Tuesday 20 March 2018

Diana's hidden Irish roots wrapped in divorce scandal

Amid the attention marking the anniversary of Diana's death, a colourful Irish link has long been overlooked, writes Ryle Dwyer

KERRY STOCK: James Burke Roche
KERRY STOCK: James Burke Roche

Ryle Dwyer

Many articles commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana have focused on the traumatic impact her parents' divorce had on her as a child. But there has been nothing about the Kerry connection in a messy divorce involving her great-grandfather.

Diana's great-grandfather - James Burke Roche - was a particularly colourful character, who had a remarkable political career. In 1896, he was elected to Westminster from Kerry East as an anti-Parnellite candidate, even though he had actually been divorced for deserting his wife and family.

When the divorce was highlighted during the campaign, he declared that "he was never served with any divorce proceedings".

He had met and married Frances (Fanny) Work, while visiting New York in 1880. They then settled in London. Franny was the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, Frank Work, who provided her with $7,000 a year. This was a small fortune at the time.

In December 1886, Roche sent his wife and their daughter to New York to get more money from her father. This was reportedly to pay gambling debts.

Her father balked and persuaded Fanny to remain in New York. "If I had my way," he complained, "I would make international marriage a hanging offence."

KERRY STOCK: James Burke Roche and his great-granddaughter
KERRY STOCK: James Burke Roche and his great-granddaughter

Roche arrived in New York with their twin boys in February 1887. He met his wife at her father's mansion in the presence of her father, who again refused to provide more money. Roche returned to the mansion some time later with the twins, who were almost two years old. He abandoned them on the doorstep, and took off in his carriage, without speaking to anyone.

Fanny Roche obtained a divorce in 1891 on the grounds of desertion. "During the whole of their married life Mr Burke Roche never contributed anything to the support of his wife and children," the court was told.

After he abandoned the two boys on the steps of their grandfather's mansion, he never made any effort to see them, his daughter, or his wife again.

In the light of that report, which appeared in the Cork Examiner in March 1891, it seemed strange that people did not know that Roche had been divorced when he was nominated in 1896 to stand for parliament in Kerry East, especially when he was representing the anti-Parnellite section of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

By the time the divorce was highlighted during the campaign, it was too late to make much difference, because he was the only Nationalist candidate.

Roche won the seat easily, with 1,961 votes of the 2,758 people who bothered to vote, but that was less than half the 5,600 eligible voters. Roche's Unionist opponent, Captain John McGillycuddy, received 680 votes, more than double his 1892 vote.

Roche had clearly become an acute embarrassment. The formal announcement of his victory at the election count in Killarney "was received with absolute silence" according to the Kerry Sentinel.

During his one term at Westminster, Roche never addressed the House. As the Irish Parliamentary Party was reuniting in 1900, there was no room for him.

The mere mention of his name provoked groans at a big unity rally in Killarney on April 8, 1900. He did not stand for re-election.

Edmund Maurice Roche, one of the twins he abandoned on the steps of his father-in-law's mansion, was elected to Parliament as a Conservative from an English constituency in the 1924 general election. He held that seat for 11 years.

In 1931, Edmund Roche married Ruth Gill, and they had three children. Their daughter, Frances, married Edward Spencer at Westminster Abbey on June 1, 1954. Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Royal Family were among the 1,800 guests at what was one of the society weddings of the decade.

During their 25-year marriage, the Spencers had five children - the fourth of whom was Diana, who became Princess of Wales in 1981, on marrying Princes Charles. She was only eight years old in 1969 when her parents' marriage broke up.

It would seem that unstable marriage was part of her bloodline, even in the Irish part. That Irish aspect of her ancestry has been generally overlooked, but then strangely it was essentially overlooked in Ireland even in the midst of the most sensational circumstances.

Sunday Independent

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