Leinster Dukes and Princes: An Irish Driving Tour

In September 2014, I attended a wedding of a dear friend in the south-east corner of Ireland, near Kilkenny. The wedding was hosted in a gorgeous country house called Borris. I knew nothing about this house with an odd-sounding name, but in the evening before the wedding, after the rehearsal dinner, I chatted with the owner, Mr Morris Kavanagh, who told me without much fanfare that if the ancient Kingdom of Leinster still had a king, that this would be his residence. Leinster—one of the four ancient provinces of Ireland—has not had a recognised king since the twelfth century, following the English invasions led by Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare, but it does have a duke today, even if he hasn’t lived in Ireland since the 1940s. This driving tour blog will follow a circuit I made in the days preceding the wedding, and the castles and towns I visited related to ancient kings of Leinster (and the neighbouring kingdom of Munster), and to Ireland’s two ducal families: FitzGerald and Butler. Along the way, the itinerary also stops in on the Duke of Devonshire’s Irish seat, Lismore Castle, and we will learn that this part of Ireland has been influenced by both St. Kenny and St. Kevin!

As you can see from this map, the trip covered mostly south-central Ireland, the counties of Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny, with stops in counties Kildare and Carlow. It was a brilliantly warm September, so I was looking forward to a long drive in the countryside with windows rolled down and lots of wind and music. I picked up a car at the airport in Dublin and drove west into the countryside of County Kildare where I ventured into the parking lot of the ‘luxury hotel and golf resort’ Carton House, formerly the seat of the FitzGeralds, dukes of Leinster since the 18th century. I did peer into the lobby, but alas am not a millionaire, so couldn’t see much beyond. The conversion of this house and its estate into a golfer’s paradise has been criticised as a great loss to the heritage of Ireland, and I certainly agree, though I can see the point of the Irish government and people not wishing to commemorate or celebrate a palatial home that could be seen to represent over 900 years of oppression by the English. Still, it seems like something beautiful and of genuine historical importance has been lost. I see on the hotel’s website that there is a plan for 2020 to renovate much of the 18th-century interiors, so I hope they allow plebs like me in to see it.

When thinking about built heritage, it’s worth asking: do families like the FitzGeralds really represent the English colonial oppression of the Irish? As always, history is rarely black and white, and, as is often pointed out, the FitzGeralds and other Anglo-Irish families like them resisted the Tudor attempts at tighter control in the 16th century, and indeed, one of the leading members of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was Lord Edward FitzGerald, a martyr for the cause of Irish independence. Lord Edward represented the ideals of the Enlightenment, the American Revolution and the French Revolution; even his close connections to the British royal family itself (his mother was a great-grand-daughter of King Charles II) were not enough to save him from a brutal death.

The arrest of Lord Edward FitzGerald

The Fitzgeralds were first awarded lands in this area in the 1170s as a reward for their part in the capture of Dublin by Anglo-Norman armies of ‘Strongbow’. The family remained in place as one of the chief families of the English-occupied area of eastern Ireland (known as ‘the Pale’), first as barons of Offaly, then as earls of Kildare, from 1315. In the 15th century they reigned as virtual sovereigns in this part of Ireland (mostly while the English were preoccupied with the Wars of the Roses), but soon lost some of this prominence by resisting the Tudor reforms, both of politics and religion, imposed by Henry VIII—leading to full out rebellion in 1537, and the execution of the 10th earl and several of his family members.

Slowly rebuilding their local power and influence over the next century, Carton House was designed in the 1740s as a palatial country residence for the 20th Earl of Kildare, by the architect Richard Cassels, who also built the Earl’s Dublin residence, Kildare House, which was later known as Leinster House, and today is the seat of the Oireachtas, the parliament of Ireland. Kildare was raised to a marquisate in 1761, then again to a dukedom (of Leinster) in 1766. The Duke and Duchess of Leinster were sometimes referred to as the ‘king and queen of Ireland’, and they lived in almost royal splendour. The Duchess, Lady Emily Gordon-Lennox, the grand-daughter of Charles II (and his mistress, Louise de Keroualle) referred to above, was responsible for much of the development of Carton and its gardens, and in particular, the famous Shell Cottage, a small retreat decorated with shells sent to her from all over the world.

the interior of Shell Cottage

Carton House was enlarged and remodeled in the 19th century by the 3rd Duke of Leinster. But, becoming heavily indebted by the early 20th century, and obviously having no more role in Irish politics after 1922, the FitzGeralds gradually sold off the lands and the house. In the 1970s Carton House was owned by a wealthy English peer (of Irish descent), Baron Brocket, and used for several films such as Barry Lyndon (1975), then sold to the owners who developed it into the golf course and hotel.

