Palmerstown and its colourful owners

“….and, if I mistake not, a French Artiste”

Palmerstown and its colourful owners

By Brian Mc Cabe
(Kill History Group)

It is evident, from the many decorated stones which have been uncovered nearby over the years, that the locality around Palmerstown has had human habitation from at least the Neolithic period. Such stones include those found at Furness in 1975 and in Kilwarden in 1990.

An example of early activity on the Palmerstown site itself may well be the standing stone on the grounds, which is now situated on the edge of the fairway relating to the 15th hole – although such stones are, of course, extremely difficult to date.

The place name Palmerstown is not unusual in Ireland (there are at least 10) but they are mostly to be found on the east coast. They are generally taken to have their origins in grants to, or by, persons who had visited the ‘Holy Lands’ (as evidenced by their bringing back sprigs of palm as a token of their pilgrimage).

Early 12th century details of the family of Palmer – after whom Palmerstown may have been named – are carried in the very first Volume of the Journal of The County Kildare Archaeological Society1. Probably following on this, Palmerstown in Kildare has been identified with the ‘T(erra) Ricci Filii Alured’ in terms of properties held in Ireland by the Knights Hospitallers, as confirmed by Pope Innocent III in 12122.

One of the earliest important personages associated with Palmerstown was a cleric and writer known as ‘Thomas Hibernicus’ who “flourished in the year 1270 at the (Italian) monastery of Aquila”3 His major work was a collection of ‘flores’ (flowers) of wisdom from nearly all the then European Doctors of Philosophy or Theology. His book became something of a reference work and was re-printed many times in the centuries which followed. [It should also be noted however that Thomas is also claimed by Palmerstown in Dublin4 and, indeed, I have been unable to find specific reference to his original birthplace]

There is no doubt, however, about who owned Palmerstown in the medieval period. The family of Flatsbury or de Flatebry are mentioned in Kildare as early as 12865 and by the following century a Robert Flatesbury is listed as Collector of the Kings Revenue in the Barony of Offelan. His son, Patrick Flatesbury, aged nineteen in 1368, was Sheriff of Kildare in 1394 and was appointed Custodian of the Peace for Kildare on several occasions between 1381 and 1427. His extensive possessions in 1425 included Osberstown, Johnstown, Yagoestown and Palmerstown. This family continued to rise in prominence, and in association with the (Fitzgerald) Earls of Kildare, until the 1641 Rebellion when James Flatesbury took the side of the Confederates, was outlawed and his possessions (including Palmerstown) were forfeited.

After this, the land seem to have been acquired by Theobold Bourke, third son of John Bourke, a Captain of Horse under the Duke of Ormond in the Confederate Wars, who had settled in Kill but removed to Palmerstown sometime after 1688.6

He was Sovereign of Naas in 1700, 1711 and 1724. In 1700 he was elected High Sheriff of County Kildare. He was again returned for the borough of Naas at the subsequent election and continued to represent it until his death, without issue, in June 1726.

He was succeeded at Palmerstown by his nephew, John Bourke, who continued the family tradition by serving as High Sheriff of the County in 1736 and 1737 and who was appointed a Commissioner of Revenue in 1749. In 1751 he succeeded to the family estates in county Mayo on the death of his cousin, Theobald Bourke of Moneycrower. The Lord Lieutenant (Earl Harcourt), writing to Lord North in May 1776 recommending him for a peerage, described how he had been “fifty years in Parliament; a constant supporter of the King’s Government and, in my time, so very zealously and assiduously that he has frequently been brought down to vote at twelve o’clock at night, without even making any plea whatever as an excuse when he was sent for” In private life though, he was of a morose disposition and was familiarly known as “Old Killjoy”7 He was created Baron Naas in August 1776 and took his seat on 14th August 1777. In January 1781 he was created Viscount Mayo and, finally, Earl of Mayo in June 1785.

John Bourke’s eldest son, the second Earl, who had married a daughter of the Earl of Milltown from Russborough, died without issue in 1792, so a younger son (Joseph) who was Archbishop of Tuam, became the third Earl. Joseph died in 1807 and was succeeded by his son John, who became the fourth Earl. This John erected the plaque in St David’s Church of Ireland in Naas which commemorated his grandfather, the first Earl. He continued the family tradition by serving as M.P for Naas.

