A few weeks ago I wrote of my visit with a west of Ireland friend to places in and around south Kildare which I claimed could make an interesting trip as part of Ireland’s Ancient East. The recent announcement of the proposed re-opening of Kilkea Castle provides another reason to visit this area. With Whites Castle and Woodstock Castle the Castle at Kilkea forms a unique trio of medieval buildings which at different times were in the ownership of the FitzGerald family, Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster.
Kilkea Castle is often claimed as the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland and certainly its part in Irish history stretching back to the 12th century brings us face to face with many of the great events of the past. Silken Thomas’s rebellion following the imprisonment of his father Garret Óg, 9th Earl of Kildare in the tower of London, resulted in the execution of the young man and five of his uncles and the confiscation of the Earl’s lands. Thomas’s half-brother Gerald had the title and the land restored to him 15 years later and on his return to Ireland from the Continent Gerald took up residence in Kilkea Castle. Because of his interest in the occult arts he was called the Wizard Earl of Kildare, of whom much has been written in terms of local folklore.
What is perhaps little known is that a Jesuit community was in occupation of Kilkea Castle for 12 years up to 1646. The widow of the 14th Earl of Kildare, herself a devout catholic, permitted Fr. Robert Nugent, Superior of the Jesuit Order, to take over the castle and it was here that Cardinal Rinuccini, the papal nuncio, was entertained during the Confederate wars.
After the Confederate wars Kilkea Castle was home to many different families who for the most part were unconnected to the Earls of Kildare. Perhaps the most interesting of those Kilkea residents was Thomas Reynolds whose wife’s sister was married to Wolfe Tone. Reynolds, a Dublin silk merchant, was friendly with Lord Edward FitzGerald, the one-time member of parliament for the borough of Athy who was leader of the United Irishmen in County Kildare. He brought Reynolds into the organisation and indeed Reynolds became a colonel in the Army of the United Irishmen. Regrettably Reynolds turned out to be an informer, a claim which his son unsuccessful attempted to dispute in his biography of Thomas Reynolds, published in 1838. Subsequent tenants of Kilkea Castle were the Caulfield family who were also occupiers of extensive lands in the Grangemellon area. A member of the Caulfield family was one of those involved as trustees of Catholic church property for the parish of St. Michael’s Athy in the early post Catholic emancipation period.
Kilkea castle after almost 200 years without a FitzGerald in residence once again became a family residence for members of the Duke of Leinster’s family. However, the once extensive Leinster estates passed into the ownership of an English financier, Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley. During the life of the 6th Duke of Leinster his third son, Lord Edward, while his two older brothers were still alive, disposed of his reversionary rights for a relatively small sum to Mallaby-Deeley. He did so believing that he had little prospect of succeeding to the title and to the Leinster estates. However, Desmond FitzGerald, the eldest son of the Duke was killed while serving as an officer in World War 1 and the Duke’s second son Maurice died in February 1920. When the sixth Duke of Leinster died in 1922 the former bankrupt Edward, described by many as a rakish womaniser, became the 7th Duke of Leinster. The tenanted lands belonging to the Leinster estates having been sold under the Wyndham Land Act to tenant farmers, the demesne lands at Carton and Kilkea were all that remained and they passed to Mallaby-Deeley. He allowed members of the FitzGerald family, but not the improvident 7th Duke, to live in Carton House until it was sold in 1948.
The 7th Duke’s uncle, Lord Walter FitzGerald and Walter’s two sisters, lived in Kilkea Castle from 1889. It was there that Lord Walter, one of the founders of the Kildare Archaeological Society, died in 1923. The FitzGerald sisters continued living in Kilkea and after World War II the castle was occupied by the Marquess of Kildare. In the mid-1960s he went to live in England and the castle was sold in 1965 to William Cade. Edward the 7th Duke who married four times, lived in England on an annual allowance from Mallaby-Deeley. He died in 1976.
The re-opening of Kilkea Castle as a hotel is to be applauded, bringing as it does the story of the great house of Leinster to our time. It offers too a wonderful addition to the story of our neighbourhood, bringing with it the history of a great family, some of whose members are remembered today in the street names of our town.