Richard Talbot, Duke of Tirconnell
From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878
Talbot, Richard, Duke of Tirconnell, son of Sir William Talbot, of Carton, in the County of Kildare, was born in Ireland early in the 17th century. At nineteen years of age he went to the Continent, and rose to the rank of colonel in the French service. Though a Catholic, he was subsequently induced by the Ormond party to return to Ireland, where he served against Owen Roe O'Neill. He was with the army that defended Drogheda against Cromwell; but in the storm and slaughter of the garrison, his life was saved by Reynolds, a Parliamentary officer. Escaping to Flanders, he entered the service of the Duke of York, with whom he returned to England on the Restoration.
There appear to be no grounds except party animosity for the black colours in which his character is sketched by many writers. In person he was above the common stature, extremely graceful and well-made. In Grammont's Memoirs he is described as "possessed of a pure and brilliant exterior; his manners were noble and majestic; no one at court had a better air." The character given him by a contemporary author — his over-readiness "to speak bold, offensive truths, and to do good offices" — is inconsistent with his having been a mere cringing courtier. In 1664 he was committed to the Tower for using threatening words to the Duke of Ormond touching the Act of Explanation, a measure which he considered extremely unjust to many of his countrymen who had suffered in the cause of the Stuarts. In November 1670 he drew up a petition to the Crown setting forth the services of the loyalist Irish. His advocacy of the claims of the ousted Catholic land-owners, strenuously persevered in, made him many enemies.
It is not so well known that he was equally distasteful to the ultra-Catholic or French party, who were ready to sacrifice everything to their desire to sever the connexion between Ireland and England. Selected by Titus Oates in 1677 as one of his victims, he fled to the Continent; but on his return soon afterwards was received into great favour at Court. His first wife was Miss Boynton, maid-of-honour to the Queen, sister-in-law to Lord Roscommon, the poet. She died in Dublin, in March 1679, and wasburied, with her child, in Christ Church Cathedral. Within a year Colonel Talbot married, in Paris, Frances Jennings, sister of Sarah, the celebrated Duchess of Marlborough. According to Sir Bernard Burke, "she had the fairest and brightest complexion that ever was seen; her hair a most beauteous flaxen, her countenance extremely animated, though generally persons so exquisitely fair have an insipidity; her whole person was fine, particularly her neck and bosom. The charms of her person and the unaffected sprightliness of her wit gained her the general admiration of the whole [English] court; in these fascinating qualities she had other competitors; but scarcely one except Miss Jennings maintained throughout the character of unblemished chastity."
During the reign of Charles II., Colonel Talbot lived mostly in Ireland, where he was regarded by all of his creed as a countryman who stood high in favour, and would stand higher as soon as the Duke of York came to the throne. When that event occurred, in February 1685, King James, "to mitigate a little the cruel oppression the Catholics had so long groaned under in that kingdom, thought it no injury to others that they who had tasted so deeply of his sufferings should now, in his prosperity, have a share at least of his protection; "and for other considerations thought it "necessary to give a commission of Lieutenant-General to Colonel Richard Talbot, a gentleman of an ancient family in that kingdom, a man of good abilities and clear courage, and one who for many years had a true attachment to his Majesty's person and interest." In the same year he was created Baron of Talbot's Court, Viscount Baltinglass, and Earl of Tirconnell; and in February 1686-'7, he was made Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.
His administration of affairs in the interest of the Catholics increased the discontent and alarm aroused in the minds of the Protestants by the accession of James. Two Catholic judges were appointed in each court, the third being a Protestant; Catholics were made high-sheriffs and privy-councillors, granted commissions of the peace, and admitted members of corporations, and the army was flooded with officers of that Church. When James II. retired to France in December 1688, Tirconnell adhered to his cause, and at once set about organizing forces in his interest. There are some grounds "for the belief that great temptations were held out by King William to win him over to his side. When James landed at Kinsale in March 1688-'9, Tirconnell met him, and was thereupon made a duke. During the ensuing campaign he continued to be the King's principal adviser. [See JAMES II., p. 261.]
He fought at the battle of the Boyne in July. Lady Tirconnell did the honours of Dublin Castle with singular tact and grace. "The dignity of her character was shown on the evening of the battle of the Boyne, a day which she had spent in an agony of suspense, and which was only terminated by the arrival of the King and Talbot, all weary and travel-stained, as they had ridden from the field. She received them at the top of the stairs at the Castle, and knelt to James, asking him to honour her by refreshing himself with a supper which she had prepared." James is said to have replied that his breakfast had left him no appetite; and to have complimented her on the alertness of the heels of her husband's countrymen; whereupon she rejoined that in that respect "his Majesty had the advantage of them."
Tirconnell did not take a very prominent part in affairs after James's departure for France. His overbearing manner made him increasingly unpopular with his countrymen; and the infirmities of age obliged him to make way for younger and more vigorous men in the support of a declining cause. When Limerick was besieged by William III., in August 1690, and General Lauzun declared that the place could be "taken with roasted apples," Tirconnell retired with the French troops to Galway, leaving Sarsfield to reap the glory of the successful defence. In the autumn he visited France, delegating his civil authority to one council, and his military to another, but giving Sarsfield a low place on the list of military councillors. In January 1691 he entered the Shannon with three frigates laden with provisions, clothing, arms, ammunition, and about £8,000 in money.
After the defeat at Aughrim he acted as Governor of Limerick; but died of apoplexy, 14th August 1691, just as the advanced-guard of the English army came again within sight of the town. He was buried in St. Mary's Cathedral. No inscription marks the spot. Lady Morgan says: "Much ill has been written, and more believed; but his history.. has only been written by the pen of party steeped in gall, and copied servilely from the pages of prejudice by the lame historians of modern times, more anxious for authority than for authenticity. Two qualities he possessed in an eminent degree — wit and valour; and if to gifts so brilliant and so Irish be joined devotion to his country, and fidelity to the unfortunate and fated family with whose exile he began life, and with whose ruin he finished it, it cannot be denied that in his character the elements of evil were mixed with much great and striking good."
His widow resided for some time in France. She subsequently returned to Ireland, and in Dublin, where she had once done the honours of a court, established a nunnery in which she spent the remainder of her days. On the morning of the 7th of March 1730-'31, in her 93rd year, long after most of her contemporaries had passed away, and when her existence was almost forgotten, she was found dead on the floor of her cell. She was interred in St. Patrick's Cathedral. An inscription to her memory may be seen in the old Scots College, in the Rue des Fosses St. Victor, Paris.
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