In the wake of the BBC’s successful hunt in 2002 for the “Greatest Briton” ever – Churchill, incidentally – I initiated a quest in the Kildare Times to find the “Greatest Kildarian” of all time. My six nominees all had one thing in common. They all featured in a book I had just released called “The Landed Gentry & Aristocracy of Kildare”. The book offers a unique historical insight into eighteen of Co. Kildare’s most influential “big house” families.
The families profiled are those of Aylmer, Barton, de Burgh, Clements, Conolly, Guinness, Henry, Fennell, FitzGerald, Latten, La Touche, Mansfield, Maunsell, Medlicott, More O’Ferrall, Moore, de Robeck and Wolfe. The story of these often eccentric dynasties is set against the backdrop of the past – the violent religious wars of the 17th century, the rise of the British Empire in the 18th and the run up to Irish independence in 1921.
My nominees were:
The founding father of the Guinness Brewery must be amongst the most famous names in the world. Across the world, more than a million pints of Guinness are now consumed every day. Arthur’s father, “Richard Guinis”, was principal steward to Dr. Arthur Price, sometime Vicar of Celbridge and later Archbishop of Cashel. By 1752, Richard and his second wife Elizabeth were running an inn in Celbridge. On December 31st 1759, Arthur Guinness, aged 34, took a 9,000-year lease on a brewery at £45 a year. That brewery was St. James’ Gate in Dublin, now the largest stout brewery in the world. In 1876, Arthur’s great-grandson Edward Guinness (the Earl of Iveagh) took sole control of the brewery and swiftly became the richest man in Ireland.
2. Lord Edward FitzGerald (1763 – 1798), Revolutionary
A profoundly romantic Byronesque figure in Irish revolutionary history, Lord Edward was the fifth son of James FitzGerald, 1st Duke of Leinster. As a young man, he served with the British during the American War of Independence. He subsequently became one of the principal leaders of the United Irishmen, a radical but liberal society of Protestants, Presbyterians and Catholics determined to eradicate English control of Irish politics. He was arrested on 19th May 1798 but mortally wounded during the process. One cannot help but wonder whether the subsequent Rebellion, spearheaded by Wolfe Tone, might have succeeded had he lived. His French wife Pamela, widely believed to have been a daughter of the flamboyant Duke of Orleans, gave him a son and two daughters. See here for more.
3. “Silken Thomas” (1513 – 1537), Rebel Leader
The hot-headed firstborn son of the 9th Earl of Kildare descended from the Anglo-Norman FitzGerald family who had secured almost total control of Leinster during the 14th and 15th century. When Henry VIII’s Tudor army began encroaching on the FitzGerald’s power base in the 1530s, Silken Thomas went into armed rebellion. A vast English army was rapidly dispatched across the Irish Sea; the eastern half of Ireland was plunged into a brutal war for the next eighteen months. Despite early successes, the FitzGeralds were completely outnumbered and, in March 1535, their headquarters in Maynooth was destroyed and the defending garrison put to the sword. Thomas and five of his uncles were subsequently betrayed, captured and hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.
4. “Speaker Conolly” (1662 – 1729), Politician
The builder of Castletown House in Celbridge was truly a most remarkable man. His father was a Donegal innkeeper who made sufficient money providing drink and accommodation to English and Scottish settlers in the late 17th century to send young William to Dublin to study law. William returned to Donegal and quickly established himself as the foremost authority on land law. His expertise enabled him to start buying land in vast quantities and, by his death in 1729, he was the wealthiest man in Ireland. He was for many years Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. His life stands testament to the fact that, even in the 18th century, a man of relatively humble origins could, if he played by the rules, rise through the ranks to a position of immense influence. He became a legend in his own lifetime, an inspiration to young middle class Protestants throughout Ireland.
5. French Tom (1694–1780) & Hugh Barton (1766–1854), Wine Merchants
Tom Barton was the great-grandson of an English settler murdered by Catholics during the Ulster Rebellion of 1641. In the 1720s, Tom and his wife Margaret moved to Bordeaux in France and set themselves up as wine merchants. Tom’s grandson Hugh took on the business in 1780 at which time the company was shipping 125,000 barrels of wine annually. One of Hugh’s principal clients was Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. It was through Jefferson that Barton met Daniel Guestier. After the French Revolution, the two men formed the partnership, Barton and Guestier, famous today for the “B & G” wine label. In 1831 Hugh purchased Straffan House (now The K Club) from the Henry family; his descendants lived there until 1949.
6. The 7th Duke of Leinster (1892–1976)
Although there have now been nine Dukes of Leinster, the 7th Duke – named Lord Edward FitzGerald after his revolutionary kinsmen – merits inclusion for his remarkable commitment to roguery. He was the youngest of three boys orphaned shortly after his birth in 1892. By 1910, he had amassed such colossal debts through gambling that he was obliged to accept an offer from a wily businessman Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley. Sir Harry lent Edward £60,000 on the understanding that should Edward ever become Duke of Leinster, an unlikely event with two elder brothers, then all the income from the Leinster’s Irish estates would pass to Sir Harry.
By 1922, both Edward’s elder brothers were dead and he became Duke. Sir Harry received an annual income of £80,000 ever after; the 7th Duke had to sell the family estate at Carton to pay off his debts. According to British State papers released in 2003, the 7th Duke later found some consolation in the arms of Wallis Simpson.