The great Lords of Leinster

The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster 1872-1948; Love, war, debt and madness by Terence Dooley (Four Courts Press, €24.95/£19.95)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This is a tragic story of epic proportions.  For about 800 years from their arrival with the first wave of Anglo-Normans in 1069, the FitzGeralds were one of the most influential families in Ireland. 

In 1766 James FitzGerald (1722-1773) became the first Duke of Leinster and thereafter he and his successors were recognised as the premier noble family in the country.  They were close to the royal family.  Augustus Frederick, Third Duke of Leinster, acted as host to Queen Victoria in 1849, as did his son to Edward (later Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra in 1885.  Maurice, eldest son of Gerald, Fourth Duke of Leinster, was a page boy at Edward’s coronation in 1902, while his second son, Desmond, became in the words of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) ‘the Prince’s greatest friend’. 

The family’s land holdings of some 70,000 acres were spread across County Kildare and into County Meath.  Their properties included Carton House and Leinster House (now Dáil Éireann).  Alas all that pomp and circumstance came to an inglorious end when Edward, Seventh Duke of Leinster, died bankrupt and without property in a one-room bedsit in London in 1976 following an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates. 


Terence Dooley unfolds the decline and fall of the FitzGeralds, Dukes of Leinster, against the background of the Land War of the 1880s, the Home Rule Movement, the break-up of the landed estates from 1903 onwards, World War I, the revolutionary years from 1916 to 1923 and the 1920s global economic depression.  The chief actors in the family’s denouement were Hermione, wife of Gerald, Sixth Duke of Leinster, and her sons Maurice, Desmond and Edward.

In an arranged marriage Hermione Duncombe became the wife of Gerald FitzGerald in 1884. An outstanding beauty, she was 20, he was 40 years old.  Making good use of her extensive correspondence Dooley explores Hermione’s complex personality. 

She suffered from ‘melancholia’ and continually complained to confidants of finding her husband ‘boring’.  She had an adulterous affair with Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho, a notorious womaniser.  Their son, Edward, was born in 1892.  Eventually Hermione returned to her husband and Edward was received into the FitzGerald family.

Maurice, the eldest son was a sickly child. By the time he reached his teens there were unmistakeable signs of schizophrenia. The family quietly dispatched him to an asylum in Edinburgh. His brother Desmond was educated at Eton, passed through Sandhurst, enlisted in the Irish Guards and reached the rank of major. He served in World War I, was wounded at the front but lost his life, owing to a freak accident.


Following the death of Maurice, Sixth Duke of Leinster, in 1922 Edward succeeded to the title. He had served at Gallipoli, was wounded and invalided out of the army.  His subsequent life could be described as that of ‘a rake’s progress’. He had four broken marriages and numerous liaisons.  A notorious playboy, he seemed to be in a desperate hurry to spend every last penny of his family’s wealth and was easy prey to greedy and unscrupulous financiers and moneylenders.

In this important study the author provides a meticulous account of the multiple and varied financial transactions, whereby the FitzGerald patrimony was liquidated.  He concludes by referring to a rather sad irony.  Nowadays the Ninth Duke of Leinster, a landscape gardener resident in Oxfordshire, occasionally visits Carton as a hotel guest, while his sister, a professional golfer, comes to play in competitions in the adjoining golf course. Sic transit gloria mundi.