad,’ she was apt to say.


With her marriage to Desmond disintegrating, she adopting the rootless existence of her childhood. Mariga wandered around Europe — she always felt the compulsion to go to Norway, and to exotic destinations. In the late ‘Sixties, she met Hugh O’Neill (now Lord Rathcavan), and together they travelled the world. Carrying on an affair with Lord Rathcavan – whom she referred to as ‘Mr. O’Neill’ –  Mariga went north and resided at the old courthouse at Glenarm, in Co. Antrim. But her time in Antrim was tinged with great sadness; she had ventured north in the pursuit of love and, sadly, hadn’t found it.


In 1981, the marriage to Desmond was over, and Mariga rented Tullynisk house in Co. Offaly. The old house was a world away from Leixlip, with dry rot and rising damp, her old friends were horrified that she lived there. With Leixlip gone, she had nowhere else to go. Though she drank heavily, and often alone, she did not have the appearance of an alcoholic. Mariga’s appearance was always immaculate, however, the cardigans were becoming threadbare, with holes in the elbows and her money had run out. To supplement her income she wrote a magazine column, offering advice on where to buy the best knickers in Offaly. Eventually, she gave up the column. ‘Never complain, never explain,’ was her motto for life.


All her life, Mariga felt a close bond with her great grand-aunt Elizabeth ‘Sissi’, the Empress of Austia, and their lives paralleled in alarming ways. In 1989, on her journey home from Wales on a ferryboat, Mariga finished her drink at the bar and ducked into the ferry’s cinema as a distraction from the violent crossing. When the lights came on, an hour or so later, she was found in her seat, having suffered a heart attack. Alone, in the middle of the ferocious Irish Sea, she was injected with Penicillin, of which she was allergic. She died shortly after. Like Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria, they both died at the same age and on a ferryboat, one stabbed in the heart and the other of a heart attack.


Two weeks before her untimely death, Mariga announced: ‘When I go, it will be pretty smartly.’ She rests in view of Conolly’s Folly near Maynooth – the dramatic arched building had been restored decades before by the Irish Georgian Society. Her headstone bears another of her favouite saying: ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon.’


It would be wrong to end on a depressing note. Mariga enriched the lives of innumerable people and many more have benefited subsequently and will continue to do so, from her eye for beauty, her sense of style and the abundant warmth of her heart. – John Jolliffe


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