As you research your family’s Irish origins, you may grow curious about the country’s centuries-long history. Learning how society functioned when your ancestors were alive offers a fascinating glimpse into their everyday lives. One aspect of Irish society worth exploring is the Irish peerage and related titles of nobility.
Below, we’ll cover the history of the Peerage of Ireland, including important historical events, persons of note, and explanations of the various titles. Use this information to enrich your family history research and gain deeper insight into the lives of your Irish ancestors.
A peerage is a body of peers or titled nobility. Peerage titles are hierarchical and may be awarded or passed down through family lines. These ranks are usually lifelong, though they can be revoked as a form of punishment through an act of parliament.
In Ireland, English monarchs created these titles when they served as Lord or King of Ireland. Later, monarchs of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland created these titles.
Today, the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, otherwise known as the British monarchy, still has jurisdiction over the Irish peerage.
Previously, it was possible to elect Irish representative peers for a seat in the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. These elections ended in 1922 after Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and formed the Irish Free State.
The history of the Peerage of Ireland can be traced back to 1175 when the Treaty of Windsor placed Ireland in the jurisdiction of the English Crown. Ireland did not become part of the system of the English parliament, but the granting of Irish peerages continued in the centuries that followed.
However, the evolution of the Irish peerage was gradual. The first official Irish Baron wasn’t created until 1462, and the first Irish Viscount was appointed in 1478.
Afterwards, Irish peerages were created for several more centuries. The practice of creating new peerage titles of nobility ended in the 19th century. Today, around 135 titles remain.
It is easier to understand this institution when you look at the individual titles and their roles in society. The ranks of the Irish peerage include the following titles, listed from highest to lowest rank within the hierarchy:
If you’re curious about how these ranks relate to your family history, you can book a consultation with a genealogy expert to enhance your research. For now, let’s take a look at the history behind each of these titles and how they function in Ireland today.
Dukes and duchesses take the highest rank in the Peerage of Ireland. These nobles should be referred to as Your Grace. At first, only royals could hold this title, but it later expanded to nobility outside of royal family lines.
The title of Duke first originated in England in 1337, when King Edward III named his son, Edward of Woodstock, the first Duke of Cornwall. Dukes control a duchy, or a territory or geopolitical entity, which is larger than the land other ranks govern.
Across England, Scotland, and Ireland, only around 30 dukedoms still exist today. In Ireland, the remaining dukedoms are the Duke of Leinster and the Duke of Abercorn.
The Duke of Leinster was the premier Irish Duke. This title is currently held by His Grace Maurice FitzGerald, who is the 9th Duke of Leinster as of 2004. His Grace James Hamilton is the 5th Duke of Abercorn. He gained this title in 1979.
Marquesses and Marchionesses are the second-highest ranks in the Irish peerage. Marquesses and Marchionesses should be referred to as Lord and Lady, or with the prefix ‘The Most Honourable’. The land that Marquesses control is called a march.
This title was created after Dukes, Earls, and Barons, causing a shift in the peerage hierarchy. The difference between a Marquess and an Earl is that the land controlled by a Marquess is on the country’s border.
An example of an Irish Marquess is the Marquess of Abercorn, which was first created in 1756. In 1868, the second Marquess of Abercorn became Duke of Abercorn, the title that is still in use today.
Another notable Irish Marquess is The Most Honourable Henry Vivien Pierpont Conyngham, or Henry Mount Charles, the 8th Marquess Conyngham. He is known for the extravagant concerts and parties he holds at his home, Slane Castle.
Earls and Countesses were once the second-highest peerage ranks in the United Kingdom. However, they became the third-highest ranks after the creation of the title of Marquess. Earls and Countesses should be referred to as Lord and Lady or with the prefix ‘The Right Honourable’. The territory they govern is called an earldom.
In some parts of the world, Earls are called Counts. This is because it was their duty to control the many counties within a country. Earls were automatically given a seat in the Irish House of Lords, which began in 1297 and existed until 1800.
The earliest known Irish earldom was created in 1205. King Henry II created Earl of Ulster, which was first given to Hugh de Lacy, a Norman knight. Today, some examples of Irish Earls are The Right Honourable Francis Michael Hare, the 6th Earl of Listowel, and The Right Honourable Richard Needham, 6th Earl of Kilmorey.
Viscounts and Viscountesses take the fourth-highest rank in the Irish peerage. This rank was created after those of Duke, Earl and Baron. It was placed between Earls and Barons in the peerage of Great Britain in 1440.
The name Viscount is a product of the term vice-count. This is because historically, a Viscount served as a deputy to a Count or Earl, helping them govern their counties. Like Earls, Viscounts and Viscountesses should be referred to as Lord and Lady, or with the prefix ‘The Right Honourable’.
The Viscount title first came to Ireland in 1478, when the Viscount of Gormanston was created. This title still exists today. It is held by Jenico Preston, the 17th Viscount of Gormanston.
Around 111 Viscounts are remaining in the peerages across the British Isles. There are 24 remaining Viscounts in Ireland today. Notable Irish Viscounts include The Right Honourable John David Clotworthy Whyte-Melville Foster Skeffington, who is the 14th Viscount Massereene and the 7th Viscount Ferrard.
The last rank in the Irish peerage is made up of Barons and Baronesses. This rank was once synonymous with the title of Earl. However, the two were separated over time, and Barons were placed in the final position on the peerage hierarchy. Barons and Baronesses should be addressed as Lord and Lady, or with the prefix ‘The Right Honourable’.
Like Earls, Barons had a seat in the Irish House of Lords until it disbanded in 1800. Historically, these nobles governed baronies, which are subdivisions within Irish counties.
One of the older Irish Baron titles is Baron Inchiquin, first created in 1543 and given to the Prince of Thomond, Murrough O’Brien. Today, The Right Honourable Conor Myles John O’Brien holds this title as the 18th Baron Inchiquin.
There are 45 Irish Barons in existence today. Other current Irish Barons include The Right Honourable Randal Plunkett, the 21st Baron of Dunsany, The Right Honourable Rupert Carrington, the 7th Baron Carrington and a member of the House of Lords.
Luckily, tracing Irish nobles may be easier than with other members of your family tree. This is because royals and noblemen often have more documentation of the details of their lives.
If you’re curious whether you have Irish peerages in your family, start by researching the different surnames in your family tree. From there, you may be able to find connections with surnames of families who have an Irish peerage title.
You can also research the addresses of members of your family through Irish census records. Use these to see if there are any connections with royal residences, from castles to country homes.
You may also want to see if you have familial ties to royal household staff. FindMyPast has a collection of records of the royal household staff between 1526 to 1924. There are plenty of exclusive collections like this that can shed light on the fascinating lives your ancestors led.
Ireland has a rich and storied history worth exploring as part of your ancestry research. There are endless archives documenting the Irish peerage and connecting families around the world to members of the Irish nobility. This is just one of many avenues you can explore to get a clearer picture of your family’s story.
Contact the Irish Family History Centre to uncover even more information about the Peerage of Ireland. Our expert genealogists can answer your questions and reveal how the peerage relates to your family’s Irish history.