Turtle Bunbury

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Barton of Straffan House, Co. Kildare

In 1641, the fate of the wine-producing Barton dynasty lay with a small boy, left naked on a snow-blitzed island, beside the corpse of his murdered father. During the 1720s, the boys grandson “French Tom” Barton migrated to France and purchased the first of the family vineyards in Bordeaux. His heirs survived the ravages of the French revolution intact and by 1820, the Barton & Guestier clarets were being exported worldwide. Hugh Barton acquired Straffan House from the Henry family in 1831 and his descendents remained there until the 1960s. After thirty years of mixed and eventful ownership, the house formed the backbone to the world famous K-Club for thirty years before it was sold to become a nursing home in 2019. The Barton family continue to produce wine at Chateaux Langoa and Leoville Barton in France.

On 26th March 1599, the citizens of London gathered along the banks of the Thames to give full cheer to an enormous army bound for Ireland the following day. At the head of this army was the newly appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, the 2nd Earl of Essex. A tremendous favourite of Queen Elizabeth, Essex had at his disposal 1300 cavalry, 16,000 foot soldiers and 2000 veterans of the Dutch wars. It was, in fact, the largest army ever sent to Ireland, larger even than that which accompanied King Richard II in his bid to rout Art MacMurrough two centuries earlier. As Essex acknowledged the cheers, a terrible and ominous thunderstorm exploded across the sky, forcing the crowd to disperse in haste. The Irish campaign would run on for two disastrous years before Essex was summoned back to London and beheaded.

Amongst those soldiers who assembled in London on that stormy Spring afternoon was Thomas Barton, a young Protestant from Lancashire. Thomas seems to have done well in Ireland for, nearly ten years later, he was rewarded for his services with 1000 acres in the Barony of Lurg, County Fermanagh. When the Borough of Enniskillen received it's royal charter in 1612-1613, Thomas was one of the first Burgesses of the town. He built a stone house, two stories high, with a high wall around it, on the summit of Rosclare Hilltop near Kesh.

Ireland in the mid-17th century was a desperately unhappy land. With religious divisions ever deepening throughout Europe, it was inevitable that a people so predominantly Catholic would be plunged into further conflict. During the 1630s, Thomas’s son Anthony sold the Barton lands to Sir Gerard Lowther and relocated the family to Boa Island, a Blennerhasset property at the northern end of Lower Lough Erne.[1] Here they most likely settled down to a life of fishing and farming. However, in the ice-cold winter of 1641, the Irish Catholics launched what might be called a pre-emptive strike against the Protestants in Ulster. 12,000 of Ulster’s 40,000 settlers were massacred in the rebellion.[2] Anthony was dragged from his home and hanged in front of his wife, Margery, and children.[3] The rebels then stripped Margery and the children naked and left them to fend against the frost and snow without food or clothing. The family survived by eating the hair on a calf’s skin and were rescued the following week. The 1641 rebellion quickly ignited a ferocious civil war that dragged on for nearly 14 years, pitting a fragile confederation of Irish and Anglo-Norman Catholic against the militant forces of English Protestant Republicanism.

In 1660 a relative peace returned to Ireland with the restoration of Charles II. Two years later, Anthony’s son William, who had been 11-years-old when the rebels murdered his father, purchased Boa Island from Edward Blennerhassett. William married Jane Foster and extended the family estate west into the townland of Curraghmore near Pettigo. He died on February 22nd 1693 and was buried in Carne Graveyard outside Pettigo. His eldest son Edward duly inherited the islands of Cruninish and Boa Island while the second son William succeeded to Curraghmore.[4]

William Barton, the second son, married Elizabeth Dickson of Ballyshannon and had three sons and two daughters.[5] The eldest son, Tom Barton, was born on 21st December 1694, shortly after his father succeeded to Currgahmore. On 1st November 1722, Tom married his cousin Margaret Delap of Ballyshannon. It is not known precisely why the young couple subsequently relocated to France with their baby boy, William, but the move has dictated the fate of the Barton family ever since. In 1725, after a period working as a factor between Montpellier and Marseilles, Tom established himself as a “négociant” or wine merchant in Bordeaux. He soon began acquiring a considerable fortune from the vineyard. In 1728, “French Tom” exported 2700 barrels of wine; by 1785 the company was shipping 125,000 barrels annually.[6] Although he himself lived in the Château Le Bosque in Saint-Estephe, Tom used part of his fortune to increase his landholding in Ireland. By the time of his death in 1780 he had secured estates in Fermanagh, Louth and, for £30,000, the Everard’s estate at Grove, Co. Tipperary. There seems to have been some acrimony between Tom and his only son William that resulted in the latter being given a mere “right of residence” at Grove after Tom’s death. The actual estate passed directly to William’s eldest son, Thomas.[7]