We get a hint of what things seem to have been like at Palmerstown, during his term, from the [1832] diary of an unnamed officer who was stationed at Naas barracks.8 He writes as follows: “I only know two families in the neighbourhood, Lord Mayo’s and Major Tandy’s the Stipendiary Magistrate, the latter I have the pleasure of seeing too frequently as I am continually accompanying him to the Tithe Sales, Tithe Meetings etc. a very harassing and disagreeable duty for the military. He is always very civil inviting me invariably to dinner, I have only dined twice there, and then I had to complain of being very crowded at table, a common occurrence in this country, for they think nothing of making twenty people sit down when there is only room for sixteen. At Palmerstown they live in a very good style. An excellent cuisine and if I mistake not, a French artiste”

In the following year (1833) the negative side of the Bourke family’s long standing control and domination of places and of municipal offices in Naas was exposed in a report of the commissioners appointed to investigate the Corporation of Naas, which found it to be: “most unpopular, and as at present constituted does not exist for any useful purpose. A glance at the roll of office holders for the previous thirty years showed that only twice in that time had persons other than members of the Bourke family been Sovereign”9 Commenting that the purpose of the corporation was “that all of the inhabitants and their successors should be members of it, was now composed entirely of members of Lord Mayo’s family, as twelve of them (or his tenants or agents) filled the fifteen positions of burgesses and freemen. There was no instance of a Roman Catholic or Protestant Dissenter being a member of the corporation. A desire to obtain their freedom has existed amongst the inhabitants, but being generally of the Roman Catholic persuasion, they were deterred from applying for admission by a feeling that, on that ground alone, they would be rejected. When, about 1832, a Roman Catholic resident made the attempt and failed, this fortified the impression. In a district where the proportion of Roman Catholic to other sects was thirty to one, the sectarian feeling of the corporation has produced general odium towards the body.”
The fact that the corporation members were non-resident was a further cause of annoyance as their task was to govern, and to hold the borough court.

The inhabitants of Naas were also unhappy with their masters for another important reason. Over the years they had seen the ownership of the corporation lands, including the important commons and the rents, being sequestered by the very officials who were supposed to oversee the interests of the townspeople. As the 4th Lord Mayo was then absent from Ireland it was not possible for the Inquiry to have access to all of the accounts, but it was observed that “the expenses of erecting the new market house were charged against the corporation in the first account, although there is a stone in the building, on which is engraved a statement that it was built at the expense of Lord Mayo”

The fourth Earl and his countess, who was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Adelaide, had no family, so the title devolved on a nephew, Robert Bourke, who became the 5th Earl in 1849.

In 1847, his son Richard Southwell had been elected to represent Naas in parliament. It was later said that during his ten years in office “that Naas corporation property was formerly much more extensive than it is at present; and that the portions of which have passed from the corporation have got into the possession of Lord Naas”

Richard Southwell, 6th Earl (1822-1872), was probably the best known – and certainly the most famous – of the Bourkes. A somewhat hagiographic account of his life and times [‘Life of the Earl of Mayo’ by W.W Hunter] was published in 1875, a few years after his death.

Richard, who was the eldest of ten brothers and sisters, was born in Dublin on 21st February 1822 and spent his early years at Hayes, a country house belonging to the family, in County Meath. He was educated at home, and in 1841, entered Trinity College where he took an ordinary degree. He is reputed to have taken an active part in relief work during the Great Famine and, probably on the strength of this (as well as ‘vigilance over the register’) he succeeded in being elected as one of the two Members of Parliament for Kildare in 1847.

