Monday, 15 July 2019

A memorial that links
the O’Briens with the
forgotten Stafford heirs

O’Brien and Stafford heraldic symbolism decorates the monument to Augustus Stafford O’Brien-Stafford outside Saint Mary’s Cathedral, on Nicholas Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing at the weekend about Kilrush Church or the Old Church, off North Circular Road in Limerick, and how it had been restored by Robert (Robin) Vere O’Brien (1842-1913) of Foynes Island, Co Limerick.

His father, Robert O’Brien (1809-1870), of Dromoland Castle, lived at the Old Church in Limerick, and is commemorated in the Great East Window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

Robert O’Brien was the fourth son of Sir Edward O’Brien of Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, and a brother of the then Lord Inchiquin and the patriot William Smith O’Brien. He married Eleanor Jane Alice Lucy, daughter of Sir Aubrey de Vere of Curragh Chase, and formerly MP for Limerick City. He took a deep and practical interest in all matters concerning the cathedral and he helped liberally in carrying out many important renovations.

After visiting the Old Church or Kilrush Church on Friday, I was in Saint Mary’s Cathedral on Friday for a lunch-time concert by Saint John’s Voices from Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

After the recital, I found myself taking a photograph of the depiction of the ‘Good Samaritan’ in the Ascension Window in the cathedral, to illustrate yesterday’s sermons on the Good Samaritan in Castletown and Rathkeale. This window was placed in the Jebb Chapel or north transept of the cathedral in memory of Horace Stafford-O’Brien (1842-1929).

Horace was a nephew of Augustus Stafford O'Brien-Stafford (1811-1857), who was perhaps, the best-known member of the family and who is commemorated in the Great East Window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral. But until Friday afternoon, I did not realise he is also commemorated outside the cathedral, in an elaborate memorial on Nicholas Street, beneath the East Window.

On either side of this memorial are heraldic insignia, depicting the three lions of the O’Brien family (left) and the Stafford knot of the Stafford family (right).

Augustus Stafford was born in 1811 and was the eldest son of Stafford O’Brien of Cratloe Woods, Co Clare, and Blatherwick Park, Northampton, and his wife Emma Noel, sister of Lord Gainsborough and daughter of Sir Gerald Noel MP.

This branch of the O’Brien family lived at Cratloe Woods, on the northern fringes of Limerick. But through his grandfather’s grandmother, Susannah Stafford, who married Henry O’Brien of Dromoland, Augustus was also descended from the Stafford family of Blatherwick in Northamptonshire.

That branch of the Stafford family had been living at Blatherwick, near Stamford, since the early 15th century. Roger Stafford, the rightful 6th Baron Stafford, was a poor tradesman who ought to have succeeded to the family titles when his distant cousin, Henry Stafford (1621-1637), the 5th Baron Stafford, died at the age of 16 in 1637.

At the age of 65, Roger Stafford petitioned Parliament for the title. But eventually, his claims were denied on the grounds of Roger’s poverty and his ‘very mean and obscure condition.’ It is a tale of snobbery, class discrimination, and genealogical farce.

Roger Stafford failed to hold onto his title as the rightful 6th Baron Stafford, not because he failed to prove his ancestry, but because his failure to inherit any of the family lands meant he and his family lived what we might describe today as tradesmen or in working class lives.

Roger died unmarried soon after, probably in 1639. At the time, he was thought to be the last male member of the Stafford family. His sister Jane had married a man in Newport, Shropshire, variously described as a labour or joiner, and her son was a cobbler or shoemaker.

The Stafford family of Blatherwick claimed there was an older family title and that the heir to this title and the true male heir was Roger’s distant kinsman, Charles Stafford of Blatherwick, said to be the rightful 25th Lord Stafford, as the lineal male descendant of William Stafford, second son of the fifth Lord Stafford in this older title.

Charles died unmarried and those claims were inherited by his younger brother, William Stafford (1627-1665), a Cavalier or Royalist MP described in these claims as the 26th Lord Stafford. He, in turn, would have been succeeded by his son, William Stafford (1650-1700).

William Stafford had only one surviving son and male heir, Edmund Stafford, who might be listed as the 28th Lord Stafford, and who inherited Blatherwick Park. But this branch of the Stafford family, and their claims to the family title, however obscure, are completely ignored in the most recent authoritative history of the family, John Martin Robinson’s The Staffords (Chichester: Phillimore, 2002),which was commissioned by the present Lord Stafford.

When Edmund Stafford died in 1705, the representation of the Staffords of Blatherwick passed to his two sisters: Susannah (1680-1723) and Anne (1684-1757). The elder sister, Susannah, married Henry O’Brien of Dromoland Cratloe in 1708, while the younger sister, Anne, married George Evans (1680-1749), of Bulgaden Hall, Limerick, who became 1st Lord Carbery.

I have yet to learn how these two sisters and heiresses married into leading families in the Limerick and Clare area. But the Stafford name passed into the O’Brien and Evans families and Blatherwick Hall was inherited eventually by Susannah’s descendants in the O’Brien family.

Susannah’s great-grandson was Stafford O’Brien of Cratloe and Blatherwick. His son, Augustus Stafford O’Brien (1811-1857), also known as Augustus Stafford O’Brien-Stafford, was born in Walcot, Lincolnshire in 1811. He was educated at Trinity College Cambridge, and was the Conservative MP for Northamptonshire North from 1841 and was Secretary to the Admiralty in Lord Derby’s short-lived government from February to December 1852.

In 1847, he assumed by royal licence the additional name of Stafford by royal licence in 1847 to distinguish himself from his kinsman, William Smith O’Brien.

He was a distinguished scholar and statesman and was also highly regarded for his philanthropic work. Following the Battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War, Augustus Stafford visited Crimea, where he helped to administer medical aid and comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers.

Not every Irish observer was impressed by his work in Crimea, however. Colonel John Bourke, a former MP for Kildare, wrote to his brother, Lord Naas, claiming Augustus lived away from Scutari and only came to the hospitals for a few hours each day in an act of self-publicity. On the other hand, Florence Nightingale hailed him as a hero, and Chichester Fortescue, the Liberal MP for Louth, recalled how Augustus had ‘behaved so well’ at Scutari.

The poet Aubrey de Vere, who lived at Curragh Chase near Askeaton and who was a friend of Augustus Stafford, recounted years later that when cholera raged fiercely on ships, Augustus attended the sick crew members ‘at imminent risk of his own life.’

He died suddenly in Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin in November 1857, while he was on his way back to Limerick from England. A committee was formed to raise funds for the window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral as a public memorial to him in Limerick. The committee members included the Marquis of Drogheda, the Earl of Powys, five senior clergy and two MPs.

This East Window was erected in 1857-1860 in the early English style and replaced an earlier perpendicular window designed by James Pain and installed in 1843. The new window was designed by the English architect William Slater (1819-1872), who was restoring the East End or Chancel of Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

The committee raised over £1,500, and the rumour soon spread that the principal if not sole donor was Florence Nightingale – although her contribution amounted to three guineas, while the tenants and labourers of the Cratloe Estate contributed almost £50.

The heraldic emblems on his memorial outside the East End of Saint Mary’s Cathedral show his equal pride in his descent from the O’Briens of Thomond and the claimants to the Stafford title and heritage.

The West Tower of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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