John de Courcy, Lord Kingsale

at King's Mead from 1950 - 54 (photo)

Died 15th September 2005

(obituary from the Daily Telegraph, 22nd September 2005)


The 35th Lord Kingsale (by his own reckoning; by others the 28th or 30th), who died on September 15 aged 64, was Premier Baron of Ireland; his varied career included spells as a kitchen fitter, film extra, silage-pit builder, white hunter, plumber, proprietor of a dating agency in Brisbane and bingo caller in Birmingham before he retired on invalidity benefit to sheltered housing in Somerset.

While many daydream of grandeur and riches, John de Courcy's misfortune was to have sprung from a line of noblemen stretching back to at least the 13th century, yet to spend most of his life scrabbling for change down the back of the sofa.

"My main line of work is odd jobs," he admitted in 1985. "I am prepared to lend my hand to absolutely anything, however dirty or unpleasant." But he genially accepted the disparity between his background and his fortunes. For many years he listed "self-deception" as a recreation in Who's Who, "because I consider myself important and nobody else does".

The de Courcys had been a force in Ireland since Miles de Cogan took a leading part in the Norman invasion of Ireland and was granted (with Robert fitz Stephen) the Kingdom of Cork by Henry II.

Lords Courcy of Ringoane and Kinsale sat in the Irish parliament as late as the reign of James VI and I. But the family had a knack of backing the wrong side; its fortunes declined inexorably until, by the beginning of this century, the principal asset of Lord Kingsale was the right (unique in the peerage) to keep his hat on in the presence of the sovereign.

John de Courcy was born on January 27 1941, the son of Lieutenant-Commander Michael de Courcy, who had been killed in action before his son's birth. Young John, though his family estates amounted to a lighthouse in Kinsale which brought in œ180 a year in rent, and the remains of a castle which was around a foot tall at its highest point, was not brought up in crushing poverty.

His mother came from a Yorkshire lanolin oil-distilling family, and he was sent to prep school with the intention that he should proceed to Eton. When he was 12, his half-brother Michael was killed in a flying accident, and John became heir to the barony, to which he succeeded on his grandfather's death in 1969.

In the event, he was educated at Stowe and the Universities of Paris and Salzburg, before taking a short service commission with the Irish Guards. He would have liked to remain in the Army, but the oil business went bust when he was a lieutenant. "When I joined the Brigade of Guards you needed a substantial private income to keep up with your fellow officers in the mess," he later explained. "I felt compelled to leave."

Aged 25, de Courcy drifted into odd jobs as "the easiest way of making money". He worked as a bingo caller in Birmingham, as a lorry driver, and played an Egyptian peasant in Cleopatra, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's film.

The cold snap of 1965 brought him 17 burst pipes and, with no money to pay for a plumber, he was obliged to learn how to fix them himself. It became a reliable standby, and he also did turns as a digger of silage pits, and as a kitchen fitter. His best gig, he thought, was as a "white hunter" at the Duke of Bedford's safari park. He paid Woburn Abbey œ1,000 and made œ2,000 on the first bank holiday, but then the contract was brought in-house.

Kingsale was fond of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and, though he lived in Somerset, drank Black Bush whiskey, explaining that cider burst the veins in his nose. He occasionally turned up to his local, The Lamb Inn at Upton Noble (where he had installed the lavatories in exchange for meals), wearing his ermine-trimmed crimson robes. "I'm a very fat man and they conceal that," he said.

Kingsale once undertook a sponsored slim (losing four stones) in the hope that it would give him a better chance of picking up a wife. Securing a spouse and heir was a constant ambition, consistently thwarted. In 1965 the Daily Express announced that he had become engaged to Caroline Graham Porter, a debutante whom he had met at Cowes Week, but nothing came of it.

After that, Kingsale frequently declared his eagerness to wed but, despite being, as he once put it, "the only middle-aged heterosexual bachelor in a 30-mile radius, which has made me a must for any dinner party", matrimony eluded him. He advertised for a wife on several occasions, and got a letter a day from candidates. In 1989, while working as a wine-waiter and butler for hire at œ25 a night (including washing up), he became optimistic about a "40-plus, leggy blonde of Hampshire naval stock", but was disappointed again.

By the 1990s, his arthritis had curtailed his ability to work, and he was living on income support of œ30 a week, topped up by a mobility allowance. But a book devoted to nouveaux pauvres brought him attention, and work, from newspapers and television. "I have suddenly got a career as a knockabout noble. I find I don't suffer from nerves at all," he said. "All I am concerned about is getting paid."

A French genealogist assured him that he held some 18 titles, but it was a continual source of annoyance that, as an Irish peer, he missed out on sitting in the Lords (and the attendance allowance which went with it).
His most successful enterprises included a dating agency in Brisbane called Banaid, which insisted upon an Aids test from those signing up. It did well (though it could not find Kingsale a bride), but his visa expired after six months and he returned to Britain. He also did reasonably as an online journalist, writing a column called "View from the Peer".

In 1994 he moved into sheltered housing, in a flat which had no telephone, but was dominated by a coal-effect fire, a portrait of Jet from Gladiators, and an aerial photograph of the ruins of his castle. Continued efforts to sell it to a golf club came to nothing.

He voted for the Referendum Party, and was chairman of the National Association for Service to the Realm, which advocated the return of National Service. Just before his death, he signed a contract to write his autobiography.
Lord Kingsale is succeeded by his cousin, Nevinson Mark de Courcy, born in 1958, whose father was a municipal drains' inspector in New Zealand.

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