These Great Ladies

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‘Oh dear,’ said Evelyn Waugh of his society friends, ‘these great ladies.’ In this book of pen portraits the reader is introduced to obscure ladies who were society stars in their day. From the Churchills to the Mitfords, British and European Royals, to international playboys and film stars, these ladies knew everyone. And everyone knew them, for better or worse.

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Margaret, Duchess of Argyll: Famous for her naughty polaroids, and whose divorce from her Duke saw 88 men named as her lovers.

Mariga Guinness: A bewitching German princess with a harrowing childhood, who fought to preserve Irish buildings and became an icon.

Sylvia Ashley: A girl from the wrong side of the tracks who married two English lords, two Hollywood stars, and a Russian prince.

Joan Wyndham: A bohemian aristocrat who shunned a debutante existence to live a life of debauchery in Chelsea.

Enid Lindeman: An Australian wine heiress who married four rich and titled men, and buried them all.

Venetia Montagu: A society girl who moved at the centre of H.H. Asquith’s wartime government.

Irene Curzon: A ‘poor little rich girl’ who dared to break the rules and challenge her brother-in-law, Sir Oswald Mosley.

Jean Massereene: A dazzling viscountess whose association with Sir Edward Carson almost ruined her reputation. A true eccentric, fashion icon, and champion of the spiritualist movement.

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Society Star: The Life and Times of Lady Massereene

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Easter Monday marks the 102nd anniversary of Edward Carson’s visit to Antrim Castle – a minor but significant event which changed Irish politics forever. Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. III, this post looks at the life and times of the Scots-born and Irish peeress, Lady Massereene.

Before she became chatelaine of Antrim Castle at the age of 21, having married the 12th Viscount Massereene, Jean Barbara Ainsworth was a society star. Standing six-feet-tall with black hair and dark eyes, her exotic looks attracted attention from both sexes. Women admired her avant garde fashion sense – she was always something of a style icon – and her penchant for flamboyant clothes, during the Edwardian era, was displayed through backless dresses, bejewelled head-wear and a long string of pearls tied in a knot. Her clothing was daring, as was her behaviour, and men admired her willingness to speak her mind. After a summer of parties in the salons of Mayfair and hunt balls in stately homes, she met her future husband, Algernon William John Clotworthy Skeffington. They married in February 1905, and three months later Algernon succeeded his father as the 12th Viscount Massereene and 5th Viscount Ferrard.

It was a glamourous marriage, reported in the stylish magazines of the day, The Tatler, The Bystander and The Sketch. With her new husband, twelve years her senior and a war hero (Lord Massereene served with the 17th Lancers in the Boer War and was mentioned in Dispatches twice), Lady Massereene had become a celebrity. It was an age when the merits of stardom were weighed against one’s background and breeding, and regardless of her title, she was prime candidate during this new wave of modern media, much like today. She was born in Scotland in 1884, the eldest daughter of Sir John Stirling Ainsworth (he was given a peerage in 1917), a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal politician. She had grown up accustomed to large houses with staff, fascinating house-guests from the political and industrial worlds, and the privileges her father’s money could afford her.

The political element would conjure up discord between father and daughter, for in 1910, Lord and Lady Massereene allayed themselves with Edward Carson to resist Home Rule. John Ainsworth was a Home Ruler, and he accused Lord Massereene of influencing his daughter. But nobody could tell her what to do, and she threw herself into the Unionist cause. The Massereene seat, Antrim Castle, a 17th century dwelling overlooking the parish of Antrim, became a refuge for Carson and his Antrim branch of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Lady Massereene inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’, and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters. The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Lady Massereene, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Lord Massereene had been arrested and that Carson was at the castle. In a letter to her friend Edith, Lady Londonderry, she described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow the housekeeper who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Lady Massereene founded a corps of nurses, named the Volunteer Aid Attachment Corps. The training consisted of five weeks with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance to ensure the women were equipped to care for volunteers if they went into battle. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, while Antrim Castle and the O’Neill seat, Shane’s Castle, were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle during his task to review 2,800 volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given in his honour, and amongst the UVF hierarchy were a countess, a marquis, a duchess and various lords and ladies. A photograph exists of Lord and Lady Massereene standing on the steps of Antrim Castle with Carson and his cronies. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Lady Massereene on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of 80 members from Antrim, Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. Lady Massereene presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