William and Grace Barton had six sons and three daughters, of whom the fourth son, Hugh, is of most relevance to this particular tale.[8] When old “French Tom” died in 1780, he left his wine business in France to his 14-year-old grandson, Hugh Massy Barton (1766-1854), younger brother of Thomas of Grove. At this time, the Americans were in the midst of their Revolutionary War against the British. A young Frenchman, Daniel Guestier, was making his fortune across the Atlantic supplying food and ammunition to the American rebels. Amongst these supplies were wines from Bordeaux. Thomas Jefferson, one of the rebel leaders who subsequently became President of the USA, was particularly fond of the Barton vines. In 1787 Jefferson, who had a keen fondness for all things French, developed a list of “first quality growths” which he showed to the two men whose opinion he valued most – Hugh Barton and Daniel Guestier.

Upon the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, many of France’s leading wine merchants were arrested. After running the gauntlet for several years, Hugh and his wife Anna Johnstone, a naturalized French citizen of Scottish origin, were arrested and imprisoned in early 1793. They were released some months later. Among the items Lady Dunraven handed to the University of Limerick in 2018 was a bunch of pamphlets, notices, certificates, and receipts in French dating from 1793-94, which relate to Hugh's arrest and his attempts to free himself in order to return to England. It is not yet clear how these ended up among the Dunraven Papers.

Forbidden to conduct business by the new French authorities, Hugh returned to Ireland and left his French business to be run by Daniel Guestier. It was entirely a gentleman’s agreement but Guestier proved an honourable partner. Indeed, so faithfully did he fulfil the trust placed in him that Hugh made him his partner when he eventually returned to France in 1802. The partnership of “Barton and Guestier” flourished in the post-revolutionary years with such gusto that, in the last years of his life, Hugh was able to write “I calculate that I am now worth £500,000.” “B&G” was ultimately sold in the 1960s, but the Barton family retained the Châteaux Léoville Barton and Langoa vineyards from where some of the finest clarets in France are still produced to this day.

After Napoloeon’s fall from power in 1815, Hugh returned to France in time to witness a massive rise in demand for his clarets. In 1821, he acquired Château Langoa in St Julien. Between 1822 and 1826 he also purchased some 35 hectares of Alexander de Gasq’s fragmented estate at Château Léoville. His descendents still live at Léoville Barton today.

Although he generally resided in France for the latter decades of his life, Hugh purchased Straffan House from the bankrupt Henry family in 1831. There are unconfirmed reports to say that the original Henry home had by then burned down. At any rate, Hugh soon commissioned Dublin architect, Frederick Darley, to build a new house, based on Madame Dubarry’s great Château at Louveciennes to the west of Paris.[9] While the masons were at work, Hugh and his family lived at nearby Barberstown Castle. The splendid new four-storey mansion at Straffan ultimately featured French-style dormers in a mansard roof, a fine pedimented portico over the hall-door and an elaborate interior with carved chimney pieces. An Italianate campanile was also added and great formal gardens were planted in a magnificent sweep down to the Liffey. The species known as the “Straffan Snowdrop” was one of the plants cultivated in the grounds.

Aside from revitalizing Straffan and its great demesne, Hugh Barton also invested his substantial wealth in purchasing and improving of agricultural holdings throughout North Kildare. Hugh died on May 25th 1854 aged eighty-nine. He was buried alongside his wife in the family vault, under the church he built in Straffan village. His coffin was transferred to a secluded private graveyard.

