(by Declan Quaile)
(First published in our Review 2007 journal)
Helen Evelyn Vida Haslam was born in London on 1st March 1894 and was called Vida by her family. Her father was Lewis Haslam (1856-1922), a manufacturer born in Bolton who later entered politics, becoming a Liberal MP for Monmouth and Newport, Wales. He married Helen Dixon (born 1860 in Oxfordshire) in April 1893. In the 1901 census Lewis Haslam describes himself as a cotton spinner with an address in Cranley Gardens, Kensington, London. Vida had a younger sister, Lilian Viola Haslam, who was born in July 1897.
In 1916, during the First World War, Vida enlisted in the Voluntary Aid Detachment behind the frontline in France. After the war, on 7th October 1919, Vida married Joseph Lentaigne at Brompton Oratory London. Joseph was a Barrister at Law, who worked in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) and whose family came from Tallaght House, Co. Dublin.1 The couple travelled to Burma after the wedding where Joseph worked for the British administration there. Joseph had fought in the First World War with the Ghurkhas and even brought a Ghurkha batman with him to Burma.
On 7th September 1921 a daughter Helen Phyllis Mary Josephine (JoJo) was born in Burma. Tragically Vida’s husband Joseph died from the effects of cholera on 9th September 1921, only two days after the birth of his daughter. Vida was devastated but followed her husband's wishes and journeyed to Ireland in December 1921 to bring up her young daughter there.
Vida Lentaigne established herself in Ireland and bought the house and lands of the Smyth family at Newtown, outside Termonfeckin sometime in the 1920s.2 “A vast house in rural Ireland, a young widow trying to do the right thing, a string of French governesses and a thoroughly rebellious, creatively gifted and stubborn daughter.” Jojo spent her formative years with her mother in Newtown House, until she left Ireland for London around 1940.
During her tenure at Newtown, Vida Lentaigne relied on the good council of Mr. Stanley Matthews from Mount Hanover, Co. Meath, who visited her regularly, and assisted her with various problems and situations which had arisen.
The first branch in Ireland of the United Irishwomen (U.I.) was established in Termonfeckin in November 1929 (founded as the ‘United Irishwomen’ in 1910). Mrs Lentaigne cleared a large basement room in Newtown to allow U.I. branch meetings and later Irish Countrywomen’s Association (I.C.A.) guild meetings to be held. The basement was later converted into a kitchen area where Mrs. Walsh of Rath gave cookery classes. From 1933 on, Mrs Lentaigne allowed the newly constituted I.C.A. to use Newtown House as a venue for the first of their Summer Schools.
She was also a founding director of Country Workers Ltd in 1930, which was set up to encourage and promote local craft working. The Country Shop (founded in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin in 1930) held its first exhibition of country crafts in October 1933. The Termonfeckin branch exhibited a varied collection of crafts which included handmade gloves, willow baskets, footballs, knitting, bottled fruits, vegetables and jams. Glove-making was also a speciality of the branch and the ‘Tarmon glove’ was highly sought after. It is recounted that glove-making classes were carried on at Newtown on Tuesday afternoons from 2 to 3 p.m. She also helped finance and encourage the art of basket-making and leatherwork in the village, which specialised in making leather footballs, the ‘tube and case’ for the GAA.
Basket making was also introduced with Mrs Lentaigne bringing some English basket-makers over to teach the craft. The first to be taught locally were a Mr Fleming and Mr Brennan.
Mrs. Lentaigne threw herself wholeheartedly into the life of the community. She was a generous employer and had at least six girls working in the house, five people were employed in the garden, and over twenty men worked on the 400 acre farm; her foreman for many years being Patrick Gorman of Yellow Gap, while Bill Reilly was her chauffer. In her time at Newtown she had 7,000 trees planted around the estate, doubling what had been previously been there.
With the assistance of Mrs Thunder of Blackhall and other local women she arranged festive events for local children, particularly at Christmas, when a Christmas tree would be cut down and taken from Newtown and erected in the parochial hall.
Vida Lentaigne (1894-1976) pictured with Harry Synnott at a prize giving event in Termonfeckin c1940
(Photo courtesy of Anthony Synnott)
She also allowed the use of her land at Sheepeston on the Seapoint Road for sporting occasions, and was instrumental in establishing sports days there in 1928, 1929 (where her mother helped her with presentation of prizes) and 1930, and later during the 1940s when Gaelic football matches was played by St Fechin’s teams.
Despite her busy domestic schedule Vida Lentaigne entered local politics in the 1930s and was elected as a councillor onto Louth County Council in 1934, running for the United Ireland Party. She is noted as being on the library committee in May 1935 and in 1941 she voiced her concerns over the food voucher scheme which operated during the Second World War. She was Honorary Secretary of the Termonfeckin Nursing Association and read the report at its first A.G.M. in January 1939. She was also a committee member of the Louth Board of Health for some years until the autumn of 1941. With a continuation of her political work ethic she was instrumental in having the Newtown cottages approved and built by Louth Co. Council in the late 1930s. She bowed out of politics in 1942 by not allowing her name be put forward in the local elections of that year.
In late 1939 Mrs. Lentaigne was instrumental in bringing around a dozen Catholic refugees from Vienna in Austria, following that country’s annexation by Germany. Through her involvement with the Catholic Refugee Committee and her contacts in London she gave these refugees temporary lodgings at Newtown until they moved on to Dublin, to a house at 17 Upper Pembroke St., which she had bought early in 1940 as meeting place for Austrian refugees in Ireland. It came to be called ‘The Vienna Club’. All of the refugees had left Newtown by early 1941, save one, who worked locally until he left for Dublin in February 1945.
Mrs. Lentaigne, who lived mainly in England from 1942, put Newtown House and estate up for auction on 30th May 1945, with the Irish Tourist Board subsequently acquiring it for £15,000. The following year she returned to Ireland and bought a farm at Ballincarrig, Brittas Bay, Co. Wicklow, calling it ‘Strangers Folly’. She eventually put the farm up for sale in May 1956 and returned to live in London again.
She died at Hendon, north-west London on the 9th April 1976. Requiem mass was held in St Mary of the Angels Church, Notting Hill Gate. After her death she had her body donated to St. Bartholomew’s hospital, London.