The first building seen by visitors to Carton, County Kildare is a boathouse on the north side of the Rye Water. Said to have been constructed in expectation of a visit by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century, the boathouse makes an excellent first impression, provided not inspected too closely. Look at the other side of the building: here are slates already fallen off the roof, and others on the verge of doing so, allowing rainwater to damage the fabric. Unless necessary repairs are carried out by the hotel owners, the first building seen by visitors to Carton could yet be a ruin.
The 19th century boathouse on a stretch of the Rye Water at Carton, County Kildare, supposedly built in anticipation of a visit from Queen Victoria. Carton is among the properties I will be discussing next Saturday, October 10th when I speak on the subject of Building, contents, demesne: Understanding the Holy Trinity of the Country House. This will take place during next weekend’s Northern Ireland Heritage Gardens Committee conference, ‘Art and Architecture in Historic Garden Design’ being held at Hillsborough Castle, County Down. Further information on the event can be found on the NIHGC’s website, www.nihgc.org.
‘It is extraordinary how women’s figures change according to the fashion of the times. Then, hers seemed to be absolutely perfect. She had that wonderful long neck, and a skin so delicate and transparent that, like Mary Queen of Scots, when she swallowed, you could almost see the passage of the wine through her throat. I have never seen such a skin or such flesh…Her face was lovely, with soft brown eyes, a delicately formed, slightly retroussé nose, and brilliant, pouting lips. It was before the days of make-up and her wonderful colour was her own. Alas! That colour told its own tragic story. It was the beauty of the consumptive.’
Thus Hermione, fifth Duchess of Leinster as described by her friend Daisy Fingall (whose memoirs, Seventy Years Young cannot be sufficiently recommended to anyone who has yet to discover them). Judged one of the great beauties of the late Victorian era, at the age of 19 she had married Gerald FitzGerald, then Marquess of Kildare. Although the couple had two sons, Maurice and Desmond – Hermione can be seen with them both above – the marriage was not happy: while living in Kilkea Castle, County Kildare she once wrote the couplet, ‘Kilkea Castle and Lord Kildare/Are more than any woman can bear.’
She then embarked on an affair with Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) the brother of another friend Evelyn, Viscountess de Vesci, and with him had a third son Edward. It was the misfortune of the FitzGeralds that following the early deaths of both the fifth Duke and Duchess of Leinster their eldest child should have suffered psychiatric problems and been institutionalised before he too died young, while the second son was killed in the First World War.
The next heir was Hermione’s third child, Lord Edward FitzGerald, a notorious spendthrift and wastrel who was barely 21 before being declared bankrupt for the first of several occasions. As is well-known, in 1917 he sold his birthright for £67,000 worth of debts and an annuity of £1,000: five years later he became the seventh Duke of Leinster. The outcome was, and has been ever since, catastrophic for the FitzGeralds and for their old estate at Carton, County Kildare. A photograph of how the saloon looked in the 1890s before any of this misfortune occurred can be seen below. The story is now told in Terence Dooley’s new book, The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster, 1872-1948 (Four Courts Press) which makes for a grim but gripping read. In recent months there has been extensive media coverage of several once-wealthy Irish plutocrats brought crashing down: Terence Dooley’s book demonstrates this is no new phenomenon.
The sad tale of what befell the Dukes of Leinster in the last century, the loss of the family estates and the scattering of their inheritance, has been told so often that it does not need to be repeated here. Heads of the FitzGerald family and once princely figures in Ireland, the Leinsters no longer have any presence here, and their main seat Carton, County Kildare has metamorphosed into just another golf resort and spa.
Over recent decades various FitzGerald heirlooms have come on the market, and next week more items will be sold by English auctioneers Cheffins of Cambridge. Some of the lots are significant: a series of family portraits executed in pastel by Hugh Douglas Hamilton; a set of George II mahogany and parcel gilt dining chairs; even Lord Edward FitzGerald’s ring, bequeathed on his deathbed to a favourite sister. Yet somehow the more poignant items are the commonplace ones such as the set of eight George III leather fire buckets shown above. Each painted with the ducal monogram and coronet, they would once have been kept at Carton but now, following the rest of the house’s original contents, are set to join a general dispersal. One ought not to become too sentimental about such matters, but still it is regrettable that these functional yet handsome mementoes of quotidian life in an Irish country house should be lost.
For more information on the Cheffins sale, see: http://auctions.cheffins.co.uk/asp/searchresults.asp?pg=1&ps=50&st=D&sale_no=F180913