On This Day – The Bryan Guinness / Bruno Hat hoax – 1929

1929 was quite an eventful year for twenty-four year old, Bryan Guinness. He married one of the most controversial Englishwomen of the twentieth century, and he perpetrated one of the liveliest artistic hoaxes ever seen in London.

Guinness was born, in 1905, with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was an heir to part of the extended family brewing fortune and was also due, at some point, to inherit Daddy’s title and become Lord Moyne. He went to Eton, followed by Oxford, and, was called to the Bar in 1931. So far so predictable. Except for 1929.

When everyone around him was having a meltdown as the value of their shares plummeted after the Wall Street Crash, Bryan was settling into wedded bliss with one of the famous Mitford sisters. Unfortunately, he chose one of the ‘bad uns’, Diana. He might have chosen Debbie, who, instead went on to become a Duchess. Or he could have opted for the obscure Pamela, a great lover of poultry, or Jessica, a campaigning investigative journalist. We won’t talk about Unity—that would have been almost as bad. But, of course, he had to get hitched Diana. Today he could have married the only male sibling, Tom, but in the 1920s that wasn’t really an option.


Now the reason you’ve probably heard of Diana Mitford is not because she married Bryan Guinness, and became Lady Moyne, because she didn’t. She married him all right, but then she took up with the Nigel Farage of the 1930s, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. As there were too many people in the marriage, Bryan wisely decided to drop out of the arrangement. He divorced Diana, who then went on to marry Ozzie, befriend Hitler, and make a complete ass of herself on Desert Island Discs in 1989 by publicly doubting that her mate Adolf had murdered as many as six million Jews, but that’s a whole different story.

Now Bryan and Diana, when they were an item, were on matey terms with the writer Evelyn Waugh. His great comic novel Vile Bodies is dedicated to them. Waugh based the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited on a 1920s dilettante named Brian Howard, an aspiring artist. Howard and Guinness were both part of the London social set of the 1920s known as the ‘Bright Young People’. Both thought it would be a great idea to play a trick on some of the other Bright Young People, who happened to be art critics, by trying to convince them of the boundless talent of an untutored painter they had discovered, with the unlikely name of Bruno Hat. Hat, unlike the useful headgear of the same name, was entirely fictional.


Howard provided the paintings, Guinness came up with the gallery—his own London house. Diana Mitford’s brother Tom was dressed up as the heavily accented Bruno. The catalogue notes for the exhibition, entitled ‘Approach to Hat’ were written by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, in exuberantly pretentious mode, compared Hat to an unschooled Picasso and wrote that:


He is the first natural, lonely, spontaneous flower of the one considerable movement in painting to-day … Bruno Hat is the first signal of the coming world movement towards the creation of Pure Form.


At the opening Bruno was almost exposed when someone addressed him in German, but the fast-thinking Tom Mitford, unlike his siblings Diana and Unity, denounced Germany, and insisted on speaking ‘Englisch’.

The problem was that the paintings weren’t half bad. Only the future Labour MP, Tom Driberg, writing for the Daily Express, didn’t fall for the elaborate hoax. He called it ‘an excellent hat-trick’. Boom boom!

Bryan Guinness, who served as a major in the British Army during World War Two,  became Lord Moyne in 1944 in tragic circumstances. His father, who was working in the Middle East in a diplomatic capacity, was assassinated in Cairo. As the second Lord Moyne, in the 1940s and 50s, he was in the vanguard of the struggle to have the paintings of the Hugh Lane Bequest returned to Dublin, and was instrumental in the negotiation of the 1959 compromise which saw them alternate between Dublin and London.

Bryan Guinness,  Baron Moyne, was born one hundred and twelve years ago, on this day.






On This Day – 20 October 1881 The Land League is outlawed


It began with a renewed threat of famine in the west of Ireland in 1879, and ended when the Irish National Land League proved so successful and annoying, that it was banned by the British government.

The 1870s, like their twentieth century namesake, the 1970s, was not a good decade. It was marked by a financial panic in 1873, followed by a long economic depression. Add to that, three consecutive years of heavy summer rainfall in Ireland, from 1876, and the country’s tenant farmers, especially those in Connaught, were at the end of their tether. Many were staring starvation in the face. Enter Michael Davitt, who, with some help from an aspiring nationalist politician, Charles Stewart Parnell, formed the Land League in October 1879, and began the fightback which became known as the Irish Land War.

This was fought against the ten thousand-strong Irish landlord class, using innovative and legitimate tactics, such as the ‘boycott’, as well as other, less wholesome responses, involving the use of boiling water against bailiffs and policemen coming to evict, or guns against landlords and their agents threatening dispossession. For two years, the country was in a state of uproar, where something that looked very like martial law was in force.

It would be incorrect to see the Land League purely as a widespread rebellion of small tenant farmers, determined to throw off the yoke of quasi-feudalism once and for all. That was only part of the truth. If you look closely at the organisation you will find within its ranks a number of members of the secret and conspiratorial Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had its own separatist agenda. Although the Fenian aristocracy, men like Charles Kickham, saw the Land League as an irritating distraction from revolutionary nationalism, many rank-and-file Fenians were tired of waiting for the Holy Grail of a nationalist uprising, and were happy to be ‘distracted’ by the Land War, even as a hobby. If they couldn’t shoot British soldiers, they could keep their hands in by shooting landlords and their agents. They were, after all, in a phrase popular at the time, the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle.

Then there was Davitt himself, the ex-Fenian, who generally carried a gun, against the day that some of the more doctrinaire of his former comrades, might decide to shoot him. He gave them even more reasons for doing so when he began to espouse land nationalisation, taking rather too literally for most, the slogan of the agrarian movement ‘the land for the people’. Davitt, a committed socialist, chose to interpret the phrase as meaning that, after the landlords were dispossessed, the land of Ireland would belong to ALL the people, not just those currently working it as tenant farmers.

