I am writing during a week in which Elizabeth II has made a historic and controversial state visit to the Republic of Ireland, the first by a British monarch to that country since 1911, when it was still under British rule. My thoughts turn to my Irish ancestors, who were themselves descendents of earlier waves of English settlers planted in Ireland by earlier conquests. Known as the Protestant Ascendancy, such descendents were the ruling classes of Ireland, the landed gentry against whom the ordinary people of Ireland fought for their independence.
The Massys were a large and powerful Ascendancy family. They first came to Ireland in 1641 and through consolidation of their position they acquired estates running to many thousands of acres. Such wealth seems to attract further wealth, and in 1757 Hugh, 1st Baron Massy and my 5x great grandfather, inherited the estate of Elm Park at Clarina, Co. Limerick. Having already the huge Duntrileague estate in the county, Hugh passed Elm Park along to his younger brother George, an Anglican clergyman who lived life to the full at Elm Park and died of apoplexy in 1782.
Eyre Massey (1719-1804)
in a portrait possibly by Robert Hunter
in a portrait possibly by Robert Hunter
sold in 2009 by Christie’s for £22,500
Elm Park then passed to Hugh and George’s youngest brother, my 6x great uncle Eyre Massey. Eyre was 63 at the time. As the youngest of six Massy brothers he had lived his life with no prospect of inheritance, and had therefore had to work for a living. This he did by a distinguished military career, serving for over 60 years with his regiment the 27th Foot, the Enniskillings. He fought campaigns in the West Indies, Scotland and Canada (to which I’m sure I’ll return in later posts), retiring from active service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1782 to take on the responsibilities of Elm Park.
Eyre came out of comfortable semi-retirement in 1794 to take military command of the city of Cork, then preparing for the threat of invasion by Napoleonic France. His suppression of a mutiny by 2000 young recruits there in 1795 earned him a promotion to the rank of General. Two years later he was appointed Governor of the city of Limerick, and further promoted to Marshal of the Army of Ireland.
You’d think, now that he had estate and rank, that the 78-year old would be content with his lot. He had a very happy homelife by all accounts, having wed Catherine Clements, 25 years his junior, whom he described in 1798 as “a very virtuous good wife, and a most excellent mother … whom I adore” – remarkably affectionate language for the times, and after 30 years of marriage too. But in 1796 their eldest son George had died aged only 25; and more in an attempt to console Catherine than for his own aggrandisement, he now sought a further honour – a peerage.
His desire for elevation coincided with political events in Ireland – the move towards a formal union of Ireland and Britain by the Acts of Union in 1800, which abolished the Irish houses of parliament in favour of direct rule from London. 26 new peerages, the so-called Union peerages, were created in Ireland to ease the passage of the bill, and one of the very last peers to be so elevated – on 27th December 1800 – was Eyre Massey, 1st Lord Clarina of Elm Park.
Eyre, by now 81, lived as Lord Clarina for only four years before his death in 1804. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland legitimised by the act survived until it was violently dissolved by the Irish War of Independence in 1921 – which is why it has taken until now for a British monarch to walk on Irish soil again.
The Union flag, (above) of Great Britain (1606-1800)
(and below) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801-1921)
Information in this article comes from various sources, not least the detailed biography of Eyre by Matthew Potter in the Summer 1998 edition of the Old Limerick Journal.