The Ormonde Silver
In 1967 Arthur Butler, 6th Marquess of Ormonde and 24th Earl left Kilkenny Castle to a restoration committee and ultimately to the State. At the handover he requested that no houses be built closer than one hundred yards of the entrance. This was fulfilled and thankfully no houses were built in the Park. Arthur was so pleased with this that he purchased previous Butler territory within the walls to give us one of the finest parks in Ireland. Following such largesse it may seem churlish to bemoan the loss of the Ormonde Silver to the nation.
This came about following Arthur’s death in 1971. He had property in England and in lieu of estate duties there, the family plate was given to the British Treasury. It was allocated in 1982 to the following locations: The Grosvenor Museum Chester, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, The Royal Pavillion Brighton, The Ulster Museum, Belfast, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. You will agree it must be a formidable collection of plate. Julia Mason of Ballyhale remembered packing it in 1935 and seeing it directed to the Bank of England. The individuals transporting were chained to the locked boxes.
The three manuscript sources for this silver are among the Ormonde papers in the National Library of Ireland. Once I had occasion to do some research there on the family. In my innocence I asked had they anything on the Ormondes and was handed out a slimish volume – it ran to 70 pages-. I was pleased as I thought this is ideal for the one hour I had available. I was soon disabused of this – it was merely the index to what they held on the Ormondes.
From an exploration of the Ormonde silver it appears Walter Butler, of Kilcash and Garryricken, de jure 16th Earl of Ormonde was the greatest collector of silver. This is surprising as he was a Catholic who lived through the worst of the Penal Laws, dying in 1783. As well as plate he left the beautiful Butler House and grounds in Patrick Street. His son and heir John conformed to the Established Church and thereby preserved the Butler property to 1967. He was understandably known as “Jack of the Castles”.
Descriptions of some of the beautiful silver would be best left to an auctioneer from Mealys or Sheppards. I’ll give you a brief description of a pair of table sterling silver candlesticks. “The shaped quatrefoil bases with domed centres are raised and chased. They are filled with wood and pitch, and one retains the green baize. The borders are scrolled, and the four sections of each base are divided by knurled ribs, between which festoons of flowers and foliage alternate on one face with a Rococo cartouche on the other.”
The most valuable item is certainly a 54 ounce and 16 inch in diameter silver gilt salver given as a Royal Christening Gift. The occasion was the birth of James, Earl of Ossory – one was Earl of Ossory before becoming Earl of Ormonde. The inscription reads ‘PRESENTED BY HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN ADELAIDE TO HER GODSON JAMES EDWARD WILLIAM THEOBALD EARL OF OSSORY Monday the 11th of November 1844. This beautiful item is now located in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester. This is quite appropriate as James was to marry a Grosvenor, Elizabeth, the daughter of the 1st Duke of Westminster. It was this duo who hosted royals on three separate occasions at Kilkenny Castle, the most celebrated being in 1904 with the visit of King Edward vii and Queen Alexandra. These expensive hostings may have been largely responsible for the decline in the Ormonde fortunes so well documented in the papers in the National Library.
What a coup it would be if some of the more valuable items could be assembled, loaned and put on display in our National Museum, say in Collins Bks. Would it be too fanciful to hope that they could be brought back from whence they came to Kilkenny Castle for a week or am I going seabhóideach?