Having not really seen much beyond a parking lot and a lobby, I was eager to really get out into the countryside. I drove west along the new M4 motorway till I reached virtually the centre of the island, and turned south. The central plain of Ireland is gorgeous, rolling hills, of course very green. As with previous driving trips, I wanted to sample recordings of locally made traditional music, so I stopped in a small shop in a town and purchase two CDs: one a typically cheesy mix of tourist-friendly Irish folk music, and the other a bit more obscure, with the festive title “Jig it in Style”, by the fiddler Seán Keane, a member of The Chieftains. This recording is instrumental only, which makes for good driving music.

‘Brereton’s Reel’ from Jig it in Style

Continuing south, the flatness of this central region eventually produced a dramatic effect for the large castle outcrop that appeared on the horizon: the Rock of Cashel. I have to admit, my knowledge of Irish history was at the time almost nil, and I had never heard of Cashel, so I was so energised to discover this place, and can recommend it as one of the best sites I’ve visited in Ireland, not just for the visuals of a fairly romantic ruin, but as an important historical centre.

The Rock of Cashel is a fascinating combination of castle and cathedral, reflecting how early Celtic monarchies often blended the secular and the sacred more closely than other European monarchical systems. The story goes that this was the place where St. Patrick convinced the King of Munster to accept Christianity in the 5th century. Munster is the kingdom to the west of Leinster, historically ruled by either O’Brians or MacCarthys (and then divided between them, into north and south), and was one of the last provinces to submit to English rule, and even after that remaining largely independent of the government in Dublin until the late 16th century. There’s a lot of territory to cover, from Cork to Kerry, so that is certainly on the agenda of future driving tours. The Rock of Cashel remained the seat of Munster’s kings until 1101 when it was given to the Church (as the seat of an archbishop from 1118). New buildings were built in the 12th-13th centuries, notably by King Cormac MacCarthaigh. Taken over by the Protestant Church of Ireland in the Reformation, the old buildings were abandoned in the 18th century and a new (pretty dull) cathedral was built in the town of Cashel. Catholics were once again allowed to have an archdiocese of their own in the 19th century, and a new Italianate fantasy cathedral was built in the nearby town of Thurles in the 1860s. I spent the whole afternoon walking through the Rock of Cashel and its surrounding hillside covered in sheep, then stayed the night in town.

The next day, I headed west and briefly looked at the town of Tipperary (of course singing the famous World War I era song in my head the whole time). It is not a particularly remarkable town, and not the largest town nor even the administrative seat of the county that bears its name. I was, however, fascinated to see the huge presence in shop fronts and colourful billboards and banners all over town of a massive sports rivalry between Tipperary and Kilkenny—and not for football or rugby: hurling. Tipperary blue versus Kilkenny black and gold.

From Tipperary I drove a short distance to Cahir, another magnificent medieval castle built by a conquering Anglo-Norman family, the Butlers. Sometimes spelled Caher, or Cathair (‘stone ringfort’) in Irish, the castle sits magnificently on an island in the River Suir.

Originally the site of an abbey, in the 12th century a castle was built by one of the O’Brian kings of Munster. Taken by the English, it was granted by Edward III to James Butler, 2nd earl of Ormond, in 1375. This title (Ormond, or Urumhain) reflects the division of the ancient kingdom of Munster into three parts: northern (Thomond), southern (Desmond) and eastern (Ormond) and gave the earls great autonomous authority in this corner of Ireland. The Butlers had originally been hereditary Chief Butlers of Ireland since 1192—yes, the household officer in charge of supplying drinks, with the lucrative fiscal privilege of taking a cut on all barrels of wine imported into Ireland—and evolved into one of the other major Anglo-Irish families, like the FitzGeralds, for the next eight centuries, frequently holding high office like county sheriff or even several times Lord Lieutenant, the chief representative of the Crown in Ireland. Cahir Castle was given to a cadet branch of the Butler family in the 15th century, and they were created Baron Cahir in 1542 by Henry VIII. But this branch of the family did not remain loyal (unlike their kinsmen the earls of Ormond), and defended Irish Catholicism in the wars against Elizabeth I, until their nearly impregnable fortress was finally taken, by the Queen’s champion, the Earl of Essex, in 1599.