There were no women in local government and Lady Massereene was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s role in society were made clear when, opening a Bazaar in Dunadry in aid of Muckamore New Schools, she referred to the topical Suffragette movement. The school’s colours of green, blue and orange, were Suffragette colours, and she joked that if any such ladies were presented they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the new schools’, before adding: ‘I believe in the higher education of women – the reason was that education makes them much better wives and mothers. The future of the empire depended to a very large extent, if not altogether, upon the mental training of mothers, and the way in which they brought up their children.’ The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

The arrival of WWI in 1914 saw Lady Massereene move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. Lord Massereene went to the front with the North Irish Horse, and there had been scenes of enthusiasm from the locals as he went to Antrim railway station on the 8 August for France. Accompanied by Lady Massereene and their daughter, Diana, born in 1909, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Lady Massereene’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about her allegiance with Carson. At home, she joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependants of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. In October 1914, Lady Massereene’s second child, a son and heir was born while Lord Massereene was in France. A month after the birth of her son, Lady Massereene hosted a successful fancy dress ball at the Protestant Hall. The fundraiser was for an ambulance, which she planned to send out to the front. Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s League’s Canteens, and dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook her for a streetwalker and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before. With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and relayed the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. By chance, Lady Massereene along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the 1918 Hollywood silent film, The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

Lady Massereene’s postwar life saw her re-emerge on the social scene, and Sir John Lavery painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. On 28 October 1922, Antrim castle held a grand ball, after which a fire broke out. Guests tried to extinguish the fire, to no avail, and locals rallied to the castle, concentrating their efforts on rescuing the servants whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Lady Massereene fled to the nursery to rescue her children, and trapped on a stairwell engulfed by smoke, she warned them they might not live. They watched as their cat caught on fire and perished before their eyes. Eventually, Lt Col Stewart Richardson, a war veteran who was staying at the castle, saved the lives of Lady Massereene and her children by tying sheets together and lowering them down from the roof of the chapel.

In 1923, a claim was made, and eventually rejected, for £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that was full before the fire and now found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to be forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (she showed her husband but not the police) in which Lady Massereene was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’. Such letters were sent in retaliation to Lady Massereene’s pro-Unionist speeches in which she said: ‘Let’s arm ourselves that Ulster will never surrender an inch of her soil or title of right to the insidious bloody foe.’ The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single fire. The water supply in the cisterns had been tampered with and several items that had been saved from the fire were found to be covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Lady Massereene was questioned about the repairs that had been carried out on the fireplaces. She replied that, owing to a dream she had had ten years previously that a fire had broken out in her boudoir, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in her bedroom replaced.

This was not the first time Lady Massereene relied on or spoke openly about her dreams. A decade before, her tiara was stolen from the castle and she ordered the police to comb the banks of the Six Mile river, having dreamt it was discarded there. She was, in fact, the victim of a network of jewel thieves who were eventually caught in London and arrested. She harboured a deep interest in the paranormal and was renowned in London as a ghost expert. A good friend of the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale, Lady Massereene related her paranormal experiences in Tweedale’s book, Ghosts I Have Seen. She also spoke openly to various London newspapers about her psychic abilities and affiliation with the spirit world.

In 1930, Lady Massereene suffered a bitter blow when her eldest child and only daughter, Diana Skeffington died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, after contracting typhoid at a wedding in Scotland. Lord and Lady Massereene never recovered from their daughter’s death, and having once spoke enthusiastically about rebuilding a country house on the site of the castle, Lord Massereene lost interest. They went their separate ways though never divorced, with Lord Massereene residing in apartments at Clotworthy House and Lady Massereene living in London, where in place of her once grand house parties she hosted seances. Many believed her obsession with the supernatural was a source of comfort to her after Diana’s death.

Lady Massereene’s final years were plagued by illness, although she never believed she was seriously ill. After collapsing in Hyde Park, she went up to Knock House, her Scottish residence in Mull, where her condition deteriorated. Five week later, in the winter of 1937, she died at the age of 54. Having championed the existence of ghosts, many of whom she called friends, one assumes, and hopes, Lady Massereene languishes in that spiritual realm.

