When Art Kavanagh first asked me to produce a book on the landed gentry and aristocracy of County Kildare, I shied away with all my might. I know about these family histories. They take an eternity. Fifteen years ago  I set about trying to create a small family tree for my father’s birthday. (The “tree” now sprawls across hundreds of pages of this website, much of it exceedingly tedious to anyone but the most fanatical genealogist. And I’ve yet to present it to my father because, well, its just not finished). But at length, my addictive personality kicked in, I plucked Burke’s Landed Gentry from the shelf and opened a file which, by the time I sat down to write this introduction, already ran to over 53,000 words.
I take refuge in the past. I find it a comfortable zone because it’s already happened. It can’t be changed. It simply is. The people I have written about in this book were real, living people. They acted in accordance with their upbringing and education, their mindsets honed by the political and social backdrop of the time in which they lived. Up until the 18th century, it seems to have been a game of survival. There followed close on two hundred years in which the Protestant gentry and aristocracy – the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy – held absolute power in Ireland. I don’t have a notion how many people in Ireland today would deem themselves “Anglo-Irish”. The term was perhaps useful in times gone by. It meant you were a wee bit Anglo but also rather Irish. Posh as port yet wild as the mountains once the port had been consumed.
In terms of the characters in this book, some were undoubtedly horrific individuals, utterly insensitive to the appalling state of Ireland in previous centuries. Others made it their life’s ambition to alleviate suffering, promote welfare and secure equal rights for the Catholic majority. On a grander scale many of these Kildare gents made a significant impact on the world at large – particularly on the battlefields of Europe and in the fledgling colonies of the British Empire.
After independence, of course, the map changed dramatically. Of the eighteen families covered in this book, only four – Charlie Clements of Killadoon, John de Burgh of Oldtown, John de Robeck of Gowran Grange and William Fennell of Burtown House – still reside in the house where their forbears lived a century ago. Robert Guinness of Lodge Park represents the completion of a circle that started with Richard Guinness in Kildare 300 years ago and returned to the county after World War Two. Morristown Lattin, Harristown House and Oakley Park are also in private ownership. Straffan House, Carton House, Kilkea Castle and Ballyna have been converted into golf and country clubs. Kildangan and Forenaghts are now incorporated into equine studs. Castletown House is owned by the state and open to the public. Donadea Castle is a ruin. Oakley Park and Moore Abbey are run by the St. John of Gods and Sisters of Charity respectively. It will not be long before the last of the tweed-clad, Spaniel toting gentleman vanishes in his entirety, taking with him a remarkable chapter in Irish history. Whether it is possible to remain a gentleman in the 21st century remains to be seen.
The trouble with family histories is new information keeps coming to light. Just when you’re about to call it a wrap, someone outs with a new document suggesting that a namesake from fifteen generations ago once got drunk with Guy Fawkes. Or perhaps a tiny reference on faded brown paper, a great-uncle who commanded a tank squadron in North Africa during World War Two. History is a self-perpetuating jigsaw and it is the historian’s job to accept that.
And thus I submit to you a short potted history of eighteen Kildare families. This is not intended as an authoritative compendium of pedigrees but rather as an exercise in reincarnation. My aim is to bring some element of colour and life into the dramatis personae who arose in my research, to provide something warmer than the cold, stone grave slabs scattered across the county. The families I selected were, to an extent, picked at random. There is certainly plenty enough other families to merit a second volume. One thinks of the Earls of Clonmell, Lord Cloncurry, the Eustaces and Brownes, the Sinnotts and Greenes.
I eagerly await comment from those seeking to fatten up those parts where I am lean and to rectify my inevitable blunders and gross exaggerations.
My sincere thanks to:
Anthony Barton, Hubie de Burgh, Pat Burke, Charlie Clements, Peter Cole, Will and Camilla Conolly-Carew, Brian Donovan, William Fennell, Harriet Fennell, Fiona Fisher, the Knight of Glin, Adam Goodwin, Robert Guinness, Captain M.C. Henry, Meryl Long, Hugo Jellet, Art Kavanagh, John Kirwan, Anthony Malcolmson, Tim Mansfield, Ciara McDonnell, Harry McDowell, Chris Medlicott, Mary Metcalfe, Adam Monaghan, Derry Moore, Nicola Morris, Kevin Mulligan, Hugh Murphy, Dermot Page, Jessica Rathdonnell, Stan Ridgeway, John de Robeck, John Rogers, Fiona Slevin, Sara Smyth, Alan Sweetman, www.tailormade-ireland.com, Jeremy Williams and Michael Woulfe.
Special thanks to Eneclann Lt. (www.eneclann.ie) – Professional Services for Irish History – for their generous support during the course of this project.
Cover Photograph: Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare ã James Fennell.