In Castletownshend, a tiny village on the coast of West Cork, stands the little church of St Barrahan. In it there is a marble slab recording the descent of the Townshends from the Earl of Desmond, together with many details about the family of FitzGerald, Knights of Kerry, owners of Dingle, who conveyed that legacy to the Townshends. Few in Dingle today know how the West Cork family came to represent Dingle in the Irish Parliament in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, or how they took over Dingle.
Dingle suffered extensive damage in the Desmond Rebellion when Desmond forces attacked the town in the early 1580s. Shortly after, the citizens asked the government of Queen Elizabeth for a charter, which was granted. Yet, the mystique surrounding the Desmond earls continued to weave its spell long after the killing of the Earl in 1583 and the imposition of English rule. There were pretenders to the earldom, and the English themselves revived the title for one of the King’s favourites, a Scotsman. The original title, however, was claimed by descendants of the Rebel Earl, and one of these was the family of the FitzGeralds, Knights of Kerry. Dingle was their home, and they controlled the town’s corporation.
The struggle for Dingle between the years 1772 and 1781 was in effect a coup d’etat, an effort somehow finally to kill off the political legacy of the Earl in order to assert the legacy of the Williamite victory at the Boyne and Limerick. The authors of the coup were a marriage connection of the owners: the Townshends of Castletownshend, in the barony of Carbery, West Cork.
The blood of the Rebel Earl of Desmond entered the veins of the owners of Dingle, the Knights of Kerry, in the second half of the seventeenth century with the marriage of John FitzGerald to Honora O’Brien. She was a daughter of Lord Clare, and the first Lord Clare had married a daughter of the Rebel Earl . How realistic their claim to the Desmond earldom could be was another matter. The Munster Plantation was bedded down at the second attempt in the reign of James I, and the earldom was by then reassigned to a Scotsman named Preston. Moreover, the eighteenth-century Lord Clare was a leading Jacobite in exile. He was Charles O’Brien, Marshal Thomond, who led the Irish Brigade in the great victory over the English at Fontenoy in 1745. Marshal Thomond died childless in 1774 and his claim to the Desmond earldom transferred to the line of Honora and her husband the Knight of Kerry.
In the 1770s the Knight was Maurice FitzGerald, known to history as the “Dingle Knight”. He was born in 1734. He was the namesake and grandson of Maurice FitzGerald, Knight of Kerry, who converted to the state religion on his marriage to Elizabeth Crosbie in 1703, thereby saving the FitzGerald estates from confiscation and erasing the memory of the Boyne; for at the Boyne Maurice had fought on the side of the unfortunate James II. In 1731 their son and heir, John, father of the Dingle Knight, married Margaret Deane. She was the daughter of Lord Chief Baron Joseph Deane and his wife Margaret Boyle, a sister of Speaker Henry Boyle, later Earl of Shannon, whose mother Mary O’Brien was a daughter of the Earl of Inchiquin. The Inchiquin and Shannon inheritance must have augured the final assimilation of the Knights into the political status quo of Hanoverian Ireland.
Maurice, the Dingle Knight, would one day become MP for Dingle. In that capacity he would do little of note apart from represent Dingle from 1761 to 1776. In 1764 he married Anne FitzMaurice, sister of the third Earl of Kerry. This was his downfall, and it led to the alienation of the Knight of Kerry inheritance in and around Dingle.
Anne FitzMaurice planned the ruin of her husband’s inheritance by alienating the corporation and the Knight’s estate to the family of his sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth FitzGerald was the wife of Richard Townshend of Castletownshend in County Cork, and the blood of the Knights flowed in their children’s veins. This new reality troubled Robert FitzGerald, the Dingle Knight’s uncle and fellow MP for the borough, for it must have treatened to bring closer the prospect of exclusion from Dingle which first appeared when Boyle and Inchiquin blood flowed in the veins of his nephew and niece.
The Townshends, like Boyle and Inchiquin, represented the New English (Inchiquin was an O’Brien, but his father-in-law was the Elizabethan conqueror St. Leger). Col. Richard Townshend, commanded the main body of the English infantry at the battle of Knocknanuss, near Buttevant, in November 1647. Lord Inchiquin won the day against the Irish under Lord Taafe. The Irish lost 3000 men. In the next generation a Townshend married one of the Gun family of Kerry, who were Williamite in sympathy; Townshend and Gun appear on the lists of those attainted by the Jacobite Parliament of 1689. By the eighteenth century the Townshends are long-standing allies of Lord Shannon, who was the standard bearer of the Protestant interest in Munster: Richard Townshend, the Dingle Knight’s brother-in-law, represented Co. Cork in the Irish Parliament during the 1760s and 1770s as part of Lord Shannon’s “Munster Quadron”. The family of the Knights were, by contrast, very definitely identified with the cause of the Catholics – certainly this is the case with Robert FitzGerald, one of the leading allies of the Catholics in the Irish Commons.
Another factor seems to be at play. Was the wife of the Dingle Knight embarrassed by her brother’s dissolute lifestyle and the frittering away of the Lixnaw inheritance? For certain she wished the removal of Robert FitzGerald. The crisis arose after Robert FitzGerald became a father in 1772. This event seems to have triggered the wife to bring the Carbury freemen into Dingle. Before that, neither the Dingle Knight nor his uncle Robert had children, and it appears that Lady Anne hoped that the Townshends would succeed. This might be to everybody’s satisfaction, including possibly Robert’s, until Robert’s third marriage yielded the child, a son, born about Christmas 1772. Robert was by then the centre of an impressive pro-Catholic party in Kerry, a party strengthened by the fact that Robert had no less than nine sisters married among the leading gentry families of the county. They became known as “the Nine Graldines”.
In the end Anne FitzMaurice, wife of the Dingle Knight had her way. The treaty agreed in 1781 handed the corporation of Dingle and the Dingle estate over to the Townshends. By then Robert FitzGerald had removed himself to Dingle, where he had an estate and where his successors would live. There he did much good by founding a school under the auspices of the Erasmus Smith Society. He had not long to live. He died at the end of 1781, the year of the treaty that surrendered Dingle to the Townshends.
A contemporary pamphlet under the title “Petticoat Government” was reprinted in 1915 in the Kerry Evening Post. It carried the following:
“Her Ladyship is now in full possession of the glorious fruits of her machinations: she has gratified her daring spirit of vengeance to its full extent; the remains of an estate which had descended in the male line for above 400 years (accompanied with a title highly honoured in the county) has been by her management transferred to another name and separated from the title. A man formed by nature to be loved (her husband, the Dingle Knight) has been degraded, by her tyranny, into an abject slave and deprived of the power of judging and acting for himself; and then impelled by the terrors of her brow to make a disposition of his fortune which his nature abhorred. A man who had been for many years her sincere disinterested and sanguine friend (Robert FitzGerald), and had never done an act to forfeit her esteem, has been sacrificed to a family who made her the return she deserves, for Colonel Townsend holds her in contempt and abhorrence; and there is not a being on earth whom the younger gentleman hates more cordially than he does her Ladyship.” (Kerry Evening Post, Dec. 29 1915)
Bibliography: Richard and Dorothea Townshend, An Officer of the Long Parliament and his Descendants, London 1892; Conleth Manning, “Properties in Dingle Granted to the Duke of Ormond in 1668”, in Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society 2007; “The Earldom of Desmond”, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, no. 35, November 1894.