Cuffe, Hamilton John Agmondesham (1848–1934), 5th earl of Desart , civil servant and politician, was born 30 August 1848 at Richmond, Surrey, the third child and second son of Otway O'Connor Cuffe, 3rd earl of Desart (d. 1865), MP (1842), Irish representative peer (1846–65) and Conservative junior minister (1852), and his wife, Elizabeth Lucy (d. 1898), the daughter of John Frederick Campbell, 1st earl of Cawdor. In 1876 the family owned 8,932 acres in counties Kilkenny and Tipperary. Cuffe's granddaughter Iris Origo later remarked that his life was marked by a combination of financial constraints with aristocratic privileges and family connections (as well as an aristocratic sense of public duty) which he took as a matter of course.
Early years and education
Much of Cuffe's early childhood was spent at Desart House, for which he developed a lasting affection; he always regarded it as his home. After attendance at prep schools at Harrow Weald (run by Rev. Edward Monro) and Malvern Wells (run by a Mr Essex) he joined the Royal Navy in September 1860. This decision was influenced both by his love of boats (he had begun yachting at an early age while his mother, a lady in waiting, was on duty at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight) and by his parents’ desire to have him settled; his father's health was precarious through spinal injuries incurred while yachting and fox-hunting. Cuffe's experience of the navy was deeply unhappy, and in 1864, after a training voyage around the North Atlantic and West Indies as a midshipman, he resigned. After some time with a classical tutor he was admitted to Radley College (1864–6) and proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge (1866–9), from where he graduated BA; he was a president of the college's amateur dramatic society. He retained close contact with Cambridge for the rest of his life and later served on the governing body of Selwyn College (resigning in 1932). Around this time he served as an officer in the Kilkenny militia.
Having abandoned an earlier ambition to become a clergyman (though he remained a devout anglican) Cuffe tried to become a diplomat; he spent some time with a tutor in Hanover, Germany, but failed the Foreign Office examinations. He then studied law and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1872, when he joined the English eastern circuit.
Marriage and family
On 19 July 1876 Cuffe married his first cousin Lady Margaret Joan Lascelles (d. 1927), the second daughter of Henry Thynne Lascelles, 4th earl of Harewood, and his first wife, Elizabeth de Burgh (daughter of the 1st marquess of Clanricarde); despite this Irish connection Margaret regarded herself as English. The marriage followed a long engagement marked by determined opposition from Margaret's father, who objected to Cuffe's financial situation. The relationship was close and affectionate throughout their lives; after his wife's death Cuffe wrote that he had failed her in many things but never in love. They had two surviving daughters, Joan, wife of Harry Lloyd Verney, and Sybil, who as Lady Sybil Lubbock supplemented her father's unfinished memoirs with her own reminiscences of him, published in 1936 as A page from the past (the writer Iris Origo was Sybil's daughter by her first husband, William Cutting). Lady Desart also experienced several miscarriages and stillbirths, and the couple regretted their failure to produce a male heir to the title.
After some years of successful legal practice Cuffe received his first official appointment, the part-time position of secretary of the Judicature Acts Commission (1877). In 1878 he accepted from Disraeli the post of assistant solicitor to the Treasury; this meant abandonment of the prospect of large-scale financial success at the bar for guaranteed security for his family and less physical strain. (Cuffe's elder brother suffered severe financial problems, exacerbated by the Land War from 1879, so that Cuffe had to assist his widowed mother and younger brother Otway (qv) as well as his own family.) He was assistant director of public prosecutions from 1884 to 1894, and during the 1880s he was one of several officials who received police protection against possible attacks by Irish-American separatists.
Cuffe became solicitor to the Treasury in 1894. This post was held in conjunction with those of queen's proctor and director of public prosecutions until 1908, when the latter post became a separate and distinct office. The principal duty of the queen's proctor was to intervene to prevent the granting of a divorce where collusion was suspected; Cuffe believed that most divorces were by collusion and that the duties of this office caused more harm than good. However, he was opposed to relaxing divorce laws, believing easier divorce would encourage the break-up of marriages which might otherwise be salvaged.
Cuffe's role in the 1895 prosecution of Oscar Wilde (qv) for sodomy, after the collapse of the playwright's action for libel against the marquess of Queensberry, has been the subject of much controversy. Queensberry ordered the evidence which he had gathered against Wilde to be sent to the director of public prosecutions, although Wilde's counsel believed he had secured an agreement with Edward Carson (qv) that this would not be done. Cuffe is alleged to have slightly delayed the issue of the warrant in order to give Wilde an opportunity (which he did not take) to escape to France by the evening boat train. It is widely believed that his decision to prosecute Wilde and call a retrial after the first prosecution ended in a hung jury, rather than treating Wilde's loss of reputation and financial ruin as sufficient punishment, was influenced by fear that abandonment of the prosecution would be popularly attributed to official desire to protect the prime minister, Lord Rosebery, whom Queensberry had accused of conducting a homosexual affair with Queensberry's recently deceased eldest son, who had been Rosebery's private secretary. The discovery in 1999 of a misfiled letter to Cuffe revealed that he had been advised not to prosecute Lord Alfred Douglas on the grounds that he had been a victim seduced by Wilde; this view of the relationship was held in some circles at the time, but was disputed by many who were familiar with the two men and is widely attributed to class prejudice. In later life Cuffe believed that the enforcement of morals (including book and play censorship) should not be subject to legislation but should rely on public disapproval; he told his granddaughter that Wilde was ‘a very wicked man’ (Origo, 68).
