by ehistoryadmin on January 24, 2015


Punchestown, the Big House and the FitzGeralds

By Liam Kenny

Punchestown and “the Big House” are synonymous. While the festival had always attracted punters of all classes and backgrounds, it was the country aristocracy who set the headline when the meeting was regarded as the climax of the society year. They came from the big houses – the Blackers from Castlemartin, the Aylmers from Kerdiffstown, the St Leger Moores from Killashee, the Mayos from Palmerstown and the Lawlesses from Lyons. However pride of place in the pecking order of the county gentry was the Fitzgeralds of Carton. Although not as involved in the equestrian world as their neighbours the Connollys of Castletown, the FitzGeralds – as Ireland’s premier titled family — conferred a seal of aristocratic approval on the racing festival.

They could also claim to be among the most deep rooted in the county. The FitzGeralds arrived first in the Kildare area in the late 1100s in the van of the Norman invasion. Indeed the allocation of the lands of the older Irish clans to the FitzGeralds was instrumental in the creation of the shape of County Kildare from 1297. So central is the FitzGerald story to the county that the red “X” of the Fitzgerald banner is the central element of Kildare County Council’s coat-of-arms designed 700 years later in the 1990s.

It is only right then that the FitzGeralds, their great castle in Maynooth, and their magnificent mansion at Carton, have been the subject of much study and publication. And there is nowhere better placed to lead such examination of the FitzGeralds and their impact on the landscape than NUI Maynooth and, specifically, its Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates. The latest publication co-ordinated by the Centre holds much of interest for residents of North Kildare by outlining the trials and tribulations of the FitzGeralds whose fortunes resulted in the structure of fields and roads in the Rye valley between Maynooth and Leixlip.

The new book entitled “Aspects of Irish Aristocratic Life – Essays on the FitzGeralds and Carton House” comprises nineteen essays by experts on the family and its properties. Produced to the customary high standards of the University College Dublin Press the book brims with information and analysis of how the FitzGeralds became part of the social and geographic landscape of the county.

Carton House is perhaps the star of the FitzGerald story being very much in the public eye in modern times as a successful hotel and sports campus. The press release accompanying the book’s publication records how the house has been used as a discreet training base for teams of such stellar repute as Real Madrid and Manchester United and, most famously, being the springboard from which Ireland’s rugby warriors launched their successful campaigns. Not mentioned but probably more traumatic for Kildare readers is the fact that in 1998 when the Lilywhites seemed on the brink of All-Ireland success their opponents — the Galway team– slipped into Carton on the eve of the All Ireland final for a quiet overnight. While the Kildare players were in the glare of the hype the canny Galwegians were the more relaxed when the teams ran out in Croke Park on the following day.

Back to more mainstream history the highly qualified authors deliver some strong analysis on the power and impact of the FitzGeralds in Kildare. Maynooth residents will be interested in the chapter on “The FitzGeralds and the making of the Manor of Maynooth” . Here Dr Raymond Gillespie describes how the FitzGeralds created the village of Maynooth. From as early as 1311 Maynooth was a thriving town with evidence for the presence of blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, and a cobbler. There were fighting men too with a mention of a “crossbow man” being among the residents. Helpful in reconstructing a picture from such early times are the place names of the locality. Dr Gillespie refers to a class of people know as “the betaghs”  who worked land subject to the lord of the manor. The place name of “Betaghstown” near Donadea, south-west of Maynooth may be an echo of this class of the population.  Other place names in modern use such as Railpark in Maynooth refer to a later phase for the FitzGerald property when it was being divided into parkland and given English names.

The FitzGerald presence in Co Kildare had its share of disasters and the heavy damage to their castle in Maynooth during the rebellions of the 16th century marked a low point in their association with the locality. But out of the ruins emerged other generations of the family who had a remarkable ability to reinvent themselves to master the political currents of the day.  As the family resurged so too did Maynooth village and the transition of the town from a cluster of cottages around the old castle to a model of planned urban layout is described in a chapter by Dr Arnold Horner. |

In the enforced absence of the FitzGeralds the town gained some prosperity by its position on the great road to the west. Dr Horner quotes a traveller who passed through Maynooth in the 1690s and who described it as a “tolerable village with one or two good inns where meat is well dressed and good liquors be had.” In the 1730s Maynooth was astride the new Dublin to Mullingar turnpike road, an early toll road presaging a twenty-first century incarnation in the form of the tolled M4 motorway to the west. Welcome as the prosperity was it led to the village growing in a haphazard manner. When the FitzGeralds resumed prominence in the locality the village was ripe for remodelling. They proved influential if somewhat hesitant planners. Much of their focus was occupied with ornamenting their Carton residence and its demense into a landscape which would reflect their status in society.

By the late 1700s estate maps showed Maynooth with its distinctive three-rows of single-storey, slate-roofed cottages, north of the main street, which housed many of the labourers on the Carton Estate. The tree-lined main street of the town with its generous  footpaths also dates from this era of improvement by the Fitzgeralds.

However the relationship between the FitzGeralds and the town while broadly benign was not perfect. By the late 19th century newspapers–the Leinster Leader among them –were drawing attention to unsanitary conditions for the townspeople as highlighted by the newly elected Kildare County Council. As Dr Horner remarks “such conditions are a reminder that daily life in the town could be a world away from that enjoyed by the FitzGeralds.”

There is a great deal more in this impressive new book which is adorned with an attractive selection of photographs and illustrations which emphasise the towering importance of the FitzGeralds for the fabric of north Kildare to the present day. The book is available in local bookshops or at a discount from www.ucdpress.ie. Book reviewed: “Aspects of Irish Aristocratic Life … Essays on the FitzGeralds and Carton House” with a foreword by Hon Desmond Guinness. Leinster Leader 29 April 2014, Looking Back Series no: 379.

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