In dealing with this election, Hunter, in his book, points out that “The return of the Marquess [of Kildare] was a foregone conclusion; the struggle for the second seat lay between Mr O’Neill Dumont and Mr Bourke. From the newspaper reports which I have glanced over, the proceedings seem to have been as Irish(!) as could be well desired. However Mr Bourke eventually got a hearing and declared his views. What chiefly strikes an Englishman is that he has to read a very long way into the speech without coming to any political opinions whatsoever. The burning questions in Kildare at that time seems to have been a certain Roman Catholic churchyard in the parish of Kill, the town funds of Naas and the personal relations between the Romish priest and the candidates.” Hunter does, however, acknowledge the role of Fr Doyle, the Parish Priest, in “moderating the exertions of his flock by bawling out(!) for ‘a clear stage and no favours’”

Having been duly elected, Richard Southwell continued the family tradition of sticking close to the establishment and was duly rewarded by being appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1852, at the unusually young age of thirty. Indeed his unprecedented youth gave rise to his subsequent soubriquet, in the office, of ‘The Boy Secretary’. He was to be re-appointed to this prestigious office on two further occasions with the advent of Tory administrations in England in 1858 and 1866. However, the apogee of his political career came in 1868 with his appointment, by the outgoing Disraeli government, as Viceroy and Governor General of India. The appointment was not reversed by the incoming [Gladstone] government, which was probably a mark of Bourke’s personal popularity and affability.

Once in India, he seems to have been an active and conciliatory Viceroy, in contrast to many of his predecessors. He was particularly assiduous in cultivating the friendship of the neighbouring states, principally Afghanistan, Nepal and Burma [Myanmar] to counteract the perceived threat from Russia. With those within India, he aimed at securing good government by their princes, with the minimum of interference. He reformed the public finances by a policy of decentralisation and by economies on defence and public works.10

During his term as Viceroy, the first member of the British family, Prince Alfred, visited India and he was received in Calcutta, by the Mayos, with suitable magnificence. Government House was adorned with gilt Louis furniture brought specially from Paris and – since it was Christmas time – mistletoe thoughtfully procured by Lady Mayo from Simla. There was a State Banquet in the Marble Hall, a fancy dress ball and a great assemblage of dignitaries at which the Prince was invested with the Star of India.11

Bourke’s term as Viceroy however was to be cut tragically short when, in February 1872, he was assassinated by a Pathan convict on an inspection trip to the penal colony at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. The motivation for the assassination may well have been measures which his government had earlier taken against the Wahabis, an Islamic sect, although it has also been suggested that it may have been a private act of vengeance on the part of the assassin.

His obsequies were carried out on a grand scale. The entire European population of Calcutta followed his coffin from Prinsep’s Ghat to Government House, where it lay in state in the Council Chamber for two days while crowds of Indians and British came to pay their last respects. It was then taken in a warship back to Ireland and eventually laid to rest in the family burial ground in Johnstown, where he himself (before leaving for India) has chosen a place for his grave “as though for all his sense of buoyant anticipation at the prospect of his great office, something had told him that he would not return alive”.12

Following his death in office, the government decided that, as a tribute, a new Palmerstown House should be erected at public expense by way of commemoration.
The new house was built on a different site, on higher ground, as can be clearly seen from the Ordnance Survey maps for 1872 and 1910 as shown. The old house, probably dating from the 17th or 18th century, had been described (by Hunter) as “an old fashioned house, added to from time to time in an irregular manner, the rooms low and small but enriched with some good pictures, particularly a set of Sir Joshuas” (Reynolds) For the new house, however, “The style was sensible and even enlightened ‘Queen Anne’ – a new departure for the elderly architect T.H. Wyatt”.13 When finished, in 1875, it comprised one front with a recessed centre and 3 bay projections joined by a colonnade of coupled Ionic columns and a second front with a pediment raised on a 3 bay attic, between two 3-sided bows. It had a mansard roof with pedimented dormers.14

Palmerstown House with its pediment raised on a 3 bay attic embedded in a mansard roof with pedimented dormers.

It is likely that most of the old house was demolished at this time but it would appear from the maps that part of the original western wing was retained and is preserved in the outbuildings complex to the west of the current house. At least one large, well proportioned room still survives, with its original 12 over 8 windows with linings, shutters and panels. There is also battening on the walls which probably supported earlier decorative lining to the walls, and some original decorative plasterwork also survives and is of note and significance.15

The next owner of Palmerstown was Dermot Robert Wyndham Bourke, who was 21 when his father was assassinated and who succeeded him as 7th Earl of Mayo. In his youth, Dermot had travelled extensively with his father, which gave him an early love for hunting and shooting wild animals which was to stay with him throughout his life. He also spent some time in America in the early 1880s before returning to run Palmerstown.