The barons Cahir were eventually pardoned and restored, but they had lost most of their power, and the castle was mostly in ruins by the 18th century. The last Baron died in1961 and the castle passed into state ownership, and is now a major tourist attraction in this region. Like Carton House, Cahir Castle has also been used as a film set, notably for Excalibur (1981) and some scenes of the recent television series The Tudors. I stayed my second night in this really lovely town—highly recommended.

Early the next morning, I headed further south, along a small windy road across the Knockmealdown Mountains, into County Waterford, and the valley of the Blackwater River. Here I visited Lismore Castle, the Irish seat of the dukes of Devonshire. It has a tremendous vantage point over the Blackwater, and its extensive gardens are impressive to walk around, but sadly the house is not open for visitors.

How did one of the leading Derbyshire families, the Cavendishes, come to own one of the largest castles in Ireland? It passed to them by marriage in 1753, that of the daughter of the 3rd Earl of Burlington (Lady Charlotte Boyle) and the 4th duke of Devonshire, and is today the seat of the heir to the dukedom, who uses the title Earl of Burlington. He has opened part of the castle as an arts centre, and commissioned contemporary artists to populate the gardens, notably Antony Gormley, whose standing human figures are instantly recognisable.

Lios Mór (‘great fort’) was originally built by Prince John (the future King John) in 1185 to defend a river crossing in the northern approaches to County Waterford, one of the English strongholds on the south coast. Like Cashel and Cahir, this too had religious origins, and Lismore Abbey had been an important centre of learning since the 7th century. It remained the seat of the local bishop until it was taken over the earls of Desmond (another branch of the FitzGeralds) in the early 16th century. These earls also rebelled against the Tudor crown in the 1590s, but unlike the Butlers in Cahir, their lands were not restored, but instead were sold, first to Sir Walter Raleigh, then in 1602 to an English adventurer and colonial administrator, Richard Boyle. He was later created Baron Boyle, 1616, Earl of Cork, 1620, and finally Lord Treasurer of Ireland, 1631. Having amassed a large fortune, he transformed his new seat at Lismore into a palatial residence. It was the birthplace of his many children, including the famous chemist, Robert Boyle, but the Castle was sidelined by later descendants who preferred to develop instead properties closer to the court in London, notably Burlington House, on Piccadilly, and Chiswick House on the River Thames. All of these properties were therefore part of the great windfall of the heiress Lady Charlotte Boyle, 4th Duchess of Devonshire. The 6th Duke of Devonshire transformed the castle into its current neo-gothic appearance in the 1810s-20s (with fantastic neo-gothic interiors as well), and continued remodelling it as late as the 1850s, commissioning the designer of his gardens at Chatsworth, and the Crystal Palace in London, Joseph Paxton, to perform his magic at Lismore. In the 20th century, the castle was given to a younger son, Lord Charles Cavendish, who lived here with his wife Adele Astaire (the dancer, sister of Fred)—she lived until 1981, and is commemorated in some of the artworks in the public art gallery.

A Lismore Irish rose

It was raining as I set off eastwards, then crossed the hills back into the valley of the River Suir. Now back in Butler territory, I travelled down the river valley to the town of Carrick, located at the juncture of the counties Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny. Carrick (Carraig) means simply ‘rock’, and the town was formerly an island in the river. The main line of the Butler family was based here from the early 14th century, and their first major Irish title was Earl of Carrick (1315), but this was soon replaced with the Earldom of Ormond (1328), for James Butler (or ‘Le Botiler’ as it was still sometimes spelled), 7th Chief Butler of Ireland. The earldom was created with ‘palatine privileges’ over County Tipperary, which means authority ‘from the palace’, as if the sovereign were present in person (receiving oaths, organising military activity, administering justice, etc); and these unprecedented privileges were enjoyed by the Butlers until they were finally reclaimed by the Crown in 1715. The castle built here, therefore, had to be symbolic of English royal authority, and in the 15th century, the earls improved the original fortress by adding four large round towers. These are now mostly a ruin, but still extant is the adjacent Tudor manor house, the first residence built in this style in Ireland. It was erected by the 10th Earl of Ormond who had spent time at the court of Elizabeth I, his cousin via the Boleyns, and desired to bring back some of this Tudor architectural style to Ireland.

Ormond Castle, Carrick

In the 17th century, James Butler, the 12th Earl of Ormond, founded a woollen industry in Carrick and the town flourished—well situated between the sheep-covered interior and the major port of Waterford just a few miles downstream. He was probably the family’s most prominent member: commander of Royalist forces in Ireland during the Civil War, and rewarded at first with a marquisate (1642), and then a dukedom in 1661 as he was sent back to Ireland to govern as Lord-Lieutenant for much of the Restoration period. Following the Duke’s death in 1688, his descendants mostly abandoned Ormond Castle in Carrick, in favour of Kilkenny Castle. It was given to the state in the 1940s, and restored in the 1990s.

