Lady Louisa Dillon-Fitzgibbon (1823-98)

Louisa Dillon-Fitzgibbon was the niece of the Countess of Clare’s husband, John, Earl of Clare (1792-1851). At present we only have a limited knowledge of her early life. Her brother, John, an officer in the 8th Hussars, was killed at Bratislava in the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 and Louisa inherited most of the family estate at Mountshannon in Limerick when her father died in 1864. Through the influence of the Countess of Clare and Louisa’s first husband, Lord Gerald Dillon, she became a Catholic despite being a member of one of Ireland’s most staunch Protestant families. With her two eldest sons, Charles and Augustus, she accompanied the Countess on her famous pilgrimage to Rome when the Countess was 75 years old in 1868. It was a wonderful time for Louisa and there is no doubt that her faith was strengthened. Her two sons were enthralled by their Roman education which consisted of an almost daily routine of morning Mass at one of the famous churches or basilicas followed by a tour of most of the famous sites which took them to the Forum, the Colosseum, the famous arches of Titus and Constantine, the temple of the Vestal Virgins and along the banks of the Tiber. Louisa accompanied the Countess for a private audience with the Superior-General of the Dominican Order and she was astonished when he gave permission for the Countess to enter the Dominican Order at Carisbrooke Priory (which she had built in 1866). Did Louisa think that the Countess would take all her wealth with her into the Priory? Did the Superior-General anticipate this as well? Whatever the reasons Louisa was becoming most apprehensive at the thought of her aunt entering the Priory at Carisbrooke as a professed nun. She rushed off a letter to Bishop Grant in London. The letter, (dated 15th July), in the Portsmouth Diocesan archives reveals a desperate plea for the Bishop to intervene and use his influence to discourage the Countess from this course of action. “My aunt is now 75”, she writes, “her health will not strong. The basic living conditions accepted happily by the nuns are not conducive to one who is used to a warm and comfortable house with servants to care for her. Such a change in her domestic circumstances is bound to adversely affect her health. I therefore implore your Lordship to discourage my aunt’s noble objective. I know that she will listen to your wise guidance.” The irony of this petition is that Louisa herself would eventually enter Carisbrooke Priory and spend her final days as a professed nun until her death in 1898. However the plea to Bishop Grant had the desired result. He urged the Countess to continue her support of the Church as a layperson and suggested she could become the “Honorary Abbess” of the community.

Two years later, Charles, the eldest of the Countess’s great nephews, was suffering severely from tuberculosis of the lungs. It was not for lack of prayer or sacrifice that he endured such pain and anguish. The Countess and his mother, Louisa, considered taking him to Lourdes. Even by 1870, news of Our Lady’s miraculous response to petitions had circulated around most of Europe. Doctors advised against moving him. Everyone knew in their hearts that, as with so many illnesses at the time, there would be no cure. The Countess’s wealth and the petitions to Our Lady supported by the best medical expertise was all to no avail. He died at the age of twenty one. After the funeral at St. Mary’s he was buried near the Countess’s own grave at Carisbrooke.

Lousia was delighted when her eldest daughter, Florence, decided to enter the Ursuline Convent in Paris. The Countess seemed to be converting everyone close to her. The courage of her conviction, the strength of her faith and devotion and her selfless generosity were an inspiration to all who knew her.

Louisa moved in to her apartments in Brigstock Terrace and came to rely enormously on her aunt’s advice and guidance. However, the news from Ireland was not good. Louisa had inherited the family estate at Mountshannon in Limerick. This was the family seat of the Earls of Clare. Estate workers and agents were negligent and dishonest. Louisa had to return home to Ireland where for a while she lived the life of “lady of the manor”. She lived lavishly and way beyond her means. Louisa was quite simply hopeless with money and estate management. This contrasted dramatically with the Countess who was epitomized the Victorian values – correct, forthright, frugal, yet prudent and generous. News filtered back to the Countess that Louisa was out of her depth running the Estate. She always had high expectations, both of herself and others and she soon lost patience with her erratic and flambouyant niece. Louisa threw lavish parties at Mountshannon and coaches brought the Irish gentry and aristocracy from miles for a “Mountshannon bash”. She soon spent all the family silver and was forced to sell the family heirlooms. Court injunctions and debt collectors began to arrive at the door. In despair she handed everything over to her solicitors to deal with and she fled from Ireland. Like the returning prodigal son, she threw herself yet again at the mercy of Auntie Elizabeth (Countess of Clare) who welcomed her back to Ryde and showed her tremendous compassion.

She spent the next few years as the Countess’s adopted daughter accompanying her to Mass in her private oratory above the sacristy at St. Mary’s and across to the Priory at Carisbrooke. Knowing that her remaining years were short the Countess persuaded the Prioress to provide a permanent home for Louisa after her death. It was agreed that the Countess’s own apartments at the Priory would be for the sole use of Louisa and her family. The Countess died in 1879. A few years later Louisa married her second husband, Marquis della Rochella of Palermo. Here was someone, she thought, who would keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed. Soon after the marriage she found out that the Italian Marquis was penniless. Both married believing that the other would solve their financial problems. When the Marquis died a few years later Louisa was homeless as the Countess had anticipated and it was the nuns at St. Dominic’s Priory at Carisbrooke who gave her a home in the Countess’s former apartments as she pondered her future. As she looked up at the photograph of the Countess each day in the refectory her conscience troubled her, She was reminded of her aunt’s thrift and her generosity to others whereas Louisa herself had squandered her money. Her children had long flown the nest although she thanked God that they had kept their faith. The Prioress persuaded her that she had to turn her back on this life and her past failings and prepare for the next. She took their advice and joined the Order as a fully professed Dominican nun. She spent her last days in prayer and meditation, seeking repentance and attempting to make reparation for her past demeanours. There were no privileges for Louisa and she did not expect any. The person who once had servants to care for her every need now lived in the very basic conditions from which she once sought to protect her aunt. Like the rest of the nuns she scrubbed the floors on her knees as a labour of love and without complaint. Somehow she still felt the presence of the Countess who was watching over her from above. Her chair and prie-dieu remained empty in the ante chapel just below the flickering sanctuary lamp. As she looked at the Stations of the Cross on the chapel walls she saw the wooden crosses above which had been blessed by the Pope in Rome in 1868. Even the rosary beads that she used had belonged to the Countess. Almost every day she walked from the Priory to the adjacent cemetery to kneel and pray at the grave of her noble aunt. Louisa died in 1898 and is buried with the other nuns in the little cemetery behind the Priory.

So the grand daughter of Lord John Fitzgibbon (first Earl of Clare), the most fanatical Unionist politician of his day, ended her days as a professed nun of the Church that her grandfather strove to persecute when he was Lord Chancellor.