Little Lord Fauntleroy & Ireland’s First Lesbian

jj mcevoy ballybrophy pictures 002

Ballybrophy house from JJ McEvoy’s collection of Laois Photographs

The O’Brophys were originally the chiefs of Galmoy on the borders of Kilkenny and Tipperary.  They were driven out of Galmoy after the Norman invasion, and settled, under the protection of MacGillapatrick, at Baile Ui Broithe, now Ballybrophy.

At Christmas 1626 Charles the First granted his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, Borris-in-Ossory, “Ballybrophy, Grangemore, &c., &c. ; all of which he erected into a manor to be called the Manor of Villiers”.   In 1693, a Catholic gentleman named Owen Carroll, who came from the neighbourhood of Seir-Kieran, took a lease of the entire manor from the Duke’s representatives, George Rodney Bridges, Esqr., and the Right Hon. Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury, his wife, for 31 years, at a yearly rent of £750 ; and about 1705, he further took a reversionary lease of same, for 11 years, from the said George Rodney Bridges, Esqr., and John Bridges, his son.

The story of how the Villiers estate passed from the Duke of Buckingham to the Countess of Shrewsbury is fairly remarkable.  Anna Maria’s first husband, Francis Earl of Shrewsbury, was killed in a duel by George Villiers the second Duke of Buckingham.  The inheritance came to her in 1693 under the will of the Duke whose partiality for her caused  the duel with her first husband. The tale that the Countess witnessed the duel disguised as a page appears to have no foundation..  For a time, the Duke of Buckingham kept Anna Maria as his mistress in his family home where his wife, Mary also resided.  Buckingham provoked an outrage for installing “the widow of his own creation” in his own and his wife’s house.  She gave birth to his illegitimate son and created a scandal at court by having the boy baptised in Westminster Abbey.   Their affair was finally broken off in 1673. The Countess went to France and spent some time in a convent, before returning to England and marrying George Brydges in 1677.

The Countess was a passionate woman (harsher critics have called her a nymphomaniac): her numerous lovers included Henry Jermyn, 1st Baron Dover and Colonel Thomas Howard (younger brother of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle) : in 1662 they fought a celebrated duel for her favour in which Jermyn was left for dead and his second, Giles Rawlings, was killed.

Lely, Peter, 1618-1680; Lady Anna Maria Brudenell (1642-1702), Countess of Shrewsbury

Lely, Peter; Lady Anna Maria Brudenell (1642-1702), Countess of Shrewsbury; National Trust, Knole

Anna Maria’s family were all fairly wild – her cousin Lady Frances Brudenell, Countess of Newburgh, wife of Charles Livingston, 2nd Earl of Newburgh, who lived on Usher’s Quay,  was noted in Dublin for her bisexuality, and her affair with Lady Allen of Stillorgan Park.  She was the subject of a debt action brought by William King, secretary to The Earl of Arran, who Horace Walpole described as “an inoffensive old man, last of the illustrious house of Ormonde, and much respected by the Jacobites”.

Not everyone thought Lord Arran inoffensive  – There was strong suspicion that he deliberately started the great fire that destroyed much of Dublin Castle on the 7th April 1684.  His full and perfectly structured account of the event further fueled rumours. The fire began in his newly built lodgings, on the wooden flooring under the fire grate of his dressing room. The crackling of the flames woke him and he fled through the State Rooms as far as the long Gallery, leaving all the doors open behind him. He then looked back and saw his bed in flames. The sentries raised the alarm. Arran sent for Robert Cuffe, the Engineer – the Architect, Robinson, being out of town. Cuffe arrived shortly afterwards with six barrels of gunpowder from a private store. A controlled explosion at the southern end of the Long Gallery failed to halt the flames. So, another was set off at the northern end and this prevented the fire reaching the Lord Lieutenant’s lodgings and the Gunpowder Tower, through the Coal Yard. There was a westerly wind blowing and a final explosion, near the Presence Chamber, succeeded in halting the fire advancing along the south-western range, to the Kitchen Tower (now known as the Bermingham Tower), which housed the public records at that time.

King James II issued a royal warrant on the 24th July, stating that the fire started accidentally. Suspicion remained and many believed that the warrant was a ‘pay off’ in gratitude to Marquis Ormond for services rendered – including his three years leadership of the royal army against the Ulster rebels during the 1641 rebellion. The King also directed that the old walls and as many towers as required be taken down and a new Chief Governor’s residence be built ‘the same to be still and forever called by the name of the Castle of Dublin’. Building works got underway and more stately accommodation replaced the medieval fortress.

