30 January 2016

A mediaeval churchyard and
the grave of a murdered viceroy

Lord Mayo’s grave and the old churchyard in Johnstown, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

In recent months, I have been working on two chapters to a book on death in Ireland. The book is being edited by my friend and colleague, Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth, and I am writing about stories of death in the Irish way associated with the hymn writer Henry Francis Lyte and with the 6th Earl of Mayo.

This afternoon, two of us went to the village of Johnstown, north of Naas, Co Kildare, to photograph Lord Mayo’s grave and the old churchyard where he is buried.

Johnstown is just 2 km north of Naas, off the N7 at junction 8, and about 25 km from Dublin City Centre. It is close to racecourses like Naas, Punchestown and the Curragh ad so the surrounding countryside is the heart of the bloodstock industry, with many well-known Kildare stud farms.

The Main Street was once part of the main road between Dublin and Cork and Limerick. The main road eventually by-passed Johnstown in 1964 When the Naas Dual Carriageway was finished in 1964, Johnstown was bypassed, and Johnstown became a sleepy village.

But in recent decades Johnstown has been encircled by housing estates, so that it has become a commuter town too.

There is evidence of human activity in the area from early times, and the “holed” stone in a field at the southern end of the village is said to be astronomically aligned to the mid-summer solstice.

But this afternoon I was in search of the ruins of the mediaeval church. From the Middle Ages, this was a priory of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, or the Knights of Rhodes, who give their name to the village, which was known in Irish as Fraoch Oileán.

The knights’ regional headquarters or commandery was at nearby Kilteel, and they also had an abbey in Naas.

Nearby Palmerstown takes its name from pilgrims who visited the Holy Land and brought sprigs of palm as a token of their pilgrimage or, perhaps, after a family named Palmer.

Palmerstown was one of the properties held by the Knights Hospitallers in Ireland and confirmed by Pope Innocent III in 1212.

Thomas Hibernicus of Palmerstown was living in the Monastery of Aquila in Italy in 1270. His major work was a collection of flores or “flowers) of wisdom” from nearly all the then European Doctors of Philosophy or Theology. His book became a reference work and was reprinted many times in the following centuries.

The octagonal base of a mediaeval baptismal font within the walls of the ruined church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Flatsbury or de Flatebry family owned Palmerstown as early as 1286, although the knights held on to the church at Johnstown. The old church has a number of mediaeval fragments, including a ruined piscina, the octagonal base of a mediaeval baptismal font, and a flat stone slab with carved with coats of arms representing the Wogan and Flatsbury families. This has been taken to be the grave slab of James Flatsbury who married Eleanor Wogan in 1436.

The grave slab of James Flatsbury and Eleanor Wogan, who were married in 1436 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1503, Philip Flatsbury, a scholar and scribe, compiled The Red Book of Kildare for Garret ‘Og’ Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare. This book, which lists documents relating to the Fitzgerald estates, went missing after the Rebellion of ‘Silken Thomas,’ 10th Earl of Kildare, but is now in Trinity College Dublin.

The church has been in ruins since the 16th century, but continued to be a burial place for the Bourke family, Earls of Mayo. There are Bourke graves throughout the churchyard but it is best-known for the grave of the 6th Earl of Mayo, the viceroy who was killed in India in 1872.

In the 1641 Rebellion, James Flatesbury took the side of the Confederates, and his estates including Johnstown and Palmerstown, were confiscated. They were later granted to Theobald Bourke, third son of John Bourke, a Captain of Horse under the Duke of Ormond in the Confederate Wars. He had settled in Kill but moved to Palmerstown around 1688. He was the Sovereign (Mayor) of Naas in 1700, 1711 and 1724.

His nephew, John Bourke, acquired the titles of Lord Naas (1776), Viscount Mayo (1781) and Earl of Mayo (June 1785). Joseph Bourke, Archbishop of Tuam, succeeded as the third Earl of Mayo before he died in 1807.

The estate cottages in Johnstown built in the ‘Gothic Revival’ style in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The charm of the village is enhanced by the estate cottages built in the ‘Gothic Revival’ style in the 19th century, and they are mentioned by William Makepeace Thackeray in his Irish Sketchbook in 1842.

The most famous member of the family was Richard Southwell Bourke (1822-1872), 6th Earl of Mayo. He was born in Dublin on 21 February 1822 and was known in earlier life as Lord Naas, and was the Chief Secretary of Ireland on three occasions between 1852 and 1866.

In 1868, the Disraeli government appointed him Governor-General and Viceroy of India, but he was assassinated there in February 1872. Before leaving for India he had chosen a place for his grave in Johnstown, and he is buried within the walls of the ruined church, under a Celtic cross.

The Celtic Cross and grave of Lord Mayo within the ruined mediaeval church in Johnstown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

After his death, the government decided that a new Palmerstown House should be erected at public expense in his honour. 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 1891, he was instrumental in convening a meeting in Palmerstown that led to setting up the Kildare Archaeological Society.

The seventh Earl of Mayo was appointed to the new Senate by the first Irish Free State Government in 1922. His house was burned down during the Civil War in January 1923. Lord Mayo received compensation and the house was re-built, and he lived in one of the gate lodges on the estate until the house was rebuilt. He moved to England soon after and died in a nursing home in London in December 1927.

Palmerstown House and stud were sold to WJ Kelly, a gentleman’s outfitter in Clanbrassil Street, Dublin, who was known to his friends as ‘Trousers’ Kelly. He established Palmerstown as one of the leading studs in Ireland.

Opposite the old churchyard, the Johnstown Inn was once a busy coaching stop. The first inn was built on this site in the 1640s, during the Confederate wars. It became known as the Mayo Arms and the Cork mail coach was stopped there and burned at the start of the 1798 Rising. In the 19th century, it was the meeting place of the Kildare Hunt. More recently, it was known as the Osta John Devoy.

From Johnstiown, we drove out into the countryside, through the stud farms and the open fields, past the racecourses at Punchestown and Naas, before eventually arriving in Newbridge, where we stopped for double espressos in the café at Newbridge Silverware.

Bourke family graves in the churchyard in Johnstown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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