Esmonde, Sir Thomas Henry Grattan (1862–1935), 11th baronet, landowner and politician, was born 21 September 1862 at Pau, France, the eldest of seven children of Sir John Esmonde (d. 1876), a liberal MP and tenth holder of a baronetcy created in 1628, and Louisa Esmonde (d. 1880), daughter of Henry Grattan Jr (qv), MP.
Family background and early years
Esmonde's maternal great-grandfather was the famous Henry Grattan (qv), whom he physically resembled; he was also descended from the United Irishman John Esmonde (qv), hanged in 1798. The family had a strong military tradition: one ancestor fought under Gustavus Adolphus, another served under Prince Eugene of Savoy, and an uncle, another Thomas Esmonde (d. 1873), won the Victoria Cross in the Crimean war and became inspector general of the RIC. In 1876 the Esmondes owned over 8,000 acres in Wexford, Wicklow, Queen's County, Tipperary, Longford, Kilkenny, and Waterford, including their country seat, Ballynastragh, near Gorey.
Esmonde was brought up mainly in France (he prided himself on his fluency in French) before attending Oscott College, Birmingham. At the age of twelve he shot his first deer and attended the unveiling of the Grattan statue on College Green, Dublin, where he received an ovation. His nationalist views are said to have been shaped by Canon O'Neill, parish priest of Killanerin, who was one of his guardians and was later active in the Plan of Campaign. Esmonde was a lieutenant in the sixth brigade of the South Irish (Waterford) division royal artillery militia (1880–86).
Esmonde first attracted public attention in the early 1880s by making speeches in support of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), which earned him considerable unpopularity among his fellow landlords. In 1885 he was elected home rule MP for Dublin County South (which had been widely expected to be won by the unionist candidate), becoming the youngest member of the house of commons. In 1887 he was deposed as high sheriff of Waterford for nominating a sub-sheriff whose nationalist views the unionist government found unacceptable; in the same year he participated in resisting the eviction of tenants on a Plan of Campaign estate at Coolgreany, Co. Wexford. He subsequently went on fund-raising tours to America (1888) and to South Africa, Australasia, and California (1890). His account of the latter trip was published as Around the world with the Irish delegates (1892); he took time en route to pay brief visits to Samoa, where he befriended the chieftain of Upolu, George Liapaai Tuletefuga, and encountered Robert Louis Stevenson. Throughout his life Esmonde was an enthusiastic traveller, fisherman – his enduring friendship with Father Thomas Finlay ((qv) d. 1940) revolved around the pursuit of Slaney salmon – and big-game hunter; he presented several specimens to the Dublin Natural History Museum and was proud of his friendship with Buffalo Bill Cody. One obituarist called him the most widely travelled Irishman of his generation.
Politics and other interests
Esmonde was an anti-Parnellite, and in 1892 lost his South Dublin seat on a divided nationalist vote (coming third to the victorious unionist and a Parnellite). In the same general election he was returned for West Kerry, which he represented until 1900. Because of his social standing, catholicism, and descent from Grattan, Esmonde had been spoken of as a potential successor to Parnell even before the split in 1890. In the factional rivalries of the following decade he was generally aligned with T. M. Healy (qv) against John Dillon (qv), and in 1899 was put forward by the Healyites as their candidate for the chairmanship of the anti-Parnellites against Dillon; however, Esmonde maintained some distance from the core group of Healyite loyalists and was generally regarded as one of the group of waverers whose vacillations made it impossible for either Healy or Dillon to gain sufficient control over the party to expel their rivals. He became a chief whip even as other Healyites were being driven from positions of influence in the parliamentary party; he appears to have possessed the ability to make himself well liked even among political opponents, and was regarded as an accomplished parliamentary speaker.
