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Sunday 6 January 2013

The dame who chose to arise and follow Charlie

The music director moved to tears by Haughey's voice had a dark side to her personality

I love reading the secrets from State papers of 30 years ago to which we're treated every January, but they don't often make me laugh.

This year, however, brought this priceless report from Joe Humphreys in The Irish Times. Headed "Music director was moved to tears by 'spiritual quality' of Haughey's voice", it recounted how Dame Ruth King, "a prominent English music teacher", had written a fan letter to Charlie Haughey shortly after he became Taoiseach in December 1979.

"I write as a musician," she gushed, "to thank you for the music through your voice. . . It was there in the rhythm – unflagging, strong. . . and this carries the power to stir the wills of people but you have also a lift in the tone, always upward which raises the heart: but most important was the spiritual quality which emerged in a most moving vibrato whenever your own love of Ireland and faith and confidence in your people was deepest. I confess to being moved to tears. These three things are only found together in the voice of a leader. I have heard it in Churchill, in de Gaulle. . ."

In a letter to the editor, reader Kevin O'Sullivan suggested, "Is it possible that the rising pitch in Charles Haughey's voice which moved Dame Ruth King to tears. . . was caused by an over-tight belt?" – possibly bringing to mind Haughey's pitch to the citizenry in 1980 about how "we are living way beyond our means".

Having known Dame Ruth all too well (I wrote Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the glory days of Fleet Street despite her), I can guess what moved her to tears. She'd have been deeply attracted by the "uno duce, una voce" aspect of Haughey. Like her husband, the ousted media magnate Cecil King, she revered those she thought Men of Destiny, including Oswald Mosely and Daithi O Conaill, whom she met when he was on the IRA Army Council.

There's a fine comic play to be written about how in the Seventies, Ruth (a great talent-spotter, the creator of the National Youth Orchestra and a tyrannical, malevolent fantasist) set out to make peace in Northern Ireland.

She ran between Paisley ("a warm and humble man of prayer"), "my Provisionals" (O Conaill and Joe Cahill, both of whom thought she had influence she hadn't) and, occasionally, Prime Minister Ted Heath, whom she knew as a fellow musician and who was occasionally prepared to listen to her husband talk about Ireland, which King understood historically, but only historically. Ruth would always believe that they could have sorted out Northern Ireland had Heath only done what the Kings told him.

So when the Kings were as fed up with London as London society was with them, they decided to decamp to Ireland, where King – whose father Sir Lucas was Professor of Oriental Languages at Trinity – had been brought up. He was 74 and she 60.

Ruth was initially entranced by the Irish, whom she loved for their spirituality and "kindness, human sympathy, participation, love of conversation" and she sat on boards like the National Concert Hall and put on concerts.

Ruth, who was a thundering snob, would attribute their failure to make friends to a shortage of "our kind of people", but in truth people mostly found King rude and intimidating and Ruth garrulous, boring, humourless and fey. And, since she was completely dictatorial and intolerant, dreadful to work with.

I don't know if she was relying on Haughey to find her a few jobs, but whatever he did was not enough to save Ireland from disillusioning her. By the late Eighties, she wrote in a letter: "IMPOSSIBLE – SO IMPOSSIBLE. They can't even see that one can read their little minds. . . no confidence, picking brains, stealing ideas, knifing each other, jealous of experience – social climbers – 'touchy' – oh, dear. But I don't have to work with them! If I'm of interest, and they need me, I let them USE me and get out in time."

One English relative recalled: "It is difficult to describe the ferocity of Ruth's hatred of Ireland. My memories of outings with her in Dublin are of mortifying embarrassment.

"There was the time at the

Concert Hall when she wheedled her way up to some Irish grandee and asked him to evict a scruffy old woman from the premises. It was predictable that the 'tramp' that Ruth pointed out so viciously was the man's mother."

King died in 1987. With characteristic insensitivity and ignorance, his widow demanded that "that great and good man of peace" Paisley give a reading at the service in St Patrick's Church of Ireland cathedral – something which neither the church authorities nor Paisley himself would ever have contemplated. She then insulted the Church of Ireland authorities by asking if they – who were on close and friendly terms with innumerable members of the Catholic clergy and laity – would be "broadminded" enough to allow her to ask Catholics (whom she assumed they would see as social inferiors) to the service. Amazingly, she dragged Paisley to a service he would have regarded as heretical, where he didn't sit with O Conaill, by then chairman of Republican Sinn Fein.

She left one considerable legacy to Dublin in a magnificent silver-gilt cross in St Patrick's Cathedral commemorating the husband whose life family and friends thought she'd ruined. She settled back in London where she decided there must be a biography of Cecil.

I was chosen because King had liked my biography of Victor Gollancz and I had a white aura and a sensitive Irish soul. When I insisted on writing the book my way, my aura turned black and she did her best to wreck the project. Fortunately, she lasted only until 2001 when she was 85.

"What a crazed old bat she was," wrote my editor when I sent him the report from the archives. "Echoes of notes to Stalin in the eulogy."


Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards