Belfast Telegraph

Gambling, divorce and high society: Diana's Irish roots

 

It is now a well-known holiday village with water slides and a ­go-kart track. But back in the 19th century, Trabolgan in east Cork​ was the home of the Roches, direct ancestors of Princess Diana on her mother's side.

Where the swimming pool complex now stands, there was once a rambling country mansion, which was the centre of a large estate belonging to the Roches.

Princess Diana's great, great-grandfather, Edmond Burke Roche, lived at Trabolgan and was a major landowner in east Cork. The family also had substantial landholdings in Waterford.

Diana's ancestors were involved in politics, and Edmond served as MP for Cork from 1837 to 1855.

According to historian Ryle Dwyer, he was a close associate of Daniel O'Connell and was conferred with the title of Baron Fermoy.

Other members of the family were also politicians, and his third son, James Boothby Burke Roche, served as a nationalist MP for East Kerry.

While the house was demolished in the early 1980s, there are still remnants of its 19th century grandeur. The holiday village is approached along a tree-lined driveway that passes through a magnificently over-the-top 19th century triumphal arch, modelled on the Arc De Triomphe in Paris.

At times,​ in the winter, the house was so buffeted by gales that it became a struggle for the Roches ​to open the hall door. So, in the winter, the family liked to reside at one of their other mansions.

According to one local story, possibly apocryphal, one of Princess Diana's ancestors​ lost the Trabolgan estate in a bet with a guest on a greyhound race. He thought he had a champion greyhound, but the errant dog spotted a crow and chased the bird rather than the hare, and the Roches' family estate was gone for ever.

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Edmund Burke-Roche, 5th Baron Fermoy

Three years ago, a group of local volunteers working on a grave restoration project uncovered the ancient burial tomb of Edmond.

It was long suspected that the mausoleum at Corkbeg Graveyard was linked with the Roches, but the volunteers, Eddie Tucker, Jimmy O'Leary and Michael Kenefick, were able to prove it when they discovered the tombstone plaques documenting the remains buried under the roots of a tree.

Diana's great-grandfather, James Boothby Burke Roche, was something of a gambler and spendthrift who married a wealthy American woman, Frances 'Fannie' Work, the daughter of a rich banker​.

The couple lived on her wealth and, according to Ryle Dwyer's account, Roche used her money to fund his gambling habit.

​He sent her over to the US to seek more funds from her father, and she travelled with her daughter while he kept the couple's two sons. But by this stage, the rich banker father-in-law had had enough and refused to pay for Roche's profligate ways.

The marriage came to an end, and this culminated in James abandoning his two toddler sons on the doorstep of his father-in-law's home in New York and making off in a carriage.

Fannie Roche obtained a divorce on the grounds of desertion in 1891 and there was widespread publicity about the case at the time. It was all the more remarkable, therefore, when James stood as a candidate for East Kerry as an anti-Parnellite nationalist.

The Irish Parliament Party had split over Charles Stewart Parnell's affair with Kitty O'Shea.

James' divorce did not stop him being elected in Kerry, and he proved to be one of the most ineffective parliamentarians in Irish and British parliamentary history.

As an MP for East Kerry, he was hardly ever seen in the House of Commons and never bothered to speak during his entire term.

The MP's granddaughter, Frances, was Princess Diana's mother. She was born Frances Ruth Burke Roche in 1936, and married Johnnie Althorp, who became Earl Spencer.

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House

"I've got no English blood," Frances said. "I'm a quarter American, a quarter Irish and half Scottish."

The marriage of Johnnie Althorp and Frances Roche, celebrated in Westminster Abbey on June 1, 1954, was the social event of the year, attended by the Royal Family. The marriage ended in divorce when Diana was a young girl, and her mother moved away.

Frances later married Peter Shand Kydd, who came from a family of wallpaper tycoons.

Princess Diana also had strong links with Ireland through her father's family, the Spencers, and the Earls of Lucan, who owned vast tracts of property around Castlebar, Co Mayo.

According to local historian Brian Hoban, Lavinia, the daughter of the first Earl of Lucan, married George Spencer, who became the second Earl Spencer. Diana was their great, great, great-granddaughter.

The family had a summer residence called Spencer Park, in Castlebar, and there are still streets named after the family in the town.

In 1996, Diana recognised these local links and ​donated £1,000 to Mayo General Hospital in Castlebar to go towards the installation of a CAT scan machine.

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