Derry (both city and county) has produced many notable people down the years. In recent times, the names of John Hume, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Phil Coulter, Eamon McCann, Nell McCafferty and Fergal Sharkey immediately spring to mind – a clear preponderance of those with creative talent, something Derry is renowned for.
Going back a bit farther into history, there are many ‘unsung heroes’ both male and female. One such person was a woman called Rosa Hegarty who was born in 1874 and went on to become one of the foremost social diarists/columnists in Fleet Street in the early part of the 20th century. The youngest of seven children, Rosa’s father was a chemist who lived and worked in the Diamond area of the city.
A woman of drive and intelligence, she moved to London as a young woman where, even despite the restrictions on women at the time, she developed a career in the metropolis where at least there was a wider range of opportunities than at home. This was a time just emerging from the Victorian era when women had yet to win the vote and in which women had a strictly defined role in life. Yet, despite these challenges, Rosa managed to secure positions as a social diarist on the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Chronicle and the Yorkshire Post. So popular was her work that at the height of her career in the 1920’s and 1930’s, she was able to command a salary of £2,000. a princely sum for anyone at the time and akin to the earnings of an average GP of the era.
Journalism brought her into a wide circle of life and included among her acquaintances, the writer Hilaire Belloc. In the early part of the new century, she married Eugene ‘Teddy’ Niall, a successful doctor in London also from an Irish background. Teddy was attached to the Middlesex Hospital in central London and was also the doctor to the Ritz and Claridges hotels. Their house was on Arlington Street, just off Piccadilly and round the corner from the Ritz (which must have made it handy for house calls!). One such ‘house call’ was on one famous night when the Aga Khan was staying in one of the Ritz’s suites and, feeling ill, asked for the house doctor to be called. Teddy was duly called and having completed his consultation was told by the rather rotund Aga Khan from his four poster bed that he was unable to pay him as he did not carry cash. Instead, he offered Teddy a large Persian Rug in lieu of cash which had he had delivered the next day round the corner to Arlington street. Not bad for an evening’s work!
Rosa and Teddy led a fairly charmed life in London at the time. Their next door neighbours were Lady Diana and Duff Cooper. Diana Cooper was a famed beauty in London society of the era and as Lady Diana Manners is thought to have been the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh in his Sword of Honour trilogy. Her husband was Duff Cooper, an MP and Cabinet Minister under Stanley Baldwin who resigned over appeasement of Hitler and rejoined the government under Winston Churchill during the Second World War.
The Niall’s were mixing in quite exalted circles and it all must have been quite heady stuff for Rosa. Not all of her social encounters were pleasant, however. Prejudice and snobbery were still very much to the fore on one occasion when she was introduced at a reception to Lady Londonderry, the chatelaine of Mountstewart in County Down and whose husband was Air Minister in the then Baldwin government. Trying to ‘break the ice’ by establishing a connection with Derry, Rosa remarked that she herself came from the city. Lady Londonderry asked her what her name was, to which she replied ‘Hegarty’. Lady Londonderry looked down her long aquiline nose and dismissively said ‘Wrong name’, quickly then moving on to another guest. Seemingly, the challenges faced at the time were not only gender-based but socio-religious too. Despite such slights, Rosa continued to make her mark with her pen. There was a huge appetite at the time for news and gossip about the upper reaches of ‘society’ (the precursors to Hello! Magazine) and Rosa successfully tapped into that market.
After her beloved husband Teddy died in the 1930’s, she moved into the Park Lane Hotel where she lived as a paying guest for a number of years. During the London Blitz in 1940, she decided to emigrate to the United States. She lived for a number of years in an apartment on 5th Avenue until then end of the war. She then moved to live in Monte Carlo, residing at No. 2 Flor Palace. The larger-than-life figure that she was, the ‘charmed’ existence along the Riviera suited Rosa in her sunset years. The writer’s mother, Rosa’s grand-niece, visited her in Monte Carlo in the early 1950’s and attested to the grand lifestyle she enjoyed. A visit to a casino, a rather louche thing for a young woman at the time, was included on the social itinerary. History does not relate any resulting long-term damage to my mother’s morals!
Rosa has another key connection with Derry. Her sister, Eleanor, married Michael McDevitt from Ardmore who established a clothing manufacturing business in the city in the late 19th century, building a factory on William Street. Those with long enough memories will also recall the McDevitt’s shop on Duke Street, there long before the major works that have now transformed the area. Rosa was also a frequent visitor to the McDevitt’s grand house, Boom Hall, situated along the Culmore Road and overlooking the Foyle. Built originally by the Alexander family in the 18th century, it was subsequently owned by several Ascendancy families until the McDevitt’s, the first Catholic family to have owned it, moved in during the 1930’s. Now a disused shell, the building stands as a reminder of a more illustrious past.
According to those who knew her well, Rosa was elegant, charming, ‘chic’ and a good conversationalist, a skill no doubt honed from her journalism days. Her achievements as a woman in an era before women’s rights were taken seriously were quite momentous. These achievements were ever more remarkable for someone who had to establish herself from scratch in the competitive metropolis of turn of the century London.
In this year of Derry City of Culture, it is perhaps appropriate to celebrate some of the previously unsung examples of the city’s creative talent. Rosa Hegarty made the best use of her talents (can there be a better measure of a person’s success in life?) in a highly restrictive era and married well. This opened up so much to the ever-searching Rosa. Most would agree that she led a charmed existence and it was clear that she savoured every moment of it. She was quite a rarity for her time and clearly did not conform to the prevailing rigid social and gender stereotypes. Sadly, she and Teddy did not have children, so she could not pass on her legacy directly. Yet, she provides a good example of what can be achieved by applying your talents and availing of opportunities when they arise – a woman who did Derry proud.
Paul McElhinney is great-grand nephew of Rosa Niall. He is a freelance writer and college lecturer and currently lives in Co. Wexford. His main interests are in history, politics and sport and he is currently working on a biography of the American tennis player, Jack Kramer. His mother’s family hail from Derry where he spent many enjoyable summer holidays in his youth.