The great lords of Maynooth

J. Anthony Gaughan

For almost 800 years from their arrival with the first wave of Anglo-Normans in 1169, the FitzGeralds – earls of Kildare and, from 1766, dukes of Leinster – were the pre-eminent noble family residing in Ireland, dominating the social, political, economic and cultural landscapes. 

This collection of essays by scholars associated with NUI Maynooth records various aspects of the family’s history and the changing ownership of its once extensive land holdings.

At the outset Terence Dooley provides an overview of both the Desmond and Kildare FitzGeralds.  The rebellion of Silken Thomas (1512-37) could well have had catastrophic consequences for the family, but after more than a century and a half rebuilding their political and social position the FitzGeralds re-emerged to prominence in the eighteenth century.  In a survey of the early historians of the FitzGeralds Colm Lennon highlights how their judgements on Silken Thomas and other members of the family reflected their own political loyalties.

Carton House and its estate is the subject of a number of essays.  A detailed account of the physical development of the landscape surrounding the house is provided.  The social life of the Irish landed elite in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consisted in hosting parties in their homes.  Karol Mullaney-Dignam captures the atmosphere of the musical and other entertainments which featured in these ‘Great Houses’.

The most interesting essay on Carton is on the rules governing servants at the house in the mid-18th Century.  The source for this information is a ‘household book’ which covers the period from the early 1760s to 1773.  At that time there were 50 servants at Carton and the book reveals their daily chores and the regulations governing the relationship between them and their employers.


By far the most engaging and romantic figure emerging from the FitzGerald family was Lord Edward (1763-98).  His story and involvement in the failed rebellion in 1798 is well-known.  Like Silken Thomas he has been the subject of partisan biographers and historians.  Quite a few factors propelled him into a position of leadership in the United Irishmen.  Two which could receive more emphasis were his reckless nature and grave disappointment at failure to win promotion in the army.

‘Lord Frederick FitzGerald (1857-1924) and Local Politics in Co Kildare’ by Thomas Nelson will most interest the residents of present-day Maynooth. 

Born one of 15 children to Charles William FitzGerald (1819-87) he was educated at Eton, later at Sandhurst and thence to the Kings Rifle Corps to begin an army career in the expanding British Empire.  He served in Afghanistan, South Africa and Egypt. 

During the Land War in the 1870s and 1880s the well-organised Kildare Land League found him to be a doughty and unrelenting opponent.  Following the introduction of local government in 1899 he successfully stood for election to Kildare County Council.  Despite his unionism and prominent membership of the Irish Unionist Alliance, he had a long and dedicated career on the council. 

He did not stand for election in 1920, and was replaced by Domhnall Ó Buachalla, veteran of the Easter Rising – and future last Governor-General of Ireland, though he never lived in the Park, where a caretaker was installed. 

When Lord Frederick died in 1924 he too was no more than the glorified caretaker, the property Carton having been lost to the FitzGerald family in 1922 by his nephew, Edward, the seventh Duke of Leinster.

In the Preface the Hon. Desmond Guinness expresses his disappointment at the neglect of the history of Irish landlords and their ‘Great Houses’.

With this book, blessed as it is with an excellent index, this neglect is somewhat redressed.