The Sale of Kilkenny Castle, 1935
by Nicola Kelly, Archivist, OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre
An item which currently forms part of the Irish country house archives at the OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre is a sale catalogue for Kilkenny Castle dated 1935. It symbolises the fortunes of the powerful Butlers of Ormonde and the collections amassed during a six-hundred-year dynasty.
Kilkenny Castle has been an important site since Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, commonly known as Strongbow constructed the first castle in the 12th century. The Castle later became the seat to a very powerful family, the Butlers of Ormonde. The Butler family (who changed their name from FitzWalter in 1185) arrived in Ireland with the Norman invasion. They originally settled in Gowran where James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond built Gowran Castle in 1385. The patrimony of the Butlers of Ormond encompassed most of the modern counties of Tipperary, Kilkenny, and parts of County Carlow. The purchase of Kilkenny Castle in 1391 and the Butlers established themselves as rulers of the area, a dynasty that would last for centuries.
By the twentieth century, however, the impact of rising taxes, death duties, economic depression and living costs had taken their toll. The Butler family disposed of the bulk of their tenanted estates in Tipperary and Kilkenny, 21,000 acres (85 km²), by 1915 for £240,000. Death duties and expenses following the death of James Butler, 3rd Marquess of Ormonde in 1919 amounted to £166,000 which was devastating. George Butler, Earl of Ossory and his family remained living in the castle until 1935, when they sold its contents for £6,000, moved to London and abandoned it for thirty years.
It was announced in Irish newspapers as follows
‘Battersby and Co. are favoured with instructions from the Right Hon. the Earl of Ossory to sell by auction at “Kilkenny Castle” the valuable furnishings and appointments of the historic mansion together with the library, outdoor effects, etc. : Catalogue of the valuable, antique and interesting contents of this historic mansion to be sold by auction commencing Monday, 18th November 1935 to 25th November, 1935 and 3 following days.’
So much interest had been garnered in the auction, a second printing of the catalogue was required.
Opening the auction on 18th November 1935, Raymond V. Judd, Manager of Battersby and Co. Auctioneers was quoted by the Irish Independent newspaper as saying,
‘he could not let the occasion pass without voicing his regret with the citizens of Kilkenny for the severance of an association which lasted for so many centuries.’
The names of the illustrious ancestors of the Castle had been interwoven with Irish history for centuries. Unfortunately, due to the changing economic circumstances of the Butlers and many landed estate owners alike, they were forced to sell the contents of Kilkenny Castle.
The catalogue lists 3,036 lots, amounting to a little over 4,000 items, interspersed throughout are plates, featuring prominent items from the auction. Over 600 lots alone from the catalogue include the contents of the library. A visitor to the second day of the auction described stepping into the entrance hall,
‘Immediately you have crossed the threshold of the main door, you are reminded of its associations through centuries, heartbreaking and painful for the native Irish and not uneventful for the castle’s inhabitants. The castle is filled in its every nook and cranny with beautiful pieces from many periods.’
The Picture Gallery
The Picture Gallery, photographed in the catalogue features significant pieces of art of international importance, the picture collection is a story of acquisition and sales, collection and dispersal, spread over four centuries. The story can be told in four phases: acquisition in the seventeenth century, sales in the eighteenth, followed by a period of improving fortunes leading to more acquisitions, and finally, in the twentieth century, a final sale and partial recovery.
As early as the 16th century, the Ormonde family were important patrons of the arts, when James Butler 9th Earl (1504-46) commissioned his portrait from Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the greatest portraitists of the time at the court of Henry VII. The 17th century ducal collection was the largest and finest of its time in Ireland, numbering over 500 paintings, 200 tapestries, oriental furniture, silver, and objects d’art.
During the nineteenth century the collection in this gallery consisted of 184 paintings, today there are 49 hanging. The nineteenth century list shows that paintings on display were comprised of almost equal numbers of portraits (98), the rest (86) divided amongst subject painting, landscapes, and religious pictures. Today there are 36 portraits on display.
From examining this catalogue, it certainly places the Butler family as one Ireland’s most important collectors of fine art, furniture, silver and tapestries and Kilkenny Castle a key component in Ireland’s art-historical heritage.
The collection of country house sale catalogues is available for consultation to researchers, please contact the OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre for details.