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“The Gloomy Shade of Death”

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There are many cliches about death, though one cannot deny that the British upper-class were quite matter-of-fact about their own immortality. In her essay on U and Non-U English, Nancy Mitford teases that, when referring to death, the Non-U lot were prone to using floral euphemisms: passed on, passed away, taken and gone-too-soon; to name a few. However, as she warned, the upper-class were blunt about the entire thing. Died, was their chosen expression when speaking of the death act. Yes, this lot with their hunting, shooting and fishing were well equipped for bloodshed and the sight of a corpse. Though, as silly as Nancy could be, there was no humour to be found when a dark shadow of death fell upon London society in 1930. Perhaps the cliche is true: that death, when it visits, it arrives in threes.

 

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The Hon. Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington, born in 1911, was the eldest child and only daughter of Viscount Massereene & Ferrard and his wife, the paranormal expert, Jean Barbara nee Ainsworth. Growing up at the family seat, Antrim Castle, in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, Diana was often included in her parents trips abroad and she was acquainted with their contemporaries, and was said to have caught the eye of Edward, the Prince of Wales. Though, as romantic as the story seems, there is no proof of their phantom courtship. As a little girl, Diana was a member of the Antrim branch 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, and one such friend, Sadie, was a fellow Girl Guide and the daughter of Viscount Massereene’s gardener. Escorted by her governess, Miss Molloy, Diana visited Sadie at her home on Castle Street, causing her mother great embarrassment each time their aristocratic caller entered through the backdoor and passed through the scullery.

 

As much as Lady Massereene (Diana was extremely close to her mother) thought it charming that her daughter had an eclectic mix of friends, for she, too, was a firm favourite amongst the locals, it was time for Diana to grow up and enter the life of a debutante. A dazzling star on the Mayfair scene and equally as popular in hunting circles in Scotland, Diana’s dark looks attracted many admirers and, perhaps, she would have made a splendid society marriage. This seemed to be in the future, when at the age of 20, she became Godmother to the future Earl of Scone. On the 15th  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, she asked for a glass of water – a seemingly harmless gesture, but 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 south for treatment. Hopes were raised when Diana claimed to feel better, and on Trafalgar Day, she took to the streets of London 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 the family home at Rutland Gate. ‘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 worse. The raging fever consumed her and, on the 6th November 1930, she died aged 21.

 

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Although not the daughter of a Peer, Evelyn Colyer gained recognition through her own merits on the tennis court. Alongside Joan Austin, she played doubles in the 1923 Wimbledon final against Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills. With her modern looks and model appearance in her tennis-whites, the press nicknamed Evelyn as one of ‘The Babes’. In 1924, she paired with Dorothy Shepherd-Barron to win a bronze medal in the women’s doubles at the Paris Olympics. For nine years Evelyn competed in the Wimbledon Championships, and her final match was in 1929, after which she retired from tennis to marry Hamish Munro, a tea-planter from Assam, British India. Returning to her husband’s homeland, Evelyn died from complications in childbirth on the 6th November 1930, aged twenty-eight.

 

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The Hon. Meriel Catherine Lyttelton was the eldest daughter of John Cavendish Lyttelton, 9th Viscount Cobham and Violet Yolande Leonard. With her brown hair, glassy blue eyes and pale skin, she radiated an ethereal beauty. Although she was a popular debutante and a leading figure of London society, Meriel preferred her life in Gloucestershire where she immersed herself in country life, paying close attention to the social activities in the village and participating in blood sports. When her father, the Viscount, fell ill, she took over his role of Master of the Albright Woodland Hunt, a position she held for two years until his recovery.

 

In 1930, Meriel had been weakened from two bouts of serious illness before she was stricken by tubercular meningitis, for which she received a blood transfusion. Despite it providing some temporary relief, and offering false hope to her parents, this illness proved fatal and Meriel died aged 19 on the 11th November 1930. Her younger sister, Viola, went on to marry Robert Grosvenor, the 5th Duke of Westminster. Although Viola, too, met a tragic end when she died in a car accident in 1987 in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland, this was perhaps the fulfilling life Meriel might have lived had she not died young.

Viscountess Massereene, the ghost expert

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Society beauty, Jean Barbara Ainsworth, the 12th Viscountess Massereene, claimed to be an expert in ghost lore, so it must have thrilled her, and fueled her imagination, when she moved into her husband’s family seat, Antrim Castle. Although the only remaining artifact from the castle is the Italian tower, the castle and its surrounding grounds has long been associated with stories of hauntings, gruesome endings, and mystical goings on. The most prominent ghost story was founded during her time as chatelaine of the castle.

