The French connection: A queen’s portrait

Through the glass darkly

Patrick French of Drumharsna Castle, near the village of Kiltartan, died in 1748. His widow, Catherine, was still living in 1768, and was named by her son Henry, who died unmarried, as one of his executors. In his will, dated January 24, 1767, Henry French of Drumharsna left

"… to my mother all my real and personal estate for life, subject as to my personal estate as to the legacies hereafter specified, with remainder as to my real estate to my nephew, Henry French Barrington, and the heirs of his body, with remainder to the heirs of James French of Duras [Henry’s uncle]. I leave to Charles McDonnell, of New Hall, Co Clare, my four paintings: the portrait of my great grandfather, Sir Donough O'Brien, that of my grandfather, Henry O'Brien, and my grandmother, Susanna O'Brien, and the portrait of a lady by Sir Godfrey Kneller [my italics], to be put up in his house. I leave to Captain Edward O'Brien, 3rd son of Sir Edward O'Brien, my case of pistols, silver mounted, as they never belonged to any one but a soldier. I appoint my mother, my nephew, Henry French Barrington, and the said Charles McDonnell, executors."

Some identifications are necessary to make our way through the maze of family relationships -

Henry French’s grandfather, Henry O'Brien, of Stonehall, Co Clare, was the second son of Sir Donough O'Brien, 1st Baronet of Dromoland, by his wife, Elizabeth Dean. And Sir Donough was the son of Col Conor O’Brien of Leamanah Castle, Co Clare, and Mary MacMahon, better known to history and legend as ‘Maire Ruadh’.

Henry O'Brien's wife was Susannah Stafford of Northamptonshire. With his wife, he had four sons and two daughters: Catherine, (the wife of Patrick French of Drumharsna, and the mother of Henry French of Drumharsna ) and Susannah, who married Edward, the son of Christopher O'Brien.

Sir Donough O'Brien, 1st Baronet of Dromoland, had by his first wife, Lucia, a son, Lucius O'Brien, who married Catherine, daughter of Thomas Keightley, Lord Treasurer of Ireland. Lucius O'Brien died, before his father, in 1717 and the title passed to Lucius’ eldest son, Edward O'Brien.

Sir Edward O'Brien, 2nd Baronet, married Mary, daughter of Hugh Hickman, of Fenloe, and had three sons, Lucius Henry, who became 3rd Baronet, Donough, and Edward, and five daughters. The fourth daughter was Catherine, who married Charles McDonnell, of Newhall, near Ennis, to whom Henry French left the four paintings mentioned in his will. And it was to Captain Edward O'Brien that he left his case of pistols.

The four portraits left by Henry French to Charles McDonnell are now in Dromoland Castle. According to Donough O'Brien, author of the History of the O'Briens, the third portrait is that of Lady Carbery, sister of Susannah O'Brien. There is a question over this, however, as it is hardly likely that Henry French, her grandson, would make such an error.

Of the four portraits, it is the one described by Henry French as "the portrait of a lady by Sir Godfrey Kneller", which turns out to be something special. Not only was Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723 ) the leading portrait painter in England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but this is not just a portrait of any ‘lady’, but of Queen Anne (1665-1714 ).

One of the most powerful men in England during the mid to late 16th century was Sir Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674 ). He had two sons and two daughters. In 1659, James, Duke of York, 2nd son of the executed Charles I, married Sir Edward’s eldest daughter, Anne Hyde. Although she died before James became king in 1685, her two daughters became queens of England – Mary, whose husband was william of Orange, ‘King Billy of the Boyne’, and her younger sister, Anne, who died childless.

In 1675, Sir Edward Hyde’s youngest daughter, Frances, married Thomas Keightley, and, as noted above, their daughter (also, confusingly ) Catherine married Lucius O’Brien, who died in 1717.

According to O’Brien family history, Kneller’s portrait of Queen Anne of England was given to the O’Briens by the queen herself. It probably came into the possession of Henry French of Drumharsna through his mother, Catherine, daughter of Henry O'Brien. By leaving it to Charles MacDonnell, he ensured it would eventually come back into the O’Brien family.

Today Drumharsna Castle is a gaunt ruin. A large house stood next to it until it was demolished in 1920s. During the War for Independence, the Black and Tans occupied house and castle, and it was there the Loughnane Brothers, IRA volunteers, were brutally murdered in November 1920.

And for a brief time it was the home of a famous portrait of a queen of England.

Barnaby ffrench


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