The families who owned Glendalough House saw fascinating times. Author, lecturer and genealogist Seán Murphy of Windgates in Bray recently delivered an illuminating lecture on them to the Kilmacanogue Historical Society. This is the full text of his talk
THE BARTONS trace their Irish origins to Thomas Barton, an Elizabethan soldier who settled in Ulster in the late sixteenth century. The family prospered in succeeding centuries, establishing branches in Counties Fermanagh, Donegal, Kildare, Tipperary and Wicklow.
‘French Tom’ Barton laid the basis of the family’s involvement in the Bordeaux wine trade in the 1720s, which continues to this day.
In the 1830s, Thomas Johnson Barton, son of Hugh Barton of Straffan, purchased the Glendalough or Drummin estate near Annamoe, which had formerly been owned by the Hugos.
While the Bartons were a typical conservative Protestant gentry family, we will see that one member, Robert Barton, became an Irish republican.
The Childerses were a Yorkshire gentry family which established an Irish connection in the late 19th century, through marriage ties with the Bartons of Glendalough House.
The oriental scholar Robert Caesar Childers married Anna Maria Barton, daughter of Thomas Johnson Barton, while his sister Agnes Alexandra Childers married Anna Maria’s brother Charles William Barton.
Tragically, both Robert Caesar and Anna Maria would die of tuberculosis, leaving five young children, Henry Caesar, Robert Erskine (known as Erskine), Sybil, Dulcibella and Constance. The Bartons generously took the youngsters to Ireland to live with them at Glendalough House.
Like his double first cousin Robert Barton, Erskine Childers would be converted to the Irish national cause.
Having secured a degree from Cambridge University in 1893, Erskine Childers entered the British civil service as an administrator in the House of Commons. At this stage he was completely attached to the imperial ideal and volunteered for military service during the Boer War.
In 1903 Childers published ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, which warned against the developing German naval threat to Britain and has been dubbed ‘the first spy novel’.
Childers married Mary Alden ‘Molly’ Osgood, a member of a prominent Boston family.
Indicating a growing radicalisation, Childers supported Home Rule and in 1914 was involved with Molly in the Howth gun running using their yacht the Asgard, a gift from Molly’s father.
When World War I broke out Childers felt obliged to join the war against Germany, serving in British naval intelligence. Robert Barton also fought in the war, in which two of his brothers, Charles and Thomas, died.
After the war Childers’s political transformation quickened and with his cousin Robert Barton he moved to support the struggle for an Irish republic free of British rule.
During the War of Independence in 1919-21, Childers was an extremely effective propagandist for the republican cause, even though he was suspected by some on account of his background.
Barton and Childers were key participants in the negotiations leading up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Barton was one of the Irish delegates who signed the Treaty under a threat of renewed war from the British, but joined Éamon de Valera in opposing the agreement when he returned to Ireland.
Childers, who was secretary to the Irish delegation, strongly opposed the agreement on the grounds that it conceded too much continuing British influence in Ireland, but was unable to persuade his colleagues not to sign it. Civil War ensued in Ireland, with Michael Collins leading the pro-Treaty Free State government and Éamon de Valera leading the anti-Treaty republicans. Both Childers and Barton took the republican side, and found themselves targets of the new government.
Childers had the misfortune to be captured by Free State forces during a secret visit to Glendalough House in November 1922. Because he was found in possession of a small gun, a gift it is said from Collins, Childers was sentenced to death by a military court under emergency powers and executed by firing squad in Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin on November 24, 1922.
While not permitted to see his wife Molly before his death, Childers was allowed to speak to his son Erskine junior, the future President of Ireland. Childers asked his son to forgive those responsible for his death, as he had forgiven them, and secondly to promise that if he entered politics he would not speak about his father’s execution in public.
As the centenary of the Civil War approaches, we should keep these words in mind, notwithstanding the duty of historians to attempt balanced historical reappraisal.
Childers’s widow Molly remained devoted to his memory and died in 1964.
The allegation against Childers of being a British spy while posing as an Irish republican is not supported by evidence. Similarly, a recent attempt to cast Childers’s wife Molly as a British agent is wide of the mark and a taint on the memory of a family which has sacrificed much in service to the nation.
Robert Barton left active politics when the Civil War ended in 1923, but later supported de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party. As well as continuing to manage the Glendalough House estate, Barton took an active business role in his later years, serving with the Agricultural Credit Corporation, Bord na Móna and the Hospitals Trust Board.
Late in life Barton married Rachel Warren of Boston, whose mother Gretchen was a sister of Molly Childers.
Gretchen and Rachel were famously painted in a joint portrait by the artist John Singer Sargent in 1903.
Rachel had earlier been married to the archaeologist Samuel K Lothrop and both had served as US intelligence agents against German activities in South America during WWI.
Rachel Barton died in 1972 while her husband Robert Barton passed away in 1975. Glendalough House then passed to a member of the Childers family and was later sold.
Today, Glendalough House and its 1,500-acre estate operate as a hospitality, leisure and corporate venue. Set in a beautiful mountainous part of Wicklow, Glendalough House is truly one of Ireland’s most historic dwellings, and will always bring to mind the national roles of members of the Barton and Childers families.
LEFT: Erskine Childers Snr. ABOVE: Glendalough House, Annamoe, before later alterations. RIGHT: John Singer Sargent’s famous painting of 1903.
LEFT: A modern bottle of Château Langoa-Barton, on which can be seen a version of the Barton coat of arms.