December 2004 Newsletter

December 2004 Newsletter

The Landed Gentry & Aristocracy of County Kildare

By Turtle Bunbury

Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a system of hereditary surnames. Indeed it is often stated that Brian Boru introduced the concept into Ireland at least a century before the Norman invasion of 1169. As such, when one thinks of indigenous Irish families, one is inclined to think in terms of "O" and "Mac". The "O" of O'Connor essentially means someone ‘of' the tribe of Connor. Likewise, the "Mac" or "Mc" of "MacDermot" or "McGuire" basically means the ‘son' (or descendent) of Dermot or Guire.

But there is another aspect to Irish ancestry that is often overlooked - namely the 500 or more families who settled in Ireland between the Norman invasion and the end of British domination in 1921. Most of these families achieved positions of immense influence at one time or another in Irish history and their story is every bit as relevant to our understanding of the past.

Kildare is a particularly remarkable county. When one drives the roads of Kildare, it is all too easy to miss the grand gateways and lodges that mark the entrances to the once great estates of the county. The "big houses" that lie beyond can seem somehow irrelevant to the modern age. Why should brave, new Ireland look back at its past? Perhaps because the past is something we can look to and learn from. It is a surprisingly safe zone because it has already happened. It can't be changed. It simply is.

King William's victory over the Jacobite forces at the Boyne in 1689 ushered in an era of more than 200 years during which the Protestant gentry and aristocracy of Ireland - the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy - held absolute power. A network of perhaps 500 families henceforth governed Ireland. Some, like Aylmer, FitzGerald and de Burgh, were descendents of the Norman soldiers who invaded from Wales 800 years ago. Others like Fennell and Clements descended from rural English families who settled here in the 1650s. Some, like More and O'Ferrall, claimed kinship with the old Celtic chieftains of Ireland. Others, like John Digues La Touche and the Baron de Robeck, were simply on the run from the ever-present dangers of life on the European mainland. Their political beliefs may have varied but their backgrounds remained fundamentally the same. They were the privileged elite - raised amongst trusty servants, fashionable aunts, exquisite furniture, leather-bound books and dusty bottles of port.

Kildare's proximity to Dublin ensured the county was at the forefront during the dominance of the Anglo-Irish. It was one of the first parts of Ireland to fall under Norman control after the invasion of 1169. It subsequently became one of the principal headquarters of the FitzGerald's remarkable empire, its fortunes essentially dependent on the success or failure of the incumbent Earl of Kildare or Duke of Leinster. By the early 18th century, the county was home to perhaps fifty of the big families. Over the subsequent centuries, many of these inevitably died out or left the county. After the creation of the Irish Free State, many more abandoned Ireland entirely. And there are still a mighty few who remain to this day.

Kildare has had more than its fair share of extraordinary characters. Take, for instance, the great FitzGerald clan who have dominated historical headlines since 1169. During the 13th century, a pet ape rescued the baby Earl of Kildare from certain death during a fire at Woodstock Castle near Athy. 250 years later, Silken Thomas FitzGerald led his ill-fated rebellion against the English army of Henry VIII. The Dukes of Leinster were never far from trouble. The 1st Duke's son, Lord Edward FitzGerald, was one of the principal ring-leaders of the 1798 Rebellion. The 7th Duke was an irrepressible gambler who had to sell the Carton estate outside Maynooth to pay his debts; Wallis Simpson was one of his many lovers.

William Conolly, the builder of Castletown House, became a legend in his own lifetime. The son of a lowly innkeeper from Donegal, he skilfully worked his way up through the Anglo-Irish hierarchy to become the richest man in Ireland by his death. Another Castletown heir was Tom Conolly, a charismatic rogue who tried to run the Charleston blockade during the American Civil War only to have his boat blown to smithereens by US Government forces. Tom somehow managed to clamber onto a vessel bound for Europe, jumped ship in Lough Swilly and was back in Donegal Town in the nick of time to be re-elected MP.

In 1641, the Barton family, former owners of Straffan House (now The K-Club), came about as close to extinction as you get. A small boy standing beside his naked, bruised mother on a snow-covered island watching the men who had just murdered his father walk back to their boats. The boy, William Barton, grew up and married; his grandson's started the great Barton & Guestier wine trade in France.

Religion was inevitably the cause of many strange occurrences. Quaker families like the Fennells made their mark in Ballitore but astonished their Protestant contemporaries by their steadfast opposition to violence and bloodshed. Religious wars in France forced David La Touche to relocate to Ireland where he helped establish the Bank of Ireland. His descendent, John La Touche of Harristown, became a passionate Baptist in the 19th century, a fervour that would have tragic consequences for the romance between his daughter Rose and the Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin. The More O'Ferralls managed to hold on to their Catholic roots throughout the Georgian Age, fighting in some of the greatest battles in Europe; a descendent was murdered by the IRA in 1935. Assassination was never far away from the landed gentry - Lord Kilwarden and his nephew were stabbed to death by Robert Emmet's followers in 1803, Richard Guinness's grandmother was shot dead in 1887 and the Earl of Leitrim the following spring.

Military service was just about unavoidable for the sons of the Anglo-Irish. At stake, was the defence and expansion of the British Empire. Almost every family lost a son - the Maunsells and Aylmers in the Crimean War, the Wolfes of Forenaghts in the Sudanese campaign, the Conollys in the Boer War, the de Burghs, FitzGeralds and Medlicotts in the Great War. Those who survived often rose to positions of enormous influence. The 6th Earl of Drogheda commanded the Light Horse for an astonishing 62 years, rising to the rank of Field Marshal and Master-General of the Ordinance. Admiral John de Robeck had the ill-luck to command the disastrous Dardanelle's campaign in 1915. General Eric de Burgh commanded the British Army in India on the eve of the Second World War. Major Richard Mansfield was an expert British parachutist during the same war.

There must be something in the blood that keeps these families ticking, albeit by more creative means than their forbears. Chris de Burgh has made an enormous impact on the international music scene; his daughter Rosanna Davison was Miss World 2003. Derry Moore, the present Earl of Drogheda, and James Fennell, are both highly accomplished photographers. The de Burghs, de Robecks and More O'Ferralls continue to have a significant influence on Kildare's prosperous horse industry. The present Lord Carew and his daughter Virginia have both represented Ireland in eventing at the Olympics; Lady Carew is President of the Irish Pony Club. Anthony Barton runs two outstanding vineyards in Bordeaux. Richard More O'Ferrall is one of the principal players in the De Beers diamond consortium. Rosalind Mansfield married the Fine Gael politician, Gerard Sweetman. Robert Guinness has a successful banking career and runs the Straffan Steam Museum. Timothy Henry worked with the United Nations during the Kosovo campaign; his father commanded Britain's first Polaris submarine. Every decade brings new generations to the fore. The Kildare gentry may be more discreet than their Victorian ancestors but they still afford us a fascinating and valuable presence.

Turtle is currently producing a series of books investigating the families that comprise the so-called "Landed Gentry and Aristocracy" of Ireland. He has lately released a volume on County Kildare, to compliment those already written on Counties Tipperary, Kilkenny and Wexford.

Book: The Landed Gentry & Aristocracy of County Kildare
Author: Turtle Bunbury
Publisher: Irish Family Names
Price: €35

until this time next month...

Best Wishes,

Conor B & Turtle.

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