How to live like a lord on pounds 68 a week

David Bowen meets a real-life Baron Hard-up, whose rich family history has not brought him wealth
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The Independent Online
John De Courcy , a 55-year-old former plumber, will spend the holiday in much the same way as millions of other Britons. Christmas Eve sister, Christmas Day nephew. Return to council flat and sit in front of the telly. Crippled by arthritis and living on pounds 68 a week benefit, his only chance of getting out will be if friends take him down to The George for a few pints.

What makes John de Courcy unusual is that he is also Baron Kingsale, Premier Baron of Ireland, Lord of Kingsale, Ringrone, Courcy, Stoke, Newham, Sarsden, Foxcote, Islitt, Ruthernie "and another five places I can't remember - they're in France". By his reckoning he is the 35th Baron, making him the country's senior aristocrat. Debrett's will allow only that he is the 30th. "It doesn't matter to anyone except me", he says. He is the only man in the kingdom who can keep his hat on in the presence of the Sovereign ("but I wouldn't, she's a woman") yet he is seriously skint. He cannot even claim an attendance allowance at the House of Lords, because he is an Irish peer.

It is easy to feel sorry for Lord Kingsale. A great bear of a man waiting for a hip replacement ("that's the one thing I won't pull rank on"), his fruity public-school accent bears witness to a more prosperous past. Yet the wallpaper in his flat in Nunney, Somerset, is nicotine-coloured, the carpets are worn, the hearth fitted with a coal-effect fire. A huge picture of Jet, the TV Gladiator, dwarfs a creased aerial photo of the nine-inch high remnants of his castle at Kinsale in County Cork. He produces his other heirloom, the robe, from the bedroom, apologising that the coronet is off having its balls fixed.

But Lord Kingsale does not feel sorry for himself. "The world's my oyster," he says, puffing on his umpteenth Benson & Hedges of the day. He has a point. Where most plumbers forced on to benefit by illness have little to look forward to, he is already planning further exploitation of his birthright when his hip is fixed. "Maybe I'll go to America," he says. "I reckon I could make hay with the Boston Irish."

Why, though, has he failed to make hay so far? He has done a few chat shows, BBC2 oncemade a programme about him, and he has many celebrated friends as a result. But real wealth, even normal wealth, has eluded him.

John de Courcy's story starts about 1200. That was when his eponymous and equally bearlike ancestor decided to break out of the Dublin Pale and head north: he was the first Englishman to conquer Ulster, and was a great power for 15 years. King John, alarmed, clipped his wings and sent him to the Tower, releasing him after he agreed to act as the King's champion and scaring the daylights out of his French foe. He was given an extra reward: the right to keep his head covered in the Sovereign's presence.

After this it was downhill all the way as the family backed the wrong side in conflict after conflict. By this century it had little but its lineage left and had to look for outside money to survive. Michael de Courcy, who was killed by a Stuka five months before his son John was born, married into a Yorkshire lanolin oil business. That meant John had a comfortable upbringing: he was sent to Stowe school and assumed he would move into the family business. He was on a short-term commission in the Irish Guards when that dream collapsed with the business, and he emerged from the Army at 25 with no idea what to do. Eventually, he started doing odd jobs and plumbing because "that was the easiest way of making money".

Not that he ignored the potential of his title. "I've got a lot of pleasure from being a lord," he says. "You get lots of invitations because of it." The trouble, he admits, is that he refuses to trade actively on his name. "I wouldn't use it to make hard cash," he says. "But I don't mind if other people do."

He has been involved in business ventures of varying credibility, linking his name with someone else's money. The only one that did well was a marriage bureau in Brisbane, with him as the front man. "I went on breakfast TV with my robes spread all over the table - they let me talk about the marriage bureau solidly for 10 minutes." But when his visa ran out after six months he returned to England.

Lord Kingsale is proud that he has done a little to heal his rampaging ancestor's damage in Ireland. He is regularly flown to the Gourmet Festival in Kinsale, where he has earned respectlocally. "They're very republican, but when they saw I could handle a pint or two, they were fine," he says. He has opened two pubs named after him - one in Ulster, the other in Kinsale.

Much of his problem is that he cannot take his titles too seriously. He is a great expert on his ancestry, and is happy to duel with Debrett's over the origins of the line. "I don't rate any title after 1600, they're all phoney," he declares. But that is more through an interest in history than aristocratic instincts. Though no leftie (he intends to vote for the Referendum Party) his attitudes are liberal for a true blue blood. "The House of Lords is indefensible," he says.

Meanwhile, he keeps happy on a combination of beer and cynicism. "People think there's something special about being the 35th in line - it doesn't occur to them that everyone has the same number of generations behind them."