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Fairytale Princess Grace dreamed of Mayo roots

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The ancestral home of Princess Grace in Drimurla, Newport.?
The ancestral home of Princess Grace in Drimurla, Newport.

Fairytale Princess Grace dreamed of Mayo roots

The visit of Prince Albert to Newport this week has evoked memories of the tangible connection between west Mayo and royalty of Monaco

Áine Ryan

IT is a fairytale story that ended in tragedy. She was a beautiful princess, in the prime of her life. And for 25 years she lived in an idyllic world near the shores of the Mediterranean, in the magical Principality of Monaco. Then, on that terrible day – September 14, 1982 – while driving along a cliff edge on the opulent Riviera, a sudden stroke caused her to crash her British Rover 3500. The blonde beauty was in a coma and dead within a day.
Grace Kelly, Princess consort of Monaco, had led a charmed life. She married her handsome prince, had three beautiful children, Caroline, Albert and Stephanie, and was rich and famous, with admirers all over the world. It was the stuff of dreams.
But there was one dream left unfulfilled when the Oscar-winning former Hollywood actress met her untimely death, just two months before her 53rd birthday.
This dream would have brought her far from the bejeweled lifestyle to which she was accustomed. It too would have transported her across an ocean from the affluent home in which she was brought up in the US city of Philadelphia.
Now 50 years after she first retraced the furrows of her paternal forebears, her only son, Prince Albert 11 of Monaco, is making a State visit to Ireland.
Grace Patricia Kelly’s paternal grandfather, John Kelly was among the millions of desperate and impoverished emigrants that fled the western shores of Ireland in the decades after the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.
Just two years after John Kelly fled the repressive political and economic yoke of medieval landlordism in 1887, the famous agrarian activist, Michael Davitt founded the Land League in the nearby town of Castlebar.
However, her grandfather’s legacy of hard work meant that Grace’s father, Jack, became one of Philadelphia’s leading builders, after he established a very successful company, called Kelly for Brickworks.
Indeed, Jack’s prowess was not only proven by his business acumen, he also won a gold medal in sculling in the 1920 Olympics.  Whether it is an urban myth or not, this victory was all the sweeter, according to the colourful Jack, because he claimed he was earlier excluded from the Henley Regatta because he was the son of a poor, immigrant father. Jack ultimately became a millionaire and ran as a Democratic candidate for the Mayor of Philadelphia in 1935.
At this time, Grace, aged 7, was already aware of her heritage, attending regular  Irish dancing classes and weekly Mass. However, she did rebel against her parents’ wishes when she left for New York to pursue a career in acting.   
She enjoyed meteoric success in her short acting career, during which she starred alongside James Stewart (Rear Window), Clarke Gable (Mogambo) and Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder).
The many plaudits culminated in a 1955 Oscar for Best Actress in The Country Girl. By the following year, however, Grace, aged just 27, had succumbed to the charms of Prince Rainier Grimaldi of Monaco. She had first met him the previous year while attending the Cannes Film Festival.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement in 1956 that Prince Rainier Grimaldi would marry the descendant of an Irish emigrant ignited bonfires all over west Mayo. Kellys from the village of Drummin, at the foot of holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, to Drimurla, near Newport, were quickly on the heritage trail, claiming their royalty rights.
After much searching of local genealogy records, the then editor of The Mayo News and Newport native, the late Gerard Bracken, was able to confirm that Grace’s grandfather, John Peter Kelly was born and raised in a tiny cottage in Drimurla and had emigrated to the US in 1887.
Bracken forwarded the details to Monaco and, five years later, there was much excitement in County Mayo when a State visit by the Prince and Princess of Monaco was announced for June 1961.
Despite much scepticism in both the national and international Press, and following representations by Newport residents, it was revealed that Newport, and the old family homestead, would be on the royal itinerary.
After a four-day State visit,  during which the couple and two of their children, Caroline and Albert, were received by President Eamon De Valera, Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken and the Council of State at Áras an Uachtaráin, the Royal entourage set off for the west.
They travelled in the grey Humber car of Lord Killanin, the Irish Consul-General to Monaco. All along the route, from Dublin to historic Ashford Castle, in Cong, County Mayo, crowds of people lined the roads. There were bonfires and bunting, flags and flowers as the celebrity caravan snaked across the country to the 13th century castle where they would stay for the next five days.
When the party stopped in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel in Athlone for afternoon tea, while the adults relaxed, the two children played on a swinging garden seat in the rose garden. However, when Albert kicked his older sister Caroline, she was quickly lifted by her nurse, Maureen King, and taken back to her mother in the hotel. Minutes later three year-old Albert slipped in the grass but his father was on hand to comfort him.