That afternoon I drove cross-country into County Kilkenny, and its county town of the same name, where I was to stay for the next few nights. This town, similarly festooned for the upcoming hurling match versus Tipperary—now everything was in black and gold stripes, not blue—is a lot more lively than its sporting rival.

Situated on both banks of the River Nore, it had been a prosperous walled city of merchants as early as the 13th century. This prosperity of course masks a darker history, as with many towns here, in that most of these merchants were English or Anglo-Irish, and the Irish-speaking community were kept firmly segregated (there is still an area of the town called ‘Irishtown’). The town then, and now, was dominated by two great buildings, sacred and secular, the cathedral and the castle. The first of these gave the town its name, as the Church (cill) of St. Canice (Cainnech, also known as St. Kenneth or even St. Kenny), a warrior-monk who supposedly defeated the last archdruid of Ireland on this hilltop in 597 and finally completed the conversion of Ireland. The abbey founded on the spot took the Saint’s name, and was later raised into an archbishopric in 1111. One of the original 9th-century round towers survives, but most of the building is from the 13th century. Some of it features a distinctive local black marble, the same stone used in the new tomb built for Richard III in Leicester Cathedral for his reburial in 2015.

As with Cashel, princely and ecclesiastical power often mingled, and this cathedral site served as the seat of the kings of Ossory (Osraige)—a narrow wedge between the larger kingdoms of Leinster and Munster—until they were pushed out of the area by the arrival of the English. Strongbow himself built a new castle on a rise on the other side of the river in 1195, probably of wood, and a massive stone fortress with four round towers was later  constructed in the 1260s. Three of these massive towers still stand, while the fourth was destroyed in the violence of the 1640s. The Butlers took over the castle in 1391, and Kilkenny Castle became their primary seat by the 17th century.

By this point there had been significant transformations in the town—the Cathedral was now Protestant, as were the Butlers (well, some of them). The Marquess of Ormond (the later Duke) nevertheless permitted the Confederation of Kilkenny to be based in his castle in the 1640s, while he resided in Dublin as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This Confederation was formed by a group of Catholic nobles and gentry who, while professing their loyalty to the Crown, pressed for greater Irish autonomy. Based in Kilkenny, they set up a government which controlled about 2/3 of Ireland until it was crushed by Parliamentary forces in 1649. Ormond himself followed the new king (Charles II) into exile in France, and when he returned during the Restoration, the now Duke of Ormonde (usually spelling it now with a terminal e, as being more French), he remodeled much of Kilkenny Castle according to French tastes.

The Butlers of Ormonde lost much of their influence after the 2nd Duke joined the Jacobite cause in the early 18th century, and their titles were attainted. As a dynasty, the Butlers were surpassed by the Fitzgeralds as the first family of Ireland, though their lands and titles (earldom and marquisate, but not dukedom) were restored by the 19th century. Kilkenny Castle was remodelled once again in the now fashionable neo-gothic style, which is how it appears today. The family remained in residence during the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, then finally in 1935 sold the contents in a massive public sale and relocated to London—the 6th Marquess of Ormonde sold the castle to the town in 1967, for a mostly symbolic £50. Kilkenny Castle today forms a central part of the city parks and the tourism industry of the town. Since 1997, the marquisate is extinct, or at least unclaimed, though there are several other branches of the Butler family spread across Ireland.

Having completed my wanderings, I now engaged with wedding celebrations for the next few days. The drive cross country (on tiny! roads) between County Kilkenny and County Carlow was a pleasant way to get into the spirit of things, and the setting of Borris House could not have been lovelier for a wedding. As already described at the start of this post, the owners of this enormous private house claimed that Borris would be the seat of the kings of Leinster, had the kingdom survived into the modern age. I was sceptical, as, in my line of work, you very often find aristocrats who make wild claims about their family’s past based on legend or misremembered history. So I did some checking up on Mr Kavanagh and found that there was really much truth to his claim, and it turns out, the story is even more intriguing.

