Obituary: The life and death of Randal MacDonnell – the most remarkable Irish figure you've probably never heard of

Randal MacDonnell, who has died aged 69, was an architectural historian who styled himself Count Randal MacDonnell of the Glens.

He arrived in Ireland from Manchester in the late 1960s, at a time when many of the great houses of Ireland and splendid buildings of Georgian Dublin were falling to the developer’s wrecking ball. MacDonnell set about making an inventory which would culminate in his book The Lost Houses of Ireland (2002).

Had he been less eccentric he might have found a place as one of the great protectors of Ireland’s architectural heritage. His tendency, however, to reside in his own peculiar fantasy world and his refusal to ascribe to himself any occupation other than “gentleman”, meant he always had the status of an outsider.

Moreover, he lived openly as a homosexual in conservative Catholic Ireland, a fact which made him a social pariah in many Dublin drawing rooms and left him open to prosecution under the same legislation which saw Oscar Wilde imprisoned in England in 1895. It remained on the statute books here until 1993.

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Fortunately, MacDonnell was not too bothered by how others saw him. He regarded his only tweed jacket, his permanent choice of apparel, to have been a lifetime investment and he subscribed to the 18th century view that real grandees only took a bath once a year, whether they needed to or not. The olfactory consequences earned him the nickname the Count de Camembert.

When asked by a friend how he could possibly survive in Dublin on so little money MacDonnell replied: “Dear boy, when I walk down Grafton Street I do so wearing an imaginary coronet.’’

The coronet in question derived from his claim to the ancient title of The MacDonnell of the Glens, in which he persisted to the great annoyance of the Earls of Antrim and other MacDonnells with legitimate claims to ancient Irish titles.

MacDonnell claimed his comital title had its origins in the Holy Roman Empire and his preferred form of address was “My Lord Count”. But those versed in the idiosyncratic world of ancient Irish genealogy observed that he had originally arrived in Ireland sporting the title Baron Randal MacDonnell of the Isles, so few took his claims seriously.

Randal MacDonnell was born on August 18, 1950, somewhere in England, though his exact origins remained a mystery due to his habit of obfuscation and invention.

His mother Kathleen (nee Dolan) was one of the first women employed as a continuity announcer on radio.

MacDonnell often claimed his father worked on the early episodes of Coronation Street, but in what capacity remains unclear. So too does Randal’s education: as the mood took him, he would lay claim to having attended Eton or Stonyhurst.

What is certain is that MacDonnell arrived at Trinity College Dublin to read law but, preferring the Buttery Bar to the lecture theatre, he failed to get a degree. On the other hand, he cut an unconventional sartorial dash at the college.

On the rare occasions he turned up for lectures he did so wearing a kilt, and on other days he could be seen cycling into college wearing the mantle of the Knights of Malta, rumoured to have been hired from a theatrical costumiers.

On one occasion in the late 1960s he and a group of like-minded students hired a helicopter to attend the College Races, a sporting event attended by guests including the octogenarian President Eamon de Valera. The helicopter hovered over the sports field while MacDonnell abseiled down a rope. Even the near-blind de Valera could not fail to notice that he was wearing his kilt in the traditional manner as he landed in the presidential box.

Like most things in MacDonnell’s life, his activities after leaving Trinity remain something of a mystery. He claimed to have been Noel Coward’s private secretary, and his capacity for name-dropping could reach Olympian proportions. Sentences regularly began with “as Orson Welles/Noel Coward/ Debo Devonshire/ the King of Greece’’, or whoever took his fancy, “said to me …”

Despite his claims to past grandeur, his financial situation remained precarious, often requiring the adoption of ingenious strategies to keep a roof over his head. Once he lived with a fortune teller in Dublin where his role, in lieu of rent, was to engage clients in conversation over tea downstairs and scribble down information gleaned on cards concealed inside a cigarette packet. This was then slipped unseen to the waiting clairvoyant upstairs.

MacDonnell had a lucky break when he was engaged by his friend, the Guinness heir Garech Browne, to advise on the restoration of his house, Luggala, in Co Wicklow. Things went splendidly until a blistering row broke out between the two friends over the disappearance from the house of items of Georgian silver and other valuable chattels.

In an effort to avoid the scandal surrounding the “silver teapot affair”, as it became known, in about 2005 MacDonnell decamped to Prague, where he set up home in a room in a crumbling Baroque palace.

Later he moved to Tangier in Morocco, a city which easily accommodated his peculiar type of genius, and where he found a whole new audience for his stories. On one occasion his entertaining conversation caused the distinguished historian Norman Stone to miss a boat departing Tangier for Spain.

MacDonnell died penniless, broken in health and, though he never showed it, in spirit. His last years were spent living in terrible conditions among Tangier’s poor in a tiny rented room in the Kasbah.

But a resident expatriate has said that “there are those still-young native-born Tangerines who will continue to think of him as a sort of grand aristocratic figure, who lived in some gilded palace, some distant castle or, at the very least, as a guest of the king in a beautiful and secluded villa set in a gorgeous garden”.

While his body remained unclaimed at the time of writing in a Tangier mortuary, a collection is being organised among the city’s expatriate community to have him buried in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Anglican Church.

Randal MacDonnell died on November 24.

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