A bit of welly: the Iron Duke’s Irishness
Is Ireland ready to accept the duke as one of its own?
Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), known as the ‘Iron Duke’. Image: Hulton Archive
The Wellington Monument in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
‘Some old duke with a name like a boot.” Everyone’s heard of the Duke of Wellington but he’s in danger of being remembered more for his footwear than as a towering figure of 19th-century military and political life.
The original wellies were made of leather – bespoke calfskin commissioned by the duke from his London shoemaker – and the subsequent switch to rubber by manufacturers transformed life for farmers and other outdoor types. But Wellington’s inadvertent invention is, indeed, a mere footnote to an extraordinary life.
He is revered in Britain for leading the country to victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and at first glance the title of a conference to be held in Kells, Co Meath, this Friday and Saturday – The Irishness of the Hon Arthur Wesley, First Duke of Wellington – sounds as improbable as exploring the Offaly roots of a black US president.
But the Duke of Wellington was “one of us”. Daniel O’Connell famously quipped: “He is not an Irishman. He was born in Ireland; but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.”
He was born Arthur Wesley in May 1769, reputedly in a townhouse that is now Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. Much of his childhood was spent at Dangan Castle in Co Meath, and he attended Eton.
MP for Trim
He later joined the British army – in Ireland – and dabbled in politics, becoming the MP for Trim, Co Meath, in the old Irish House of Commons. After the Act of Union, he served a term as chief secretary for Ireland.
He changed the spelling of his surname to Wellesley and married Kitty Pakenham – daughter of the First Baron Longford – in Dublin in 1810. They had two sons but an unhappy marriage. His interest in Irish politics waned and he, instead, pursued a glittering army career – in India, the Iberian peninsular war and Waterloo. He was ennobled, in 1814, with a hereditary peerage as the First Duke of Wellington, and later became commander-in-chief of the British army and prime minister in 1828.
He succeeded in legislating for Catholic emancipation despite widespread opposition, which prompted mobs to attack his Apsley House residence and earned him the nickname “the Iron Duke”. He died in 1852 and was given a state funeral.
Although the perception here of his legacy changed following independence, he was once a hero in Ireland too, at any rate in establishment circles. Visible reminders include one of Dublin’s most prominent structures – the huge Egyptian-style obelisk Wellington Monument, erected in his honour, and street names such as Dublin 4’s Wellington and Waterloo roads.
The conference is a collaboration between Trinity College Dublin academics and Kells Town Council. Its aim is to rekindle interest in a man who has been “completely forgotten in Ireland” in the words of Dr Gerald Morgan of Trinity College, one of the joint organisers and a keynote speaker at the event.
The conference, which is open to the public, features talks by academics and historians from both sides of the Irish Sea, and includes a visit to nearby Trim, where a Wellington Column still bears witness in hitherto stony silence.
The Irishness of the Hon Arthur Wesley, First Duke of Wellington takes place on Friday and Saturday at the St Vincent de Paul Theatre, Kells, Co Meath. meath.ie/ tourism/eventsandfestivals