Bishop Plunket, Yeats and JFK

October 19, 2011 · 13 comments

in Guest Bloggers,Research

by FELIX M. LARKIN, Vice-chair of the NLI Society and member of the NLI’s Readers Advisory Committee

When I was at school in St Paul’s College, Raheny, the imp in me was always amused by the fact that the old house in the grounds of the school – where the Vincentian priests who ran the school lived – had once been the home of a Church of Ireland bishop. The bishop in question was Benjamin Plunket, Bishop of Meath from 1919 to 1925. So, when the opportunity arose to write about Bishop Plunket for the Dictionary of Irish Biography, I happily volunteered. He turned out to be a very interesting character, and I even discovered links with W.B. Yeats and John F. Kennedy.

Felix M. Larkin delivering the address at the Ivy Day commemoration of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in Glasnevin Cemetery, 4 October 2009

Felix M. Larkin delivering the address at the Ivy Day commemoration of the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in Glasnevin Cemetery, 4 October 2009

Bishop Plunket was born in 1870. He was the younger son of the 4th Baron Plunket, Archbishop of Dublin from 1884 to 1897, whose statue stands in Kildare Place – at the back of the National Museum. His mother was Anne Lee Guinness, only daughter of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness and sister of Lord Ardilaun and the 1st Earl of Iveagh. Educated at Harrow and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, he was ordained by his father in 1896. He held a number of curacies before being appointed vicar of St. Ann’s, Dawson Street, in 1907. He became Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry in 1913, and transferred to the diocese of Meath in 1919.

Statue of 4th Baron Plunket, father of Benjamin Plunket, at Kildare Place, Dublin (NLI Lawrence Royal Collection 7309)

Statue of 4th Baron Plunket, father of Benjamin Plunket, at Kildare Place, Dublin (NLI Lawrence Royal Collection 7309)

The Irish Times, when reporting his death, characterised Plunket as ‘a Churchman of broad views … [who] was not afraid to utter his opinions’. Probably his most notable stand was in 1910 when, on the accession of King George V, parliament passed an act to delete terms offensive to Roman Catholics from the Royal Accession Declaration. The old Declaration, introduced in 1678, repudiated the Mass, transubstantiation and the invocation of the Virgin Mary and the saints. The modified form of the Declaration was widely opposed, but Plunket was the principal promoter of a petition to the House of Commons in support of it, signed by over 3,000 representative Irish Protestants.

On another occasion, he was one of three Church of Ireland bishops who, with eighteen Catholic bishops, signed a controversial anti-partition manifesto issued before the Longford by-election of May 1917; the manifesto was a significant factor in Sinn Fein’s narrow victory in the by-election. Plunket was also an Irish language enthusiast, encouraging Irish in Church of Ireland schools and hymns in Irish at church services.

Notice of death of Benjamin Plunket, Bishop of Meath in the Irish Times, 27 January 1947

Notice of death of Benjamin Plunket, Bishop of Meath in the Irish Times, 27 January 1947

In 1925, while still Bishop of Meath, he was severely criticised by W.B. Yeats in the latter’s famous speech in the Senate on divorce. Plunket’s uncompromising approach to sexual morality and the indissolubility of marriage had, as Yeats saw it, given succour to those intent on passing legislation which the Protestant minority would find oppressive. Shortly afterwards, he resigned as Bishop of Meath on health grounds. He was then aged 55, and had just inherited the 500-acre estate of his late uncle, Lord Ardilaun, at St Anne’s, Clontarf. Ardilaun had no children, and his widow died in 1925.

After a long recuperation abroad, Plunket moved into the Italianate mansion on the estate – described by Mark Bence-Jones as ‘the most palatial house to be built in Ireland during the second half of the nineteenth century’. He lived there – somewhat uneasily – till 1939. Neither he nor his family were comfortable in such opulent surroundings, and the maintenance of the house was an impossible burden for him. He made several unsuccessful attempts to sell the estate in the 1930s. Eventually, Dublin Corporation acquired it by compulsory purchase and turned part of the lands into a public park, using the remainder for new housing. The mansion was destroyed by fire in 1943, though its shell was still there when I was at school in St Paul’s and I remember well playing in the ruins. It was demolished in 1968.

Working Draft of W.B. Yeats Divorce Speech, dated 10 June 1925 (NLI Yeats Collection)

Working Draft of W.B. Yeats Divorce Speech, dated 10 June 1925 (NLI Yeats Collection)

Sybil Hill, a dower house within the St Anne’s estate, was excluded from the compulsory purchase – with twenty-two adjoining acres. An elegant late-Georgian building, Plunket retained it as his final residence. He died in January 1947 and is buried in the grounds of All Saints’ Church, Raheny (formerly the St Anne’s estate chapel). His second son, also Benjamin, inherited Sybil Hill and later sold it to the Vincentian congregation, who established St Paul’s College there in 1950.

Bishop Plunket had two sons and two daughters. The younger daughter, Olive, married the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1933. Their marriage was not a success, she became an alcoholic and he had a number of well-publicised affairs – the last with Kathleen, widow of William, Marquis of Hartington (heir to the Duke of Devonshire), and a sister of John F. Kennedy.  Kathleen and Fitzwilliam were killed in 1948 when the private plane in which they were travelling together crashed in France.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Ita Beausang November 25, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Thank you for your most interesting account of Bishop Plunket et al. My sons attended St. Paul’s and all the family, Including granchildren, enjoy the wonderful amenities of St. Anne’s Park. I have a well-worn copy of the Dublin Corporation Parks Department ‘St. Anne’s Trail’ and also a copy of Joan Ussher Sharkey’s book ‘The Story of the Guinness Estate’. I’m delighted to include your article in my archive, you added lots of intriguing details to the story. It’s a shame that the house did not survive but the avenue, the trees, the playing fields, the Rose Garden, the Red Stables and the playground are a tremendous resource for the people of Dublin. I’m sure Bishop Plunket would approve.

