Katharine Howard

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Katharine Howard (1910-1990)


Katharine Frances Theodosia Howard was born on 08 September 1910 in Dublin. Her father, Hon. Hugh Melville Howard, was the younger brother of the 6th Earl of Wicklow, Cecil Ralph Howard, whose ancestral home was Shelton Abbey outside Arklow. Shelton Abbey is now used as an open, low security prison for males aged 19 years and over who are regarded as requiring lower levels of security. Her mother, Mary Emily Sands, was the only daughter of a prominent New York attorney, Benjamin A. Sands and his wife Amy, a long established New England family, whose home on Long Island gave its name to the northern tip of the island, Sands Point. She had one brother, Cecil Aymar Howard, 9th Earl of Wicklow, who was born 13 September 1909 in Southampton, Long Island, USA.



Katharine and Cecil suffered a double tragedy in early childhood. Their mother had to be institutionalised after developing psychological problems, and their father died of pneumonia. As a result, they went to live with their uncle, the 7th Earl of Wicklow, Ralph Frances Howard, at Shelton Abbey where they occupied a wing of the great house in the care of a housekeeper, leading a very sheltered life. Holidays were spent with their beloved grandmother, Amy Sands, who enlivened their childhood years and allowed them to keep in contact with their American cousins, whom Katharine kept in close touch with throughout her life.

In due course, Katharine was sent to boarding school in England but she never returned to Shelton for holidays. Later she completed a course in physiotherapy though she never practiced. Following the death of her uncle, she returned to Ireland and acquired a house in Gorey, Co. Wexford, sharing it with a friend, Peggy Dwyer from the town. While there, Katharine started a troop of Girl Guides which is still remembered and often took them on camping trips to Shelton. By 1959, her brother Cecil was living in Manhattan, and when he died in 1983 the Earldom became extinct, thus leaving Katharine as the last surviving family member of the Earls of Wicklow.


Her grandmother, Amy Sands, died in 1934, leaving Katharine well provided for. She then purchased Ounavarra House outside Courtown, Co. Wexford, an early 19th century house with a farm. She carried on active farming there with the assistance of her loyal Steward, Leonard Kelly. She also involved herself in numerous local activities, becoming a noted benefactor of Ardamine Church of Ireland parish, becoming its treasurer and hosting its annual church fete. An active supporter of the local country markets, she had her own stall of produce each Saturday at their sales in Gorey. Other organisations to which she lent active support at the time include Council for the Blind, the local committees of An Taisc- National Trust for Ireland, The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and the National Fisheries Authority.

Katharine decided to cut back on her activities in 1972 and sold her house in Ounavarra, to take up residence instead in the old Rectory near Kiltennel townland, which allowed her to maintain her local contacts and interests, continuing her production of fruit and vegetables for her stall at the weekly country market. She also assisted and supported the Camphill Village Community which has been established alongside her new home and was building up an increasing number of residents.

Her faithful Steward and farm manager, Leonard Kelly, died suddenly in 1987 of a heart attack and Katharine was forced to abandon her gardening activities. Later she fell victim to failing health and decided to retreat to the local nursing home at Middleton House where she was looked after in comfort , and from where she made frequent outings to her house when she felt able. Following a series of minor strokes, she passed away on 26 September 1990. After a funeral service in Ardamine Church, which was attended by two of her American cousins, she was buried in the family vault of the Earls of Wicklow at Kilbride Church, Arklow, Co. Wexford. As she was the last surviving descendent of the Howard family, the vault was then sealed for all time.

Ralph Howard, 7th Earl of Wicklow (Katharine’s Uncle)

Shelton Abbey, photograph courtesy of National Library of Ireland

A mausoleum erected by Ralph Howard (1726-86), first Viscount Wicklow of Shelton Abbey


She was known as kind and generous during her lifetime, willing to share her good fortune with others. With her own needs relatively modest, she took legal advice in 1979 as to how best to apply her unused income. The result was the formation of a small, charitable Trust Foundation, started with a small capital fund which was added to in subsequent years. The Trustees, of which she was Chairperson, used it to make annual donations to a range of national and local charities, helping the elderly, under-privileged children and other community initiatives throughout Ireland, but particularly in North Wexford and South Wicklow.

In her will, after many specific bequests, she left the residue of her estate to the Foundation. The sale of her Kiltennel residence and other assets brought an additional £1m (€2m approx today) to its capital, and, in addition, she appointed to her Foundation, the funds from a substantial family Trust established by Amy Sands, her beloved grandmother, to provide for future children of which there were none. The exercise of power of appointment added a further $2m ($4.5m approx today) to its capital, and as a result, the Foundation took an altogether new dimension meaning the Trustees had to then reasses the scope and range, and establish new guidelines. Careful management of the fund and its investments over the years, helps its capital grow to a stage where further reassessment was undertaken in 1998. The Foundation then enlarged the board of Trustees to 6 members and appointed a Development Officer and a Treasurer, broadening its remit to include a programme of community grants and the financing of research in to underlying social problem.

What began as a modest Trust, thanks to the generosity and foresight of Katharine Howard, has since achieved a level of effectiveness far beyond what was initially envisaged. The work of the Foundation is a lasting testimony to her kindness and practical good sense.

By Ellen Lynch, Gorey Echo, 13 September 2000




KHF Trustees and Team, Quarter 2 Board Meeting, Shelton Abbey, 25 May 2023.

KHF Trustees and Team with Governor Joe Donohue, Shelton Abbey, 25 May 2023.