John Adair and William Maquay

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Letters, Volume 23

Sir,—In his article on John Adair (HI 22.6, Nov./Dec. 2014), Raymond Blair rightly draws attention to the value of the Maquay diaries in the British Institute of Florence. But do they really support the thesis that William Maquay was actually Adair’s child?

In October 1843, when Adair arrived in Florence, aged 20, to stay with his father’s cousin, John Maquay, his host was just 52 and his Italian wife Elena 37. Their last child had been born on Christmas Day 1838, but Elena had recently (1 August 1843) had a miscarriage. That marital relations continued is indicated by her husband’s acceptance of the pregnancy that produced William. On 31 December 1844 he noted: ‘Elena not at all well & fearing at one time she was going to give me a New Year’s gift as she did a Christmas Box in 1838’. On 21 January 1845 she expected her confinement ‘hourly’; William was born on the 28th, clearly not premature. His conception can reasonably be placed around 16–23 April 1844, even perhaps a few days earlier. On 11 April 1844, Adair returned to Florence from a trip to Naples and Rome, with a sore throat and swollen neck. Evidently he rapidly got to work with Elena—or perhaps not.

Later diary entries only really support the thesis if it has already been espoused. For example, in late August 1845 John Maquay wrote that they ‘were surprised by seeing John Adair walk in having come from Marseilles to have a peep at us on his way from the Pyrenees to the Tyrol’. In those days, before telegrams and telephones, such unexpected appearances were far from uncommon and Maquay records several others. Adair looks like a wealthy young man footloose in Europe, and his kinsman saw nothing odd in his itinerary; was he really eager to see his child and his ‘lover’? Maquay finally left Florence in May 1858. Elena, now in her fifties, went ahead of him in 1857 to put William to school in Ireland. She stayed with Adair (and his father George, who lived until 1873) at Bellegrove, his Queen’s County estate, while a house was readied for the Maquays. Was this suspicious?

Adair made provision in his will for William to inherit a fortune on condition that he took the name Adair, as childless gentry sometimes did when they saw their bloodline and name on the point of extinction. William would have been a suitable candidate simply as a younger kinsman, but the provision did not take effect, as Adair’s wife Cornelia survived him. Adair was not, it seems, unconditionally determined to provide for him.

Without DNA testing there can be no certainty, but the problem here is of historical methodology: ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ (there were admittedly rumours current in the 1880s) versus Occam’s razor (‘let us not multiply hypotheses’). John Adair was a nasty piece of work, but because a man cheats at cards it does not follow that he murdered his grandmother (or vice versa). To judge solely by the diaries, Adair inherited a regard for John Maquay, even a sense of obligation to him, and treated him and his family accordingly. There is comfort here for his enemies. In Adair’s view the Maquays and the Derryveagh tenants virtually belonged to different species. The Maquays were his own kind; the tenantry belonged in their box. In this, the Derryveagh evictor evinced attitudes that have notoriously bedevilled Irish history.—Yours etc.,

DIANA & TONY WEBB

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