A great fall: from Carton House to a London bedsit
History: The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster, 1884-1948: Love, War, Debt and Madness by Terence Dooley. Four Courts Press, tpbk, 304 pages, €24.95
Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30
The seventh Duke of Leinster, Edward FitzGerald, lost Carton House and ended up in a one-room Westminster flat where he died in 1976. Eamon Delaney on a fascinating book about Ireland's premier aristocratic family.
In the space of just 70 years, the Dukes of Leinster fell from being Ireland's leading aristocratic family, close friends of the British monarchy, secure within the world's most powerful empire, to relative obscurity in an independent Ireland that did not recognise titles.
When this book opens in 1872, the 3rd Duke of Leinster was residing in the Palladian grandeur of Kildare's Carton House. But by 1976, just over a century later, the disgraced 7th Duke, Edward FitzGerald, had lost Carton and everything else that remained and would die that year impoverished in a one-room bedsit flat in London.
Before that ignominious exit, Edward had squandered much of the wealth, property and rich legacy of his illustrious family. Although it's only a minor part of this book, it's a fascinating story. The signs were apparent early on. Unlike his two older brothers, with their stellar records of military service and public duty, the young Edward was a dissolute, hopelessly romantic character who gambled and spent wildly and became bankrupt several times.
That may have been partly due to his unhappy family background. By the early 1900s both his parents were dead (his mother at the age of 30) and the vast estate of some 70,000 acres that was once part of Carton had been sold, following changes in land law to improve the lot of tenants. In the years that followed, much of the £750,000 from the state-funded sale was flittered away. Eventually all that was left was Carton and its surrounding demesne.
In 1913, Edward had enthralled the London media but shocked his family by impulsively marrying May Etheridge, the so-called 'pink pyjama girl' of Shaftesbury Theatre. Aristocratic men at this time apparently had a great weakness for the 'Gaiety Girls' of the music hall. But the marriage was soon on the rocks and after a bitter divorce, May eventually committed suicide.
Amazingly, despite his playboy behaviour, Edward took part in World War I and fought bravely at Gallipoli. When his brother Desmond was killed, Edward moved closer to the dukedom. (The oldest brother Maurice ended up in an asylum after a breakdown and subsequently died in 1922.) By this stage, Edward's spending, womanising, partying and compulsive gambling had created huge debts, and he had become involved with moneylenders and promissory notes.
Although not yet the full Duke of Leinster, the bankrupt Edward entered into an extraordinary deal with an enigmatic and powerful speculator called Henry Mallaby-Deeley. Deeley paid off all of Edward's debts of over £67,000 (£16m in today's terms) and gave Edward an annual allowance of £1,000 in return for which he became the recipient of Carton House and demesne and whatever income it produced. It was a bad deal for the Leinsters, and could only get worse.
In the meantime, Edward re-married, to Rafaelle Davidson-Kennedy, but when this dissolved, he went to America in search of an heiress. Again this was at a time when new American wealth was looking to hook up with fading British prestige and many Brideshead-era combinations were created. He met Rafaelle Van Neck, a Brooklyn-born beauty who was in love with aristocracy and, more importantly, totally in love with Edward. But despite the injection of American money, in 1936 Edward was declared bankrupt for the third time.
While all this was going on, Edward as the 7th Duke retained his extraordinary connections, as was so often the case with aristocrats, no matter how debauched or down at heel they became. He was even friendly with King Edward VIII who abdicated to be with his lover Wallis Simpson. And yet such were his rascally ways that Edward allegedly had an affair with Mrs Simpson around the time of the abdication crisis - despite the fact that the reluctant king regarded Edward as one of his closest friends!
The decline continued, the debts mounted and Edward's behaviour got worse. He even sold his life story, My Forty Years of Folly, to the Daily Sketch newspaper boasting about his road to ruin, with 'mad parties, reckless friends and lovely women' - an exposure that mortified his family and class. In 1965, his final marriage was to Vivien Connor, the housekeeper at the block of flats where he lived in London and in 1976, he died in the one-room bedsit flat near Westminster, with 'little more than the watch on his wrist and the clothes that flapped from his body.' According to the British tabloids, at the time his diet consisted largely of cans of baked beans.
The tale of the 7th Duke is just one of the extraordinary stories, told in this fascinating book about the FitzGerald family, whose roots go all the way back to the Anglo-Norman invasion. Indeed, as the world becomes more democratic and uniform, it is hard to believe that such people as the aristocracy existed and still exist and the story of the dukes of Leinster shows the way in which a once impressive historic family can descend into scandal, waste, litigation and even ridicule.
The descent is particularly sad, given the family's impressive legacy. From the original English-Norman invasion in the 12th Century, though the doomed rebellion of Silken Thomas in 1534, the FitzGeralds were central to the narrative of Irish history and at the heart of Anglo-Irish relations at the highest levels.
Their properties once included Kilkea Castle, which has more recently been a hotel, as well as the magnificent Carton House, now a luxury golf club, and of course, Leinster House, now the seat of our parliament.
Indeed, the family even have an illustrious nationalist tradition, most famously with Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who was killed in 1798 as the United Irishmen plotted revolution. Apparently, during the Civil War, when a republican mob came to try to burn Carton House, the quick thinking butler showed them a portrait of that earlier Lord Edward and the mob quietly left.
In the end, the behaviour of the 7th Duke was redeemed by the more responsible 8th duke, Gerald FitzGerald, who, in a nice touch, married Joanne McMurrough Kavanagh in Maynooth - a direct descendant of Diarmait Mac Murchada, who invited the Normans to Ireland in 1169 in order to safeguard his kingship of Leinster.
His son, Maurice FitzGerald, the 9th and present duke, now resides in Oxfordshire, but often comes back to Ireland to visit Carton House, and so keeps the legacy alive.
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