Then, as the cavalcade left Athlone to cross the Shannon, a crowd of around 3,000 jostled for the best views. As they progressed the official escort was forced to slow down on several occasions to negotiate through the jubilant crowds. In Tuam, County Galway, a local school band played “Kelly, the Boy from Killane”. While it is unlikely the John Kelly, for whom the song celebrates, was a relative, since he hailed from Wexford, the lyrics undoubtedly held a resonance for Grace since he was a hero of the United Irish rebellion of 1798.
It is unlikely that the picturesque village of Cong – despite the earlier filming there of the classic John Wayne movie, The Quiet Man – had ever witnessed such a large garda presence. It  included members of the Special Branch who were instructed to prioritise the security of the children and the princess’s valuable jewellery.
Of course, the highlight of Grace’s visit had to be when, on the following day, the royal party visited the tiny three-roomed cottage in which her grandfather was born and reared.
At the time an elderly woman known locally as the Widow Mulchrone owned the old Kelly homestead, which was situated down a rambling boreen on the edge of the Leg of Mutton lake, and off the main road from Newport to county town, Castlebar.
For weeks preparations had been made for the special royal visit of June 15 1961. The roof was newly thatched, the hedges cut and the pathway sanded. Dressed in black, and wearing her finest apron, the widow had spent the morning baking griddle cakes and polishing the glassware and good china. Up in “the good room”, which doubled up as the widow’s bedroom, she set the tables with six cups and saucers and bedecked it with a selection of cakes and soda bread. Back in the kitchen a big black kettle hung boiling and hissing over the open fire. According to lore, the widow regaled the royal visitors with stories and, at one point, ordered an on-duty policeman to “wet another cup of tay, the prince could murder another drop”. She even recited a special poem to mark the occasion, which she dubbed the most important day of her life.
The following day, Grace went deep-sea fishing in Clew Bay and reeled in the first catch, a four-pound dogfish, at the annual International Fishing Festival. Later she escaped the bobbing flotilla of international paparazzi and sailed off in blustery conditions aboard the Finnaun to nearby Inishcuttle Island to visit her relative, boat-builder Paddy Quinn.
Whether it was  during her many meetings with her relatives during this sentimental maiden journey or later during quiet, reflective times in her regal principality, Grace was clearly smitten by her peasant roots. Sadly her father, Jack, could not share this discovery with his daughter as he had passed away the year before, in 1960.
Poignantly, when the Prince and Princess returned in October 1976, Grace had already purchased the old family homestead and 35 acres of lands for £7,500. In the interim, she had sent the Widow Mulchrone a Christmas Card each year and went to see her in the MacBride Home for the Elderly on this occasion.
This second visit was more low-key and Grace revealed that she thoroughly enjoyed the quiet informality she was accorded by locals when she called to the shops in Newport and had her hair set at Margaret Ginnelly’s salon. She also spent time at the convent of the Sisters of St Lucy and attended Mass in the parish church, where afterwards she admired the Harry Clarke stained-glass window, depicting, The Last Judgment.
The royal couple returned one last time in 1979 to examine architectural plans for a holiday home at Drimurla. Grace had already instructed the architect, Simon Kelly, about the design of the holiday home and the landscaping of the lands, which were to include large clusters of trees for both enjoyment and privacy.
On that occasion, the local choir entertained the couple in Newport House, with such songs as Danny Boy. 
Sadly, Grace’s tragic death three years later, in September 1982, scuppered her dreams. Over the following decades a number of initiatives were mooted and planned for both the old homestead and to honour the dead princess’s Newport heritage. None of them has come to fruition though.
Ironically, among those involved was the present Taoiseach and Mayo man, Enda Kenny. When he was Minister for Tourism and Trade in 1996, he confirmed his department would give a ‘fair hearing’ to proposals to restore the ancestral home. The previous year the Grimaldi family said they were prepared to consider suitable plans and proposals for the restoration and long-term protection of the homestead. Minister Kenny suggested that local interests would be pivotal to the project.
Before her only son, Prince Albert II of Monaco made his historic visit, he may well have perused and briefed himself in the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco. It is filled with the princess’s personal collection of valuable Irish books and Irish-American sheet music and was opened by Rainier III in 1984 to honour her Irish heritage.
The sudden death of Grace Patricia Kelly in 1982 devastated the people of Newport.  For the tightly-knit community, it was like a death in the family. Their dreams of having their very own princess were shattered. To honour her, they picked a bouquet of wild flowers from the fields around Drimurla and sent it to her funeral in Monaco.
Today, as the gables of her ancestral cottage sink back into the ground, the wild flora and fauna of this dramatically beautiful place whisper and echo the unfulfilled dreams of a much-beloved princess.