Lord Arran’s wife, Elizabeth Crew, employed as her lady in waiting  Katherine Mildmay, the aunt and foster mother of the essayist Richard Steele who founded The Spectator.    Lady Arran was also one of Lady Newburgh’s  “social circle of tribades”

Elizabeth Butler

Elizabeth Butler, née Crew, Countess of Arran (c. 1679-1756)

King alleged Lady Newburgh owed him several thousand pounds. He lost the case and in revenge, in 1732, wrote a satire against her, entitled “The Toast”, which portrays her as “a promiscuous bisexual witch and lesbian named “Myra”. It is notable for an early use of the word lesbian in the modern sense – the second or third time that it was ever used in print.

NPG D5713; Frances (Brudenell), Countess of Newburgh by William Wilson, after  Michael Dahl

by William Wilson, after Michael Dahl, mezzotint, early 18th century

To get back to Ballybrophy, when Owen’s son,  Bamaby Carroll’s faith brought him under the ban of the penal laws, about 1730, three vultures named Richard Despard, William Garden, and Walter Stephens, swooped down on his ample substance to seize and devour it. Stephens, or Squire Stephens, as he was afterwards called, took possession of the evicted papist’s home in Borris;  Carden found Lismore more suited to his tastes ; Despard’s share in the plunder was Ballybrophy.  Their lease from the Duke of Buckingham is dated 1731.   Ballybrophy already had a tenant who seems to have remained in possession.  Thomas Brereton, the son of William Brereton,  obtained the lease of Ballybrophy in 1723.  The Brereton were a Cheshire family who arrived in the neighbourhood of Stradbally during the Elizabethan plantation in the 1560s.  William Brereton of Rathmore (probably the son of Major Thomas Brereton of Borris in Ossory) was born during the reign of King Charles I (1625-1649) and lived until just after the accession of Queen Anne. He died in 1715.

Charles White of Kilpurcel was the third son of Charles White of Kilmartin, Borris in Ossory, a Cromwellian who arrived from Oxford in 1657.   Kilpurcel is five fields south of Ballybrophy.  The second son of Charles of Kilpurcel, Thomas White, married Ann Steele of Kyle, Rathdowney in 1739 (she died two years later),  and was granted the townlands of Ballybrophy 330 acres & 17 acres of Bog, by Mrs Elizabeth Despard & others, rent £115 10s per annum in 1746.  The following year he took as his third wife Charity Tydd.  Their son Charles White of Ballybrophy was born in 1753 and married Sarah White (d 13.02.1835, dau of Charles White of Aghavoe) in 1775.  Barrington describes Charles White as “a civil and inoffensive man as any in Ossory.”  In  1808  he organised a steeple chase from Ballybrophy for six miles across the country, between his horse Icarus  and his neighbours’ horses. He died in 1828 aged 75.

The last embodiment of Ballybrophy house was an early 19th century two storey over basement five bay house of rendered rubblestone with cut stone pediments over the ground floor windows and a doorway with a wide fanlight sheltered by a porch supported on two pairs of Doric columns.   It had bold quoins on three corners only.  The main rooms had egg and dart cornices.   The return, containing the main staircase and a parallel servants’ staircase, had a tall arched window.   This was probably built by their son,  yet another Charles, who married Barbara Knox White (nee Ruttledge) who held six townlands in the parish of Crossmolina,  County Mayo, formerly part of the estate of her brother-in-law, Henry William Knox of Netley Park. She married, as her second husband, Charles White, second son of Charles White of Ballybrophy, Queen’s County (Laois). Charles White died in 1855 without children.

His brother, Thomas White, who also lived at Ballybrophy, had died two years previously.

On Saturday 14 January 1854  The Dublin Evening Post was adverting the house, demesne and lands at Ballybrophy to let.

By January 1855 William John Russell was renting Ballybrophy.   Russell, whose family lived at Hazelhatch, County Kildare,  had been born in Dublin on 25th November 1818.   He lived in Mountjoy Square in Dublin where he married his first wife, Elizabeth Amelia Fagan, on 12th February 1850.  She was the daughter of Catholic lawyer Michael Joseph Fagan of 4 Summerhill who was the eldest son of Patrick Fegan of Portrishen, Carlow.  Following the death of her wife, Russell had a brief marriage in 1866 to Bessie Jane Pelissier who also died.  His third wife, Elizabeth Hollwey, was the daughter of a Dublin shipbuilder, John Hollwey.    In 1855 his son, another William John Russell, was born at Ballybrophy.

They seem to have moved on quite quickly because in November 1858 we find Anthony Gibbs and Sons, agricultural suppliers of Ballybrophy House advertising in the Farmer’s Gazette and Journal of Practical Horticulture .