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Póló November 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Very interesting post. I, like Felix, worked close to the statue in Kildare St., and I have been living in Raheny, where the man is buried, for well over thirty years. I have only acquainted myself with All Saints’ Church in recent times, but both my sons went to St. Pauls.

And there is nothing like a manual typwriter to jump out of the page at you.

This sort of post is great. Brings it all together. Encore, author.

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Bean an Phoist November 21, 2011 at 8:28 am

You’ll be glad to hear that I’m working on Felix for an encore!

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paulne coakley November 4, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Enjoyed the feature. Good starting point for further study.
Thanks

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Rosemary Raughter November 3, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Felix ,
I didn’t know about the reference to Olive Ardilaun in Lady Gregory’s journals – thanks for that.
Sebastian Barry (towards the end of scene 1) describes a visit to Coolattin by one of Kathleen’s sisters, by then an old woman herself, and the reaction of the countess’s spirit to ‘the invasion of her bedroom by ‘the sister of the woman that had destroyed her life’. Possibly (if this is based on local lore rather than imagination) the visitor was Jean Kennedy Smith during her time in Dublin? Incidentally, Barry says that Kathleen was the first of Joe Kennedy’s children to die – in fact of course Joe junior was.

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Bean an Phoist November 4, 2011 at 9:32 am

Felix replies: You’re right about Joe Jr dying first, Rosemary. His body was never recovered, and his name is included on the Tablets of the Missing in the beautiful American war cemetery at Madingley, Cambridgeshire. I found it quite by chance during a visit earlier this year with the Parnell Society. Glenn Miller’s name is also recorded there.

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Richard Mc Cormick October 28, 2011 at 7:01 pm

As a former pupil of St. Pauls in the 1960′s I found this a very interesting and well researched account of the history of the building. My abiding memory of it is school dinners with prunes and custard for dessert and a huge aluminium teapot of sweet tea with milk, whether we liked it or not.

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Bean an Phoist November 1, 2011 at 9:09 am

Hi Richard,

custard and prunes??? the one dessert I think I could have resisted!

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Rosemary Raughter October 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Felix – interesting account. Some years ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Katherine Everett’s Bricks and Flowers (1949). Katherine (nee Herbert) was a cousin by marriage of Olive Lady Ardilaun (who died in 1923), and stayed with her at Sibyl Hill during WWI and the Troubles. She describes the making there of a herb-garden, ‘now no doubt a wilderness’. Is it, I wonder?
Re Olive Fitzwilliam – I grew up close to Coolattin, the Fitzwilliam’s Shillelagh house, and the story of her marital difficulties and her husband’s flight with JFK’s sister Kathleen were common gossip there during the ’60s. I think, in fact, that Debo does give the whole story in her recent volume of memoirs, but don’t have it by me at present to check – certainly it’s appeared in many accounts of the period, and is also mentioned in Sebastian Barry’s play, Tales of Ballycumber.

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Bean an Phoist November 3, 2011 at 11:55 am

Felix replies: Thank you, Rosemary, for this comment. Did you know that Lady Ardilaun is also portrayed in Lady Gregory’s Journals, page 221? I don’t know anything about the herb garden you refer to. I remember a walled garden near the Sybil Hill house in my time at St Paul’s College. It was “out of bounds” for the schoolboys and usually locked, though I saw the gate open one day and took a quick, furtive peek inside. The herb garden may have been there. I think a swimming pool was eventually built on it. Interesting to know that the Kathleen Kennedy story was common gossip in Co. Wicklow in the 1960s – I didn’t think it was well known until the publication of Lynne McTaggart’s biography of Kathleen Kennedy in 1983. I am very grateful to you for telling me about the reference in Sebastian Barry’s play Tales of Ballycumber – I wasn’t aware of that.

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Dónall Ó Luanaigh October 24, 2011 at 12:16 am

Bravo,Felix! With regard to the statue in Kildare Place,i read somewhere that when James Joyce was growing up, a family amusement was to suggest captions for Dublin statues.Their choice for the Plunket statue was:
“Now,where did I put that collar stud?”

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Mairead Ni Lorcain October 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Fascinating.That last Kennedy bit in particular. Can’t remember the Deborah Devonshire/Mitford telling us that detail.
Thank you Felix.

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Bean an Phoist October 20, 2011 at 8:23 am

Felix replies: You wouldn’t expect Deborah Devonshire to tell you that, would you? She was quite smitten with JFK. In the volume of letters between Deborah and Patrick Leigh Fermor (ed. by Charlotte Mosley; published by John Murray, 2008), there are some fascinating letters about JFK. For example, in January 1961 she writes about attending the presidential inauguration as JFK’s guest (pp. 78–80). That letter begins: ‘Two new bodies to add to the list of worshipped – a sweet ambassador called Sir Harold Caccia and Jack Kennedy.’ Incidentally, Kathleen Kennedy is buried in the Devonshire family burial plot in Edensor churchyard, near Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. Her husband would have been the 11th Duke had he not been killed in action in 1944. By a strange irony, next to her grave is the grave of Lord Frederick Cavendish who was murdered by the Invincibles in the Phoenix Park in 1882. He was the younger son of the 7th Duke of Devonshire. A tablet on Kathleen’s grave records that JFK visited it on 29 June 1963, immediately after his visit to Ireland.

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