The Drawbacks and dangers of heiress hunting.

Elite social history contains numerous examples, perhaps more numerous in Great Britain than in Ireland, of marriage to an heiress bringing a rich inheritance to the fortunate or calculating husband. In Ireland, there is probably no more striking example than the one we have just across the Blackwater from where we are gathered – the acquisition by the dukes of Devonshire of Lismore Castle and the vast Burlington estates in Cos. Cork and Waterford. Even this success-story was not quite as straightforward as it looks, and in other cases the result – from the husband’s point of view – could vary from inconvenient to disastrous. It is quite wrong to assume that a known heiress was easy prey – at least until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1872. This piece of reforming legislation actually applied to the position of middle-class women, often of comparatively modest means, and not to that of the landed class. Women of the landed class had always been protected by marriage settlements and trusteeships, and this applied especially to known heiresses. The complication was that by no means all heiresses were identifiable as such when they married. A considerable number of them enriched their husbands (or their sons or grandsons) because of events, usually deaths, which occurred after their marriages and could not have been foreseen at the time. In other cases, however, it was the husband who was disadvantaged by unforeseen events – notably the childlessness of the marriage. And he was often disadvantaged from the outset, because the terms of his marriage settlement with the heiress stipulated that their second son (if they had one) would inherit her estate and assume her name, with the effect that her husband was a mere stud who provided an heir to somebody else’s property. Worst of all, some husbands were so anxious to secure a wealthy wife that they submitted, with unguarded optimism, to terms which jeopardised the descent of their own estates in their own patrilineal line.


Julian Walton is a former secondary schoolteacher and librarian with a lifelong interest in Irish history and genealogy, particularly relating to County Waterford. During the 1990s he worked at Waterford Heritage Genealogical Centre, where among other assignments he undertook the conservation of Waterford Cathedral Library. He was then employed at the library of University College Cork in the cataloguing of older printed books.
Since he “retired” in 2006 he has been Resident Historian at Dunhill Multi-Education Centre in County Waterford, where he lectures on aspects of local history. He is the author of The Royal Charters of Waterford and of many articles in historical journals, especially The Irish Genealogist and Decies, and is a former editor of both journals. His most recent publications are On This Day volumes one and two, which comprise historical snippets based on a series which he presented on Waterford Local Radio between 1994 and 2012.
He is currently researching the history of Curraghmore with the assistance of Willie Fraher and Marianna Lorenc. He is also an active member of the Bookplate Society.