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Viscountess Massereene, brought Antrim Castle to life with lively parties, mixing the aristocracy with artists and musicians. It was during a party, on the day of her son, John’s, 7th birthday in 1922, that Antrim Castle was set alight. Guests escaped by jumping from windows and stood on the lawn in their nightclothes. Diana and John, the Viscountess’s children, managed to hide in a stairwell until they were ushered to safety. Their pet cat’s fur caught alight and they watched it perish. A servant, Ethel Gillingham later died from smoke inhalation. It is said that Ethel Gillingham’s spirit haunts the castle grounds, and she is known by locals as ‘the white lady’.

The interior of the castle was completely destroyed with various heirlooms going up in smoke — it was the end of an era for the Skeffington family. Following the fire at their family home, the Skeffingtons took shelter at their hunting lodge on the deer park. The family then moved to private apartments created within a wing of the 10th Viscount’s coach house (Clotworthy House). The Viscount dreamt of restoring the castle, and in 1930 he commissioned Belfast architects to design plans. That same year a bitter blow fell upon the family when their only daughter, the Hon. Diana Skeffington, died of typhoid at the age of 21. The plans were scrapped, and the Viscount lost heart.

Below, is a newspaper clipping in which the Viscountess describes her experiences with ghosts.

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I wonder if her spiritual beliefs was a small consolation to her following the untimely death of her daughter? The Viscountess died relatively young in 1937. I have only just discovered that the Viscountess contributed to the 1919 supernatural novel, ‘Ghosts I have Seen’ by Violet Tweedale. You can read the book by clicking here.

Our forthcoming annual

The Mitford Society’s annual has been a whirlwind of preparation but in the space of a month all of the submissions are in! I can tell you now that you’re in for a treat, the annual is a combination of academic essays, fun reviews, personal stories, photographs, a re-cap of Mitfords Eve at Sutton House and of course, the Mitford murder mystery which opens the book. I wanted to channel something quite unique, though paying homage to Nancy Mitford’s The Water Beetle and A talent to Annoy, and also The Pursuit of Laughter, though with less restraint than Diana’s critical essays. It has turned from a magazine sized vision into a full scale book! I have included the table of contents below, I hope you all approve!

Murder in the Hons Cupboard:- Meredith Whitford & Lyndsy Spence

Stranger than dreams and far more disordered:- An extract from The Fertile Fact

 The Most Charming Duchess:- Charles Twigger

 Pamela’s Irish Castle:- Stephen Kennedy

 Living in a Mitford House:- Debbie Catling

 Nancy’s True Love: Versailles:- Rebecca McWattie

 Nancy in Versailles:- Chiara Martinelli

 Esmond Romilly:-Meredith Mitford

 Diana Mosley :- David Platzer

 Understanding Unity:- Meems Ellenberg

 To the editor of the Daily Mail, a mock letter from Unity Mitford: – Emma Reilly

 Muv’s American Adventure:- Lyndsy Spence

 A Honnish Reunion:- Lyndsy Spence

 Stargazing with the Mitfords:- Astrology Charts by Victor Olliver

 From Countryside to Couture:- Natalie Tilbury

 The Mitford Sisters & The Turbulent Thirties:- by Lyndsy Spence, printed in Vintage Life magazine.

 The Photography Face:-Lyndsy Spence

 Laying the Foundations of The Mitford Industry:– David Ronneburg

 The Mitford Industry: An editor’s point of view:- An interview with Mark Beynon by Lyndsy Spence

 Re-issuing Nancy Mitford:- Emma Howard Capuchin Classics, Series Editor

 In Search of Nancy:- Barbara Cooke

 Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords:- Jeffrey Manley of the Evelyn Waugh Society

 The American Way of Death & Pop Culture:- Terence Towles Canote

 The Pursuit of Love: The perils of a would-be film:- Lyndsy Spence

 Moths to the Flame: The Mitfords of Mull:- An extract of a play by Willie Orr

 Mitfords Eve:– A Mitford themed event hosted by The Amy Grimehouse in association with The National Trust & the BFI.

 The Mitfords & Modern Writers. Blog interviews with:

 – Meredith Whitford

– Deanna Raybourn

– Tessa Arlen

– Judith Kinghorn

 Extraorder Extras: Those Honnish by association:

 – Joan Wyndham

– Diana Skeffington

– Mariga Guinness

 Mitford sketches commissioned for The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life:- Tessa Simpson

 

 

‘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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