Esmonde's catholic credentials were reinforced in 1898 when he was appointed chamberlain of the Vatican household, an honorary title widely distributed among wealthy and upper-class catholics at this period, which involved regular though brief visits to the Vatican and the performance of nominal services to the pope in person. He held this position under four popes, rising to the position of a senior privy chamberlain of the sword and cape. In 1908, when an Irish ‘langue’ (national branch) of the papal Order of the Holy Sepulchre was established, Esmonde became its head with the rank of knight grand cross. In this capacity he took a prominent role in the 1932 Dublin Eucharistic Congress. As a papal chamberlain he participated in the ceremonies surrounding the beatification of Irish martyrs and the elevation of Archbishop Joseph MacRory (qv) of Armagh to the cardinalate in 1929. He enjoyed the lifelong privilege of maintaining a private chapel in his house.
Esmonde played an important part in the Wexford commemorations of the centenary of the 1798 rising, chairing monument committees at Enniscorthy and Gorey (where he was principal speaker at the unveiling of the monument, leading a horseback procession through the town) and emphasising his descent from the martyred John Esmonde. He wished to place the Enniscorthy monument on Vinegar Hill, but this was forbidden by the earl of Portsmouth, who then owned the site.
In 1899 Esmonde seized on the implications of the extension of Irish local government and, in association with John Sweetman (qv), established the General Council of County Councils (GCCC) as a delegate body, where representatives of the new councils could discuss and coordinate matters of common concern. He was also a commissioner of appeal under the Local Government Act. First chairman of Wexford county council (1899–1909), Esmomde also became first chairman of the GCCC, with Sweetman as his deputy. The possibility that this body might become the nucleus of an Irish provisional government was noted both by concerned bureaucrats in Dublin castle and by the nascent Sinn Féin movement of Arthur Griffith (qv). Esmonde's interest in Sinn Féin was signalled by his role as co-founder and financial backer of the Enniscorthy Echo in association with the Griffithite William Sears (qv), who made it the first local paper unequivocally to endorse Sinn Féin.
Esmonde managed to escape the purge of Healyite MPs orchestrated by William O'Brien (qv) and his United Irish League in 1900 by switching his allegiance to the new movement. In the 1900 general election he unseated Healy's brother Thomas in the North Wexford constituency. (He was also returned for West Kerry but chose to vacate that seat.) Esmonde became chief whip of the reunited party, but aroused some suspicion because of his perceived ambitions and maintenance of an independent power base in the GCCC. The party leadership asserted its authority over the GCCC by getting it to pass a resolution endorsing home rule in the teeth of opposition from Esmonde, who wished it to remain non-political and (accurately) foresaw that such a motion would be followed by the instant withdrawal of the councils controlled by Ulster unionists.
Esmonde was a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, in whose journal he occasionally published. In 1903 he successfully spearheaded a campaign to secure the ‘Broighter hoard’ of Irish gold ornaments found near Limavady for the NMI rather than letting it go to the British Museum. Esmonde was also vice-president of the American Irish Historical Society, to which he presented the original death mask of Wolfe Tone (qv).
After the 1907 debacle of the Irish Council Bill, Esmonde and the Leitrim MP C. J. Dolan (qv) together joined Sinn Féin and withdrew from Westminster. The IPP responded by deposing Esmonde and Sweetman, who was now vice-president of Sinn Féin, from their GCCC positions and mounting a speaking campaign in Wexford spearheaded by John Redmond (qv). Esmonde's principal contribution to the Sinn Féin movement was the fund-raising device of selling postage stamps which Sinn Féin supporters bought and attached to their letters in addition to those required by law. (D. P. Moran (qv) thereafter referred to Esmonde as ‘the inventor of the Toy Stamp’.) Unlike Dolan, Esmonde decided against resigning his seat, and returned to the Irish Party as part of the gesture of national reconciliation, which also included the short-lived return of William O'Brien, T. M. Healy, and their followers. As part of the reunion Esmonde distanced himself from the Enniscorthy Echo, though he may have maintained a stake in it.