In April 1891 he was instrumental in convening a meeting in Palmerstown which led to the setting up of the Kildare Archaeological Society and was, in fact, elected at that meeting as joint Honorary Secretary of the Society, along with Arthur Vicars.16 The Duke of Leinster was elected as first President.

Dermot continued the family tradition of getting involved in politics but, with changes in national sentiment and the widening of the electoral franchise towards the end of the 19th century, he was less successful than earlier members of the family. In the Local Government elections of 1899 he was not elected in Kildare and he went to London, having let Palmerstown to a tenant for a few months. From London he expressed his views on the subject of local government, and subsequently the Daily Express commented: ‘He thinks it is a great misfortune that the country gentlemen who have for many years administered and been identified with country government should have been so completely ousted from their position…they had spent years on Grand Juries and Boards of Guardians, and worked well with the most violent nationalists’

The 7th Earl and his Countess were enthusiastic supporters of the promotion of craft work. They founded the Arts & Crafts Society of Ireland and the Countess also refounded the Irish School of Art Needlework, the aim of which was ‘to provide suitable work for impoverished gentlewomen.’ By 1901 there were twenty three pupils in the school. She procured commissions from Queen Victoria, one for the private chapel at Windsor and another for an altar frontal for St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The altar frontal for St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, was also made by the School.

As Ireland moved inexorably towards independence after the First World War, Mayo emerged as one of the leading lights in the Unionist and anti-Home Rule movement. After the War of Independence and the Treaty, however he made the transition to the new regime and was, in fact, appointed to the new Senate by the first ‘Free State’ Government in 1922. However he was to pay dearly for this honour when his house was one of those to be burned, in response to the execution of Republican ‘Irregulars’, during the increasingly bitter Civil War, in January 1923. An account of the burning, taken from the Irish Independent of 31st January 1923, was carried in Vol XV of the Journal of Kildare Archaeological Society (p.386).

Palmerstown House following its burning in January 1923 by anti-treaty forces.

After the burning, the Seventh Earl made a successful claim for compensation and an award of £51,831 for the house and contents was agreed and the house was re-built, minus the mansard third storey.

The Earl, reputedly, lived in one of the gate lodges on the estate until the house was rebuilt but he moved to England soon afterwards and died in a nursing home in London in December 1927.

Dermot was succeeded as Earl by his cousin, Walter Longley Bourke, son of the sixth Earl’s brother, George who had died in 1903.

Palmerstown House without its mansard roof following its renovation post fire.

In the meantime however, Palmerstown House and stud was sold to Mr W.J. Kelly who had been a gentleman’s outfitter in Clanbrassil Street in Dublin. Apparently, because of his business, he was known to his friends as ‘Trousers’ Kelly! His real love however was horseracing and, in a special feature on Palmerstown in the Weekly Irish Times in July 1938, he is described as “a gentleman well known and popular in Irish racing circles, who controls as well extensive and progressive business interests in Dublin and elsewhere. He takes a keen and practical interest in agriculture and under his ownership the demesne has been considerably developed and improved. The racing stables of the Palmerstown establishment, it may be mentioned, houses some of the finest bloodstock in the country, and in this connection it is of interest to add that Maytona, the winner of the Irish Cambridgeshire in 1936 scored in the colours of Mrs Kelly.”

Mr Kelly established Palmerstown as one of the leading studs in the country. However things were, literally, shaken up in June 1948 when a freak cyclone hit the farm and caused extensive damage to the out-buildings. According to a report in ‘The Irish Press’ of 1st June 1948: “The trail of destruction covered a wide area and was marked by fallen trees, slates and roofing materials and demolished farm out-offices. Damages was estimated at thousands of pounds…A portion of one of the stables was blown on to a 30-foot scaffolding two hundred yards away, while several joists were found on the front lawn of Mr Kelly’s house, half a mile away. Miss Peggy Kelly, daughter of the owner, had inspected the out-buildings five minutes before they were struck”

The next owner of Palmerstown was the colourful Anne Bullitt, only child of millionaire Philadelphian diplomat William Christian Bullitt and his wife Louise Bryant. Anne had accompanied her father to Moscow in 1933 when he became the first American Ambassador to the USSR. [Ironically, her mother had lost her previous husband, activist Jack Reed, to typhus in Moscow in 1920; their tempestuous relationship formed the basis of the Oscar-winning film REDS (1981) starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton].

