Dermot Gilleece on the remarkable life and times of John Talbot Clifton
As the 149th Open Championship returns this summer to Royal St George’s, earlier English stagings bring their own, special memories. Like 1996 at Royal Lytham, which created an awareness of John Talbot Clifton, the larger-than-life Squire of Lytham. He it was who raced horses in America’s wild west; had a lengthy affair with Lily Langtry; won his own, personal battle with the Old IRA and was president of Royal Lytham GC from 1890, until his death in 1928.
He died at this time of year having fallen seriously ill in Dakar on the most westerly point in Africa, where he and his wife, Violet, had landed en route to Timbuktu. I learned about him from Dr Steven Reid, who was captain of Royal Lytham when Tom Lehman captured the ’96 Open.
It was said that at the sight of Clifton driving his car over St Thomas’s Bridge in his home place, caddies would hide in the bushes for fear of being hired. Standing 6ft 4ins, he was profligate in the extreme and the subject of some hilarious stories.
‘He was a hell of a big fellow and a bad bugger,’ one particular caddie remarked with feeling. ‘If he drove into the rough, in his rage he grabbed you and shaked you like a rabbit.’ There was an occasion when, after hitting his ball into a pond, he ordered his caddie to ‘Go in and get it.’ Given that he happened to be wearing a new suit, however, the boy refused.
The result was that after the round, all the caddies were called to the pond and ordered to get the ball. And when they declined by way of solidarity with the lad of the Sunday suit, a handful of sovereigns flung into the water brought the required response.
On a trip to the Monterey Peninsula, Clifton rode a horse named Guadeloupe _ ‘he’s a cannibal, but he’s a winner’_ in the first gentlemen’s steeplechase held in California, and after being thrown, he remounted and finished third.
According to The Clifton Chronicle, a book on his family by John Kennedy, the Squire’s horsemanship and fearlessness ‘greatly impressed the San Franciscans’, especially the unprecedented sight of him driving his four-in-hand coach through their streets.
Dick Williamson, a long-time member of Lytham, remembered seeing the Squire drive away in his green Lanchester car with two alsatian dogs chained in the back and bullet-holes in the chassis from his encounter with the IRA. This occurred after he brought Kylemore House, situated close by the famous Abbey, in Connemara.
As a commissioned lieutenant in the RNVR in 1917, he wore naval uniform while patrolling the coasts of Galway and Mayo in his own yacht, on the lookout for German submarines. He and Violet, whom he met in Peru, lived with their five children at Kylemore until 1922 when they were effectively forced to leave.
The book tells us: ‘A car full of armed men had come and taken Talbot’s Lanchester car [a distinguished British marque long since gone]; they said they would return it in a day or so but, as time went on, it became apparent that they had no intention of so doing. Talbot swore to get his car back and when one evening the Lanchester was seen heading on the way to Letterfrack with two men and a woman, he made his preparations to ambush them on their return journey under the cloak of darkness.
The outcome of Talbot’s grand plan was that the car was retrieved after he had shot one of its occupants, Eugene Gilan. When Violet expressed horror at the outcome, the squire informed her: ‘I don’t shoot at a fellow without hitting him and it would have been more awful if he had shot me in the back.’
When I made reference to these events in a piece in the Sunday Independent in January 2008, a remarkable thing happened. My office received a phone message from a certain Sean Connolly from Ennis, saying he had information which might interest me. On eagerly contacting him, he told me a fascinating story.
It so happened that his father was the IRA commander in charge of the episode and was driving the Lanchester on the night in question. Connolly went on to explain that when Gilen was shot by the Squire, he remained sufficiently mobile to escape into the hills. ‘Covered in blood, he made his way down to my grandmother, Molly Kerrigan’s house, in the early hours of the morning,’ he said.
‘And on seeing a light on, probably from a candle or a paraffin lamp, he knocked and asked for help, but was told this wouldn’t be possible because there was a woman inside having a baby. The woman was my mother and the baby was me. The upshot of it was that Gilen had to struggle on for another mile before receiving help in a hotel in Leenaun.
‘The incident was always called the Bluebridge Ambush and when I heard about it as a young lad from my grandmother, I thought the Clifton family name was spelt the same as the town in which I was born, until I saw it in Violet’s book. My father never mentioned it, but it happened on the night I was born, in 1922.’
On April 14th 1922, Violet Clifton received the following letter about the ambush, signed by Michael Kilroy, GOC 4th Western Division IRA: ‘As a result of the shots fired, Captain Eugene Gilan of the Irish Republican Army is now hovering between life and death in Mr McKeown’s Hotel, Leenaun. I am satisfied, from information received, that you also participated in the ambush, and this is to notify you that an armed guard will be placed on your premises and that you, Mrs Clifton, are to leave Connemara before noon, Monday 17th, 1922. Otherwise, other steps will be taken. If you desire to make any statement, it will be necessary for you to come to Castlebar and I promise you a safe conduct.’
On the following day with the aid of nuns, Violet Clifton returned to England. Her husband, meanwhile, had already done a flit via Belfast to Scotland, where he bought the Kildalton Estate of 16,000 acres in Islay. And Gilan survived. In fact he sent word to Clifton some time later that if the Squire ever needed a faithful servant, Gilan was his man.
The affair with Langtry, 16 years older than him, led to some passionate letter-writing, but it wasn’t until 1978 that the affair came to light. One, brief billet-doux read: ‘Dear Mr Clifton, The parasol is found! Thank you very [italics]much for the chocolates; they are my special weakness. Will you come to supper this evening if you are doing nothing better? Yours truly …’
His various adventures around the world would suggest a man either admirably brave or somewhat unhinged, a few cards short of a full deck, you might say. And the story which probably illustrates his profligacy better than any other, concerns the occasion when, on arriving in London and finding himself strapped for cash, he telegraphed his estate office with the message: ‘Send me five thousand pounds.’ When the office replied: ‘Regret no funds available,’ he responded: ‘Sell Lytham.’
There was another occasion when he had as his house guest, a relative to whom he took an intense dislike. Which prompted Talbot to get up in the middle of the night, rush down to an organ in the hallway and begin playing Nearer my God to Thee as loudly as he could, on the trumpet stop.
We’re told that the unfortunate guest was almost blown out of his bed by the sudden cacophony from somewhere below him, and left the house the following morning, pale and shaken.
Talbot Clifton’s body was brought home from Dakar for burial in Islay and only nine years later, it emerged that his heir, Squire Harry Clifton, had sold the Royal Lytham links to the Corporation of Lytham St Anne’s for £20,000. An absorbing, swashbuckling tale had come to a rather tame end.