Hugh and Anna Barton had four sons and six daughters.[10] Upon his death in 1854, his eldest surviving son, Nathaniel, succeeded him. Born in September 1799, Nathaniel married Mary Scott in France on 12th July 1823. Her father, Harry Harmood Scott, was the British Consul at Bordeaux. She gave him five sons and four daughters.[11] Nathaniel served as Deputy Lieutenant, JP and High Sheriff for Co. Kildare. He died on 29th November 1867, less than six months after his wife. His youngest daughter Alice died in April that same year.

Nathaniel was initially succeeded by his first-born son, Major Hugh Lynedoch Barton, a former officer with the Inniskillings who stood as High Sheriff for Co. Kildare in 1861. Major HL Barton was born in August 1824 and married his cousin, Emily Massy, eldest daughter of the 3rd Baron Clarina. Major Barton is celebrated for founding a usefully blended herd of Dexter-Shorthorn beef cattle at Straffan. He threw lavish dinner parties and pheasant shoots, attended by the elite of Anglo-Irish society. Barnie Fitzpatrick recalled the occasions for offering “the best of sport and the best of claret”.[12] It was also during Major Barton’s tenure that the Straffan estate were carved up by the Land Acts which gave certain tenants the right to buy their holdings. His marriage to Emily produced no children and upon his death in February 1899, Major Barton was succeeded by his brother, Bertram Francis Barton.

Major Bertram Barton was born in 1830 and succeeded to Straffan in his 70th year. In September 1855, he married Fannie Cutler, daughter of a naval officer from Devon. He served as High Sheriff for Co. Kildare in 1903 and died aged 74 the following year, leaving two sons and a daughter.[13]

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Above: Lillian Barton, just before she before she was presented at Court.

He was succeeded by his eldest son, Bertram Hugh Barton, Deputy Lieutenant, JP and High Sheriff for co. Kildare in 1908. Bertram Barton was born in September 1858 and educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford. In the summer of 1899, he married Lilian, daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Frederick Carden of Stargroves House in Berkshire.[14] During the Great War, Bertram’ converted his Sizaire-Berwick saloon, kept in Bordeaux, into an ambulance and personally drove it to such battlefields as Verdun.[15] Bertram was killed in a fall while hunting with the North Kildare Harriers on 5th December 1927. By his will, he left Straffan and 50% of his B&G shares to his eldest son Derick and the vineyards with the remaining 50% of shares to his second son, Ronald.[16]

Captain Derick Barton was born Frederick Bertram Barton in June 1900. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he served as a Lieutenant with the 17th / 21st Lancers from 1920 to 1927. He represented Great Britain in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He went on to serve with the Lancers during the Second World War, retiring with the rank of Captain. In February 1927 he married Joan Aileen Lecky, daughter of Major General Robert St. Clair Lecky, CMG, DSO, of Ballykealy House, Tullow, Co. Carlow.[17] They chose to make their engagement public during the great Aldershot Searchlight Tattoo of 1926, where the riders - Derick among them - re-enacted the charge of the Light Brigade. Two sons, Christopher and Anthony, were born in due course. Derick was a passionate point to pointer and for many years Chairman of the Kildare Hunt Club. He was subsequently President of the Royal Dublin Society.

Bertram Barton’s death in December 1938 presented his heir with a predicament. Derick talks of his time at Straffan in his autobiography, “Memories of Ninety Years”, published before his death in 1993. Brought up at Straffan from the age of four, Derick could recall a thriving community of twenty people living in the house, sixteen of whom were paid servants. At least the thirty bedrooms were put to good use. Right up to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, no less than five separate meals were served four times a day - to the family, the nursery, the schoolroom, the house-keeper’s room and, finally, the servant’s hall. At the annual hunt ball at Straffan House, Mrs Lilian Barton decided the flowers in the house did not match her evening dress. And so, like Louis XIV at Versailles, the flowers were changed.

The banks were already threatening to foreclose the property. Derick and Joan were obliged to live a necessarily frugal existence. And yet they managed to keep the welfare of their tenants a high priority. Joan operated as an unpaid district nurse to the surrounding countryside. Unusual for those times she also employed a professional mid-wife to go to the estate cottages and attend to expectant mothers before and during childbirth. The midwife was also on hand to advise on care and hygiene for the new child. A medical dispensary was set up opposite the entrance to the Church in Straffan village. Straffan was one of the first estates to provide such a service for its employees. In 1937, Derick took the economic decision to reduce the size of Straffan House by demolishing four of the seven bays of the main block. The remnant was redesigned into a house suitable for just four servants.

