Rewind - The Duchess of Leinster

By Sean Heffernan

The other day while reading about a significant purchase of a painting by a joint team of the Office of Public Works (OPW), and the “Castletown Foundation”, it dawned on me that I have yet to write properly about a significant female figure in this column.

So we’re taking the 76 bus to Liffey Valley, walking through the centre to get to the N4 whereupon we shall hop on a 66 bus to Maynooth.

Duchess of Leinster

Emily Fitzgerald.

We will depart the bus at stop 7694 Carton Wood to walk the 25 minutes to our final stop, Carton House.

The subject of this noteworthy painting was Emily Fitzgerald The Duchess of Leinster, and given how it was recently International Women’s Day, I thought I’d do my bit to mark it in this series.

Born on October 6 1731 Lady Emily Lennox was born into enormous power and privilege, and so far up the status chain was she that King George II of England was her Godfather.

At the tender age of 16 she was married off to the Earl of Kildare in London, and not long after they arrived in Ireland to begin married life properly in Carton House.

Her ascent to the top echelons of British aristocracy was unusual in that her grandfather, while the son of King Charles II, was the result of an affair between the King and Louise Renée de Penancoet de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, and ordinarily such offspring were either aborted, or the impregnated woman would be paid off to move far away and never have any further contact with the Royal court.

Her husband was not just any old Irish aristocrat, James Fitzgerald was a man of enormous wealth, and the couple split there time between Carton House, Frascatti House in Blackrock and Leinster House, which now houses the Irish Parliament and Seanad.

Around this time the fashionable des res part of Dublin was actually up around Oxmanstown Road and around the Phoenix Park.

In terms of societal endeavours it was quite the risky move to build such a grand building as Leinster House in a then undesirable part of town.

This however ushered in great change to the area south of the Liffey, as the construction of Ormond Bridge meant it was now a lot easier to travel from the Southside to the Northside, and much heavier loads could be transported over than was previously the case with boats.

People realised that you could build a house in this part of town for a lot cheaper than up by the Phoenoix Park, and with the newly built mansion on what is now Kildare Street, the areas status had improved somewhat.

Thus we saw the construction of Merrion Square and then Fitzwilliam Square after that.

Emily and her illustrious Husband built up quite a brood with 19 children in total being born to the pair.

Her sister Louisa was known by many as “Mrs Speaker Connolly” in deference to her husband William ‘Speaker’ Connolly, a man we have mentioned in numerous editions of Rewind, due to his massive wealth and influence, that saw him with fingers in quite a few pies.

While public appearances showed the Fiyzgeralds as a loving devoted couple, and many in their circle really thought they only had eyes for each other, privately things couldn’t be further from the truth.

The 20th Earl of Kildare had many lovers, and given the situation of the time, one could not rule out that there were many more than the official 19 that he had fathered, with the rest being illegitimate and kept secret.

When the Duchess was in her 40’s her husband passed away and she set society tongues wagging at an alarming rate when she shacked up with the Scottish Tutor of her children (whom she had been having an affair with) and eventually ended up marrying him.

You would have thought she had her fill of child bearing by this stage, but she bore a further three children to her second husband William Oglivie.

Carton House remained in the possession of the Fitzgerald family until the 1920’s, when the 7th Duke of Leinster sold it for £67,500 – which is over €3M in todays money.

Carton House, as many of you may now know is now a privately owned hotel and leisure facility, with an adjoining golf course to boot.

Castletown House in Celbridge is a Palladian country house built in 1722 for William ‘Speaker’ Conolly, and given the link between Emily Fitzgerald, the Duchess of Leinster to Castletown House via her sister Louisa, and the fact that it is a public visitor attraction owned and run by the OPW, this would explain why it was chosen as the new resting place for the portrait.

It is great to see another important part of our artistic heritage available for all to view at their own leisure.

So why not take a trip to Castletown House to view the famous painting yourself?

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