At the other extreme were the Land League supporters, many in executive positions at local level, who had never walked behind a plough or a cow in their lives. These were the shopkeepers and merchants of rural Ireland, based in the towns and villages. They tended to be supportive of the notion of rent strikes. This was because, given the inadequate resources of the average tenant farmer, especially in the straitened times of the 1870s, he would be unable to pay his bill at the local store and his landlord as well. So, the shopkeepers had a simple solution. Forget about paying rent to the landlord, pay for the goods you’ve been buying on tick from us instead.

Half way through the Land War, the Tory government of Benjamin Disraeli had been replaced by a Liberal administration led by William Gladstone. Gladstone had done his best to placate Irish tenants by disestablishing the Church of Ireland (a major landlord in its own right) and passing a major Land Act in 1870. But his best wasn’t good enough for Parnell, Davitt and the Land League. Eventually, in October 1881, a totally fed-up Gladstone brought in new legislation that allowed him to arrest the leaders of the agrarian agitation, and throw them in jail, without the formality of a trial. This he duly did, after first banning the Land League. Before his arrest Parnell had made a prediction, that, if he was incarcerated, his place at the helm of proceedings would be taken by someone he called, graphically, ‘Captain Moonlight’. There was, of course, no such person. It was a euphemism for the violence wrought by rural secret societies, many of them armed by sympathetic Fenians.

Parnell proved to be right. The Land War merely intensified. The murder rate soared. Gladstone was forced to come to terms in May 1882. After the deal was done Parnell made no shift to revive the Land League in its previous form. He had new Home Rule fish to fry. The cause of the tenant farmer had become a ‘distraction’. Now where had we heard that one before?

The Irish National Land League was outlawed by the Liberal government of William Gladstone, after barely two years in existence, one hundred and thirty-six years ago, on this day.



‘On This Day 2’ hits the shops just in time for …


It’s here! – two more years worth of RTE

Drivetime’s  ‘On This Day’ feature.


More than one hundred stories from Irish history and the Irish diaspora – almost all of them accurate, many of them stranger than fiction.

Only one is completely fabricated – and it shouldn’t take too long to figure out which one. (Hint – just check the date of transmission)

Cheap and cheerful in a bookstore near you.

Thanks to all at New Island Books.



On This Day – 13 October 1928 The Dublin Gate Theatre Company produces its first play


It’s been on the go for almost ninety years, yet it only acquired its third artistic director six months ago. It is indelibly associated with the Rotunda Hospital complex but actually began its life on the premises of its great rival, the Abbey.

The Gate Theatre has survived for nearly nine decades mostly, but not always, complementing the work of the National Theatre on Abbey Street. But there were times when it looked highly likely to become an artistic casualty rather than an outstanding success.

The Gate actually opened its doors in 1928 in the Peacock Theatre, little sister to Abbey, under the guidance of the great theatrical and life partners, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir. Both, as it happens, born in London, around the beginning of the twentieth century.


MacLiammóir was actually Alfred Willmore, once a child actor working with Noël Coward. He later toured Ireland, with his brother-in-law, Anew McMaster’s company. He fell in love with the country—and with fellow actor Hilton Edwards, whom he met while performing in the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford—and decided to remain. He gaelicised his name, and learned to speak Irish better than most natives. He also made an—as yet unsubstantiated—claim to have had a sexual relationship with Ireland’s premier fascist, the Blueshirt leader Eoin O’Duffy. It could be true, but then MacLiammóir also had a mischievous and iconoclastic sense of humour.

Edwards and MacLiammóir were intent on bringing the best of European theatre to Dublin. The work of major playwrights like Ibsen and Strindberg was produced, first on the Peacock stage, starting with Peer Gynt in 1928. After some months in Abbey Street the company moved to Cavendish row, north of O’Connell Street, and occupied a building on the Rotunda Hospital campus. There the architect Michael Scott helped create the Gate’s compact and iconic home. The theatre seats just under four hundred.

One of the most enthusiastic early supporters of the venture was the corpulent old Etonian, Edward Pakenham, Sixth Earl of Longford, himself a playwright. He became Chairman of the theatre in 1930 and helped raised the funds that kept it alive. Longford could often be found patrolling from Parnell Square to O’Connell Street with a collection box actively seeking funds.

Despite the fame of its founders, and the fact that James Mason and Michael Gambon began their careers at the theatre, there is little doubt that the most distinguished Gate alumnus was Orson Welles, who conned his way into the 1931 production of Jew Suss, as a precocious sixteen year-old. He told Edwards he was an established Broadway star, and, sixty years before the internet, it was enough to get him a successful audition. He was forced back to the USA after a year, because he couldn’t get a work permit to stay. How different theatre and film history might have been had he been allowed remain in Dublin.


Welles continued his association with MacLiammóir and Edwards after his later Hollywood success, working on a number of projects with them, and casting MacLiammóir as Iago in his film production of Shakespeare’s Othello in 1952.

MacLiammóir died in 1978. Hilton Edwards survived him by four years, but by then the Gate had lost its way. It was probably rescued from oblivion by the arrival, as second artistic director, of the supremely self-confident and ebullient—some might even say brash—Michael Colgan, in 1983. During Colgan’s three decades as the Gate’s entrepreneur-in-chief the theatre has often overshadowed the Abbey, and has forged alliances with major dramatists like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. In April of this year Colgan handed over the reins to Artistic Director Number three, Selina Cartmell.

The Gate Theatre opened its doors for the first time, for a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, eighty-nine years ago, on this day.