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COL. THOMAS DONGAN OF CASTLETOWN, KILDROUGHT, SOLDIER AND STATESMAN

 
Leinster Leader, September 30th 1905
 
Col. Thomas Dongan of Castletown, Kildrought, Solider and Statesman
By
 John Sheil O’Grady
 
The subject of the Dongan administration of the Province of New York, in the latter half of the seventeenth century, is one whose adequate treatment would much more than fill an entire issue of the “Leinster Leader” and I have attempted here nothing more, than an outline.
Irishmen nowadays naturally look with pride to the American Commonwealth in the founding of whose greatness their countrymen played so prominent a part. Why, then, should not Kildare men be interested in the fact that one born in their native county did much to make the present state a possibility by his courage and ability, and by his loyal efforts to thwart the schemes of the French King, Louis XIV. Yet it is to be regretted that so little seems to be known of the private life of Dongan, that we have few of those glimpses that are afforded us of the lives of our other and much less illustrious colonial governors. Facts are better than logic to exhibit the elements of personal character; therefore, let the following incidents tell the story of his life:-
 Thomas Dongan was born at Castletown Kildrought (now Celbridge) in 1634, and was the third son of Sir John Dongan, Bart and Mary, daughter of Sir. William Talbot, Bart. of Carton. His eldest brother, Walter, died without issue, and was succeeded in the title by the second Sir William, who was created Viscount Dongan, of Clane, in 1661: and Earl of Limerick in 1685. His uncle-Richard Talbot, was afterwards created Duke of Tyrconnell; and another, Sir Robert: married Grace, daughter of Lord Calvert, Baron of Baltimore.
Dongan’s boyhood was passed in the stirring days of the Rebellion of 1641; and as he passed from youth to manhood, he witnessed the success of Cromwell, which was sealed by the blood of Charles I, in 1643. In company with his brother he followed the Stuarts into exile, and entered the French army at once. He participated in all Turenne’s campaigns under the name of D’Unguent; and it is likely that during his period of foreign service he became acquainted with the Duke of York, and that the Prince learned to appreciate the ability and worth of the man. He appears to have distinguished himself as a soldier, as he was promoted to the coloneley of an Irish regiment in the service of France in 1674. While serving at Nancy, in 1678, news reached him of the command of Charles II now firmly seated on the throne, that all English subjects should leave France within forty-eight hours and notwithstanding the fact that flattering offers were made to him by the French, he quitted his command, and sailed for England. It is stated that in doing this he sacrificed much, as he failed to collect a debt of 65,000 lives; but Charles, as a recompense, rewarded him with the commission as General Officer in the army then destined for Flanders, and a pension of £500 for life. There is no record of his having served in the Low Countries: and it is improbable, as at the end of the same year we find him serving under Lord Inchquin as Lieutenant-Governor of Tangiers-a colony that became part of the British Dominions in 1662, as portion of the dowry of Catherine of Bruganza, on her marriage with Charles II; here he remained for two years, after which he seems to have passed his time between Ireland the English Court.
In 1663, being then in his forty-eight year, he was appointed “Governor General of the Duke of York’s Province of New York,” and Vice Admiral. He left for America on board the old Parliamentarian frigate, “Constant Warwick,” accompanied by his chaplain, Father Thomas Harvey, and his nephew, Mark Talbot. On his arrival at Nantucket, he was received by the representatives of the Government and a troop of the Boston Militia, who escorted him to Dedham, and from thence he crossed to New York by boat. It will be hard to realise that the great metropolis of to-day was at that time no larger than Irish village, yet such was the case. In 1683 it consisted of 207 houses with a population of 2,000 people, in addition to the slaves. The Province of New York, and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard-a region as yet little known and thinly populated, but destined in the years to come to be looked on by many an Irish emigrant as the promised land.
