The story is set amongst the Irish nobility and gentry of the late 18th century. The characters include an Earl and a young servant girl with whom the Earl falls in love. Defying social convention, the young couple become a pair and live happily in a country house where they raise several children.
Upon his death, the Earl is succeeded by a young son, a bit of rake in his adolescence, but now ready to assume the Earldom. But hold. A distant cousin appears on the scene who contends that he, not the young son, is the rightful Earl. The pretender claims that the young Earl is disqualified from the title on the grounds that he was born out of wedlock.
Sounds like a romance novel or TV miniseries? Nonetheless, these events actually happened and they gave rise to a dramatic trial in the Irish House of Lords in 1792 and 1793 to determine the rightful 11th Earl of Roscommon. And as the transcript of the Roscommon Peerage Trial reveals, the MacDermot Roe family played a crucial role in the outcome of the dispute.
The late Earl was John Dillon (1720-1782), the 10th Earl of Roscommon. His son and heir to the Earldom was Patrick Dillon. Patrick's challenger was his cousin Robert Dillon of Rath, Kings County. The key issue to be determined by the House of Lords was whether Patrick's parents were wedded at the time of Patrick's birth in1769. If the court found that there had been no wedding, as alleged by Robert Dillon, Patrick would have been disqualified form the earldom and the title would have passed to Robert, the nearest male relation.
First, here's some background on the Dillon's, how they became Earls and how they came to have a close relationship with the MacDermots Roe ---
The Dillon's, British Celts who settled Brittany, France, arrived in Ireland in 1185 with Prince John. They established themselves as Irish nobles - first in Westmeath and later in Roscommon and Mayo. The two most important titles associated with the family were Viscount of Costello-Gallon in Mayo and Earl of Roscommon. These titles were created in March 16, 1621 and August 5, 1622 respectively and can be traced in Dillon pedigrees at the National Library of Ireland.
Due to primogeniture and the lack of male heirs, the succession
to the Earldom of Roscommon zigzagged from one Dillon branch
to another. John Dillon descended from James Dillon, 1st Earl
of Roscommon through James' second son Lucas. Lucas was transplanted
by Cromwell from Westmeath to Toomore, Aughrim Civil Parish,
Although Patrick Dillon was not the Earl of Roscommon when he died at Knockranny in 1745, the Earldom passed to his sons when the Dillon branch that held the title went extinct in the male line. In 1770 the Earldom passed to John, (1720-1782), Patrick's youngest son as the older sons all died without male issue. Despite becoming Earl, John did not take his seat in the Irish House of Lords because he refused to renounce his Catholic faith.
John Dillon first married Catherine daughter of Edward Fallon,
of Kye, Co. Roscommon near Ballintober. John and Catherine had
three daughters: Margaret who married Lawrence Manion, Dymphna
who married a Hanley and Helen who married Matthew Manning. Following
Catherine's death, John moved back to Knockranny to live with
a niece, Dymphna McDonnell, the daughter of his sister Christine
who was married to Edward McDonnell.
John and Bridget Dillon were a part of a small circle of gentry in Kilronan Parish. The testimony of several witnesses including Henry MacDermot Roe's butler, David Glynn, and Charles MacDermot Roe, Henry's brother, show that among Lord and Lady Dillon's closest friends were the MacDermots Roe of Mount Allen. This family then included Henry, his brother Charles, his sister Mary and their Elinor O'Conor MacDermot Roe widow of Charles of Alderford, d. 1759. Elinor and her children lived a various places in Kilronan Parish following her eviction from Alderford by her Protestant brother-in-law, John MacDermot Roe, after the death in 1759 of her husband Charles.
It was conceded that John and Bridget were not married at the time they set up house in Carrownanalt. However, did they marry at a latter date? Is so when? Young Patrick Dillon had to show that a marriage occurred and that it took place before his birth in 1769.
The Roscommon Peerage Trial began in the Irish House of Lords
in February 1792. Robert Dillon presented his case, relying in
large part on the testimony of Margaret Manion, John Dillon's
daughter from his first marriage. She and other witnesses opposed
to John's relationship with Bridget testified that no marriage
had taken place. Their testimony carried considerable weight
and it does not appear that Patrick put in a strong case.
In period between the two hearings, it is clear that the MacDermots
Roe decided to actively support Patrick's claim to be the 11th
earl of Roscommon. The trial transcript suggests various members
of the family and an important family servant worked with Patrick's
attorney to prepare for the March 1793 trial. When the trial
date came, they appeared as witnesses provided and critical testimony
in the House of Lords on Patrick's behalf.
Twenty seven years had passed since the small wedding of John and Bridget at Carrownanalt. Were there any guests to the wedding still around who could testify?
Fortunately for Patrick Dillon, there was one. He was John
MacDermot Roe, a
John MacDermot Roe, also, testified that he often dined at the Dillon house and that Bridget was called Mrs. Dillon. He said that after John Dillon became the 10th earl of Roscommon in 1770, Bridget was called Lady Dillon. He added that John Dillon always acknowledged Bridget as his wife and considered Patrick his lawful son.
In his testimony in House of Lords, Charles MacDermotRoe, Elinor's son, also, stated unequivocally that John and Bridget were husband and wife. Like Glynn, Charles stated that in his frequent visits to the Dillon house, John referred to Bridget as Mrs. Dillon or Lady Dillon. The earl, also, told Charles that "he was very happy a being married to her happier than to be with his Relations." The last remark suggests why the rest of John Dillon's close family sought to scuttle young Patrick's inheritance of the earldom.
A recurring theme of the witnesses is that John and Bridget Dillon were frequent guests that the home of Elinor MacDermot Roe and her sons Charles and Henry. Glynn stated that he often served the Earl and his wife at the MacDermot Roe house. Witness William Coultard, a friend of Henry MacDermot Roe's and the second husband of Henry's sister Mary, also mentioned seeing the Dillon's at Elinor's house. Patrick O'Connor, a friend of Henry, stated that Henry introduced him to Lord and Lady Dillon and that he often dined with them at the MacDermot Roe house.
It would appear that the MacDermot Roe's support for Patrick's
case went further than appearing as witnesses on his behalf.
In his testimony, Charles MacDermot Roe states that Patrick and
his attorneys stayed at his house during the March 1793 hearing.
Charles apparently split his time between his mother's home in
Kilronan Parish and another home in Summerhill, neighborhood
of Dublin. Additionally, Glynn stated that he spoke with Henry
MacDermot Roe before testifying.
Fortunately, the transcript of the proceedings in Dublin in
the House of Lords on March 6, 9 and 30, 1792 and February 4,
12, 14 and 15, 1793 was preserved and sent to London after the
1800 Act of Union which merged the Irish House of Lords with
the House of Lords of Great Britain. The transcript was later
published as part of the record in an 1823 trial in the British
House of Lords in the dispute over the succession to the Earldom
of Roscommon between cousins Michael James Robert Dillon and
Francis Stephen Dillon which followed Patrick Dillon's death.
House of Lords. Roscommon Peerage Case. Peerage Claims, Volume II. British House of Lords Records Office, London, England.
Dillon Pedigrees GOMs 172, pp 52-91 and GOMs 170, pp 271-299,
National Library, Dublin, Ireland