A Lady’s Diary

Úna Wogan writes of some extracts from a lady’s diary that gives a lot of information about the area around the time of the 1798 rebellion:

In 1838 Catherine Mary Howard, a member of the English aristocracy privately published her diaries and personal papers. Intended for her children, she decided to preserve her recordings of her life experiences and the world events she observed. The result was a series of short volumes covering different periods of her life entitled “Reminiscence for My Children”. As a member of the privileged class, particularly after her marriage to Henry Howard in 1793, Catherine spent an incredible amount of time socialising with other prominent members of society. The copious amount of dinner parties, luncheons and house visits she experienced ensured she was exposed to, and participated in, discussions on private, national and world events of the time. Her observations and opinions of places and events during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s are fascinating to read.

In April 1799 her husband Henry Howard, Captain of the West Yorkshire Battalion, was dispatched with his men to Ireland to help the ‘clean up’ that followed the rebellion of 1798. Catherine accompanied her husband and the following months saw her wine, dine and socialise with the most elite members of Irish society. One volume of her published writings is based on her travels during this period. She gives detailed accounts of who was present at each dinner party she attended and relays many of the conversations that arose. In addition to repeating stories she was told of events during and after the rebellion itself, her observations of the places and people of Ireland provide vivid imagery of life in Ireland during this period, albeit from the eyes of the uppermost class of the time.

Of particular interest are the occasions Catherine spent in the Wicklow area, she stayed at Corke Abbey, Shelton Abbey, ‘Mount Kennedy’ and of course Powerscourt House. The first mention of Powerscourt appears to be her recording the occasion of a dinner party she attended in Dublin at which Lord Powerscourt was also a guest. After recounting the names of others that attended she continues;

“……..and Lord Powerscourt, who told me that a plot had been discovered last year by the soldiers, of the rebels having intended to take possession of his house at Powerscourt, and to have murdered his lieutenant-colonel, since which time it had already been converted into a barrack. He added that the Catholic priest of his parish was a great anti-republican, being one of those whom the French had pushed off in a boat, by way of getting rid of him, and that he had got safely away to Carnes.”

Presumably after this meeting an invitation to visit Powerscourt was issued. Another passage describes driving through “a romantic country” and reaching the house of Lord Monk*.

“…….the walls of a new house alone remain. When built by him a few years ago, Lord and Lady Monk went over to London to buy furniture, which was soon after put up, and one morning whilst they were at Dublin, a beam caught fire and on their return they found nothing but the walls standing”.

Catherine continues, describing the beauty of the countryside and how this part of the Dargle is the joint property of Lord Monk and Powerscourt. She proceeds to Powerscourt House of which she recounts;

“We found Lady Powerscourt at home. The house is a heavy stone superstructure suited to the scenery. The Egyptian hall is handsome, but darkens the entrance hall: it has been a barrack since the Rebellion, and though now all is quiet, they still have a guard of sixteen men at night, whilst the lower windows are barricaded by sods.”

Catherine describes many of the villages and towns she travels through. Here, on here way to Corke Abbey she passes through Old Connaught;

“Old Connaught is a pretty village, but the cottages are not cleanly, yet have not the same look of poverty as those on the Meath-side, whilst the former is much more fully inhabited.”

Later Catherine returned to stay at Powerscourt house. She describes the obligatory visit to the waterfall and a walk she took with her maid ‘Perkins’ during which they walked from “Tinni Hinch, Mr Grattan’s cottege”. She also attended church;

“I with Lady Powerscourt and Miss Winfield went to Powerscourt Church, which though out of site, is quite near the house. Here again the clerk is dressed in his full uniform, the congregation was chiefly composed of the Fermanagh militia, and of Lord Powerscourt’s yeomanry, both cavalry and infantry who after service paraded before the house.”

A further mention of the Egyptian Hall in Powerscourt house stated that it was;

“…at present rather dirty from its having been all last year served as a barrack. We saw a number of pikes, and a variety of other arms, which were taken from the rebels, some of which they had stolen from gentlemen’s houses, and others were made out of husbandry implements. Among them were many half-shears, fastened to poles of ash or oak, but which appeared too weighty to be manageable.”

Although the rebellion and its aftermath did not seem to have curtailed the social diaries of Catherine and her peers as they wined and dined in the grand houses of Ireland, she did seem disturbed by the stories of atrocities carried out by both sides that were relayed to her. If anything she seemed to acknowledge that the Rebels were paying a higher price than other parties involved.

“We have heard of several instances of cruelty, committed by the Orangemen, passed over, that would have been death to a rebel.”

However she appeared to consider the rebellion as little to do with England apart from a mess needed to be cleaned up. Her diary entries convey an air of detachment between the gentleman class and what they perceived to be the fighting factions, the Rebels and the Orangemen;

“We were very sorry to observe how inveterate the hatred still is between the Catholics and the Orangemen, or Loyalist as they called themselves.  The gentlemen now find when too late the necessity of keeping them down, and Lord Powerscourt dismissed a very good servant the other day solely because he styled himself an Orangeman. At the very name a Catholic would involuntarily rise up in arms. Mr and Mrs La Touch allow of no such distinction among their tenantry.”

There have been many accounts written by those involved in the rebellion and its bloody aftermath, good and bad, right and wrong. Catherine Howard’s account of her luxurious journey through Ireland at a time when such bloodshed occurred might seem insensitive against all the suffering that others endured. However it provides a unique insight into the lives and thoughts of a particular section of society of the time.


*Note: Catherine Howard’s spelling of ‘Monk’ in place of ‘Monck’ is maintained here.

Leave a Reply