In general Cuffe was a conscientious and hard-working administrator who kept a low profile despite the numerous high-profile cases in which he was involved. He followed the principle of ‘hear both sides’ to a degree which some of his more enthusiastic friends and relatives found embarrassing, adding to the civil servant's mentality an aristocratic view that vehemence was ill-bred; when his grandchildren informed him that they hated Gladstone they were told that only the uneducated hated their political opponents. He resisted social pressure in his 1896 prosecution of the perpetrators of the Jameson raid (an attempt to overthrow the Boer government of the Transvaal). His life revolved around his work, and at the end of his life he told his daughter Sybil that one of his greatest blessings was that he always had useful and interesting work to do.
In 1905 Cuffe was the British representative at the North Sea inquiry in Paris, and in 1908–9 he was British plenipotentiary at the Naval International Conference in London. He succeeded his brother as 5th earl in 1898. Retiring from the civil service in 1909, he was given the UK title of Baron Desart. In retirement he was one of the four British members of the permanent international court of arbitration at The Hague (1910–15), chairman of the prize claims committee (1914–22) and chairman of commissions on wrecks and sleeping sickness. (He had been the British representative at the international arbitration on the 1905 Dogger Bank incident, when Russian warships on their way to the Far East mistook British fishing vessels for Japanese torpedo boats and attacked them.) Desart was also a CB (1894), KCB (1898), PC (1913), KP (1919) and treasurer of the Inner Temple (1924).
After his succession to the earldom in 1898 Cuffe went to considerable trouble and expense to restore the family seat, Desart Court, Co. Kilkenny, which had lain empty for many years; his family spent their summers there until 1922 (their London residence was 2 Rutland Gardens, a tall narrow house which Iris Origo compared to a sentry-box). Desart sold much of the estate under the 1903 Wyndham Act, hoping that peasant proprietorship would promote tranquillity; he loved fox-hunting and tried to practise hospitality and philanthropy towards the local people so far as his means allowed. His daughter Sybil and granddaughter Iris recalled that he seemed at ease there as nowhere else. Desart became a local magistrate and a member of the general synod of the Church of Ireland, and in 1920 he was appointed lord lieutenant for Co. Kilkenny. During the period when J. H. Bernard (qv) was bishop of Ossory (1911–15) he was advised by Cuffe, and the two became lifelong friends and associates; Cuffe was also on friendly terms with Fr Murphy of Kilmanagh (the only catholic parish priest in the diocese to have been a publicly declared Parnellite).
Although Desart was proud of his Irish origins (he declared: ‘I am an Unionist because I am an Irishman’), he was sceptical of the cultural enthusiasms shared by his brother Otway Cuffe and Standish James O'Grady (qv); according to his daughter, he feared that their occult interests and explorations of fairy belief might encourage superstition among the peasantry: ‘Of course there is charm in those stories, but there is cruelty too and there is danger in every denial of reason’ (Lubbock and Desart, 199). Desart also thought that Otway's hope for a single standard of taste among elite and populace would lead to levelling down rather than levelling up, and that the Gaelic League was harmful because it emphasised what divided Britain and Ireland rather than what united them.
Desart was regular in his attendances at the house of lords, where he took a prominent part in all the Irish debates; he was well respected but somewhat isolated within the unionist party because of his free trade views. A leading member of the Irish Unionist Alliance (IUA), he was one of the few close advisers of its leader, St John Brodrick (qv), 1st earl of Midleton. Desart was central to the conciliatory policy adopted by Midleton and other IUA representatives at the 1917–18 Irish Convention (which Desart attended as a government nominee); he persuaded Midleton to put forward proposals for all-Ireland home rule with limited fiscal autonomy as the basis for a possible compromise between moderate unionists and nationalists. After Midleton was deposed by a hardline IUA rank and file revolt, Desart became a leading member of the breakaway Midletonite Irish Unionist Anti-Partition League; during the War of Independence he criticised the behaviour of the Auxiliaries in Kilkenny, claiming that they were turning orderly ‘real old loyalists’ into Sinn Féiners. By this stage he already privately despaired of Ireland's future, lamenting that the half-educated British public cared nothing for the fate of the southern loyalists. In May 1921 Desart was one of fifteen members nominated to the senate of the abortive Parliament of Southern Ireland established under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act; he subsequently participated in negotiations for minority safeguards with the British government and the provisional government established under the treaty.
Desart declined a nomination to the Irish Free State senate and moved to England after Desart Court was burnt by anti-treaty forces on 24 February 1923. (Furniture saved from the burning was subsequently seized and burnt by the IRA while it was being brought to England.) Like many ex-landlords he regarded this not merely as a devastating blow but as a personal betrayal; his former tenants might not have been complicit in the burning – the raiders came from Tipperary – but they had done nothing to prevent it. He acquired a new house, Hawkhurst Court, Surrey, and found solace in his continued official duties, which he thought more satisfactory than artistic interests because they possessed an objective reality independent of oneself, and, after his wife's death, in visits to his granddaughter Iris and her family in Italy.
Desart died in London on 4 November 1934, when all his peerages became extinct (he also held the subsidiary Irish titles of 8th Baron Desart, 5th Viscount Desart and 5th Viscount Castle Cuffe). He left estate valued at £15,189. Hubert Butler (qv), in his writings on the Cuffe family, presents Hamilton as a misguided bureaucratic servant of empire while praising Otway as a visionary whose example, if followed by the Anglo-Irish generally, might have secured their place in the new Ireland. This view, which characteristically projects Butler's own rationalism onto Otway – though in this respect Hamilton had more in common with Butler – evades the constraints and duties experienced by Hamilton Cuffe and the depth of his class's dilemma which he incarnated. Correspondence from Cuffe, including a weekly diary-letter which he wrote to keep in touch with his granddaughter while she was in Italy during the first world war, survives among Iris Origo's papers, which are held by her family.