Derick’s brother Major Ronald Barton was born in June 1902 and educated at Eton and New College, Oxford. He succeeded to the Barton vineyards in 1927 and was Chairman of the company until his death. The Major served with the British Army and as a liaison officer with the Free French in World War Two, winning an MBE in 1942, the Croix de Guerre in 1944 and the Legion d’Honneur in 1951. During the war, the German army occupied Château Leoville but apparently did not plunder the property on account of the owners being Irish. Ronald returned to France in the late 1940s and rebuilt the fallen vineyards. During the 1950s, Seagrams contributed new capital to Barton & Guestier and became the company’s majority shareholders. The Barton family retained the vineyards of Châteaux Léoville Barton and Langoa. In 1983 Ronald passed ownership of the vineyards to his nephew, Anthony Barton. Ronald’s approach to the matter is a shimmering example of the law that should govern all land ownership: “I have never considered it anything but my duty as custodian … to hand them on to my heir in their best possible condition”. In 1963 Ronald married Phyllis Roadknight of Kent. He died in 1986.

Born at Straffan House in July 1930, Anthony is the present head of the French branch of the Barton family.[18] He lived at Straffan until it was sold in 1949 and moved to France two years later. By his Danish wife Eva, daughter of Paul Sarauw of Copenhagen, he had a daughter Lilian and son Thomas. The latter was tragically killed in a car accident in 1990. Lilian married Michel Sartorius and, guided by her father, plays a prominent role in the management of the vineyard. She has two children Melanie and Damien.

In 1949, Straffan House was sold to a Yorkshire man, John Ellis, who kept a collection of vintage cars in the 18th century stables adjoining the house. His beautifully restored collection included the only remaining Sheffield-Simplex, financed by the Earl Fitzwilliam. Alas, it was sold off before its real value was in any way realised. The house was then purchased by Stephen O’Flaherty, the first post-war importer of Volkswagon Ireland. The famous Beetle rapidly became a major feature on Irish roads. O’Flaherty later secured contracts to be the principal importer of Mercedes-Benz and Audi, a position the family company, Motor Distributors, retains to this day.

The next owner was the late Kevin McClory, producer of the James Bond movies, “Thunderball” and “Never Say Never Again”. His wife Elizabeth was a daughter of the great racehorse trainer Vincent O’Brien. Kevin added the vast indoor swimming pool, still in use today. His annual charity parties went on for several days, attracting a host of famous visitors such as Shirley MacLaine, Sean Connery, John Huston and Peter Sellers. [Click here to listen to an excellent 2017 RTE radio documentary about Kevin McClory] In 1977 he sold Straffan to the Persian Sports Minister, General Nader Jahanbani. A fanatical show jumper and fighter pilot, Jahanbani remained loyal to the Shah during the Revolution of the following year. He was subsequently tried by kangaroo court and executed in January 1979, having never visited the house. The house was subsequently owned by the late property developer Patrick Gallagher and the Ferguson family.

In 1988 the house and 300 acres was sold for £3.7 million to Dr Austin Darragh, then chairman of the Institute of Clinical Pharmacology in Dublin.[19] He was shortly joined by Dr Michael Smurfit who took a close interest in restoring the great house and estate, transforming it into the 5 star Kildare Hotel & Country Club. A golf course, designed by Arnold Palmer, was built shortly afterwards. Known internationally as the K Club, Straffan House, the ancestral home of the Henrys and Bartons, hosted the 2006 Ryder Cup. In November 2019, it was announced that the K Club had been sold to nursing home operator TLC for approximately €55 million.

The Barton family are also celebrated for their connection to the Straffan snowdrop - thank you Jim Tancred!


[1] Boa Island takes its name from an anglicization of Badhbha, a divine hag in Celtic mythology said to have lived on the island. A carved megalithic squatting statue of Badhba, complete with protruding tongue, was recently found on the island.

[2] It is not known how many people actually died in the 1641 rebellion. The numbers were greatly exaggerated by contemporary and subsequent Protestant writers but 12,000 is a number accepted by most modern historians.

