Gerald Fitzgerald, the Eight Duke of Leinster, died on 3rd December last aged 90 years. The First Duke of Leinster was James Fitzgerald who as Lord Offaly entered the Irish House of Commons as a Member of Parliament for Athy in 1741. He was then just 19 years of age and had become heir apparent to the Earldom of Kildare following the death of his older brother. Three years later the youthful Lord Offaly succeeded his father as the twentieth Earl of Kildare. In 1747 James Earl of Kildare married Emily Lennox, the second daughter of the Duke of Richmond, following which he built Leinster House which is now the seat of Irish Parliament. In 1766 as a reward for his leading role in Irish political affairs he received the highest prize in the peerage stakes when to maintain his precedence over all other Irish noblemen, the King of England made the Kildare Earl the first Duke of Leinster. He died seven years later in Leinster House and was succeeded as second Duke by his son William Robert. In terms of Irish history it was another son, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who like his father also represented Athy as a Member of Parliament, is best remembered today.
The Second Duke, William Robert, unlike his father eschewed politics and consequently paid a less significant role in 19th century Ireland than either his brother or his father. He was however associated with the building of the Grand Canal and when the Canal Bridge across the Castlecomer/Athy turnpike road was opened by him in 1791 it was named “Augustus Bridge” in honour of his only son, Augustus Frederick Fitzgerald who was born that same year.
William Robert, the second Duke, is remembered today in the names of the principal streets of Athy. William Street, Duke Street and Leinster Street were renamed, I believe, at the same time as “Augustus Bridge” was opened. Emily Square recalls the mother of the second Duke, while Offaly Street and Stanhope Street were named in honour of other members of the Fitzgerald family. The heir apparent to the Dukedom of Leinster is the Marquis of Kildare, while the Marquis’ son takes the courtesy title of Lord Offaly.
Gerald Fitzgerald who died last month held the only Dukedom in the Irish peerage and as well was the premier Marquis and premier Earl in the peerage of Ireland. The title now passes to his son Maurice Fitzgerald, the Marquis of Kildare, whose only son, Lord Offaly, was killed in a road traffic accident near Cashel in May 1997. The Duke has two daughters but no male heir.
The once great Fitzgerald family has been living in reduced circumstances ever since a series of unfortunate events combined to deprive them of the wealth and privileges which accompanied their position as the premier peers in this island. It started with Maurice Fitzgerald who became the sixth Duke of Leinster on the early death of his father at the age of 44 years in 1895. His brother Desmond who was next in line died of wounds while serving in France as a Major in the Irish Guards during the First World War. He was just 27 years old when he died on 3rd March 1916. His death made his younger brother Edward the next in line. Edward was a n’eer to do well who gambled, ran up debts and who before long found himself in grave financial difficulties. In January 1918 Edward, the Marquis of Kildare, agreed to gamble whatever inheritance he stood to get on the death of his brother, the then current Duke in return for the settlement of his debts. Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley, a wealthy business man was the other party to the agreement which barely four years later materialised when the sixth Duke died aged 35 years. The unexpected had happened. Edward, the third son of the fifth Duke of Leinster had fallen in for the title, but not the vast Kildare Estates which he had previously agreed to hand over to Mallaby-Deeley. Edward Fitzgerald, the seventh Duke, would live for another 54 years and in that time would be bankrupted three times and would marry on four occasions. He spent the last years of his wasted life running a tea room in Rye in Sussex, England.
His first marriage was to a West End actress in 1913 and their only son Gerald was born the following year. Gerald became the eighth Duke of Leinster on the death of his father Edward who committed suicide in a small London flat in 1976. Even before he succeeded to the title Gerald was able to make an arrangement with the Mallaby-Deeley Estate which enabled him to return to live in Kilkea Castle at the end of the Second World War. The move back to Ireland did not prove a success for the Marquis of Kildare as Gerald Fitzgerald then was, and in 1960 the last of the ancestral homes of the Kildare Fitzgeralds was sold. Gerald Fitzgerald returned to England where he had quite a successful business career and in 1976 he succeeded his father as the Duke of Leinster.
The passing of the title from the 7th to the 8th Duke was not without incident. A Californian art teacher by the name of Leonard Fitzgerald claimed the title as the eldest son of a man named Maurice Fitzgerald who died in California in 1967. It was claimed that Maurice, the 6th Duke of Leinster, had emigrated to America in 1922 and had not died that year as previously claimed by the Duke’s family. The real Maurice Fitzgerald was born in Kilkea Castle on 1st March 1887 and according to the Californian claimant “abdicated” in favour of his younger brother. This claim was not substantiated and subsequently collapsed allowing Gerald Fitzgerald, son of the 7th Duke and his former actress wife to succeed to the title. The vast estates and the wealth which once accompanied the title was unfortunately long gone and all that remained were family heirlooms and the title of Ireland’s first and only Duke. The misfortune which seemed to cloud the affairs of the Geraldines in the last century once again came to the fore when seven years ago, the then Lord Offaly, who if he lived, would be next in line for the title, died in a road traffic accident.
Over the Christmas period I was struck by the number of people originally from Athy who died in England. On the Sunday after the holiday I read of no less than three ex pats who had passed away. A death during the festive season is always particularly sad. Towards the end of the year May Batchelor’s daughter Maeve died within days of her 50th birthday. Maeve was the only daughter of May and her late husband Bobby Batchelor who died in England, aged 51 years in 1974. Following Bobby’s death May and her daughter returned to Athy where Maeve was employed in the offices of Tegral for almost 20 years. She subsequently went to Brussels to work for the E.U. Commission and returned in recent years when she fell ill. The loss of an only daughter is keenly felt by a mother and our thoughts and sympathy go out to May Batchelor whose involvement in the community life in Athy stretches back to the hey days of the musical shows in the Town Hall in which she and her sister Dympna played such a prominent part.