Standish O’Grady and the fight of the Earls

Eamonn Kiely

Otway Cuffe became 6th Earl of Desart in 1898. He with his sister-in-law Lady Desart did prodigies for Kilkenny as outlined in some detail by my friend Paddy Neary in recent talks. He was a great friend of Standish O’Grady the new Editor of the Kilkenny Moderator. This was a Unionist and Protestant weekly which didn’t create many ripples under its previous Editor Mr Lawlor. This was about to change.

O’Grady, despite his Irish name, was on one side of the family very Anglo-Irish. He was greatly admired by Yeats who lauded his Bardic History of Ireland. AE said of his writings ‘The submerged river of national culture rose up again, a shining torrent. It was he who made me conscious and proud of my country. He was the last champion of the Irish aristocracy and spoke to them of their duty to the nation as a fearless prophet might speak to a council of degenerate princes’. There was the rub – his pen could be as sharp as a rapier and he was no respector of rank.

The Colonel of the Kilkenny Militia who had been an agent of a previous Earl of Desart had been found at the tatter’s death to have misappropriated £6,000 of his money. The Colonel’s family paid up the losses and the generous Desarts didn’t press charges. The dismissed Colonel judged a pause and then released a story that the money was owed to him and was really an unpaid racing debt of the late Lord Desart. The Desarts were furious at this attempt at defaming the deceased Earl. They persuaded their friend O’Grady to print a letter ‘telling the true facts in the Moderator’. The much-revered Lady Desart called the Colonel a thief and challenged him to sue her for libel. He declined but pointed to his retention as Colonel of the Kilkenny Regiment as proof of his standing with the Lord Chancellor, the Commander of the Forces and the Marquess/Earl of Ormonde. The Cuffes/Desarts then demanded that the Colonel be relieved of his responsibilities as magistrate and command of the Kilkenny Militia.

O’Grady had offended Lord Ormonde in an editorial in the Moderator for the Financial Relations Committee, which he headed, having not met for eleven months. It was to fight a case for the overpayment of tax to the British Exchequer by an annual figure of £135,000 for Kilkenny alone. As P G Woodhouse might say Ormonde was less than gruntled. He was as Lieutenant of the County to review the Church Lads Brigade behind the palace at St Canice’s Cathedral. To get even with the upstart journalist he decides to publicly endorse the controversial Colonel by having him as his ADC on the occasion. The Bishop, Dr Crozier, spoke after the Colonel and according to O’Grady spoke of the Colonel ‘in eulogy and approbation’. The bishop with the skill of a practised politician said he was not addressing the Man but the Office.

O’Grady, in modern parlance came out with both barrels blazing in his editorial. Among many other things he wrote ‘The men who have betrayed the honour of the county are the Marquess of Ormonde, the Protestant Bishop of Ossory and the Master of the Kilkenny Hounds. Why the latter Sir Hercules Langrishe should be implicated is not clear. A further editorial zeroed in exclusively on the Marquess of Ormonde. O’Grady wrote ‘We are not at war with the Bishop, but with the great and dominant social power in our midst, reaching up to the Throne and down to the smallest huxter’. The Marquess was the godchild of the Queen of England and had the silver to prove it as I reported in a previous talk.

In a short while a writ for libel seeking £2,000, came from the Bishop. Further writs against O’Grady were said to be on the way from the Marquess and Sir Hercules who were yachting at Cowes. The pressure was too great for O’Grady, he quit his editor role and left Kilkenny. The Boer War was on and the Kilkenny Militia, a thousand strong set off for Waterford on way for training on Salisbury plain, led by the digraced Colonel. As Hubert Butler wrote ‘On their heels was a straggling Kilkenny mob, screaming, Hurragh for Kruger and Lady Desart’. It is said when elephants fight the grass gets trampled. When Earls disagree mere journalists are dispensable.