Saturday, 10 October 2009

Why should change mean losing memories of Lansdowne Road?

An artist’s view of the new Avia Stadium at Lansdowne Road

Patrick Comerford

When the new Avia Stadium opens in Dublin next year, I wonder how many died-in-wool Leinster fans like me will continue to refer to it as Lansdowne Road. I know no-one remembers it as the Royal Irish Parks Stadium. But the memories of Lansdowne Road go back to my childhood, and they are so firmly embedded in my mind that I don’t think I can ever bring myself to refer to it by the name of an insurance company – even if the sponsorship deal pumps €44 million into Irish rugby over the next ten years.

The first inter-provincial match between Leinster and Munster was played in Lansdowne Road in 1876, and the stadium hosted the first Ireland-England international in 1878 … so this is the world’s oldest rugby union test venue.

I was one of 48,000 fans at the last match in Lansdowne Road, when Leinster beat Ulster 20-12. The old stadium closed that day and was demolished two years ago. Earlier this year, I had a good roof-top view of the new stadium as it neared completion when I attended a reception after the Revd Victor Fitzpatrick was introduced as the new curate of Saint Anne’s and Saint Stephen’s.

But what’s wrong with calling the stadium Lansdowne Road? Why should I consign the old name along with old memories to the recycling bin? Are we going to be asked to rename Havelock Square, Bath Avenue and Shelbourne Road too?

Losing old placenames

In the 1970s, there was a silly fashion among property developers who gave English-sounding names or names with aristocratic resonances to their estates and streets on the fringes of Dublin. The Aylesbury estate in Tallaght and the Wellington estate in Templeogue are a long way from Ailesbury Road and Wellington Road in Dublin 4 and even further from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and Wellington in Somerset.

Those who condemned this trend properly pointed out the risk of losing traditional Irish placenames. But it would be equally wrong to lose placenames like Lansdowne and Shelbourne – they may sound English to some extreme and petty nationalists, but they have a valid claim to a place in Irish sentiments.

Lord Lansdowne gave his name to Lansdowne Road and Shelbourne Road, was born in Dublin and as Lord Shelburne became British Prime Minister in 1782

Lansdowne Road and Shelbourne Road – like neighbouring Wellington Road and Waterloo Road – are named in honour of one of the few Irish-born politicians to hold the office of British Prime Minister. However, the Duke of Wellington is better remembered than William Petty-FitzMaurice (1737-1805), 1st Marquess of Lansdowne and 2nd Earl of Shelburne, a Whig politician who was British Home Secretary in 1782 and then Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783.

William FitzMaurice was born in Dublin on 2 May 1737, the first son of John FitzMaurice and the grandson of Thomas FitzMaurice (1688-1741), 1st Earl of Kerry and 1st Viscount Clanmaurice. Lord Kerry had married Anne Petty, the daughter of Sir William Petty, the Surveyor-General of Ireland, whose sons had been first given the Shelburne title in 1688 and again in 1699.

The Shelburne title is derived from Shelburne, one of the ten historic baronies in Co Wexford – it includes Clonmines, Dunbrody, Fethard-on-Sea, the Hook Peninsula, Killesk, Templetown, Tintern, and Whitechurch in the south-west corner of Co Wexford. When John FitzMaurice inherited the Petty estates, he changed his family name to Petty and became Viscount FitzMaurice (1751) and Earl of Shelburne (1753). In 1754, he bought Bowood, a large estate outside Calne, in Wiltshire. There the “Big House” was designed by Henry Keene, who was also jointly responsible for the west front of Trinity College Dublin.

Bowood House near Calne as it looks today became Lord Shelburne’s principal home in England

Lord Shelburne’s son, the future Prime Minister, later recalled spending his childhood “in the remotest parts of the south of Ireland” – on the FitzMaurice estate in Lixnaw, Co Kerry, and the Petty estate in Kenmare. After studying at Christ Church, Oxford, he entered the army, becoming a colonel and an aide-de-camp to King George II. He was MP for Wycombe in the British Commons and an MP for Kerry with John Blennerhassett in the Irish Commons, but had to resign when he succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Shelburne in the Irish peerage and 2nd Baron Wycombe in the British peerage.

