An excavated grave at St Mary’s Collegiate Church in Youghal, a vineyard in Australia, a letter from Daniel O’Connell and the planting of a cherry tree may seem unlikely links in a single chain, but they all lead to the serene landscape surrounding Dromana House in County Waterford.
Making all the connections as she prays for good weather and figures out the catering, entertainments, lodgings and bookings is Barbara Grubb, hostess, with her family, for the great FitzGerald Rally on Friday July 3 which kicks off the weekend celebrations marking the 800th anniversary of the arrival of the FitzGeralds at Dromana.
A little south of Cappoquin, this is the heartland of the Decies, a territory clasped between the Blackwater and the Drum Hills.
“Everything is going very well,” says Barbara as she identifies sites for displays of falconry, archery, hoopla and skittles in a programme of events from rallies, river cruises, feasts and a food market to a puppet show, Rebecca Storm in concert and a chance to watch blacksmiths at work and beekeepers keeping bees.
The Dromana story originates with Thomas FitzAnthony, Seneschel of Leinster who in 1215 was granted the counties of Waterford and Desmond.
There began, through marriage, the long line of FitzGeralds in West Waterford, and Barbara Grubb’s guests on Friday will include the Duke and Duchess of Leinster, while on Sunday the Georgian party, evoking the huge 18th-century mansion which was demolished in the early 1960s, will be presided over by Senator David Norris.
Several genealogists will be present on Sunday to give private advisory sessions.
At Dromana today the spread of rooms from the main hall reaches to the edge of the precipice above the river and still incorporates a section of the medieval tower which originally declared the FitzGerald presence.
The removal of the Georgian house revealed a its core the 17th century manor, still a sight to behold as it stands at the very brink of the crag above the Blackwater.
Just as the river surges down to its estuary at Youghal, passing Cappoquin, Villierstown and Camphire, so the family of Dromana, keeping its presence at the estate for 800 unbroken but not untroubled years, seems to have eddied off into a tracery of other family names.
Born a Villiers-Stuart, Barbara explains that they all amount to the same thing: the Villiers-Stuarts sprang from the FitzGerald descendants of that same Fitz Anthony of 1215, taking in on the way such titles as the Earls of Desmond, the Barons of Dromana and Viscounts Decies, the Earls of Grandison, the Lords Villiers and thence Baron Stuart de Decies and the current Villiers-Stuart family.
“All this marrying and making of marriages will be clear to everyone on July 3 when the full heraldic family tree created by Gerard Crotty will be on display,” she says.
As she guides people through the house, Barbara herself can spin off the names, the allegiances, the feuds and the battles. Villierstown, for example, was named for the first Earl Grandison, who introduced the linen industry to the district to alleviate a famine in 1739.
The village was known at the time as Dromana, and was expanded to house the linen workers imported from the North of Ireland. The unusually wide main street accommodated the turning of the flax into ropes.
The only other recognised Dromana in the world appears to be in Australia, on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, where the Dromana Estate vineyard produces fine wines. Barbara believes the village’s name travelled to Australia with the families who emigrated from Aglish, Clashmore and Villierstown in the 19th century.
Friday will also see Councillor Graham Pittock of Mornington planting a cherry tree at Waterford’s Dromana in commemoration of that famous old Countess of Desmond, said to have lived to 140 and only dying as a result of falling from a cherry tree
Like the poor and taxes, history is always with us (although not for much longer if the fine intellects of the Department of Education have their way with the reformed Junior Certificate curriculum): it was only last autumn that part of the aisle in St Mary’s Church in Youghal collapsed and revealed a tomb dating from 1664.
To Barbara’s great excitement, the burial was identified as that of Sir John FitzGerald of the Decies, whose only child Katherine FitzGerald became a ward of Lord Richard Power of Curraghmore. Inheriting Dromana, young Katherine was a great heiress and with true family feeling Sir Richard arranged her marriage, at 12 years of age, with his eight-year old son John.
Despite Katherine’s strong protests they were married by the Archbishop of Canterbury, but two years later Katherine left her 10-year old husband and eloped with Edward Villiers, nephew of the king’s mistress Barbara Villiers.
Katherine and Edward won the subsequent legal case. They remained in charge of Dromana and Katherine regained her rights as Viscountess Decies and was later created Viscountess Grandison of Limerick.
The riot of name changes at Dromana means that the flow of inheritance often followed through the female line.
Although the women were influential in their own right (Katherine FitzGerald’s daughter, for example, was grandmother of William Pitt the Elder) inevitably it is the men who hit the headlines, as with Henry Villiers-Stuart, for whose marriage in 1826 the welcoming local people built the triumphal Hindu-Gothic arch which later was rebuilt in stone and still stands over the bridged road to Dromana and Villierstown.
This Henry Stuart of the Decies stood successfully as a supporter of Catholic Emancipation in the election of 1826, with Daniel O’Connell as his election agent and in direct opposition to many of his neighbours, including the powerful Beresfords of Curraghmore.
O’Connell not only enjoyed his campaigning tours in “Mr Stuart’s carriage,” but his extremely affectionate letters to his wife in June 1826 express his liking for Dromana as well.
In 1921, some hint of this connection with ‘The Liberator’ may have influenced the local IRA Battalion who forced an Adjutant and Officer Commanding to return “all the swords in the house” they had taken, along with Grattan’s Volunteer flags, during an unofficial raid on Dromana.
The flags had been burned, but the swords still hang in the house. Those buying tickets for the events on the three-day programme will want to explore the intriguing Dromana House and its long gardens leading down to the bastions and boathouse along the shore.
Saturday will see a medieval banquet, hog roast and poetry, and on Friday neighbouring Blackwater houses are offering silver-service dinners in beautiful dining rooms with inviting gardens for roaming or sitting with a glass of wine as the summer sun declines.
When the current representatives of 26 generations of FitzGeralds meet they will gather around Emily Villiers-Stuart who, with her late husband James, came back in 1995 not only to revive Dromana but to preserve the great Villiers-Stuart archive later bought by the Boole Library at University College Cork.
See www.dromana800.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org , and you can book by phone on 087-4660921.