Thursday, April 28, 2011

Duke of Wellington

Some months ago a Jewish overseas visitor called on me seeking information on the birth place of the Duke of Wellington which he believed was in Athy.  Apparently he had visited Apsley House in London, the last residence of Napoleon’s conqueror and had found references there to Wellington’s birth place as Athy, Co. Kildare.  Understandably I was intrigued, such was my visitor’s insistence as to the correctness of his information, despite my claims to the contrary.

I have previously come across several references to Wellington’s birth place which were given as Trim Co. Meath, Athy Co. Kildare, Athboy Co. Meath and Grafton Street Dublin.  Descended as he was from the Wellesleys who had settled in Ireland in the 13th century, any of the places mentioned could have been Wellington’s place of birth as the family had connections with the Fitzgeralds, the Dunsanys, the Colleys and many more Anglo Norman families of the Pale.  I have previously researched the issue as best I could and concluded that there was no evidence for believing Athy to be Wellington’s birth place. 

My visitor prompted me to look at the matter again and so on a recent visit to London I visited Apsley House where Wellington lived for many years.  To my disappointment I found no trace of any reference to Athy and wondered what my Jewish visitor had seen or read to prompt his fruitless journey to Athy.  Despite this disappointment I continued to research the issue and I found that in a letter to the London Times on 3rd June 1926 a Mr. Stanhope Kennedy made a claim which gave some credence to Athy as Wellington’s place of birth.  He claimed that when completing the 1851 Census Form the then 82 year old Duke gave his place of birth as ‘in Ireland - believed Athy’.  Unfortunately the Census Forms for 1851 were destroyed in 1913 and so there is nothing to corrorborate Mr. Kennedy’s claim.

Of perhaps greater persuasion is the Dublin newspapers of 1769 which in early May of that year announced the birth of a son to the Duchess of Mornington in Merrion Street, Dublin.  Merrion Street, now Merrion Square, was the location of Mornington House, the home of Lord Mornington who had been born Henry Colley, a member of the County Kildare family.  His son Arthur was destined to be the future Duke of Wellington.  Certainly there were strong Kildare connections through the Colley family but none such as to definitely decide the issue of the birthplace of the man who would lead the allied armies against Napoleon’s armies.

Some years ago the Meath Heritage Centre published the booklet, ‘Wellington – his Irish connections’ in which the birth place of Wellington was stated to be ‘shrouded in mystery’.  No less than ten locations were listed as possible birth places including Athy, four locations in Dublin, Dangan Castle, Co. Meath as well as three other locations in that county.

Wellington attended school in Trim and Dunshaughlin before continuing his education in England.  He was later a member of Trim Corporation and became a Member of Parliament for Trim at 21 years of age.  His links with Ireland continued throughout his career and included a short period as Chief Secretary of Ireland and a marriage to Kitty Packenham from Tullynally Castle just outside Castlepollard in County Westmeath.  He supported Catholic Emancipation and that Act was passed during his term as Prime Minister despite the opposition of the King of England.  Wellington’s part in the passing of the Catholic Emancipation in 1829 lead to a duel between himself and another peer who opposed the measure. 

Wellington was a friend to Ireland and despite his oft repeated saying ‘because a man is born in a stable does not make him a horse’ he remained a friend so throughout his life.  Regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time Wellington, the victor over Napoleon at Waterloo, cannot on the available evidence be claimed for Athy.

Last week three well known residents of Athy passed away.  Kitty O’Brien, Nicholas Cahill and Noel Wright were highly respected and well regarded members of our local community.  Their passing is a sad loss to their family and friends and for the wider community represents a further unravelling of the ties of friendship which bind us all. 

My apologies to the readers who were mislead by last week’s announcement of the Patrick Moran lecture.  It should have read Wednesday 27th April.  The latest edition to the Taaffe family was born recently to my daughter Orla who lives in England.  Mollie, a red head, is my 4th grandchild and my 4th granddaughter which is quite an about turn for a man who came from a family of five brothers and whose father’s family also consisted of five sons and no daughters.  At least red hair is a Taaffe characteristic!

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