We all of us descend from men and women whose names we will never know. Until recent centuries, every generation simply came and fell like fields of wheat. When one contemplates the extraordinary legacy of our lost ancestors, it seems they understood the machinations of our planet better than we do. It matters not whether these forbears were from the icy Artic or the plains of Africa, the deserts of Arabia or the forests of Europe. In every land there are testimonies to the ingenuity of forgotten people. County Wicklow, the soft, mountainous terrain in which this book is set, sparkles with the granite legacy of these ancient people. Circles of rock echoing a harvest moon, standing stones pointing to a solstice morn, mounds of grassy earth where children once danced and old men fought.
County Wicklow is a gorgeous part of Ireland. Between its voluptuous mountains and rocky coastline, it has entranced everyone from philosophical hermits and Vikings marauders to Hollywood film directors and the economic whiz-kids of modern Ireland.
The nine principle families who feature in this book descend from adventurous people of courage and conviction who arrived in Wicklow when Ireland was a violent island perched on the edge of the world. Some like the Humes, Dicks and Leslies were Scottish in origin, beneficiaries of Jacobite kings and the prosperous linen trade in Ulster. Most were English. The Bartons came from Lancashire, the Childers from Yorkshire, the Wingfields from Suffolk and the Ellis’s and Tighes from Lincolnshire. Some claim descent from exciting characters; the Wingfields from a Saxon warrior, the Brabazons from a Belgian mercenary who fought at Hastings.
In the 200 years following the Tudor invasion of Ireland in the mid-16th century, each of these families established themselves as vital cogs in the colonial system. Ownership of land, the acreage beneath one’s feet, was the most patent symbol of wealth. As such, their influence came to bear not just on their various land-holdings but also upon the whole of Ireland and, in many instance, upon the wider world beyond. Thus these families became intertwined with that extraordinary, mesmerising, bewildering age of the Ascendancy.
Interpreting the past can be a double-edged sword and it is always worth noting where a particular author’s loyalties might lie. There is a growing awareness that history, good or bad, is made by people, real human beings with real human conundrums. Perhaps it is the influence of so many newcomers to our shores but Ireland is gradually coming to terms with its past. And not everything about it was awful.
Any family history that focuses on the bare, irreducible facts of birth, deaths and marriages will quickly become unbearably tedious to read. Without the dramatic assistance of anecdote and description, the lineage of even the most enterprising of clans can prove exceedingly dull. I hope the tales told herein add a small splash of colour to the past. Many of the characters in this book were players on a stage that circulated the entire world. A cousin of the Wingfields of Powerscourt founded the first settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. Henry Ellis of Magherymore was Governor of Georgia. The Bartons made their fortune selling French wine to rich Americans. The Dicks prospered in the Far East and the Childers in Ceylon. The philanthropic no-nonsense 12th Earl of Meath would undoubtedly have painted the globe in the colours of the Empire but, down at Glendalough, Erskine Childers would find the treatment of the Boers in South Africa soured his appetite for the imperial way. No family was unaffected by the conflicts of the 20th century. At Kilmacurragh, ownership of the ancestral estate was thrown into chaos by the death in action of all three Acton brothers.
As regards these houses today, only Kilruddery and Fortgranite remain in the hands of their original owners. Powerscourt still carries the influence of the Wingfields through their close kinship with the Slazengers. The Powerscourt estate is now home to the a luxurious five star hotel. There are many in the neighbourhood of Glendalough House who recall the families of Barton and Childers though the house itself is gone. Mimi Hume passed away in 1992, since when Humewood Castle has become a popular retreat for sportsmen and celebrities. Shelton Abbey is presently a reformatory prison and Magherymore is headquarters of the Columbian Missionaries. Kilmacurragh is a ruin awaiting restoration and Rossanagh is a ghost of its former self. So now, as the story goes, I raise my glass to the past.