Kavanagh of Borris

The name Kavanagh is an Anglicisation of Caomhánach, which means ‘of Kevin’, and refers to the founder of this branch of the royal house of Leinster, Domhnall ‘Caomhánach’ MacMurchada, who was raised at the Abbey of St. Caomhan (or ‘St. Kevin’, don’t laugh), in County Wexford. Wexford and Carlow (the county in which Borris House is situated) were the heartlands of the old kings of Leinster who adopted the surname MacMurchada (MacMurrough) in the 11th century. Their capital was at Ferns (in County Wexford, the area formerly known by its Gaelic name, Cheinnselaig or Kinsella) and several are buried there at the Abbey of St. Mary. Like most Gaelic ruling dynasties, they traced their lineage back for centuries through oral tradition, all the way back to ‘Milesians’, warriors who supposedly left Scythia and settled in Iberia, then eventually made their way to Hibernia, or Ireland. In recorded history—though certainly still open to mythologizing and misrepresentation—we have the father of our Domhnall, King Diarmaid, who was deposed by the High King of Ireland in 1167, fled to Wales, England and France seeking aid; and convinced the Earl of Pembroke, Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare, and his allies, to help him retake his lands (and probably aimed at becoming the High King himself), in exchange for his daughter’s hand and promise of succession—a promise which then involved Henry II, King of England, who did not wish his vassal, Pembroke, to attain such independent power. For inviting foreigners to invade Ireland, Diarmait is sometimes called Diarmait na nGall, or ‘Dermot of the Foreigners’. It should be no surprise that the Norman warlords did not help him become High King, and claimed his kingdom for themselves in the name of his daughter Aoife (or Eve, perhaps fitting for someone who—though not really her idea—caused the downfall of independent Ireland?), thus disinheriting Prince Domhnall ‘of Kevin’.

Did you follow that? Basically, infighting led to a foreign invasion. A lesson to be learned. The descendants of Domnhall Caomhánach at some point made Borris House their headquarters, further inland and away from the increasingly English southeast coastline. Some of these continued to use the title ‘King of Leinster’ though it didn’t mean much—with a notable exception in Art Og MacMurchada Caomhanach (MacMurrough Kavanagh), who genuinely revived the kingship in the 1370s, exerting his authority over Irish and Anglo-Norman lords alike; he did formally submit to Richard II in 1394, but immediately renounced his oath. The very last was Domhnall ‘Spáinneach’, who got his nickname (the Spaniard) from his travels abroad as a youth, and tried to assert his authority as King of Leinster in the 1590s, but was crushed alongside the other Irish chieftains by the forces of Elizabeth I. Unlike many of those who fled abroad, never to return, Domhnall submitted to Elizabeth in 1603, and lived in peace until 1632. His successors were simply ‘Mr Kavanagh of Borris’, or, unofficially, ‘The MacMurrough’ indicating their position as head of an Irish clan. The most famous of these was Arthur, head of the family from 1853, who, despite having essentially no arms and legs, just stumps, since birth, was nevertheless able to travel widely (Egypt, Persia, India) and even to ride a horse. He served for many years as an MP for County Carlow, and rose in the ranks to be named High Sheriff of County Kilkenny, Lord Lieutenant of County Carlow, and finally a member of the Privy Council for Ireland in 1886. Here’s an interesting article about him:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20592861

Arthur’s grandson, Sir Dermot MacMurrough-Kavanagh, was Crown Equerry of the Royal Household, 1941-55, one of the major household officers in Buckingham Palace. He was the last male of this family, and with his death in 1958, the title of ‘The MacMurrough’, by some accounts, became extinct. Borris House passed to his niece, Joanne, who, to bring a nicely circular end to this story, married the Duke of Leinster (though I have no idea if anyone made the connection that the potential Gaelic-Irish queen of Leinster was marrying the Anglo-Irish duke of Leinster). Their marriage ended in divorce, however, and by the time she inherited, she was married to Lt-Col. Archibald Macalpine-Downie. Their son and grandson changed their name legally to Kavanagh, and manage the property today.

Borris House

Although it is a private home, Borris House, on a flatland on the banks of the river Barrow, is well-situated to make use of its lovely views of the Blackstairs Mountains as a venue for weddings and other events. There isn’t much there that signified to me as I wandered the grounds that this was an ancient place—the house was mostly built as a Tudor Revival manor house in the 1730s by Morgan Kavanagh, then remodeled with some neo-gothic elements in the 1810s. An indication that it certainly was once the home of great lords, however, was the presence of a small private chapel on the grounds, which makes the site even more useful for weddings. The one I attended was indeed magical, though has a somewhat bittersweet memory for me, as the groom tragically died only a few months later. So in his honour, I will leave you with a bittersweet Irish parting song:

May Kenny and Kevin be with you!

the view from the Rock of Cashel

(images my own or courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy! My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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