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Lady Mairi Bury of Mount Stewart, socialite

Born: 25 March, 1921, in Mount Stewart, Co Down Northern Ireland. Died: 16 November, 2009, in Mount Stewart, aged 88.

AS DAUGHTER of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry, Mairi Elizabeth Vane-Tempest-Stewart, later to become Lady Mairi Bury through marriage, was born into one of Northern Ireland's most aristocratic families whose ancestors had sailed over from Scotland in the 17th century.

Educated privately by a governess, she "came of age" by being presented to the newly-crowned King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace at the age of 16. She spent her youth mixing or riding with royalty, British or foreign politicians, artists and poets in the magnificent gardens of the family seat, Mount Stewart, above Strangford Lough near Newtonards in Co Down.

She recalled sitting on the knee of the poet WB Yeats when she was just four, when he was a guest at one of her parents' famous parties in the salon her mother called "The Ark" and which became a hub of Irish and British society and a favourite watering hole of Winston Churchill. As a young girl, her father, who served as a government minister in both Ulster and Westminster, taught her to fly and built what is now Newtonards airport for the purpose.

Although she continued to live in the mansion, and died there, Lady Mairi handed the gardens over to the National Trust in 1957 and control of the house in 1977. The estate is now a popular destination for tourists and, until recently, Lady Bury would often emerge from her rooms to chat with visitors and tell them of the difficulties of maintaining such a big house.

She also started the first thoroughbred stud in Northern Ireland and, as a racehorse owner, using the famous colours of her grandfather, Viscount Chaplin, won the Ascot Gold Cup twice with Fighting Charlie in 1965, ridden by Lester Piggott, and 1966, with Greville Starkey up. Her filly Northern Gleam won the Irish 2,000 guineas at the Curragh in 1953 with Ayr native Tommy Burns in the saddle.

Mairi Elizabeth Vane-Tempest-Stewart was born at Mount Stewart on 25 March, 1921, daughter of Sir Charles Stewart Henry Vane- Tempest-Stewart, formerly Viscount Castlereagh who became the seventh Marquess of Londonderry on his father's death. Her mother was Edith Helen Chaplin, daughter of Viscount Henry Chaplin, one of the leading racehorse owners of the late 19th and early 20th century who won the 1867 Derby with Hermit.

Although Edith Chaplin was born in Lincolnshire, she grew up at Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland, on the estate of her maternal grandfather, the third Duke of Sutherland, moving to Northern Ireland after her marriage to Viscount Castlereagh.

Lady Mairi recalls her mother designing and helping build Mount Stewart's gardens along the lines of those she had grown up in at Dunrobin. She used out-of-work ex-servicemen from the First World War to do the heavy work.

Lady Mairi recalled the day she was presented to the new King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth. "I had three white feathers at the back of my head and a train behind my dress. I was then anointed and made to curtsy to the King and Queen. I was glad I didn't fall down."

She also recalled that one of the visitors to Mount Stewart when she was a teenager was Hitler's soon-to-be foreign minister Joaquim von Ribbentrop, who was a guest of her father for four days in 1936. The Marquess of Londonderry had favoured dialogue and friendship with Hitler although, as air minister in the Westminster government, he was also responsible for building up the Royal Air Force during the 1930s, despite growing anti-war sentiment, a stance which would later prove vital during the Battle of Britain.

In the archives at Mount Stewart, there is a letter from Hitler to Lady Bury's mother, the Marchioness of Londonderry, thanking her for "the beautiful Irish roses" she sent back to Berlin with von Ribbentrop.

Mairi Elizabeth was still only 19 when she married Derek William Charles Keppel, Viscount Bury, in 1940, giving her the title Lady Bury. (They divorced in 1958, having had two daughters). She spent the early years of her marriage – the Second World War years – working for the Women's Legion, which her mother had founded during the First World War. "I worked down the docks in London driving pick-ups," she said. "I wouldn't have gone to fight or anything like that, but I was all for women's rights."

Lady Bury's family were traditionally Ulster unionists. In recent years, she was a strong supporter of the Democratic Unionist Party whose leader and Northern Irish first minister Peter Robinson paid tribute to her as "a remarkable woman. In opening Mount Stewart to the public, she gifted to the people of Northern Ireland a beautiful and much-loved attraction, which is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands every year."

Lady Mairi is survived by her daughters Elizabeth and Rose (both ne Keppel).

PHIL DAVISON

 
 
 

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