Lilias Ahearn Massey: The Utility of Glamour and the Value of Privacy

(The Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail: the Fabulous Ahearns concluded)

Lilias Evva Ahearn was born in 1918 into a family that had a local dynasty in Ottawa. Her father Frank had married Nora Lewis in 1909. Frank returned from the front in 1916, having been wounded.  As a war hero, scion of the business empire built by his father Thomas, and soon-to-be sports mogul, Frank was quite the man about town.  She was named after Frank’s mother who had tragically died giving birth to her aunt, also called Lilias. The family home was 7 Rideau Gate, a walk across the road from the gates to Rideau Hall, official residence of the GG.[1] 

Lilias would have learned from the outset of her life that attention was her due; from her doting parents, from the powerful people that visited them, and from the press.  As a young girl, she was often the prized flower girl at weddings of the local elite.  As she grew, her life was regularly reported in the press.  Gregarious by nature, a natural and witty hostess, Lilias learned to use to tools of glamour as an asset.  And then she had the wisdom to leave that behind, to discover the value of privacy.  

The Ahearn family were no mere spectators to the comings and goings of the Governor Generals that passed their door on their way to their official residence at Rideau Hall.  Her grandfather Thomas was a confidante of Prime Minister MacKenzie King and later a member of the Privy Council.  Her father Frank was a busy man in a city that the family had done so much to modernize and develop.  Lilias grew up in an atmosphere of politics and glamour within the small resident elite of Ottawa.  Family lore was rich, reaching back to John Ahearn, her great-grandfather and the Irish-born blacksmith who had come to what was then the rough lumber Bytown in the late 1840s or early 1850s.

In her perceptive view, the historian Charlotte Gray wrote that the Ahearns were Ottawa ‘lifers’, not like the ‘self-important comings and goings of the Dominion capital’.  The Ahearns and their Ottawa friends took access to the GG’s Residence as a right, not a privilege, she notes.  When she was 18, Lilias the debutante was presented at Rideau Hall:

“They [the lifers] included the Southams, the Sherwoods, the Scotts, the Keefers – and the Ahearns.  Thomas Ahearn, known as the King of Electricity because he brought electric street cars to Ottawa, was Lilias’ paternal grandfather.  Lilias Ahearn was born in the family cottage at Thirty One Mile Lake, a grew up with both the assurance of a rich man’s daughter, and the insecurity produced by Establishment Expectations.”[2]

The first years of Lilias’ life were momentous.  Canadians had just come through the trauma and victory of Vimy Ridge in 1917, a decisive episode in the formation of Canadian identity.  The Winnipeg General Strike put government on notice that Canada had to provide decent lives for all its citizens. The year she was born saw women granted the vote. This, combined with social change and the impact of technology, gave Lilias a degree of freedom and autonomy that generations of Ahearn women could not have dreamed.

Other reliefs to the slavish lives of women were coming on stream. Like her mother Nora, Lilias would have servants in the house, a dramatically different lifestyle to that of her grandmother, and even more so that of her great-grandmother. At any rate, the harnessing of electricity for domestic appliances achieved by her grandfather would transform households. He had invented the electric oven but others would apply the technology to a host of other functions, including fridges, irons and above all the washing machine, the greatest liberation from drudgery since the invention of clothes.

As a toddler, Lilias would have been known to Lord Byng (GG 1921-26), who had been the Commander of the Canadian Army Corps at Vimy and a Canadian hero.  Byng was an avid sportsman and loved the Ottawa Senators so much that he rarely missed a game.  That the Senators were owned by her father reinforced the social ties. However, the Byng-King crisis must have strained relations.  It was a complicated tussle between Prime Minister MacKenzie King and the Governor General about the dissolution of parliament.  As the crisis roiled, Frank and his father Thomas no doubt supported their friend, the Prime Minister. The outcome saw a significant evolution in the role of the Governor General.  At the Prime Minister’s insistence, the Governor General from then onwards represented the British monarch only, not additionally the British Government.

