Thursday, 18 June 2020

Disentangling family trees
to find who really was the
true Earl of Roscommon

The title of Earl of Roscommon was hotly contested in the House of Lords in Dublin in the 1790s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was telling stories earlier this week about the Dillon family, how they intermarried with the Fitzgibbon family of Mountshannon House, near Castleconnell, Co Limerick, and how they were related to some of the interesting, prominent Catholic families in Staffordshire.

The Dillons are a long-tailed Anglo-Norman family in Ireland, dating back to about 1185, and once had substantial lands and estates in Meath, Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon.

With such a long-tailed family tree, it can only be expected that at times it became difficult to disentangle the different branches of the family, and family members and genealogists alike became so confused that the claims to one of the family titles, Earl of Roscommon, were hotly contended on many occasions on the floor of the House of Lords at the end of the 18th century, and on more occasions in the early 19th century in the House of Lords in Westminster.

The title of Lord Dillon, Baron of Kilkenny West, was given to James Dillon, Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer, in 1619, and he became the first Earl of Roscommon, a title in the Irish peerage in 1622.

James Dillon (1605-1649), 3rd Earl of Roscommon, was a brother-in-law of the ill-fated Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stratford, the ill-fated Lord Deputy of Ireland.

Wentworth Dillon (1637-1685), 4th Earl of Roscommon was a courtier, poet and critic who was held in such esteem in his lifetime that he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His uncle, Cary Dillon (1627-1689), 5th Earl of Roscommon, was a professional soldier, politician and courtier, and was friendly with Samuel Pepys, who refers to him several times as ‘Colonel Dillon’ in his Diary.

His grandson, Robert Dillon, 7th Earl of Roscommon, married Angel Ingoldsby, a great-granddaughter of Hardress Waller the regicide. When his brother, John Dillon (1702-1746), 8th Earl of Roscommon, died in 1746, it was obvious the Dillon family tree was widespread and tangled, and even the branch of the family that held the title of Earl of Roscommon, was tangled and difficult to follow clearly.

The title lay dormant and unclaimed for decades. Although his third cousin, Robert Dillon, a Marshall in the French army, was later identified as the rightful heir, he never assumed the as 9th Earl of Roscommon, and died in Paris in 1770. The claim to the title then passed to his younger brother, John Dillon (1720-1782). John was the youngest son of Patrick Dillon of Knockranny, Co Roscommon, who had died in 1745. But John’s three older brothers had died one after the other, and John was next in line to inherit the family titles.

But John Dillon died not inherit any lands or estates, and despite holding the title he could not take his seat in the House of Lords in Dublin because he was a Roman Catholic. It appears John was married twice. His first wife was Catherine Fallon from Kyle, Co Roscomon, and they were the parents of three daughters, Margaret, Dymphna and Helen, who married local men, but no son to succeed him in the titles.

When Catherine died, John moved back to Knockranny to live with his niece, Dymphna McDonnell, the daughter of his sister Christine and her husband Edward McDonnell. But while he was living with Christine, John met and fell in love with Bridget Mullaly, a local young woman who was working in the McDonell household.

Despite the disparity in their social status, John and Bridget set up house together in Kilronan some time in the 1750s, and became the parents of five more children. The question was not only whether John and Bridget married before their son Patrick was born on 15 March 1769 – but, did they ever marry at all?

By general agreement, it was accepted that at least the first two of their five children, Mary and Luke, were ‘born out of wedlock.’ But did they marry before Patrick and the other two children, Nancy and Thomas, were born?

After John Dillon, 10th Earl of Roscommon, died in 1782, there were two prolonged investigations by the Irish House of Lords in Dublin in the 1792 and 1793 to determine the legitimacy of Patrick Dillon (1769-1816), and to hear the rival claims to the title by Robert Dillon of Rath, King’s County (Offaly), a descendant of the seventh son of the first Earl of Roscommon and the next male heir in the line of descent.

Patrick Dillon was born on 15 March 1769, and at first the House of Lords seemed to agree in 1792. But a distant family member, Charles Dillon-Lee (1745-1813), 12th Viscount Dillon, spoke on the floor of the house in 1793, and called for more evidence in favour of Patrick’s claims.

Fresh evidence was produced claiming that the local parish priest, Father Daniel Early, had at first refused to conduct a wedding. But a neighbour’s butler gave evidence that he intervened on behalf of the couple in 1766, imploring James Brady, Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, to instruct Father Early to marry the couple. The butler said Early conceded and conducted the wedding ceremony in the front parlour of the couple’s home Carrownanalt in 1766, in the presence of a mere fistful of witnesses.

The evidence also claimed that Bridget was known locally as Mrs Dillon after 1766, and as Lady Dillon or the Countess of Roscommon after her husband become the tenth earl in 1770.

The evidence was challenged, however, by John Dillon’s nephew, James Begg, and his niece, Dymphna McDonnell, who supported Robert Dillon’s claims.

Finally, in March 1793, the House of Lords in Dublin found in favour of Patrick Dillon, and he was recognised as the legitimate 11th Earl of Roscommon. He married Barbara Begg and they were the parents of one daughter, Lady Maria Dillon. But there were no sons, and – once again – no obvious heirs to the Roscommon titles.

Patrick Dillon, 11th Earl of Roscommon, died on 17 November 1816. Robert Dillon had died in the intervening years, and the titles became dormant once again. Robert Dillon’s claims to the titles now passed to Michael Robert Dillon (1798-1850), whose grandfather, James ‘Surgeon’ Dillon, was a first cousin of Robert Dillon, and he too was descended from the seventh son of the first Earl.

Michael James Robert Dillon was born on 2 October 1798, almost four months after the death of his father, also called Michael Dillon. Michael Dillon senior had been a captain in the Dublin Militia and was killed at the Battle of New Ross during the 1798 Rising in Co Wexford.

The younger Michael Dillon spent 12 years trying to prove his claim to the title until 1827-1828, when the House of Lords in Westminster decided that he was the rightful heir to the Earldom, and so he became the 12th Earl of Roscommon. In its ruling, the House of Lords decided against the claims of Francis Stephen Dillon, who had been an inmate in a debtors’ prison, and claimed descent from the third son of the first Earl of Roscommon.

Michael Dillon, 12th Earl of Roscommon, married Lady Charlotte Talbot (1805-1843), a half-sister of John Talbot (1791-1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, who married Maria Theresa Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford, and who became the great patron of AWN Pugin.

Michael and Charlotte were married on 19 August 1830 and had an only child, James Dillon, who was born in 1831 but died in infancy that year. Charlotte died on 21 November 1843 and Michael Dillon died on 15 May 1850 at the age of 51.

Once again, the title of Earl of Roscommon became dormant. Some genealogists regard the title as extinct, but with such a tangled and difficult family tree it may well be that somewhere among the extended Dillon family there is another Earl of Roscommon.

As for Charles Dillon-Lee (1745-1813), 12th Viscount Dillon, whose intervention on the floor of the House of Lords eventually secured the Roscommon title for his distant kinsman Patrick Dillon in 1793, he was the son of Lady Charlotte Lee, heir to the Lee line of Earls of Lichfield. His grandson, Gerald Lee-Dillon-Lee, married Lady Louisa Fitzgibbon of Mountshannon House, changed his name to Fitzgibbon, and became part of the stories of the decline of a great house that I was telling earlier this week.

The House of Lords in Westminster heard contested claims to the title of Earl of Roscommon in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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