Kilkenny has produced a number of distinguished military families such as the Rothes, Butlers and Shortalls. However, none are more celebrated than the Graces. They came from a place called Courtown modern day Tullaroan – in those days known as Grace’s country. They were Old English by the time of the 1641 Rebellion, having come to Ireland as Normans. They held vast estates of up to 80,000 acres before the end of the Confederation of Kilkenny in 1649. Their war cry was the Irish one of Grasach Abu. The Graces status as leaders of their community is captured in the old song which goes thus:
O Courtown! Thou home of the great and renowned:
Thy bulwarks, what heroes of battle surround,-
The Shees, Rooths, and Shortalls whose bosom still glow
To join in the conflict with Grasach abu!
Richard Grace who was born c 1620 was one of the most distinguished of the family. He fought with the Royalists against the Roundheads in the English Civil War of the 1640s. He returned to Ireland in 1646 and eventually became such a thorn in the side of the Roundheads that a price of £300 was placed on his head. He led successful raids on Birr, Roscrea and Kildare before eventually having to surrender on terms, to the Cromwellians. His land was confiscated but he was allowed emigrate to Spain. He took with him a regiment of 1200 men. He fought at the Battle of the Dunes in Northern France in 1658. When King Charles 11 came to the throne in 1660 Grace returned to Ireland and recovered some of his vast estates.
Having spent 20 years of peace and quiet the so called Glorious Revolution saw ‘Old Dick Grace’ as his kinsman Ormond called him back in harness as Governor of Athlone . It was he successfully defended Athlone in the famous siege of 1690 forcing King William’s general Douglas to withdraw to Limerick. His actions are well documented in the pages of the Irish Sword by the historians Murtagh father and son as well as by the distinguished Kilkenny man Colonel Dan Bryan. Alas Dick Grace was killed in the second Siege of Athlone when St Ruth the French general failed to emulate him.
His brother the Baron of Courtown, John Grace, in 1689 raised and equipped a regiment of foot – that’s infantry – and a troop of horse at his own expense for the service of King James 11. Like his brother he was a man of great character and local influence. He was approached early on to support King William 111’s side. This appeal came through an emissary of the Duke of Schomberg. Grace’s reply was to grasp the nearest thing to hand to pen a stinging riposte – it happened to be the 6 of hearts. He wrote ‘Go tell your master I despise his offer; tell him that honour and conscience are dearer to a man than all the wealth and titles a prince can bestow’. From this we must conclude that he had very small writing or that playing cards were bigger in those days. Ever since the 6 of hearts is still known in Kilkenny as Grace’s card. This Baron Grace died in 1690 while the Williamite war raged. His son Robert succeeded him at the head of the family regiment. He suffered such wounds at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691 that he died later that year. O Callaghan the historian records the regiment’s action on that day, – He says “the action of this regiment on the fateful day at Aughrim evinced a patriotic devotion that might dignify a Spartan band. Of that fine body, selected from the flower of the youth of Grace’s country not 50 returned to their home”.
A branch of this family ultimately established a successful business in New York known as Grace Brothers – one of them William Russell Grace becoming Mayor twice – the first Irish Catholic to fill the post. It was he who received the Statue of Liberty in 1884 from the French Government. Having had to defeat the Tammany Hall clique to get elected one could infer that this Mr Grace played his cards well.