Aristocratic Women in Ireland, 1450-1660

While the lives and roles of aristocratic women have enjoyed closer attention of late, the same women of Ireland have been largely overlooked – until now. Damien Duffy introduces us to the themes of his new book, a major contribution to our understanding of the changing lives, roles and positions of women in the country’s elite families.

My book explores a very under-researched aspect of Irish history – the lives of aristocratic Anglo-Irish women and their evolving roles in dynastic histories during the transition from the late medieval to the early modern eras. Beyond Ireland, this has been a fruitful field of research with historians including Theodore Evergates, through his work on aristocratic women in medieval France and Barbara J. Harris in her work on English aristocratic women, demonstrating the viability and importance of scholarly examination of this élite cohort. As in France and England, in Ireland many aristocratic Anglo-Irish women made significant contributions to the domestic, communal, economic, financial, political, cultural, and confessional affairs of their dynasty, their patrimony and the lordship/kingdom of Ireland in general. For the first time, this book will therefore bring a new understanding of Anglo-Irish aristocratic women through an in-depth exploration of the lives of the Ormond women. The family surname name for members of the Ormond dynasty was Butler and the family seat was at Kilkenny Castle in Kilkenny city. The Butlers of Ormond, like the Fitzgeralds of Kildare, were in many ways like the Royal family of Ireland.  

The lives of these women are the subject of a focussed, integrated study, through which the evolving positions and roles of Anglo-Irish aristocratic women in general are elucidated. My book, therefore, addresses a significant lacuna in Irish historiography and makes a substantial contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this transitional period in Irish history.

It assesses the significance of marital and non-marital alliances contracted by successive earls of Ormond, in the main (but not always) for the advancement of their dynastic interests, with particular reference to their impact on the political influence, landed estate holdings, relations with rival families, and internal stability of the House of Ormond. It highlights and assesses the contributions made by the Ormond women individually and collectively in both the domestic and public spheres within the orbit of the Ormond territories in their capacities as countesses, wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, sisters and perhaps most importantly of all, as widows. It demonstrates how the personalities, familial connections, dowries, agendas, tastes, and interests of each of these individual women left a distinct imprint on the family and its reputation in the Ormond territory, in Ireland and beyond. It demonstrates these women’s aptitude for drawing upon the legal system, government authorities and the Crown in contesting and defending their individual rights to dynastic properties, securing legitimate succession, exacting tribute and punishment, and lobbying on behalf of their husbands and other male relatives. It traces how the domestic, social, economic and political roles played by these women evolved across generations during this period, gauging how instrumental individual women were in redefining those roles, and assesses the degree to which their outlooks and behaviours reflected changes experienced by Anglo-Irish aristocratic women more generally, as well as among their peers in England and Continental Europe.

The book contextualises these women not just within the history of the Butler family but also within their wider roles and backgrounds. It analyses how the Ormond women balanced their public, private and political positions in the context of medieval and early modern Irish society. It also examines how these aristocratic women developed, expanded, and amassed the Butler estates and earldom as they juggled between family, politics, marriage, and childrearing.

It is underpinned throughout by an assessment of their individual and collective significance in negotiating the preservation and advancement of that dynasty’s political, landed, economic, social and confessional interests, from the chronic instability of the Wars of the Roses, through the vicissitudes of the Tudor, Stuart, Commonwealth and Restoration eras. In gauging the relative significance of the Ormond women’s experiences and contributions, their roles in both private dynastic and wider public circles are explored within the wider interpretative context of aristocratic families elsewhere in Ireland, England, and France.

The cross-generational approach allows for a chronological and comparative examination of all aspects of each of these women’s lives, roles and contributions which is intimately intertwined with analysis of the wider Butler family’s changing political fortunes, succession challenges, shifting dynastic alliances, and financial difficulties over the course of two centuries of profound change and periodic upheaval in Ireland.


This guest post was written by Damien Duffy, in-house archivist at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara Co Galway.

Aristocratic Women in Ireland, 1450-1660
By Damien Duffy
9781783275939, Hardcover, £48.75 or $78