The Aylmers of Ireland

The Aylmers of Ireland are a prominent enough branch to warrant a book of their own – which Fenton Aylmer wrote towards the end of his life.

Protestant or Catholic?

Religious identity is, of course, central to questions of Irish identity.

I suspect that the Aylmers were, or became, a largely Protestant family, though principally settled in what is now the Republic. This is partly only suspicion, principally based on the ‘upholders of English authority’ tag recorded below. My Irish correspondent Philip Murray tells me that the first two baronets of Donadea were indeed Catholic, but the brother of baronet 2 may have transferred to the Protestant side, perhaps to further his military career.

Philip notes that he has seen an inscription inscribed This built in honour of Saint Brigit by Sir Gearald Aylmer Barronett and Dame Mary Bellew his wife the year of our Lord God 1683. St Brigid (as now) was a fifth-century holy woman from Co Kildare, site of Gerald’s home (see below).

His compatriot Anthony McCan, who grew up near Balrath, concurs, writing:

“I expect most of the Irish Aylmers would have been Protestants by the 18th century although when they arrived in the 14th century they would have been Catholics. These Old English, as they were called to distinguish them from later Protestant arrivals, seem to have been very devout and were allies of the Irish in the 17th century war (1641-1647) against the devoutly Protestant Cromwellians. Like all good allies both sides heartily disliked and distrusted the other. The Irish believed the Old English would readily accept English rule if they were allowed to keep the land their ancestors had won and were allowed to practice their Catholic religion; the Old English believed that if they won their Irish allies would turn upon them and expel them too. Both probably correct but the arrival of Cromwell and his New Model Army made it a moot point. Cromwell simply confiscated all Catholic owned land, Irish or Old English, and I expect it was at this time many of the land-owning Aylmers had a Damascene conversion. The Painestown Aylmers remained Catholic, marrying into Irish Catholic families. One was an officer in the Austrian army and another a Jesuit.”

Not all wealthy

Immigration record

Immigration record from the famine years

This immigration record of 1848, the height of the potato famine, tells that not all Irish Aylmers were monied. It shows a Peter Aylmer (I find this scary) arriving with his family at Boston, a major gateway to America for the world’s huddled masses. Thanks to Steve Wiezbicki of Colorado USA for tracking this down.

A few years later, in 1861, the 8th baronet of Donadea, George, caused a tower to be built on the Hill of Allen in Co. Kildare, now known as ‘Aylmer’s folly’. It may have been a famine relief project. The steps on the tower staircase record the names of the local people involved in its construction. The scholar Tom Lawrence published a book of photographs of the tower in 2011. If any reader has more information on the tower, particularly the reason for its construction, could they contact either Tom or me.

Across Ireland

Steve Wiezbicki has also checked the county whereabouts of 68 Irish Aylmer households in the period 1848 to 1864.

Families Aylmers
31 Kildare
10 Meath
5 Dublin City
4 Down
2 each Armagh, Kilkenny, Limerick, Tipperary, Wicklow
1 each Antrim, Cork, Dublin county, Galway, Limerick City, Louth, Offaly, Westmeath

The results leave little doubt about the area of maximum Aylmer infiltration. The counties with the heaviest concentrations – Kildare, Meath and Dublin (including the city) – between them accounted for around two-thirds of the total. These three counties are in the province of Leinster, in the central part of the east of the island.

Balrath, seat of the Barons Aylmer and one of its Baronets, is a village in County Meath on one of the main roads north from Dublin. Its 16th century wayside cross bears an inscription of 1727 that states it was ‘beautified’ by Andrew Aylmer of Mountaylemer (presumably, the 4th baronet) and ‘his’ Lady Catherine Aylmer.

Close to Balrath is Ballymagarvey House, now a wedding venue. Its present owners state that, in the mid-19th Century, “the enterprising Aylmer family saw Ballymagarvey House as the perfect place to set up home and build their own Corn and Flax Mill village.” In fact behind this, as Anthony McCan tells me, is a more complex history.

In the 1540s, he writes,

“Sir Gerald Aylmer acquired (posibly monastic) lands in Co. Meath, Ballymagarvey and Rosnaree in the civil parish of Painestown, Co. Meath. The Aylmers seem to have lived in their Tower House (called Balrath Castle) through the 17th and 18th centuries because they are always referred to as “of Balrath”. When Sir James Somerville took over the Aylmer lands in the 18th century both estates were included and about 1795 sold on to the Osbornes. The Aylmers seem to have vanished from Meath after 18th century.”

Donadea, in County Kildare, was the seat of the other baronets; again, more below, but as the Aylmers of Kildare were once seen as ‘upholders of English authority’ one presumes they were not always popular with the locals. Confusingly there is an Aylmer connection to another Painestown, in Kildare. There is more on this on the Kildare libraries website, and it’s on my research list.