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Is Meghan Markle set to be Duchess of Connaught?

Speculation that the Queen will dust off the long-defunct royal title next month as a wedding gift for her grandson, Prince Harry, and his fiancee has been met with a mixed reaction west of the River Shannon. Anita Guidera finds out more

Royal couple: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are to be married on May 19
Royal couple: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are to be married on May 19
Meghan in Belfast
Original titleholders: the first Duke and Duchess of Connaught, Arthur and Louise in 1887

Are soon-to-be married royal couple, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, about to become the Duke and Duchess of Connaught? The Queen, who traditionally hands out new titles on royal wedding days, will choose from a shortlist of extinct royal dukedoms, but with many being ruled out because of past notoriety, association with bad luck or the risk of challengers, her choices are limited.

While the smart money is on Sussex, some royal experts are not ruling out the possibility that she could opt for Connaught, a dukedom created by Queen Victoria for her third son, Arthur, in 1874, which became extinct less than 70 years later.

Royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams believes that while, theoretically, it is possible, the Queen would not want to cause controversy. "I would suggest that one of the highlights of the Queen's reign is her visit to Ireland, and there is no doubt it would be seen symbolically as a very important continuation of the close relations that exist, but we must remember the Republic of Ireland has existed (for decades) and it simply isn't conceivable that it could happen without being preceded by substantial debate in Ireland," he says.

"This has not happened. I don't think it would even be considered at the palace."

Not everyone shares his doubts. Royal commentator Noel Cunningham, hotel manager at Harvey's Point in Co Donegal, was proud to welcome Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, to Donegal two years ago, and is convinced the environment has never been more positive.

"It is not beyond the realms of possibility that almost as a nod and a courtesy to Ireland and the new-found détente that has developed between both countries, that the English Foreign Office would advise the Queen that this is a good time to resurrect that title," he says.

In Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, self-confessed royal fan Caroline Devine says she believed the titles would suit the newlyweds well.

"I remember there was a time when you would certainly not have had a mug of the queen in your home, but that's all gone now," she adds.

Caroline, who lives in Classiebawn Castle, the former home of Lord Mountbatten, the great uncle and mentor of Prince Charles who was killed with three others in an IRA explosion in 1979, met the prince when he visited Mullaghmore in 2015.

"It felt like a terrible weight was lifted off the place that day," she recalls.

Caroline adds that young Irish people love the younger generation of royals.

"There's no question about it, and they are dying about Meghan," she stresses.

"She is an independent woman who has made her own money and is well able for the public role. It's as if she has been born to it.

"Making Prince Harry and Meghan the Duke and Duchess of Connaught would be as much an acknowledgement of the Irish who have done well in the UK as of the Irish here."

But not everyone shares her sentiments. Mullaghmore author Joe McGowan, who has written extensively on the history of Sligo, says he wouldn't be greeting any such news with rapture.

"It would be appalling and an anathema to any real Irish person," he adds. "If they want to give dukedoms over in England, they can give them away in abundance. It doesn't bother me. But they should keep their noses out of Connacht."

Down the road in Castlebar, Co Mayo, where the thorny issue of ground rents on the former Lord Lucan estate is an emotive reminder of a colonial past, local historian Ernie Sweeney is quick to point out that Connacht's own ancient royalty pre-dates any dukedoms.

Queen Medb is said to have reigned over the province for six decades, more than 2,000 years ago, while Mayo's very own rebel pirate queen, Grace O'Malley (1530-1603), refused to bow down when she met Queen Elizabeth I.

"Queen Elizabeth II is a lovely and sweet old lady, but she represents a realm that was an empire and the memories are still here - they are handed down," Ernie says.

He also has no truck with the trappings of titles: "I'm on first names with a duke, but I'm not into titles or ranks. I wasn't reared to do that, so why should I? If anyone tried to pull rank with me, I'd turn my back and walk away.

"My only wish for the new royal couple is that they will be healthy and enjoy their young lives and forget about all this pomp and ceremony. If I met them, I'd say, 'Come on in here for a cup of tea. Do you drink out of mugs or cups?'"

While there is little evidence of Harry and Meghan actually spending time in Connacht, the original Duke and Duchess of Connaught, Prince Arthur and his wife, Princess Louise of Prussia, were regular visitors to Ireland over the course of his long military career.

While Arthur served as governor general of Ireland between 1911 and 1916, the royal couple lived at Castle Hope, near Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, close to their friend, Leonie Leslie, in nearby Castle Leslie.

The title became extinct following the untimely death from hypothermia of his grandson, Prince Alastair, the second Duke of Connaught in 1943.

It is just one chapter in a complex, centuries-old history of peerage in Ireland, dating back at least to Baron Kingsale in the 13th century. Since then, titles of nobility were created by English monarchs in their capacity as Lord or King of Ireland and later, following the 1800 Act of Union and the abolition of the Irish parliament, by monarchs of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Today, an estimated 135 titles in the Peerage of Ireland still survive, including two dukedoms, 10 marquessates, 43 earldoms, 28 viscountcies and 52 baronies.

The majority of these were created in the 18th century, and just a handful continue to have bases in Ireland.

The only remaining dukedoms are the Duke of Leinster (1766) and Abercorn (1868).

"Very few people pay the idea of a peerage in Ireland any attention today," says Dr Gerald Power, a lecturer in history at Metropolitan University, Prague.

"That's because when the Irish Free State was established and drew up its own constitution, any titles of nobility were specifically not recognised, so peerage in Ireland lost any kind of constitutional or political relevance."

By then, peers were fast losing their economic power and relevance due to land reform and land taxes.

Most of the original castles and stately homes have either disappeared or been converted into luxury hotels and golf clubs.

"People rarely think about these people. They have become a little footnote in Irish society."

The last Irish peers and dukedoms

Of five British dukedoms created in Ireland between 1661 and 1868, just two are still in existence:

The Duke of Leinster

Revived in 1766 for James Fitzgerald. Today, Maurice Fitzgerald, the ninth Duke of Leinster, is the highest ranking member of the peerage in Ireland. The family seat is in Oxfordshire.

The Duke of Abercorn

Created in 1868 for James Hamilton, Marquess of Abercorn. The title is currently held by James Hamilton, fifth Duke of Abercorn (below), who is based at the family seat of Baronscourt Castle, near Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone.

'Irish' peers in the UK House of Lords

John Boyle, 15th Earl of Cork, and Francis Hare, sixth Earl of Listowel, both descend from the Anglo-Irish ruling class and also have UK peerage titles.

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