As Lilias matured into a young girl, Viscount Willingdon arrived at Rideau Hall in 1926.  This was also a momentous year as the Imperial Conference degreed that all Dominions within the Commonwealth were members equal in status to Britain.  The Governor General henceforth represented the crown but acted on the advice of the Canadian Government.

Society was changing fast, driven by the upheavals of war and the speed of technological development. Willingdon was the first Governor General to travel by air, flying return to Montreal.[3]  Telecommunications technology had fascinated her grandfather as a boy and propelled him into fame as an inventor and wealth as a businessman.  Telecommunications were was developing apace.  Grandfather Thomas was the technical expert for the first official transatlantic phone call made a Canadian Prime Minister in 1927.  “The same year he was appointed the chairman of the broadcasting committee for the diamond jubilee [60th] of confederation and oversaw the earliest coast-to-coast radio broadcast.” [4]  Thanks to his expertise, the celebrations were broadcast on radio, including the first ringing of the new carillon at Parliament’s Victoria [now Peace] Tower. A year later her granddad was appointed to the Privy Council.

By 1932, Canada had its first trans-Canadian phone system, thanks in large part to Thomas Ahearn.  The Governor General by then was the Anglo-Irish Earl of Bessborough who inaugurated the system from his study in Rideau Hall with calls to all his Lieutenant Governors.

When World War II erupted, Lilias joined the Red Cross and was part of the Royal Canadian Airforce. She met and fell in love with Flying Officer Douglas Byrd Van Buskirk from New York. As reported in the press, on 9 November 1941, Lilias learned that her husband was missing in action.  Then she received the fateful telegram from London that he had been killed in an air raid over Germany. It had been a massive formation flying in bad weather.  It took severe casualties with 37 bombers and 15 fighters failing to return.  Buskirk and his crew were buried in Dusseldorf, according to the German authorities. Lilias had just enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She then joined the Canadian Red Cross in England as an ambulance driver, the press reported.[5]

Charlotte Gray again: “Then she reverted to type and married into the closet thing that Canada could offer as an aristocracy: the immensely rich Massey family.”  The splashy wedding in 1946 certainly lit up dreary post-war Ottawa.  Lilias had a blast and her wedding photo with her handsome husband Lionel and five bridesmaids shows it.

Lionel Massy himself had by this stage an interesting career.  He had served as Press Attaché for the British Commonwealth Relations Conference in Australia in 1938 which might have started a diplomat career (his father had been Canada’s first High Commissioner or ambassador in Washington).  However, he joined the army on the outbreak of war and served as a captain in the King’s Rifle Corps.  He fought in Egypt and Greece where machine gun fire injured both knees and he was a German prisoner of war between 1941 and 1944. 

In 1952 Lionel’s father Vincent Massey was appointed as the first Canadian to serve as Governor General.[6]  Lionel accepted the post of Secretary to his father but with reservations about the impression it might create of turning the office into a family affair.

No such reservations dogged his wife.  All of Lilias’ background, character and natural gifts had prepare her for her next and most significant role.  Since Vincent was a widower, Lilias was a natural choice to act as chȃtelaine, or vice-regal consort. Once she, Lionel and their three daughters were ensconced in the cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, Lilias took up her duties with gusto. “The Masseys organized the most divine dinner dances.  Vincent had a sense of style from his years in the diplomatic service, and Lilias was an excellent hostess,” recalled one contemporary.[7]  Dinners, lunches, receptions and even movies filled the Massey calendar. Lilias hosted with aplomb guests like Eisenhower, Nehru, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Queen Juliana and Haile Salassie, and a host of European crown heads.

