by ehistoryadmin on October 21, 2017

Leinster Leader  9 February 1995 

Fenian and author honoured in Leixlip

Two more personalities from Leixlip historical past are to be highlighted by Leixlip Heritage Circle, the group of enthusiasts dedicated to the unearthing of the town’s historical heritage.

William Francis Roantree was a vital albeit a lesser known figure in the Fenian movement.  He was instrumental, especially in north Kildare, after the founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood on St. Patrick’s Day 1858.

The twenty five members of the Heritage Circle hope to erect a plaque to his memory at the site of his former home, now Feerick’s Pharmacy, as soon as possible. The group also wish to recognise Catherine Lynan Hickson, author of some well known choral music.  She was the lady friend of one of the Hone family which occupied Leixlip House, now a hotel.  The Hone’s were relatives of the artist Evie Hone.

Roantree’s career has been researched by Leixlip based historian and author, Micheal Kenny, who is due to publish a long article on him in the Kildare Archaeological Journal. According to Michael, leaders like John Devoy who comes from Kildare, published autobiographical works but some of the principal personalities have been largely forgotten due to accidents of history, lack of information or even lack of local interest.

Roantree is an example.  He was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the best organisers and finest figures in the IRB. Michael Kenny, who works in the National Museum, kept finding his name appearing when researching the period but could find little substantial written about the Leixlip man.  He took up the trail. He found that Roantree was one of the most colourful characters of the period.  He was described as “a daring dashing fellow with a splendid physique, full of ardour and a favourite with all the boys.”

According to John Devoy he had a more adventurous career than any Fenian except Colonel Ricard O’Sullivan Burke and saw a great deal of the world during his chequered career. A seaman, military adventurer, Fenian organiser, prisoner, political exile and liquor salesman, he ended his days as an employee of Dublin Corporation. Problem for researchers is his early Fenian work was largely secret and thus unrecorded.  Information coming mainly from police evidence and newspaper reports was not too reliable, said Michael.

Roantree spent his middle years in America and information from that part of his life, from Irish sources, was scant. According to Devoy, Roantree was born in Leixlip in 1829.  His father James was an auctioneer doing a good business and he himself was trained as a butcher. Other said his father was a butcher and he had property in the parishes of Leixlip and Laraghbryan.

William was one of a large family and had several brothers and at least one sister. One, James S. Roantree, born 1835, was a Sergeant in the US Marine Corp, and distinguished himself in one of the major naval battles of the Civil War.

Roantree was said to be of a restless disposition and went to America at the age of 24, in 1853.  He saw service in Nicaragua with General William Walker, an American mercenary and adventurer.There is dispute over when he returned to Ireland.  He came back in 1859.  He married a Leixlip girl, Isabel Casey, soon after coming home though the wedding is not listed in local records.  The couple had two children.

He was appointed head of the Leixlip “circle” as the IRB’s district unit was called, which took in much of northern Kildare and parts of Meath and Dublin. A parish priest in Leixlip denounced Fenian activities from the pulpit and some of his parishioners were so annoyed they refused to go to mass in Leixlip.

Roantree was said to have earned his living during this period as a publican in Dublin but lived some of the time in Leixlip.  Roantree was arrested in 1866 as plans for a rising progressed and a brother of his was also jailed. At the end of 1870, Roantree and other Fenian leaders were offered amnesty from jail sentence on condition they spent the rest of their sentences abroad.  He was released on 14 January 1871. In 1900, when he was over 70 years old, he returned to Dublin and was employed to the electricity and lighting department of Dublin Corporation in 1903.  He died on 20 February 1918 at his home at 33 Upper Gardiner St.

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