An enlightened patron

After some bruising political rows, he retired to his estate in Bowood. He was invited to join Pitt’s cabinet in 1766, but was dismissed two years later because of his conciliatory policy towards the American revolutionaries. He returned to political favour in 1782 and became Prime Minister later that year. His fall from power was brought about by his plans to reform the public service and to open trade with the former colonies the new United States. When Pitt returned to office in 1784, Lord Shelburne was rewarded with the title of Marquess of Lansdowne for negotiating peace with an independent America. He died in London on 7 May 1805.

Doctor’s Pond in the centre of Calne, where Joseph Priestley discovered the properties of oxygen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Despite his critics and opponents, he had enlightened political views and encouraged the sciences and literature. He was the patron of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who discovered the properties of oxygen at Doctor’s Pond while living in Calne and who constantly sought to bridge the apparent gap between science and faith. The statesman was honoured in the naming of places such as Shelburne (Massachusetts), Shelburne town and county in Nova Scotia, Shelburne (Vermont) and Shelburne (Ontario).

Joseph Priestley’s House on the Green in Calne, where he lived while working for Lord Shelburne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later, when Martin Burke from Tipperary bought Kerry House and some neighbouring houses on Saint Stephen’s Green in 1824, he named the Shelbourne Hotel after the late statesman – even if he misspelled the name.

Lord Shelburne came into the possession of the Lansdown estates near Bath when he married Lady Sophia Carteret (1745-1771), daughter of the 1st Earl Granville. His second wife, Lady Louisa FitzPatrick (1755-1789), was a daughter of the 1st Earl of Upper Ossory, and the Petty-FitzMaurice family continued to be actively engaged in politics and to intermarry with prominent Irish families.

John Petty (1765-1809), 2nd Lord Lansdowne, was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a trustee of the British Museum and the National Gallery. His nephew, William Petty-FitzMaurice (1811-1836), Earl of Kerry and heir to the Lansdowne estates, married Lady Augusta Ponsonby (1814-1904) from Bessborough, Co Kilkenny.

Church builders

Although Lady Augusta later married Charles Alexander Gore (1813-1897) – who was born in the Vice-Regal Lodge (Áras an Uachtaráin) in the Phoenix Park – she continued to call herself the Countess of Kerry for the rest of her life. Her son, Bishop Charles Gore (1853-1932), was a leading Anglican theologian, one of the key figures in the “second generation” of the Anglo-Catholic movement, and the founder of the Community of the Resurrection.

Saint Mary’s Parish Church in Calne dates back more than 1,000 years … its rectors included Saint Edmund, who became Archbishop of Canterbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Her brother-in-law, Henry Petty-FitzMaurice (1816-1863), 4th Lord Lansdowne, married Lady Georgina Herbert, daughter of the Earl of Pembroke, and a sister of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Lord Herbert, who, with his wife Elizabeth, built and endowed Saint John’s Church in Sandymount, Dublin, as a mainstay of the Anglo-Catholic Movement in the Church of Ireland.

This marriage explains why so many neighbouring streets and roads in the Pembroke estate in Ballsbridge have names like Lansdowne Road, Lansdowne Park, Lansdowne Square, Lansdowne Lane, and Shelbourne Road, Shelbourne Avenue, Shelbourne Lane and Shelbourne Place – the original mistake in spelling has never been corrected over the generations. Similarly, the name of Shrewsbury Road honours the marriage in 1874 of the Herberts’ son, the 13th Earl of Pembroke, to Lady Gertrude Talbot, a cousin of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was the patron of Augustus Welby Pugin who introduced the Gothic revival to Irish Church architecture.