One of Lilias’ first duties was to represent her father-in-law at the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London.  Interestingly, Vincent himself opted to stay in Canada:

“Mr. Massey revived the use of the State carriage in 1953 when it was used in Ottawa for the Coronation celebrations of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Amid much pageantry, the carriage brought Vincent Massey and his staff to Parliament Hill under escort by members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Mr. Massey introduced Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation speech, broadcast in London and around the world. The carriage he used that day is still used for the opening of Parliament and during official State visits. To commemorate Her Majesty’s Coronation, Mr. Massey issued silver spoons to all Canadian children born on that day, June 2, 1953.”[8]

As the first Canadian citizen to be Governor General, Vincent Massey was a tireless champion for Canada, making 86 trips around the vast country.  He travelled extensively “visiting every corner of the country – where plane or ship couldn’t reach, he went by canoe or dog team.”[9]  On all but two of his travels, Lilias went with him, showing again that adventurous streak, grabbing life with both hands. When he had decided to remind Canadians about their great arctic territory and its Inuit culture, she flew with him when such air travel still had its dangers.  She was the first airborne woman over the North Pole.

Lilias used her talents and glamour to support the image of Canada’s first native Governor General and to demonstrate that Canada could hold its own with world leaders. She and her family illustrated too what an immigrant family could do if and when given the opportuntity. Canada had given them that. And they had given Canada much.

When Vincent’s term concluded as Governor General in September 1959, the Masseys left Rideau Hall.  Lionel took up a post as administrative director at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, promoted to Associate Director in 1963.  He died suddenly two years later of a stroke, aged 49.  Lilias moved back to Ottawa and into an apartment. She passed away three decades later in January 1997.  

In a way, an era ended not with her death but thirty years earlier when she returned as a widow to her home town.  By the time she had left Rideau Hall, Canada had established itself as a nation in its own right.  A new chapter was beckoning in which Canada would forge its own modern identity with a refashioned constitution, a new national flag, and a vibrant creative culture. As members of the jet-set, Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret channelled a new kind of glamour. 

At so many levels, the 1960s and 1970s challenged virtually every aspect of the society in which Lilias had grown and prospered. With a strategic insight worthy of her father and grandfather, she manifestly grasped this.  Privacy was her new value. On return to Ottawa in1965, she closed the door on the limelight.  Perhaps she intuited too that the iconoclastic new era would change the traditional deference of the press to social elites, rip the veil that shielded their affairs, illnesses and scandals from the public eye.  Glamour had utility but now demanded more imtimacies and with it more dangers for those who wielded it.

From now on, as Gray records, Lilias’ social circle were the friends she had known all her life, the aging lifers of Ottawa.  Lilias and her friends no doubt watched with interest the political and cultural forces reshaping Canada but their greatest adventures were in their memories. 

Lilias was the last leader of the Ahearns.  They had made an enormous contribution to Ottawa and a significant one to Canada.  Within three generations they had through talent and energy moved from a blacksmithing immigrant from Ireland to a business empire, the Privy Council and on to Rideau Hall.  That said something about them, the fabulous Ahearns, and it said something too about Canada, their land of opportunity.

Today, Lilias’ old family home at 7 Rideau Gate is the Canadian Government’s official guest accommodation and the Prime Minister lives in the cottage that hosted Lionel, Lilias and their family in the glory years when the Masseys ruled Rideau Hall.

Eamonn McKee

Ottawa

18 December 2022


[1] As I have written elsewhere, bought by Irish GG Monck and extensively developed by the Anglo-Irish Lord and Lady Dufferin.

[2] https://www.facebook.com/wwiicdnwomensproject.org/photos/pcb.248477750075474/248477500075499/?type=3&theater

[3] https://www.GG.ca/en/governor-general/former-governors-general/viscount-willingdon

[4] http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ahearn_thomas_16E.html

[5] There is also a strange reference to the granting of annulment in the marriage of Lilias Ahearn and Wilbur Pittman Roberts, ibid, WW II Canadian Women’s Project, ibid.

[6] The family had made its fortune with the Massey-Harris company, founded in 1891, the largest producer of agricultural machinery in the Commonwealth, later Massey-Ferguson, so well known and loved in Ireland that the Massey-Ferguson is synonymous with tractor.  Vincent’s brother was the Hollywood actor Raymond Massey.

[7] Cited by Gray, op cit.

[8] https://www.GG.ca/en/governor-general/former-governors-general/vincent-massey

[9] Ibid.

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