[3] John Cunningham, "Mysterious Boa Island" (1989). A deposition in Trinity College Dublin contains a claim by Anthony’s wife Margery for £300 on the number of beasts, horses, corn, hay and household belongings destroyed during the first week of the rebellion.

[4] In 1744, a visitor named Isaac Butler, noted the island’s inhabitants “seldom come on shore but live in silent retreat, marry amongst each other and are blest with all ye common necessaries of life".

[5] George Barton died unmarried. James Barton married his cousin Margaret Murray of Antigua. The daughters Elizabeth and Everina married Edward Barton (a cousin) and James Boyd respectively.

[6] "French Tom" claimed he acquired his business acumen from his uncles Thomas and William Dickson who were merchants in Ballyshannon, a prominent port for trade between the west of Ireland and the west of France. French brandy, wine and silk were imported in return for Irish wool, fish and agricultural produce.

[7] In 1754 William married Grace Massy, a daughter of the Dean of Limerick and sister of Sir Hugh Dillon Massy of Doonas, Co. Clare.

[8] The eldest son Thomas succeeded to Grove in 1780 and was Whig MP for Fethard during the 1798 Rebellion. A close friend of Henry Grattan and the Earl of Charlemont, he married into the prominent Ponsonby family. His descendents founded the Tipperary Foxhounds and continued at Grove until the death of Captain Charles Barton in 1955.

The third son Charles became a Lieutenant General in the British Army and was ancestor to Sir Sidney Barton, British Ambassador to Abyssinia (1929 – 37) and Hugh David Barton, sometime Director of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank.

The youngest son Dunbar married Elizabeth Riall, heiress to the Rochestown estate. Their grandson Sir Dunbar Plunket Barton was a prominent Judge and Senator of the National University of Ireland in the early 20th century.

The daughters Grace, Elizabeth and Margaret married respectively John Palliser of Derryluskan, Co. Tipperary, Sir Augustine FitzGerald of Moy House, Lahinch, Co. Clare and the 3rd Baron Massy.

[9] Frederick Darley's most important works are the Merchant's Hall and the Law Libarary at the King’s Inn in Dublin.He was architect to Trinity College from 1834 onwards and designer of New Square.

[10] Hugh’s third son Thomas Johnston Barton settled at Glendalough and was grandfather to Robert Barton, negotiator of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, and Erskine Childers, father of Erskine Childers, 4th President of Ireland. Hugh’s fourth son, Captain Daniel Barton, married Alexandrina Peel, granddaughter of the British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. Hugh’s fifth daughter Susan married Eyre Massey, 3rd Baron Clarina.

[11] Two of the sons and all four daughters either died young or unmarried.

[12] Bence-Jones, Twilight of the Ascendancy, p.5.

[13] The daughter Mary married Thomas Studdy of Waddeton Court, Brixham, Devon.

[14] In 1970 Stargroves was purchased by Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. The album “Exile on Main Street” was recorded in a custom-built studio at Stargroves, later used by such legendary acts as The Who, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Status Quo, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Santana and Iron Maiden. In 1998 Rod Stewart bought Stargroves for £2.5million.

[15] Bence Jones, Twilight of the Ascendancy, p. 166.

[16] In April 1939 Bertram and Lillian’s only daughter Storeen Barton married Wilfred Sharp, son of Thomas William Sharp of Blythswod South in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

[17] In September 1957 Joan’s brother, Lt Col Rupert Beauchamp Lecky mysteriously disappeared without trace, obliging the Lecky family to sell Ballykealy. Joan’s sister Dorothy was married to Sir Francis Reid, secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons and sometime commander of the army in British Ceylon.

[18] His elder brother Christopher was born on 21st November 1927 and educated at St. Columba’s college, Dublin, and Jesus College Cambridge. On 8th February 1956 he married an Australian named Margot Bushell. Her father Walter Jack Bushell ran the Fullerton sheep station in Laggan, New South Wales. Christopher has married again since. He has two daughters, Fiona and Angela.

[19] Dr. Darragh was the intended victim of the O'Hare kidnap gang. John O'Grady, who was kidnapped, is his son-in-law.