Henry Petty-FitzMaurice (1845-1927), the fifth lord, maintained the family’s Irish ties, marrying into the Hamilton family of Abercorn. He was Governor-General of Canada (1883-1888), Viceroy of India (1888-1894), and British Foreign Secretary (1900-1905). His son, Henry Petty-FitzMaurice (1872-1936), the sixth lord, had been known for some time as Lord Kerry. As Lord Lansdowne, he was a Senator in the Irish Free State parliament from 1922 to 1929 on the nomination of WT Cosgrave. His sisters lived in Co Waterford: Lady Waterford in Curraghmore and the Duchess of Devonshire in Lismore Castle.

When his son was killed in Italy during World War II, the family estates and titles passed to Henry Petty-FitzMaurice (1912-1999) as the eighth marquess. A minister in the Macmillan government, he tore down the dilapidated “Big House” at Bowood in 1955, but 20 years later opened the “Little House” and Capability Brown’s gardens at Bowood to the public in 1975.

Shelbourne or Bath supporters?

Calne is a pretty Wiltshire town on the edges of the Marlborough Downs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Apart from inheriting the large FitzMaurice and Petty estates in Co Kerry, and the Bowood estate at Calne in Wiltshire, the first Lord Lansdowne also acquired the Lansdown estate in Bath by marriage. And so it is appropriate that Bath Avenue in Dublin is so close to the old stadium at Lansdowne Road. Indeed, it is said that Shelbourne FC, one of the oldest soccer clubs in Ireland, might have been called Bath FC when it was founded in 1895 but for the toss of a coin under the railway bridge at Bath Avenue between the two founding brothers, Felix and Michael Wall, who were from Bath Avenue.

The titles in the FitzMaurice family to this day include: Baron of Kerry and Lixnaw (1223), Baron Dunkerron (1751), Baron Wycombe (1760), Viscount Clanmaurice (1722), Viscount FitzMaurice (1751), Viscount Calne and Calnstone (1784), Earl of Kerry (1722), Earl of Shelburne (1753), Earl of Wycombe (1784) and Marquess of Lansdowne (1784).

The FitzMaurice arms decorate the Lansdowne Strand Hotel in Calne … the hotel began as the Catherine Wheel Inn in 1582 and was known for generations as the Lansdowne Arms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The heirs to the family titles have occasionally been known as Lord Shelburne, but they usually use the courtesy title of Lord Kerry. And so when I was visiting Calne – the quiet Wiltshire market town near Bowood that has given the FitzMaurice family one of its many titles – I noticed how Calne’s main hotel, the Lansdowne Strand Hotel, is decorated with the FitzMaurice family coat-of-arms.

Shelburne Road … like stumbling across a corner of Dublin or Wexford in Calne (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many of the local names could fit into the area around Lansdowne Road in Dublin, including Lansdowne Close, Lansdowne Square, Shelburne Road and Shelburne Terrace, as well as there being a Fitzmaurice Square and a Kerry Crescent.

The Green in Calne is lined with the houses and former factories of prosperous clothiers and woollen merchants (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I love visiting Calne – its yellow cut-stone buildings, cobbled streets and squares, arcaded courtyards, babbling brooks and ponds, its parish church dating back to the tenth century, and the Green surrounded by fine 17th and 18th century merchant houses, make it one of the hidden charms of Wessex.

Kerry Crescent in Calne recalls a FitzMaurice family title and their once large estates in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During my recent visits to Calne, I stayed in the White Hart Hotel, a late 16th or early 17th century coach-house that once prospered on the passing trade and traffic between Bath and London and that is within easy strolling distance of Quemerford, which gave its name to the Comerford family. If the residents of Calne can remember the FitzMaurices of Kerry, picturesque Shelburne in south-west Wexford and the Comerford family – then why should we let anyone take away the name of Lansdowne Road?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in October 2009 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).