Saturday 25 May 1861 ,  Saunders’s News-Letter has Thomas Plunkett of Ballybrophy House.  Walford’s County Families  describes the Plunketts as of Ballybrophy, Mount D’alton, Co Westmeath and Corlismore, Co Cavan.  Thomas Plunkett had married Hannah, daughter of James MacFadin, Corlismore, Co Cavan.  Mount D’Alton is the home of the Gibson Brabazon family.  The D’Alton (and D’Alton Begg)  family lived there till it was sold by the Incumbered Estates Court in 1850.  It may be that Plunkett bought it then and initially leased it to the Brabazons.

Joseph Michael Plunkett, Thomas Plunkett’s son, married Laura Caroline Darby of Leap Castle, daughter of Jonathan Darby and Caroline Curteis Graham, on 29 August 1887.  On inheriting his uncle James MacFadin’s Cavan estate he changed his name to Plunkett MacFadden

In the Yokohama War Cemetery there is a memorial to Lieutenant Colonel John Oliver Plunkett, Straits Settlements Volunteer Force. 10th December 1942. Age 55. Son of Joseph Michael Plunkett, and of Laura Plunkett (nee Darby); husband of Elsie Campbell Plunkett, of Hove, Sussex. M.I.C.E. Brit.Sec.   John Oliver is described as the eldest son.  In about 1900 Joseph Michael Plunkett arranged to move from Mount D’Alton  the pyramidal monument, thirty feet high, erected by Count D’Alton in honour of the Empress Maria Theresa, the Emperor Joseph II., and King George III. On three sides it is adorned with their profiles in white marble, and on the fourth with the arms of the family and a suitable inscription.  It was said that he was intending to put it up as a monument to his son (presumably a second son).  However when it got to Ballybrophy Station he failed to pay the railway company for moving it, so it was incorporated into the fabric of the shunting yard.    I believe that it was moved back to Mullingar in the 1980s.

In 1900 Major Foulerton, a Scottish friend of Lord Castletown’s was living at Ballybrophy.  In a letter of 7th April 1900 from Samuel Hemphill, the vicar of Birr,  to H.G. Farmer, now in the University of Glasgow’s special collection, Hemphill notes that  Major Foulerton left Ballybrophy House with Leinsters for the front yesterday (the Boer War).  Foulterton died at Vrede. 5th Jan. 1901.

In 1907 James Ogilivie Grant 11th Earl of Seafield was in Ballacolla Cottage but by December 1910 he had moved to Ballybrophy House.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

Francis William Ogilvy-Grant, 6th Earl of Seafield (6 March 1778 – 30 July 1853) was married twice. He married firstly Mary Anne Dunn, daughter of John Dunn of Northumberland and St Helena, where he was an East India Company surgeon, in 1811. They had five children. After his first wife’s death in 1840 he married secondly Louisa Emma, daughter of Robert George Maunsell, of Spa Hill, Limerick  in 1843.  His second wife was a cousin of the Evans family of Ash Hill Towers.   He died in July 1853, aged 75.  For a very challenging bit of rather close relationships:-

Louisa Emma née Maunsell, married the 6th Earl of Seafield in 1843, who was some 46 years older than her. Six years later, in 1849, Lewis Alexander Ogilvy-Grant, one of her step-sons married her sister, Georgina, thus becoming her brother-in-law too.

The 6th Earl’s fourth son was James Ogilvy-Grant, who became 9th Earl of Seafield (27 December 1817 – 5 June 1888).  He married Caroline Louisa Evans daughter of Eyre Evans of Ash Hill Towers, Co Limerick who died in 1850 when her son Francis William Ogilvy-Grant, later and briefly 10th Earl of Seafield (born in Ireland in 1847) was only three.  After his education, Francis William served as a midshipman in  the Royal Navy and then joined the merchant navy.

He arrived in New Zealand in 1870 at the age of 23 and bought a farm in the Waiareka Valley in a locality known as Te Aneraki  to the west of Oamaru in North Otago. He lost his money through his farming pursuits, and from the late 1870s worked as a labourer in fencing or other available tasks.  Some time after the marriage, the family moved to Oamaru.

He married his first cousin (her father and his mother were brother and sister), Ann Trevor Corry Evans, on 24 November 1874, at The Bethel in Otago.  She was the daughter of Major George Thomas Evans and Louisa Barbara Corry. They had seven children; four girls and three boys  Their youngest daughter, Nina Geraldine (1884–1951), married Sir Lees Knowles, 1st Baronet in 1915.

