30 April 2022
32 Six Boys from Ballaghadereen with the Same Parents … but who was Born the Legitimate Heir?
In 1869, six Irish brothers arrived as boarders at Downside Abbey, the Benedictine-run Catholic public school in Somerset, near Bath. Charles, John, William, Arthur, Richard and John French were all born almost a year apart: 1851, 1853, 1854, 1855, 1857 and 1858.Their father, Charles French, the third Lord de Freyne, had died the previous year, and in the style of the aristocracy of the day, each boy was enrolled with the honorific prefix of ‘the Honorable’ before his given name.
They must have appeared like peas in a pod. But back at their family home in Frenchpark, outside Ballaghadereen, County Roscommon, it was still not clear which of these six boys was the rightful heir to the family title. Who would be the fourth Lord de Freyne?
Charles French was born on 21 October 1851, the eldest son of Charles French and Catherine Maree; John followed on 13 March 1853, and William John French on 21 April 1854. Surely, as the eldest son, Charles should have been enrolled at Downside as Lord de Freyne, successor to his father’s title and estates? But the lawyers were at work.
It transpired the parents of these six boys had been married not once but twice – to each other. Which was the legitimate marriage and who was born the legitimate heir to the family title?
These questions continued to entertain legal minds into the following decade, and the family title, Baron de Freyne, of Coolavin in County Sligo, remained in a Victorian limbo. The Roll of the House of Lords, which was issued each year, shows blanks against the name of the holder of the de Freyne peerage in 1875 and 1876, indicating the matter was still undecided almost a decade after the boys’ father had died. As the legal wrangles continued, the vast French estates in County Roscommon were administered on behalf of the family by Valentine Blake Dillon, Crown Solicitor for County Sligo.
Dillon’s daughter Nannie later married the third of these boys, John French, and he was a brother of theYoung Ireland politician John Blake Dillon (1814–1866). But he was also familiar with family disputes over heirs and titles: the succession to the Dillon title of Earl of Roscommon had been challenged twice in the 1790s, twice again in the nineteenth century, and once more with the death of the last earl in 1850. The confusions in the French family tree were as complicated and as twisted as those in the Dillon family tree, and both are extremely difficult to disentangle.
The boys’ father, Charles French (1790–1860), 3rd Baron de Freyne of Coolavin, was born into the French family of Frenchpark House, and for many generations, members of the family sat in the Irish House of Commons as MPs for County Roscommon. John French, MP for Roscommon, was about to be given a seat in the Irish House of Lords as Baron Dangar when he died in 1775 before formalities were finalised.
His younger brother, Arthur (1728–1799),also MP for Roscommon, turned down the offer of the same peerage. But eventually a title came into the family when Arthur French (1786–1856), MP for Roscommon (1821–32),was made Baron de Freyne, of Artagh,County Roscommon, in 1839. However, Arthur and his wife Mary McDermott had no children, and when Arthur was widowed, it was obvious the title would die with him. He was given a new but similar title in 1851 as Baron de Freyne, of Coolavin in County Sligo. This time, however, his younger brothers, John, Charles and Fitzstephen French, were named heirs to the title, in the hope that this branch of the French family would always have a titled representative.
When Lord de Freyne died in 1856,the older title, dating from 1839, died out, but the newer title, handed out in 1851, was inherited by his first younger brother, the Rev. John French (1788–1863). He was the Rector of Goresbridge, County Kilkenny, and was more interested in breeding Irish red setters than either his parish or the House of Lords. When he died in 1863, the family title passed to the next surviving brother, Charles French (1790–1868), as the third Lord de Freyne.
Charles was happily married with a large family of seven children, six sons and a daughter. It must have seemed there would be no problem of the family estate and the family title having male heirs.
On 13 February 1851, when he was in his sixties, Charles French married a local, illiterate woman, Catherine Maree from Fairymount. She has been described as a ‘peasant girl’ who was born around 1830 or 1831. He was more than three times her age: she was 20, he was almost 61, and the marriage was performed by a local Catholic priest. Catherine and Charles quickly had three children, one after another: Charles (1851), John (1853) and William John French (1854). By the time William was born on 21 April 1854, it was obvious that Charles and his children were in line to the family title and estates, and the legal validity of the marriage was questioned: Catherine was a Roman Catholic, Charles was a member of the Church of Ireland, and the surviving legacy of the Penal Laws, even in the 1850s, meant a member of the Church of Ireland could only legitimately marry in the Church of Ireland.
Charles and Catherine were quietly married a second time in 1854 in the hope of legitimising their three children and ensuring succession to the title and estates. This second wedding, on 17 May 1854 in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, was performed by the Rev. William Maturin. Charles gave his address as the Albert Hotel, Dominick Street, Dublin, and Catherine gave hers as Anna Villa, North Circular Road, making them residents of the parish. He was 63 and she was 23; he describes himself as a bachelor, she as a spinster, although their third child had been born four weeks earlier. She was illiterate and signed the register with an X.
Charles and Catherine had four more children: Arthur French (1855–1913), Richard Patrick French (1857–1921), Robert French (1858–1920), and Mary Josephine French (1859–1919), who married Valentine Joseph Blake (1842–1912). Lord de Freyne celebrated his 68th birthday on the day his youngest son was born in 1858. He died on 28 October 1868, and in 1869, all six boys arrived as boarders at Downside to be educated as Catholics, despite the confusion of their parents’ marriages.
But it was still uncertain which son was going to succeed to the family title. Eventually, lawyers decided the 1851 marriage was invalid and any children born in that marriage were illegitimate. The first three sons continued to use the prefix ‘The Hon’, reserved for the legitimate children of a peer. But Arthur French, the first son born after the 1854 marriage, succeeded as 4th Baron de Freyne. His mother, the former Catherine Maree, died on 13 November 1900.
Arthur French was known as a cruel landlord. When his tenants refused to pay their rent, he took leading members of the Irish Party to court in 1902, accusing them of incitement. He had the doubtful pleasure of reading his own obituary in The Times on 11 September 1913. On 23 September 1913, The Times reported: ‘Lord de Freyne, whose death was wrongly announced last Thursday week, died yesterday morning at his residence, Frenchpark, Co Roscommon, in his 59th year’.
Arthur’s older brothers, excluded by law from inheriting the titles and estates, continued to live as though their parents’ first marriage was legitimate: Charles, the eldest son, was MP for County Roscommon (1873–80); John, the second son, was a Resident Magistrate for Kerry, Limerick and Roscommon; all three used the prefix ‘the Hon,’ asserting the legitimacy of their parents’ first marriage. John French died on 23 May 1916, and the family is remembered in a brass plaque in the south porch of the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue in Ranelagh, Dublin, where his widow insisted on describing him as the legitimate-born son of a peer, ‘The Honble John French’.
Sources and Further Reading:
Burke’s Peerage, Debrett’s Peerage, various editions, s.v. ‘de Freyne’.
Parish Register, All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin.
The Times (London), 11 September 1913, 23 September 1913.
‘Six Boys from Ballaghadereen with the Same Parents … but who was Born the Legitimate Heir?’ is Chapter 32 in Salvador Ryan (ed), Birth, Marriage and Death among the Irish, Dublin: Wordwell, 288 pp, ISBN: 978-1-913934-61-3, €25, pp 144-148