Culture, carnality and cash: the Florentine adventures of John George Adair

Published in Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Volume 22

Glenveagh Castle, Co. Donegal, located in such a glorious setting, remains as a testimony to Adair’s refined tastes. (Glenveagh National Park)

Glenveagh Castle, Co. Donegal, located in such a glorious setting, remains as a testimony to Adair’s refined tastes. (Glenveagh National Park)

John George Adair (1823–85) gained notoriety as a cruel landlord because of the Derryveagh evictions carried out on his estate in County Donegal in April 1861. The eviction of 244 people, including many women and children, is regarded as one of the worst excesses of Irish landlordism. Announcing his death, the Derry Journal asserted that ‘Who speaks but good of the dead need never name John George Adair’.

The Donegal aspect of Adair’s life was thoroughly explored by Liam Dolan in his Land war and eviction in Derryveagh (1960). Subsequently, W.E. Vaughan in his witty Sin, sheep and Scotsmen (1983) placed the Derryveagh evictions in the wider context of landlord–tenant relations. He also analysed Adair’s dealings as a land speculator elsewhere in Ireland and alluded to his ownership of a large cattle ranch in Texas. Robert Spiegelman further developed this American angle on Adair in two art-icles in the Donegal Annual in 2007/8.

John George Adair c. 1880. (Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Texas)

John George Adair c. 1880. (Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Texas)

All of these scholars have contributed to building up a fairly complete—and rather unflattering—portrait of John George Adair. A fuller understanding of Adair has come to light, however, as a result of research conducted in the British Institute Library in Florence. The Maquay archive, consisting of the diaries and correspondence of an Anglo-Irish banking family based in Florence, reveals the important role of that city in Adair’s life. Florence, as will be seen, not only enriched Adair culturally and provided him with opportunities for carnal indulgence but also gave him the expertise ne-cessary to become one of the most successful businessmen of his era.

Culture
Vaughan perceptively suggested that Adair, in purchasing the estates in Donegal, might have been motivated not primarily by economic calculations but by his aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of the landscape. Adair himself stated, in the course of the controversy over the Derryveagh evictions, that he had purchased the property four years previously because he had been ‘enchanted by the surpassing beauty of the scenery’. Moreover, Charles Gavan Duffy, who had known Adair in the 1840s, described him (in his book My life in two hemispheres) as ‘a cultured young squire’.

The British Institute Library (centre), also known as the Harold Acton Library, Florence, which holds the diaries of John Leland Maquay. (Alyson Price)

The British Institute Library (centre), also known as the Harold Acton Library, Florence, which holds the diaries of John Leland Maquay. (Alyson Price)

The Maquay archive helps us to identify one key to Adair’s cultured outlook. Florence had been the epicentre of Renaissance art and culture and his numerous visits there enabled Adair to refine his aesthetic sensibilities. Admittedly, Maquay’s diary records that Adair spent a lot of time attending balls, tea parties and the like. A typical entry is that of 9 November 1843: ‘We drank tea at Keir’s and John Adair went afterwards to a ball given by Lord Ward’. There are even two entries recounting the fact that Adair went to a Miss Harding for lessons in waltzing!

On the other hand, Maquay’s diary tells how Adair attended opera and ballet, not only in Florence but also in Rome. On one occasion Adair and Maquay went along to the Apollo in Rome to ‘hear Fazzolini perform in the Beatrice di Tenda’ (24 January 1844). During his 1857 visit, Adair went for an overnight stay to the beautiful woodland seclusion of Vallombrosa on the outskirts of Florence. It is even possible that the woodland beauty of Glenveagh in Donegal (which he purchased the following year) reminded him of Vallombrosa. At the very least, this excursion to Vallombrosa points to the appreciation that Adair had for beautiful and secluded landscapes.

His taste of Florentine culture also seems to have influenced him in his redesign of the family residence in Queen’s County from the 1850s onward. Originally named ‘Bellegrove’, he renamed it ‘Rathdaire’ and its architecture and landscaping were heavily influenced by Italian designs. It is a pity that Rathdaire was burned down accidentally in 1887, two years after Adair’s death, and the glory of its Italian architecture lost to posterity. Nevertheless, Glenveagh Castle in Donegal, located in such a glorious setting, remains as a testimony to his refined tastes.

Rathdaire House, Queen’s County, which burned down accidentally in 1887, two years after Adair’s death. Its architecture and landscaping were heavily influenced by Italian designs. (Robert Speigelman)

Rathdaire House, Queen’s County, which burned down accidentally in 1887, two years after Adair’s death. Its architecture and landscaping were heavily influenced by Italian designs. (Robert Speigelman)

Carnality

Vaughan and Speigelman refer in passing to the role played in the 1880s by William Henry Plunkett Maquay, the reputed son of John Leland Maquay, as an intermediary between Adair and his business partner, Charles Goodnight, in the running of the Texan ranch. William’s involvement could be accounted for by the simple fact that, as the fourth and youngest son of John Leland Maquay, he was acting in a business capacity for a close friend of his late father. There may have been more to it, however: was William Maquay actually an illegitimate son of John George Adair?

