The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster 1872-1948

Terence Dooley
Four Courts Press, €24.95,
ebook €22.13

WHENEVER the Dukes of Leinster are spoken of these days, it is usually in relation to their splendid country house of Carton. Yet the names most associated with this mansion are those of the Irish Georgian Society and its founders, the Hon Desmond Guinness and his wife Mariga who were tenants at Carton in 1957. After the generations described by Terence Dooley in these thronged chapters the FitzGerald Dukes of Leinster may not seem to have left much behind them apart from a name, but the family at least bequeathed a precious legacy of awareness and responsibility which has enriched Irish heritage and saved many an Irish property.

As Director of the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates at NUI Maynooth Professor Dooley is an acknowledged expert on the survival of Irish country houses and Carton is, as they say, mother’s milk to him.

His study of the FitzGeralds of Leinster goes much further back than the dates of his title, to which is added the somewhat lurid sub-heading of ‘Love, war, debt and madness’. This differentiates the book from his more academic publications but it also defines a narrower core and a concentration on an intimate rather than a general history. As usual Dooley provides as full a background as possible, but the decline of the family is firmly connected here to an unfortunate marriage, an adulterous love-affair and the catastrophic inheritance of property and title by a son born out of wedlock.

Described by Winston Churchill as the most beautiful woman he had ever met, Hermione Duncombe was 19 when she consented in 1884 to a possibly arranged marriage to Gerald, the 32- year Marquess of Kildare and later the 5th. While she was vivacious, socially active and popular, he was studious, reclusive and scrupulous, yet they appear at first to have enjoyed the splendid life focused on their London associates, most of them aristocratic and many of them royal. As Dooley extols the baroque grandeur of Carton, its library, its pictures and sculptures, its great demesne and its army of staff, it’s not hard to see why, whatever the emerging fault-lines in her marriage, the Irish estate also offered Hermione and her children many opportunities for enjoyment.

The long FitzGerald dominance in Ireland stemmed from the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169 which included Maurice FitzGerald. Only 15 years later Maurice described like a premonition what was to be the lasting and occasionally fatal dilemma of the Dukes of Leinster. ‘Just as we are English so far as the Irish are concerned, likewise to the English we are Irish, and the inhabitants of this island and of the other assail us with an equal degree of hatred.’ Good estate management and skilful diplomacy ensured that the FitzGeralds survived in their Kildare territory where they built their castle at Maynooth; this property later yielded to Carton, with Kilkea Castle as the subsidiary home. They managed their dual relationships so successfully that what became known as the Kildare Ascendency only came to an end with Silken Thomas, 10th Earl of Kildare, whose doomed uprising led to his execution and that of five of his uncles in 1537. But the family had used its centuries of power to create loyal and lasting friendships in Ireland, England and on the Continent, absorbing as well the great cultural, political and religious developments of the times. Ambitious marriages secured land and wealth (especially through the wedding of George FitzGerald to Joan, daughter of Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork).

The strife-torn castle at Maynooth was dismantled by 1682 and it was not until 1739 that the 19th earl of Kildare purchased a lease on Carton, a mansion a short distance from Castletown. That was the home of William Connolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and his wife Lady Louisa, sister of Emily Lennox, who had married James FitzGerald, 1st Duke of Leinster. It was Emily and James who were to complete the transformation of Carton to the Palladian style preferred by the architect Richard Castle, the architect responsible for Powerscourt, Russborough and Dublin’s Leinster House among others.

As the ladies of Carton and Castletown were descendants of Charles II, Dooley suggests that connections at court must have smoothed the FitzGerald elevation to the peerage, with James as 1st Duke having the tremendous rental income of £40,000 a year. No wonder Carton, inside and out, must have been a wonder in Ireland; no wonder, having survived all the tensions of Irish and English economic and political events (put under severe pressure, for example, by the career and fate of Lord Edward FitzGerald) the FitzGeralds must have felt the sun could never set on their Irish kingdom.

But it did. While annuities, Home Rule, the Land League and the Land Acts give something of a sunset mist to the years soon after the London wedding of Hermione and Gerald, it is to this event that Terence Dooley anchors the narrative drive of his book.

At its centre is the collection of letters written by Hermione to her sister and especially to her friend Evelyn de Vesci. In these she reveals the frustrations of life with Gerald, in which his control of every aspect of her existence resulted in bouts of melancholia and despair.

Having married the wrong man, Hermione then fell in love with Hugo Charteris, a differently wrong man. Their son Edward was born in 1892. Divorce was out of the question for a man such as the 5th Duke of Leinster; the boy was accepted as a member of the family and Hermione returned to Carton.

The Duke died two years later and Hermione began a peripatetic life which ended in the South of France in 1895. She was 30 years old.

Of her three sons Maurice inherited the title and estates but he was mentally unstable; Desmond died in the First World War, and Edward, who succeeded Maurice and whose gambling, borrowing, spending and utter lack of concern for his responsibilities as a landlord (and for his four wives) wrecked the Carton estate and brought himself to bankruptcy and ruin.

Most of the contents of Carton were bought by William Randolph Hearst in 1925 and that same year its immensely valuable library was sold in Dublin.

Dooley’s richly detailed account of this disaster includes Edward’s dealings with the businessman Henry Mallaby-Deeley. The businessman got Carton and all its income in exchange for Edward’s guaranteed allowance of £1,000 a year. A mess of pottage, in other words, although Mallaby-Deeley turned out to be a conscientious proprietor, guided by Charles Hamilton, who seems to have survived as the FitzGerald agent in Ireland for more than 60 years. Eventually the estate sold to the hotelier Ronald Nall-Cain and 30 years later to Powerscreen Ltd. whose founder Lee Mallaghan has established it as the country house hotel we know today.

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