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New Hibernia Review 10.1 (2006) 46-64
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Autobiography, Heritage Tourism, and Digital Design
In 1995, Samantha Leslie opened her family home in Glaslough, County Monaghan, as a luxury hotel. Situated directly on the border dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic, Castle Leslie was purchased by the "fighting Bishop" John Leslie with funds awarded to him at the Restoration for his part in the overthrow of Cromwell. Unlike many such establishments, the estate has been continually occupied by the family and remains under their direct management. Castle Leslie also flourishes as a web presence centered around fifteen exuberant essays in family history authored by Samantha Leslie's father, the late Desmond Leslie. In these sketches, designed as much for self-expression and literary performance as for hotel advertisement, the distinct features of the Anglo-Irish comic autobiography merge with the protocols of digital design to promote a commercial enterprise dependent on the appeal of heritage tourism. This unusual and elaborate web site provides an opportunity to query the interrelationship of historical representation, literary tradition, web design, and marketing. As it constructs the interpretive frame for a private business that is nevertheless dependent on governmental and European Union restoration funding, it also raises fundamental questions about the ownership of memory in contemporary Ireland.
For many historical and cultural reasons, the life writing of those who have identified themselves as Anglo-Irish abounds with comic self-representations. Most Anglo-Irish autobiography is organized around the twin motifs of family history and property, offering genealogical narratives and emotional evocations of family property as authentication of the claim to belonging in Ireland. With frequently outlandish tales of disorderly descent, domestic discord, and fiscal irresponsibility, the comic autobiography satirizes the very values on which it is structured. A colonial class propped up by its assertions of rational superiority over a majority population characterized as sentimental and superstitious nonetheless divulges its fantastic excesses and affectations in manner and speech. Writers like George Moore, Somerville and Ross, Violet Powell, and [End Page 46] Mary Pakenham delight in exposing the family secrets and unconventional conduct that etched into community memory the strange exploits of one's family. As W. B. Yeats observes, recalling the stories told by servants of local families humble and powerful, "All the well-known families had their grotesque or romantic legends, and I often said to myself how terrible it would be to go away and die where nobody would know my story."1 In many of these "grotesque or romantic legends" that are passed down orally and eventually appear in autobiography and family history, action and speech are so eccentric as to suggest insanity, and satirically reductive accounts of sex, physical functions, and death speak pointedly of the indignity of the body and the fragility of the self.2
The Leslies have long been prolific autobiographers in the comic mode. As Jonathan Swift inscribed in the guestbook of their home,
Here I Am In Castle Leslie
With Rows And Rows Of Books Upon The Shelves
Written By The Leslies
All About Themselves3
In addition to the mass of essays, letters, pamphlets, diaries, and personal sketches produced through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the twentieth century the Leslie family published a great deal of life writing that is deeply serious and at the same time mordantly hilarious. These highly literate, witty, and occasionally sobering autobiographies chronicle their authors' lives within the context of family history and the broader historical framework of their time. Desmond Leslie's father, the critic and biographer Shane Leslie, published his first autobiography in 1918 as well as two more full-length autobiographies and many personal essays before his death in 1971. His uncle Seymour produced two family histories, and his sister, Anita, published two memoirs in addition to numerous biographies of the more famous members of the family.4 [End Page 47]
As a contemporary manifestation of this tradition of literary self-display, family histories dominate the Castle's extensive web site. The general navigation bar guides one not only toward...