A Kerry aristocrat in the 18th Century

A Kerry aristocrat in the 18th Century
A Man of his Times: The Papers of Robert FitzGerald, 17th Knight of Kerry

by Adrian FitzGerald (Kingdom Books)

This is a valuable collection of the correspondence of Robert FitzGerald (1716-1781), knight of Kerry. The knights of Kerry belong to an early branch of the mighty Geraldines. There is uncertainty as to exactly how or when they received their title or, more accurately, their distinction.

Traditional accounts attribute the creation of this distinction and that of the white knight and the knight of Glin, to John FitzThomas FitzGerald of Shanid, who was killed at Callan on July 23, 1261. The story goes that he had three illegitimate sons by three different mothers and that he conferred the knighthood on these three sons by virtue of his royal seignory as a count palatine.

Prominent

Although not as prominent in Irish history as the houses of Kildare and Desmond, nonetheless the knights of Kerry played a significant role in both ecclesiastical and civil affairs. Nor had they landholdings as extensive as those held by the houses of Kildare and Desmond, yet they had substantial estates in West Kerry and North Kerry, and in 1752 Robert took out a lease on the majority of the townlands in Valentia Island in South Kerry.

To retain their estates the knights of Kerry conformed to the Established Church. This enabled Robert to qualify as a barrister and to serve as an MP, commissioner of appeals, comptroller of Dingle and judge of the admiralty court. He was witty and convivial, mixed freely among the vice-regal set and enjoyed the friendship of almost all the most distinguished and cultured men of his time. He was a bibliophile, widely travelled and had close friends not only in Dublin and London but also in Paris, such as Marshall Thomond (Lord Clare) of the Irish Brigade and hero of the French victory at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745; and a distinguished Irish priest named Père Mahony.

Robert was an ‘improving landlord’. At Dingle and Valentia Island he promoted flax-growing and the development of a linen industry. He became a trustee of the linen board in Dublin. And the linen industry was to flourish on Valentia Island for many years afterwards.

Ballinruddery

Robert spent his later years at Ballinruddery (town of the knight) near Listowel in North Kerry. Here beside a medieval tower house on the river Feale he built a two-storey thatched house and developed a garden and demesne. Here he received a visit from the renowned travelling economist, Arthur Young, who commented favourably on his progressive farming methods which included feeding his pigs on potatoes and his sheep on turnips. Robert also had a town house in Dublin’s fashionable Merrion Square which he occupied during sessions of the Irish parliament, and a summer villa on the coast at Blackrock in south Co. Dublin.

A series of letters in which Robert plagued Lord Townsend, the lord lieutenant, with requests gives one the impression that he was rather naïve. In one letter, he points out that of all the circle of close friends around that dignitary he was the only one not rewarded with high office. On the back of another one of those querulous letters, in the hand of Lord Townsend or his secretary, is an ample list of what can only be described as sinecures which Robert had received for himself and members of his family down through the years. In one of his final exchanges with the lord lieutenant he asks that worthy to make a pension available to him in the name of a friend of his, Maurice Hewson of Ennismore, who can be relied upon to be discreet in such a matter! His not achieving high office in spite of his ‘good connections’ and the fact that he was generally good-humouredly referred to as ‘the counsellor’ or ‘holy Bob’ endorses the impression that he was a combination of dilettante and engaging eccentric.

Students of Ireland’s eighteenth century will be greatly indebted to Adrian FitzGerald for harvesting and making accessible these interesting and defining letters of his ancestor. And incidentally revealing, once again, what an extraordinary place Kerry was, and is.