Oscar Wilde once said that Burke's Peerage was "the best thing the English have done in fiction". Such was the prevalence of infidelity among the nobility in those pre-pill days that many children born to noble wiveswere not sired by theirhusbands. But no legal notice was taken of irregularity.Neither wife nor husband was allowed to give evidence ofnon-access thereby bastard-i
Oscar Wilde once said that Burke's Peerage was "the best thing the English have done in fiction". Such was the prevalence of infidelity among the nobility in those pre-pill days that many children born to noble wiveswere not sired by theirhusbands. But no legal notice was taken of irregularity.Neither wife nor husband was allowed to give evidence ofnon-access thereby bastard-ising the wife's offspring.Certainty was paramount; truth and justice the occasional casualty.
Such was the ordered world of 1884 when Gerald FitzGerald, fifth duke of Leinster (great grandnephew of the rebel republican Lord Edward) married Hermione, a beauty destined to die young and who is still commemorated by the Hermione public lectures on art given every year at Alexandra College, Dublin. She had a daughter, who died in infancy, and then three sons, Maurice, Desmond and Edward. Maurice, who succeeded as sixth duke when Gerald died in 1893, became incapacitated and died in a mental hospital in 1922. Desmond, the golden boy of the family, was killedin 1916 serving in the Irish Guards.
So Edward, the third son, became seventh duke. He was widely reputed to be the child of another nobleman to whom the unhappy Hermione had formed an attachment. He had already disgraced himself running up gambling debts and marrying May Ettridge, the pink pyjama girl of the Shaftesbury Theatre, whom he soon deserted, leaving her with their only son Gerald.
Edward, always strapped for cash and soon to be bankrupt, did not support them, so May had to work in night clubs to which she brought her son. The family trustees intervened and, incredibly, got the courts to take Gerald, then five, away from her to be reared by a widowed great-aunt at Johnstown Castle in Wexford. Over time, Gerald, known by his courtesy title Marquess of Kildare, became a stiff, rather aloof adult, as respectable as his parents had been unrespectable.
He broke the family link with Ireland when he sold Kilkea Castle in 1960, and settled in Oxfordshire where he built up a successful aviation business. When Edward died in 1976, an American teacher called Leonard FitzGerald challenged Gerald Kildare's right to succeed as Dukeof Leinster.
Leonard said that his father was Duke Maurice, who had supposedly died in the mental hospital in 1922, but who had, Leonard claimed, been exiled to America and lived on until 1967, claiming privately that he was the rightful heir but had abdicated the title.
Not true, answered Gerald and his advisers, you are the son of Charlie Tyler and your father, the son of a bandsman, was fantasising when he changed his name to Maurice FitzGerald and claimed a noble lineage.
In the event, Leonard did not pursue his claim and Gerald was duly summoned to the House of Lords as Duke of Leinster. He died, aged 90, in December 2004 and would in normal course be succeeded by his son Maurice. However Leonard's son Paul, a property developer, has reactivated his family's competing claim with the difference that he contends that his grandfather (alias Charlie Tyler) was, in fact, Lord Desmond FitzGerald, who was reputedly killed in the First World War. This claim rests on the improbable hypothesis that the family had made Lord Maurice and Lord Desmond swap identities as teenagers and that Maurice, not Desmond, was killed in 1916.
It is fair to state that Paul FitzGerald has nothing to gain financially from his claim as all "the entails" - passing great family properties like Carton House and vast acres to whoever is Duke - have ceased to exist. He has spent quite an amount of money pursuing it and is clearly acting in good faith.
His case rests on what his grandfather Charlie Tyler (who began to call himself Maurice FitzGerald when he was 30) hinted and said about his origins, buttressed by allegations that there was an Establishment conspiracy to conceal documents he lodged in 1930 in the Lord Chancellor's Office to protect his son's right of succession.
The case made for Charlie Tyler by his descendants was convincingly demolished after a painstaking investigation of all the documents by Michael Estorick in a book called Heirs and Graces published in 1981.
However, Estorick does not exclude the possibility that, as so often happens with claims of kinship based on family tradition, there is some foundation for the story but that it has become distorted. He speculates that Charlie Tyler may have been conceived by the bandmaster's wife as a result of an affair with Lord Charles FitzGerald, the black sheep brother of the fifth duke who seems to have lived out his life as a remittance manin Australia.
The one concrete piece of evidence Paul FitzGerald now produces is a report of photo comparisons tracing family members through life carried out by a forensic imaging specialist at the University of Louisiana. But this specialist rates her conclusions only as definite possibilities and states emphatically that they cannot be considered positive identification or court-worthy testimony.
Apart from the documents said to be lodged in the Lord Chancellor's Office since 1930, Paul FitzGerald's only other hope is DNA evidence. This enables one to tell whether persons are related on the male line and has a potential to do more damage to the claims of hereditary peers than Tony Blair and New Labour ever did. In this case, however, there is the difficulty, already noted, that Hermione's third son, the wicked Duke Edward, may not have been a son of her husband, the fifth duke. If that is so, the DNA of his male descendants (including the late Duke Gerald and his heir Maurice) will not match Paul's, even ifPaul is who he claims he is. Paul's best bet may be to find the descendants of Lord Charles hiding in the Australian outback.