Charles Gavan Duffy, who had known Adair in the 1840s, described him in My life in two hemispheres as ‘a cultured young squire’. (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin, caoimhghin@yahoo.com)

Charles Gavan Duffy, who had known Adair in the 1840s, described him in My life in two hemispheres as ‘a cultured young squire’. (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin, caoimhghin@yahoo.com)

Various pieces of evidence support the view that William had been conceived as the result of an illicit affair between Adair and Elena Maquay (née Gigli), the Tuscan-born wife of John Leland Maquay. First of all, there was a rumour circulating in the 1880s that William was Adair’s illegitimate son. William Hagan refers to this rumour in his recent biography of Charles Goodnight. Secondly, in a scurrilous account of the Derryveagh incident, Glenveigh, or, The victims of vengeance, published in Boston in 1870 by an Irish-born American, Patrick Sarsfield Cassidy, the claim is made that a bastard son of Adair, named ‘Bob’, was implicated in the murder of Adair’s steward. Vaughan referred to this claim and dismissed it because no evidence had been found for the existence of such a son. Undoubtedly, Cassidy’s account is fictitious in many respects and his explanation of the murder untenable, but he may have been on to something when he claimed that Adair had an illegitimate son. Thirdly, when Adair made his will, it specified that if he outlived his wife Cornelia (whom he had married in 1867) then William Maquay would inherit the bulk of his property, but only on the condition that he add ‘Adair’ to his surname.

In the light of these hints, a close examination of the diary of John Leland Maquay yields strong grounds for believing that, unknown to her husband, Elena and John George did have an affair and that William Maquay was the fruit of it. William Maquay was born in January 1845 and there are many instances in John Leland’s diary of John George and Elena spending time on their own, riding, driving or walking together in the months of April–June 1844. Moreover, having left Florence in July 1844, Maquay records a surprise return by Adair in August 1845. It is highly likely that his later visits to the city were at least partly inspired by the desire to see his illegitimate son and his lover. On a visit to Ireland in the mid-1850s, it is noteworthy that Elena again spent time on her own with John George at his Queen’s County seat.

In the absence of an open confession on the part of Elena or John George, or a claim to that effect by William Maquay, certainty about his paternity is not achievable. Maquay himself does not seem to have had any suspicions, as he remained on good terms with the young man. Indeed, upon Adair’s departure from Florence on 29 July 1844, John Leland wrote of him fondly:

He was of very excellent disposition, a young man with no defects of moment and we are sorry to lose him as he appeared to have become almost one of the family’.

The other evidence suggests, however, that John George Adair may deserve to be despised for the betrayal of his kind benefactor almost as much as he deserves infamy for the Derryveagh evictions.

Cash
Adair’s Florentine connections may also hold one of the keys to solving the puzzle of how he was able to finance his land transactions from the 1850s onwards. Vaughan outlined the large scale of those transactions both in Ireland and America and rightly identified mortgages from a variety of sources as accounting for much of the capital available to Adair. He acknowledged, however, that Adair must have had access to some other resources. One of these was probably through his marriage to the rich widow Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie, who came from a prosperous New York family. Speigelman, however, is rather sceptical about the extent of her fortune.

The Florentine archive points to other sources of this cash and capital. Allusion has already been made to the sugar plantations belonging to John Adair, which John George’s father had inherited in 1839. These plantations were valued in total at c. £10,000 and therefore could have given a considerable boost to the economy of the Adair clan. Then again, the close connection with the Maquay banking firm was likely to have been advantageous to John George Adair in the development of his career as a speculator. It is known that John Leland Maquay acted as the mortgagee in three of Adair’s land transactions. In addition to this, Adair may well have acquired some financial expertise from the Maquays that he later put to such profitable use. More than that, the Maquay connection may also explain why Adair apparently opened a lucrative loan office in New York in 1866. The details about this loan office remain elusive. In the Maquay diaries there are references to a notable American banker named James Clinton Hooker who became a partner in the Roman branch of Maquay’s bank. Therefore, through either Hooker or some other American agent linked to the bank, Adair’s New York venture was probably no leap in the dark but a logical outcome of his association with the Maquays.

Conclusion
The Maquay archive is of great historical value for many reasons. It provides a basis for a fascinating study of the sizeable Anglo-Irish community inhabiting Florence in the nineteenth century; it raises interesting questions about the extent of Irish involvement in West Indian sugar plantations; and it certainly adds a new dimension to our understanding of John George Adair. Vaughan allowed for the possibility that Adair’s purchases in Donegal ‘were prompted by an altruistic romanticism’. The Florentine evidence confirms that he was not a crude philistine but a highly cultured man genuinely enchanted by the ‘surpassing beauty’ of the Donegal landscape. Unhappily, he did not find the behaviour of the Donegal tenants so appealing!

Vaughan stated that, as the son of a relatively modest landholder, Adair was at first sight an unlikely land speculator. The Maquay archive shows, however, how natural it was for him to have become a successful international businessman. The Florentine dimension to his life, as well as providing him with fun and frolics, propagated the entrepreneurial flair of John George Adair.

Raymond Blair is a native of Stranorlar and an active member of the County Donegal Historical Society.

Read More:The Maquay Connection

Further reading

L. Dolan, Land war and eviction in Derryveagh 1840–65 (Dundalk, 1980).
W.T. Hagan, Charles Goodnight: father of the Texas Panhandle (Norman, 2011).
R. Spiegelman, ‘The Adairs of Donegal: towards a transatlantic game plan’ (2 parts), Donegal Annual (2007 & 2008).
W.E. Vaughan, Sin, sheep and Scotsmen: John George Adair and the Derryveagh evictions, 1861 (Belfast, 1983).

The author acknowledges the assistance of Alyson Price, archivist of the British Institute Library, Florence.

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