By James C. Feighery
Rolleston was born on May 1st 1857, into what we would today loosely term the landed and privileged gentry, his father being a well-known Q.C. of the time. T.W., as he was known, was the third son of Elizabeth Richards and Charles Rolleston – Spunner of Glasshouse in King’s County, south of Shinrone.
His father, Charles, was gifted the large Glasshouse estate by Thomas Spunner of nearby Milltown Park, on the condition that he assume the Spunner name. His wife, Elizabeth, and Catherine Spunner were daughters of the Rt. Hon. John Richards, and so the newly married Charles Rolleston of Franckfort Castle, Dunkerrin, King’s County, acceded to the request.
T.W., as we will discover, was one of a very interesting group of Irishmen who were around in the latter part of the 18th century, fostering the Irish language and ideals not commonly associated with his class.
The Rolleston story started way back in 1071 A.D.
In the village of Rolleston in Derbyshire, the family name then was Sinfin, gradually changing to Rolleston on becoming the first Earls of Rolleston village, and are listed in the Doomsday Book, a much feared listing at the time by the kings. Today, we are all listed in the modern version that caused such fear in the 11th century, and it’s commonly known as the Property Tax and payable by every household in January to the Revenue – little changes.
The first family to come to Ireland was Rev. Richard and his wife, Elizabeth, in 1610, to the parish of Magheracloone on the Monaghan border, to the Teamore estate, having been gifted 1,000 acres by King James I, to plant. But the early Rollestons were troubled by the local Irish rebel leader of the time, Hugh O’Hanlon, who in 1642 murdered their five sons, two escaping, the remnants of this family some years later making their way to Offaly and Franckfort Castle, Dunkerrin, where Charles Rolleston, Spunner’s father, also Charles, was born in 1768.
T.W.’s father was well known in the area as a fair and learned lawyer and defended the Cormac brothers in the infamous trials in Nenagh and also the last tithe martyr in King’s County, his neighbour, Thomas Tequin of nearby Kilcommin, Shinrone.
Young T.W. spent a carefree early childhood around Glasshouse, enjoying the usual pursuits of young sons of landed gentry of the time. Glasshouse got its name from a glass factory that was on the site years earlier, and today, over 400 years later, the glass blowing furnace is still intact and preserved.
Down through the centuries, the Rolleston family members have been involved in some form of military or religious life, starting with Roger de Rolleston, who was Catholic Dean of Lincoln Cathedral from 1195 to 1223, and witnessed many charters being signed there. Hugh was also a priest at St. Michael’s Church, Oxford. Priests at the time had some education and were called upon to witness royal documents.
Ralph was knighted on May 22, 1306, and called to Parliament in 1324. His son, Nicholas, was parish priest of Rolleston (1315-1326) and owned lands at Rolleston and Tutbury.
Laurence married Agnes Rollesley in 1570 and their issue became the first generation of Protestant Rollestons. Their son, Gilbert, born 1571, inherited the property and in 1622 mortgaged the vast property to Edward Mosley in order to raise money for the king and his troops. Unable to repay the loans, the lands passed to Mosley and were lost to the family. Many tried to regain the property but failed down the years. Family members had by now scattered to other areas of England and Ireland.
T.W. was first sent to St. Columba’s College, Rathfarnham. In 1875, he enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with a B.A. in the winter of 1878. Also that same year, he won the Vice Chancellor’s prize for English verse entitled, The Last Night of Babylon. During this period, he was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, and with W.B. Yeats, he was a founder of the famous Rhymers Club. In 1885 T.W. became editor of the Dublin University Review, in which he included the first of W.B. Yeats’ work to appear in print, The Island of Statues. Rolleston considered Yeats a mystic for some unknown reason, as did other learned men of the period.
In 1904, T.W. and a staff of 65 took part in the great World Trade Exhibition in St. Louis, USA, taking twelve ships to transport amongst other goods replicas of Blarney Castle and a Bunratty village scene. He arranged for Count John McCormack to give concerts at this vast trade fair. On returning, the group refunded £400,000 to the government, a not inconsiderable sum, even in today’s values.
In 1992 President Mary Robinson in a Quatercentenary Discourse Paper on Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), first President of Ireland, mentioned T.W. Rolleston, stating that Douglas Hyde, in seeking for Trinity College to include the Irish Language as a subject at Trinity, when the College was seeking to be recognised as an establishment of higher education, put forward “fellow Gaelic Leaguer T.W.H. Rolleston to argue for Irish inclusion. T.W. was in his element, arguing eloquently in Irish and Latin. At the conclusion, Hyde, Yeats and Rolleston celebrated a great victory for the Irish language and writings which are being enjoyed by Trinity students today.”
T.W. went on to translate some Irish literary works, wrote poetry and was active in the Irish Co-Op movement.
The famous columnist and author, the late Ulick O’Connor quotes Rolleston as being an influential figure in Irish society. Rolleston was also astute politically, had a friendship with Douglas Hyde and, during the Great War, was brought over to London to advise the British Secret Service because of his familiarity with the German language and customs, having lectured for a period in Leipzig University.
He was also, despite being a Protestant, an early member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, thus ensuring, along with his father Charles, the QC’s good deeds, that none of the great Rolleston houses were destroyed or torched, as was the fate of so many great houses around this period.
One wonders what part T.W. would have played in the negotiations of 1921, given his expert knowledge, and what his future in the new Ireland would have been. However this great Irish man and nationalist died in London on December 5th , 1920, at the age of 63 years, when the Black and Tans were footloose around Shannonbridge, where the mighty monuments of Clonmacnoise still stand.
T.W. lies in the rich earthly embrace of Highgate Cemetery, London.
James C. Feighery is winner of the 2018/19 Offaly Person of the Year inaugural Unsung Hero Award.