According to a family story, when he received the telegram in on April 1st 1884 informing him that his cousin had died and his father had become the 9th Earl he was painting a house. From that time forward, the Dowager Countess of Seafield provided a stipend of about £600 per year, which alleviated much of his financial distress. In 1888, Lord Reidhaven’s father died and he became Sir Francis William Ogilvie-Grant, Baronet, 10th Earl of Seafield, chief of the Clan Grant. Unfortunately, within a matter of months, in December 1888, he died of heart failure and was succeeded by his eldest son, the Hon. James Ogilvie-Grant, Lord Reidhaven, who was still a boy aged twelve years.

11th earl

When the 11th Earl succeeded the Dowager Countess offered to send out a tutor to bring him home and educate him in a manner befitting his ancient title, and though this offer, it is said, was declined by the Earl’s mother (who, contemporary accounts noted, was a connection of Lord Carbery).   It was this boy that furnished the inspiration for the popular novel “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”   Frances Hodgson Burnett published the story as a serial from November 1885 to October 1886.  Unlike “Dearest” of that story, however, his mother did not part with her son.

James Ogilvie-Grant, 11th Earl of Seafield, lived in Auckland before his marriage to Mary Elizabeth Nina Townend, the eldest daughter of Dr Joseph Henry Townend, of Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1898.  Mary Townsend’s grandparents owned the Sterling Iron and Railway Company of New York, worth about £30 million in the 1900s.

After immigrating from New Zealand to England and then Ireland, James and his family eventually went to Scotland.  The old Countess, whose grandmother was a Nugent from Westmeath,  and whose great grandfather was Henry White of Kilcok, offered the young Earl a sizeable allowance if he would promise to go back where he came from and stay there.  She explained that she did not wish any Colonial Clodhoppers cluttering up the landscape.

Strangely enough, it was James’ angry refusal which won him the family estates finally. For, far from being offended, the strong minded and haughty countess was so pleased that she straightaway signified her intention of bequeathing him all the property that went with the title.

As a journalist wrote at the time of the old Countess’s death ”rumour has it that the dowager lady intends to leave much of her land and fortune to the present earl, who is her grand-nephew. She is said to have declared that she regarded herself as a trustee for life of the properties, to clear which from debt she would devote all her energies and leave them at her death to the holder of the earldom. She is said to have made such a settlement, so that the details of her will will be awaited with great interest.” Caroline, Countess of Seafield, died 6 Oct 1911, aged 81.

James was killed in action at Flanders leaving little Nina Grant, then nine years old, as heiress of all the Grant possessions. After leaving Ballybrophy in 1912 she lived at Cullen House, where she was reared quite simply and quietly. In fact, there was no suggestion in her training that she was destined to be a person of prominence later on. When she was a tot she played with the gardener’s children and was brought up almost as she might have been had her family remained in New Zealand and had she grown up to be a farmer’s daughter.

Nina Caroline Studley-Herbert, 12th Countess of Seafield  born 17 April 1906, died 30 September 1969, the second richest woman in  Britain after the Queen – and about her there is a whole novel waiting to be written – just google “Please, Pretty Countess, Won’t You Marry My Son” for more.


The next tenant that we know of at Ballybrophy was A G Seton, who subsequently moved on to Holycross.   In 1916  Lieutenant Biddulph of The Kings County Hounds lent 7 couples of hounds to Mr. Alfred G  Seton, of Ballybrophy House, to hunt with his harriers.   Seton, a friend of Thomas Johnson, 1872-1963,  the first leader of the Labour Party in Dáil, seems an unlikely man to have been an MFH.

On Sept. 5, 1914 the widow of Thomas Augustus Plunkett, late of Ballybrophy, died suddenly in Switzerland.

At some point in the 1920s Ballybrophy fell into the dreaded grip of the Land Commission, and the house and immediate demesne were acquired for William Phelan, one of the Munster Phelans mentioned under Cuffesborough.   In 1938 At the suit of Guard Creegan, Wm. Phelan, Ballybrophy House , Borris-in- Ossory, was fined Is. for driving without a driver’s licence.

By 1978 when I first visited it, only a decade or so after William Phelan’s demise, it was already a nearly roofless, and the cut stone window cills had already been quarried.



3 thoughts on “Little Lord Fauntleroy & Ireland’s First Lesbian

  1. Great to see a picture of Ballybrophy,I am a descendent of one time owner Joseph Macfadin Plunkett and his father Thomas Plunkett. I cannot find any history on these two prior to the1911 census


    • Hi Fiona. Thanks for your kind comment. Your McFadden Plunkett ancestor reminds me of the O’Reilly stood to inherit Ballinlough Castle so long as he changed his name to Nugent. He wondered if he would be better an Old Reilly than a New Gent!


      • Haha May I ask your connection with the house? Do you know anything more of the Plunketts or their connections?


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