By Katherine Stewart
My husband, Matthew William Stewart, grew up listening to his grandfather tell magnificent stories about Fort Stewart, the family’s ancestral seat in County Donegal. The first of the Stewarts to come to America, William Stewart, was a descendant of another William Stewart, who built Fort Stewart on the banks of the Lough Swilly in 1608.
Matthew’s grandfather cherished some hope that the Stewart line before that might be traced to the royal Stuarts, rulers of Scotland and then of the entire United Kingdom. Instead, a little genealogical research revealed that our Stewarts merely descended from a man who somehow worked his way into the position of “High Steward” – basically, servant to the king. As my husband put it, “Our people scrubbed the royal bed-chambers!”
One afternoon, after a long discussion about the injustices of genealogy—especially with respect to the women whose contributions to the genetic pool are typically forgotten after a generation or two—I decided to turn to the internet for some answers about the infamous Fort Stewart. After a brief search, I jumped up from my laptop. “Honey,” I exclaimed, “it’s for sale!”
We arrived in Donegal on a mild September afternoon, just cloudy enough to make for dramatic skyscapes. In preparation for our asskatstewartault on Fort Stewart, we stayed at Lough Eske Castle, a Tudor-baronial structure that was first built in the late 1400s, then rebuilt several times thereafter. Now a boutique resort, the castle is situated on 43 acres of rolling hills that, like so much of Ireland, are wet, green and beautiful.
After checking into a well-appointed room of suitably aristocratic proportions, we headed to the restaurant to fortify ourselves for tomorrow’s adventure. Our delightful meal was composed of locally sourced ingredients, including oysters and salmon from Killibecks and a tender rack of lamb. As we tucked into a porter cheese made with Guinness, my husband enthused, “This must be my ancestral diet!” He bravely washed down his cheese with a glass of poteen, a traditional Irish drink usually made from potatoes that is so strong (60-plus per cent alcohol) we imagined it served our ancestors as disinfectant.
After dinner, wandering about the manicured grounds of our castle, Lough Eske, we anticipated Fort Stewart would be something equally grand.
The following afternoon, we showed up unannounced at the address specified in the real estate listing for “Old Fort Stewart,” our genealogical papers in hand. The real estate agent had seemed oddly uninterested in our query, and we had taken for granted that the place would be uninhabited. We were taken aback when a man with jovial blue eyes and a paint-flecked shirt emerged from one of the side buildings just as we pulled up. Fort Stewart was inhabited after all!
It turns out that Martin Mooney, the present owner of Old Fort Stewart, is a celebrated Irish painter who has won numerous prestigious awards and distinctions, and frequently shows his work in Dublin, Belfast, and London. It also turns out that the main house for sale, which looks like every postcard picture of an elegant Regency-style house you have ever seen, was built by him in 1998.
“Let me show you the old fort,” Martin said, waving off in the direction of the fields that stood between the striking five-bedroom house and Lough Swilly, a tranquil, oyster-filled estuary surrounded by hills.
Mooney led us a short distance to Old Fort Stewart. I am sorry to report that the “grand palace” that featured in the stories of my husband’s youth, erected by his ancestors for their own, everlasting glory in 1608, is now a hapless pile of rocks. Two piles, actually, spaced about 100 yards apart, marking two out of three corners of a triangular fortress that once upon a time must have looked mighty imposing to agricultural laborers of Donegal who had the misfortune of living within eyesight.
After wandering through the moss-covered stones, we retreated to Martin’s painting studio, where he composes meticulously rendered still lifes, sweeping landscapes of the Donegal countryside, and compositions inspired by his worldwide travels.
Soon we were joined by Aislinn, Martin’s wife. Over tea we exchanged stories of our heritages. She told us of her own grandfather, Peter Paul Galligan, who joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1910 and commanded the Irish Volunteers in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. Arrested by the British in 1916, he narrowly escaped a death sentence, eventually spending five years in a variety of English prisons.
“He paid a huge personal price to attain freedom for his country,” noted Aislinn, who says her name means “Dream of Freedom.”
My husband asked Aislinn delicately whether she harbored any ill feelings toward his ancestor, William Stewart, who, as part of the plantation program in the early 17th century, surely helped sow the seeds for the bitter conflict in the 20th century. She laughed. “Let’s let bygones be byegones!” she replied.
Leaving Old Fort Stewart behind, Martin and Aislinn took us to see the “New Fort Stewart,” a large Georgian-style home down the road where the Stewarts eventually relocated. A little further along the shores of Loch Swilly, they took us to an ancient ruin of a graveyard to view the Stewart crypt.
Moss and vines covered the faded old stones, but we managed to spot the names of some Stewarts who were buried long ago. None, however, were in the direct line that descended to Matthew. Somewhat disappointed, he looked again through his file of genealogical papers, and came to a realization: The William Stewart who emigrated from Ireland to America was the seventh of seven children. And his father was also the seventh of seven. “The oldest sons inherited the estate, the fort, and the desirable gravestones,” Matthew mused, “and the youngest shipped off to America!”
There was that curious moment that sometimes happens on an overcast late afternoon in Ireland, when the sun sinks below the level of the clouds and the day comes to a misty golden finish. We rambled out of the graveyard with Martin and Aislinn, musing on our genealogical journeys and lamenting the injustice of the system of primogeniture. Aristocrats are just people who happen to have descended from a line of first-born sons. But so what? Why is the first born thought to be better than the second born? And what about the women? In the end, you may just trace your heritage back to someone who was a servant to the king, scrubbing his washroom floors.
Our ears perked up when Martin told us of his own encounters with royalty. In 2001 and 2003, he was appointed the official artist for Prince Charles’s royal tours of the Baltic states and of Russia.
So Martin himself is a “high steward” for the royal family! As he regaled us with stories about his life, travels, and art-world adventures, we agreed that we surely have more in common with him and his wife, the child of freedom fighters, than with the other “high steward,” from whom we draw our last name.
Katherine works with Christine Kearney via the Op Ed Project, as a mentor-editor. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications including The Guardian, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and many others.