In order to thoroughly understand the political situation in America at this period, one must bear in mind that the greed for territory did not exist alone between France and England, but also between the rival States of New England. The most important of these States were-Virginia, established 1607; New Amsterdam, by the Dutch in 1614 (the name afterwards changed to New York by the English, who obtained possession of it in 1664); Massachusetts and Boston in 1620-30; Maryland in 1632, by Dongan’s relation, Lord Baltimore; and Pennsylvania and Philadelphia in 1681-1682, by Quakers under the celebrated William Penn. The French in the north claimed as their frontier the region as far as south Albany; while the English contended in favour of the St. Lawrence River and the Lakes as their boundary on the south. Penn was conniving to deprive New York of the beautiful valley of Susquehanna ; but one of Dongan’s earliest acts was to frustrate the Quaker’s little scheme. Above all, it must be remembered that French agents were doing all in their power to bring the five nations of the Iroquois Indians under French domination. At the time of Dongan’s arrival, the Providence of New York was in a state of universal disturbance, and from every settlement arose a cry for a popular Assembly. He proceeded to issue warrants for a General Assembly, consisting of a governor, ten councillors and seventeen representatives, elected by the people which met October 17th, 1683. The first act of this body was the framing a Charter of Liberties-the first guarantee of popular government in the Province. His negotiations with the Iroquois ended in a triumph for diplomacy; and he had the satisfaction, to the discomfiture of the French, of making a covenant with the five nations in August, 1684. During the next few years many wise laws were enacted under his guidance, but when James II ascended the throne in 1685, he abolished the Assembly, and Dongan became Governor Royal.
In 1686 he granted to New York City the celebrated Dongan Charter which is still the basis and foundation of Municipal Law. The city at this time was almost divided into Wards, and the Province into Counties. In this year also a Charter was given to Albany and he suggested to the home Government the establishment of Post Houses along the coast from Maine to the Carolinas while his report on the condition of the Colony is regarded as a model of its kind. In his desire to secure for the Crown the vast Mississippi Valley, he applied to the King or authority to equip an expedition to that region in order to anticipate Le Salle. He borrowed £2,000 on his estate of Castletown, on Staten Island, to defray the expense of troops to defend the northern frontier; but on the eve of his triumph, when about to deliver an ultimatum to Governor Denoville to evacuate French forts in New York territory, he received a command from the King to surrender his Governorship in April, 1688. This act can be traced to one source, and one source alone-French influence, at the time all too powerful in Whitehall. The King offered him the rank of Major General and the command of a regiment; but he refused them, doubtless stung by the ingratitude of one for whose family he had suffered much. He retired to private life, passing his days between the domain of Castletown and his farm on the shore of Lake Success. American historians bear high testimony to his legislative ability; and Booth, in the “History of the City of New York,” says-“His form and judicial policy, his steadfast integrity, and his pleasing and courteous address won the affections of the people”; while in Fiske’s “Dutch and Quaker colonies” we read:-“ With all his faults, and in spite of his moroseness, this Stuart Prince, James II had many excellent men attacked to him; and the new Governor of New York was the best of them-Colonel Thomas Dongan-an Irishman of broad, statemanlike mind, and the personal magnetism that the Blarney stone is said to import. His blithe humour veiled a deep earnestness of purpose; long experience with Frenchmen had fitted him to deal with the dangers that were threatened with Canada”. He returned to England in 1691, and became a frequenter of the English Court and was granted by the Government the sum of £2,500 in part payment for advances made by him for public purposes while Governor Royal. His brother William, Earl of Limerick, died in 1698; and as his only son had been killed in 1690, at the Battle of the Boyne, he was succeeded in the title by ex-Governor Dongan.
He appears to have taken no further part in public affairs, and resided almost entirely during the remaining years of his life in England. The close of his career, which at one time gave great promise was, indeed, melancholy though not inglorious; yet when we remember the rapidity and violence with which change followed change toward the end of the seventeenth century, it can scarcely be wondered at if one who stood high to-day sank into oblivion the next. He died in London, December 17th 1715, aged eighty-one years, and was interred in St. Pancras Churchyard, Middlesex.

The life and times of  Kildare man, Thomas Dongan, Soldier and Statesman, is recounted in the Leinster Leader of September 1905 by John Sheil O'Grady. Our thanks to Roy O'Brien


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