On retiring as chairman in 1909, Esmonde presented Wexford county council with its official seal, which is still in use. Thereafter he was a relatively inactive county councillor, though he retained his membership until 1920 (he was elected unopposed in 1911 and 1914 as a gesture of respect). He was also chairman of the Gorey poor law guardians (1898–1918) and of Arklow harbour board (1900–15). As a constituency MP Esmonde was regarded as highly effective, using his directorships of the National Bank (of whose Irish board he remained chairman until 1933) and the Dublin and South-Eastern Railway to strengthen his local political base by helping constituents to get jobs for their sons. In the years before the first world war he lobbied for the government to develop Courtown harbour for shipping; he won the support of Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell (qv) (whom he regarded as a friend) but was frustrated in the achievement of his purpose by the outbreak of the war. During the debates on the Third Home Rule Bill, Esmonde's younger son, John, joined the navy as a midshipman. This reflected the family's military traditions, but some opponents contrasted his act of patriotism with his father's earlier allegiance to Sinn Féin. John Esmonde was killed at the battle of Jutland in 1916.
Esmonde remained MP for North Wexford until 1918, when he was defeated by the Sinn Féin candidate, Roger Sweetman (1874–1954). Esmonde, who was JP and DL for Co. Wexford, resigned these positions in protest against the detention of Terence MacSwiney (qv) in August 1920. On the establishment of the Irish Free State, he was admitted to the Kildare Street Club, which had previously excluded him because of his nationalist politics. In December 1922 he was nominated to the Free State senate, and remained a member until 1934 (though his attendance was infrequent because of ill health). At the senate's opening meeting he spoke of the Free State as fulfilling the hopes of his ancestor Grattan; he lobbied unsuccessfully for the oireachtas to be moved to the old Parliament House in College Green.
On 9 March 1923 Ballynastragh House was burned down by anti-treaty republicans as part of their campaign aimed at forcing senators to resign. This resulted in the loss of many valuable historical relics and a large and irreplaceable archive containing significant material on the Esmonde family's history and role in Irish politics from the sixteenth century; the historian and nationalist Alice Stopford Green (qv) mourned its destruction as a disaster comparable to that of the state paper office. The losses would have been greater still had not the family art collection been removed from the house a few days before the fire. In 1926 Esmonde published a rhapsodic account of his family's history and a mournful description of the lost mansion entitled Gentlemen! The queen! under the pseudonym ‘A. Norman’. The book's title refers to a toast in honour of the family's service to the seventeenth-century Queen Christina of Sweden.
On 21 July 1891 Esmonde married Alice Barbara Donovan (d. 5 December 1922), daughter of Patrick Donovan of Frogmore, Tralee, Co. Kerry. They had two sons (the elder of whom was the TD and diplomat Sir Osmond Thomas Grattan Esmonde (qv)) and three daughters. Although Esmonde was deeply saddened by the loss of his wife and son, political defeat, and the destruction of Ballynastragh, his last years were consoled by a second marriage, on 22 September 1924 to Anna Francis Levins, portrait painter (d. 15 July 1941), daughter of Peter Levins, architect, of Mount Hope (New York) and Drogheda; she painted many portraits of American catholic bishops. Until his health began to fail, Esmonde went on annual large-scale hunting expeditions to Canada, in which Anna accompanied him, and she assisted him in preparing books for publication, some of which were issued with her illustrations under a private imprint, the Levins Press. These works included a collection of articles (some from The Field, the Irish Independent, and the Newfoundland Journal) entitled Hunting memories of many lands (1920, rev. ed. 1925), a catalogue of the family art collection, and More hunting memories (1930). In 1929 Lady Esmonde bought a small estate at Farmleigh, near Scarawalsh, where her husband could enjoy the Slaney fishing; Ballynastragh was not fully rebuilt until 1936.
Esmonde's late writings, with their self-consciously elegiac tone and emphasis on hunting, shooting, and fishing, should not lead to an underestimate of his abilities in his prime. While undoubtedly assisted by his background and descent, he appears to have been a highly competent administrator and businessman, though lacking the ultimate degree of ability or determination needed to force his way into the front rank of Irish political leadership. After a prolonged illness, he died 15 September 1935 at his Dublin home, Grattan House, 84 St Stephen's Green, leaving an estate valued at £26,933. After the death of Sir Osmond in 1936 without issue, the baronetcy passed to a junior branch of the family descended from one of Esmonde's uncles, which remained prominent in Wexford Fine Gael politics until 1977.