Toler-Aylward treasures on view at Rothe House

Last week costumes, part of the Toler-Aylward Collection which was given to The Kilkenny Archaeological Society about twenty-two years ago by the sisters, Misses Maura, Jill (Mrs. Douad) and Nicky Toler-Aylward went on view at Rothe House, after a number of years in storage.

Last week costumes, part of the Toler-Aylward Collection which was given to The Kilkenny Archaeological Society about twenty-two years ago by the sisters, Misses Maura, Jill (Mrs. Douad) and Nicky Toler-Aylward went on view at Rothe House, after a number of years in storage.

The family have a long history in Kilkenny. By the 1550s they were living at Aylwardstown near Glenmore, which place was lost to them by order of Cromwell and like their cousins the Fitzgeralds of Gurteen, they were banished to Connaught, hence the phrase ‘To Hell or to Connaught’. It is not clear if Nicholas Aylward and his wife, Ellen daughter of James Keally of Gowran (that family’s lovely tomb survives in a mortuary chapel in the old Gowran pre-Reformation parish church) did go west; they may simply have laid low until better times. The couples’ son Peter Aylward made a fortunate marriage to Elizabeth Butler, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Sir Richard Butler of Polestown, which brought the family to Paulstown.

It was a joy to see these millinery treasures again, which had been part of a trousseau assembled for an heiress bride in 1894. Emily Butler (b. Dublin, 1853) came to Shankill Castle, Paulstown upon her marriage to Hector J.C. Toler-Aylward. The couple were to have two sons: Hector James (b. 1895) and Victor George (b. 1897) who as very young men enlisted, fought and survived the Great War. Hector , the older son who inherited Shankill, married Miss Zinna Ethel Knox of Greenwood Park, Crossmolina, Co. Mayo and were the parents of the donors.

In the early 1990s the Toler-Aylwards took the difficult decision to sell Shankill Castle and move to a new house on the site of the old laundry in the demesne. Items such as the clothes of bygone generations, most of which had been carefully packed away in trunks in the attics for years were brought forth and their future decided. Rumour has it too that one item, a beautiful gents’waistcoat had been used to stuff a chair seat. The Toler-Aylward sisters, though aware of the monetary value of the collection, decided that a home for these artefacts must be found if at all possible in Kilkenny, and so it came to pass that they were given to The Kilkenny Archaeological Society. The late Mrs. Sally Fitzmaurice, the then Hon. Curator received the clothes with joy and plans were quickly made to put them on exhibition in the Middle House, of John Rothe (built c. 1594) which was officially launched by Mrs. Mary Robinson, the President of Ireland. Ms. Mairead Johnson, a well-known costume and textile expert advised then and now.

Mrs. Rosemary Barnes the current Hon. Curator and her associates at Rothe House are to be congratulated on their curatorial skills. The costumes glow and invite admiration both of the materials and of the skill involved in their creation and presentation. One gazes in wonder at the tiny waist seizes. Some of these dresses must have been worn at the festivities at Kilkenny Castle to welcome the Duke and Duchess of York – later George V and his wife, Queen Mary – to Kilkenny in 1899, and again in 1904 when Edward VII and his wife, Alexandra, paid a private visit to the Ormondes.

Also on show are some of the associated artefacts such as silver thimbles, ivory backed clothes and hair brushes, minute items of dress which have long gone from every day use. These items are all beautifully and clearly labelled and repay close attention. Nearby hangs a portrait of the bride and her father, James Butler of Verona, Monkstown, Dublin.

Other treasures

Other treasures include the stunning Berlin painted portrait of Miss Fanny Power of Kilfane, Thomastown. Fanny wears a stunning shimmering silk dress while her hair has I think a tiara of flowers or one of the then very fashionable Berlin-iron-work tiaras. Another portrait is that of the Kilkenny-born Councillor Bibby, of the 1790s, which was painted by George Lawrence of Dublin. Bibby was not Lawrence’s only Kilkenny sitter and it is known that he did at least two portraits of the dowager countess of Carrick from Mt. Juliet.

Another great treasure is the Grattan-Bellew (Mt. Loftus) gift of a gentleman’s court dress of the 1770s or 1780s. This gentleman’s coat was probably worn at some of the viceregal court functions at Dublin Castle. It may even have made it across the sea to the court of George 111.

Hazel, Lady Lavery, by her husband Sir John Lavery, could take us forward into the twentieth century, while the miniature studies of the Bibby children (again in storage) would also add to the interest of the present exhibition and give to-day’s children some idea of what their late eighteenth-century forebears had to wear. It is clear that the Hon. Curator knows what she is about. Congratulations to all involved with the exhibition.

The food too served at the reception was a delight, a pure gastric pleasure – I would readily do murder for another slice of that ham and stilton pie!