Kathleen ffrench's Irish Connection
According to James Hardiman’s History of Galway, the ffrench family was ‘lineally descended from Sir Theophilus ffrench, a most valiant Knight, who accompanied William the Conqueror into England, and was present with him at the great battle of Hastings, deriving his pedigree from Sir Maximilian de ffrench, who was descended from Robert, 1st Duke of Normandy’. Later Kathleen took the name Maximilianovna as her Russian patronymic, from the founder of the ffrench family.
The ffrenchs were one of the fourteen tribes of Connemara — Galway merchant gentry and landowners — in the west of Ireland.
Monivea Castle, near Athenry in County Galway, spread over 1,100 acres at the time, with a beautiful house built around a Norman tower. Robert’s mother had died when he was ten years old, and he was sent off to England to school. Although he was heir to his father’s estate, he had no interest in running it. He completed his education at Rugby, which was one of the oldest public schools in England. The school’s most famous headmaster, Dr Thomas Arnold, was immortalised in Thomas Hughes’, Tom Brown’s School Days. Robert then joined the British Foreign Service, leaving his younger brother, Acheson, to work with his father in managing affairs at home.
Acheson married Annie Blake of Ballyglunin and had two daughters, Rosamond and Nina. The family lived at Monivea Castle, both girls were brought up there. Unlike his older brother, Percy, Acheson loved the country life and managing the estates. He was a keen hunter and his wife Annie famous for hosting some splendid parties at Monivea Castle.
In the early nineteenth century, Monivea was on the mail coach route, but when the railway from Dublin to Galway was built in the 1850s, it was bypassed and became something of a backwater. A Frenchman, de Molinari , describes a visit to Monivea in 1880 where he wandered around and visited one of the typical homes of the Monivea tenants:
…thatched and whitewashed, this dwelling was not displeasing to the eye from the outside except that a dung-heap lay between it and the roadway. Entered by a low doorway the cabin had two rooms with neither ceiling nor flooring. The pigsty was built against one of the gable-ends. One room had a large fireplace, three wooden chairs, a small table, a press [cupboard], an iron pot and a spinning wheel. A penny mirror hung near the window. Behind the cabin was a small field of potatoes with a border of cabbages. At one side was a small field of oats. The potatoes and cabbage formed the bulk of the family’s food. The pig and the oats paid the rent.
The local hunt, the Galway Blazers, met regularly at Monivea. It was a splendid scene: the horses and hounds milling around the front of the house, the hounds baying with excitement. A butler and maids carried around trays of drinks. There were greetings and laughter as the members of the hunt accepted a ‘heart starter’ of sherry or whiskey. At last the huntsman called in the hounds, blew his horn and everyone set off.
Kathleen adored her Irish home at Monivea. She wrote to her Russian grandparents: ‘I am still entranced with Monivea, and think I could quite happily spend my whole life here.’ Kathleen continued to love Monivea, maintaining a nostalgic regard for this grand family estate in the west of Ireland.
Robert, conscious of the pull of Kathleen’s Russian family, wanted to make sure that she was familiar with her Irish home and background. However, he was never happy spending long periods at Monivea.
An Irish Woman in Czarist Russia
by Jean Lombard