Princess Diana's hidden Irish roots

On the eve of what would have been Princess Diana’s 56th birthday, Ryle Dwyer reveals her hidden Irish connections.

Princess Diana's hidden Irish roots

On the eve of what would have been the late Princess Diana’s fifty-sixth birthday, it may seem like everything of interest or historical significance about her has already been written, but an extraordinary Cork/Kerry link has essentially been ignored.

At this time of the year we read and hear so much about Killarney, but how many people know that Diana’s great, grandfather was the MP representing Killarney at the turn of the last century?

James Boothby Burke Roche had a colourful past that the people of Killarney could not forget fast enough, but maybe this will change when they realise his future significance.

In the wake of the Irish Parliamentary Party’s split over Charles Stewart Parnell’s involvement in Kitty O’Shea divorce, Roche was elected to Parliament for East Kerry as an anti-Parnellite nationalist, which seemed particularly incongruous because Burke Roche was divorced himself five years earlier.

As such he was a real historical curiosity.

He was the third son of Edmond Burke Roche (1815-1874), who lived at Trabolgan House, Trabolgan, and owned extensive property in north and east Cork, as well as in the Dungarvan area of Waterford. A staunch backer of Irish causes, Edmond Burke Roche was MP for County Cork from 1837 to 1855.

He was closely associated with Daniel O’Connell in the repeal movement. In 1865 Queen Victoria conferred the title of Baron Fermoy on Roche, who then sat in the House of Lords, where he continued to take an active interest in Irish affairs.

His son, James, lacked the father’s drive, and, as a result, developed into the classical ne’er do well. While on a visit to the United States in 1880 he met and married Frances “Fannie” Work, the daughter of Frank Work, one of New York’s richest bankers. James and Fannie lived together in London, but she later testified that he never contributed anything towards her support.

James Boothby Burke Roche.
James Boothby Burke Roche.

Her father provided her with $7,000 a year, and she gave it to her husband, who used some of it to fund his gambling. In December 1886 Roche sent his wife to New York to ask her father for more money. She brought their daughter with her, while he held on to their twin sons to ensure her return.

By then, however, her father had enough of his son-in-law’s profligate ways. Work refused to provide further money for her reckless husband, and persuaded her not to return to London.

“If I had my way I would make international marriage a hanging offense,” Work stated. “It’s time this international marrying came to a stop, for our American girls are ruining our country by it.” Roche arrived in New York with the twin boys in February 1887. He sent a message asking Frank Work to meet him and the boys at the steamer wharf, but his father-in-law sent a servant instead.

Roche met his wife the following day at her father’s mansion in the presence of her father, who flatly refused to provide any further money. This was possibly the last time Fannie saw her husband.

One day, shortly afterwards, Roche arrived at his father-in-law’s mansion with the twins who were almost two years old. He rang the doorbell, and abandoned the boys on the doorstep. He just took off in his carriage without speaking to anyone.

Fannie Roche was granted a divorce on the grounds of desertion in March 1891. The case received widespread coverage in the United States, especially in New York, where it was front-page news in The Sun, and The Evening World, which reported that “Scotland Yard detectives were unable to find her husband to serve the papers on him.” The case was also reported in Irish newspapers, because of the family’s political prominence. The Cork Examiner had carried an extensive report of the divorce case on March 2, 1891. It therefore seemed strange that people did not know that James Burke Roche had been divorced when he was selected to run for parliament in East Kerry in 1896 as an anti-Parnellite.

The Parnellite organ, The Irish Daily Independent, highlighted the story during the latter days of the 1896 campaign. Roche’s solicitor issued a statement emphasising that his client “emphatically declared to me that he was never served with any divorce proceedings.” Although Roche won the seat comfortably, less than half the 5,600 eligible voters cast their ballots. Moreover, the 680 votes for his opponent — Captain John McGillycuddy — was more than double the 253 votes he had received in 1992. The formal announcement of the election result “was received with absolute silence,” according to the Kerry Sentinel.

Edmund Maurice Burke Roche, Baron Fermoy (1885 - 1955) and his wife Lady Fermoy after attending a society wedding.
Edmund Maurice Burke Roche, Baron Fermoy (1885 - 1955) and his wife Lady Fermoy after attending a society wedding.

Despite his win, Roche appeared very agitated. “He was left severely alone by the members of the Party,” the Kerry Sentinel noted. “These gentlemen appeared to be ashamed to be seen in the company of Mr Roche in public.” Indeed, the reporter concluded that it seemed they would “have preferred to hear of his defeat rather than his success.” During his one term as an MP, Burke Roche was hardly seen in the House of Commons. He never made any speech and was not even mentioned in the house records during his final two years. He just faded into obscurity.

When the Irish Parliamentary Party reunited in 1900, there was obviously no room for him. At a big unity rally in Killarney on April 8, 1900, the mere mention of his name provoked groans from the gathering.

“If you show you can purge the representation of Ireland of men of the stamp of your own misrepresentative, Mr Burke Roche,” William O’Brien told the crowd, it would be “an easy preliminary step to the abolition of the accursed foreign rule.” Roche did not stand for re-election.

Twenty years later when his older brother — the 2nd Baron Fermoy — died without a son, James Burke Roche became the 3rd Lord Fermoy, but he died the following month. He was succeeded by the eldest of his twin sons, Edmund Maurice Roche, who returned from the United States.

Edmund stood for parliament as a Conservative in an English constituency and duly won a seat in the 1924 general election, and was re-elected at each subsequent general election, until he stood down in 1935. In 1931 he married Ruth Gill, and they had three children.

Their daughter Frances married Edward Spencer at Westminster Abbey on June 1, 1954. The Queen and other members of the Royal Family were among the 1,800 guests at what was one of the society weddings of the decade. The fourth of their five children, was Diana Spencer, who married Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1981, and became the mother of both Princes William and Harry.

If Prince William becomes King, it will mean that an ancestor on his mother’s side was the MP representing Killarney, at the same time one of his father’s ancestors was Queen Victoria, who had played a major role in putting Killarney on the international tourist map.

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