Anne and her father then moved to Paris when he was appointed Ambassador there until his recall in 1940 when the Nazis overran France. Acting as her father’s hostess, the teenage Anne became proficient in seven languages, her natural poise and good looks enhanced by a flair for haute couture. Wartime marriage to tobacco heir and US Embassy attaché Nicholas Benjamin Duke Biddle coincided with Anne’s entry to the racing world, initially in post-war Madrid where the Biddles then lived.

An expedition to Ireland saw the now-divorced Anne taken in hand by the More O’Farrells of Kildangan, who launched her on what was to become an outstandingly successful racing and breeding career. Mind you, future racing historians may be forgiven a degree of confusion when researching Annes’ racing career, as she underwent rapid changes of legal identity in the 1950s. This arose from her ill-fated marriage to Roderic More O’Farrell in Mexico in December 1954. She thus raced briefly as Mrs R. More O’Farrell but, following sensational court hearings that led ultimately to annulment and divorce, she resumed racing as Mrs Anne Bullitt-Biddle.17

In 1956 Anne’s father purchased the 700 acre stud from W.J Kelly for her. By virtue of Sindon’s success in the 1958 Irish Derby and a further 13 races with eight other horses, she soon headed the owners list in Ireland and over the next four years her “navy blue, white hoop on body and cap” achieved remarkable success through the Palmerstown thoroughbreds, notably the offspring of resident stallion Milesian. In fact, in the period 1958-1964 the stud had no less than 110 winners in competitive races. In 1964 Anne split with her long time trainer Tommy Shaw to go into business on her own and two years later, on 31st August 1966, Irish racing history was made when – now a licensed trainer in her own right – she became the first woman ever to saddle a winner in an official capacity. The Irish Racing Calendar marked this historic breakthrough in the official returns “Winner trained and bred by Mrs A.B Biddle”

The death of her father in 1967 coincided with her last marriage to U.S Congressman Daniel Brewster but this also ended in divorce.

She continued to live in Palmerstown, training and breeding horses for almost thirty more years, finally relinquishing her trainer’s licence in 1994. Thereafter she lived pretty much in seclusion until the house and stud was sold to the present owner, Mr Jim Mansfield, on the eve of the millennium.

And so begins a new chapter in the history of this historic mansion and demesne, with its new Christy O’Connor-designed 18 hole championship golf course. The status of Palmerstown has been further enhanced by the decision of the Professional Golfers Association in the last few years, to bestow on it the title of PGA National Ireland and to base their official Irish headquarters there. The overall intention is that the PGA National at Palmerstown House will become the headquarters of the PGA for its many activities in Ireland.


1 Journal of Kildare Archaeological Society, Vol 1; Miscellanea (Earl of Mayo) p142

2 Knights Hospitallers in Ireland 1174-1558; Pearse N.N. Synnott; Appendix D, p64

3 JKAS, Vol 1; ‘Thomas Hibernicus’ (Mayo), p308-9

4 ‘Palmerstown – An Ancient Place’(Nessa O’Connor); Hudson Killeen [2003] p20

5 JKAS, Vol VI; ‘The Family of Flatesbury (Sir Arthur Vicars) pps 87-94

6 JKAS, Vol X ; p.38

7 Ibid: p39

8 ‘A Class Apart: The Gentry Families of County Kildare’; Con Costello ( 2005) p.72

9 Ibid: pps 72-73

10 ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ (Third Edition) Ed: Henry Boylan;
Gill & Mcmillan [1998] p. 32

11 ‘The Viceroys of India’ ; Mark Bence Jones (1982); p.70

12 Ibid: pps 74-75

13 ‘A Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland 1837-1921’ (Jeremy Williams)

14 ‘A Guide to Irish Country Houses; Mark Bence Jones [Revised ed. 1988] p.230

15 Proposed Development at Palmerstown Demense; Request for Additional Information [David Slattery] May 2003 (unpublished)

16 JKAS; Vol 1, p.2

17 Obituary, ‘The Irish Field’, 25 August 2007