[First posted on MyT]
I see that an exhibition will soon open at the National Museum of Ireland on the history of duelling, which reached its peak here between 1780 and 1820. In a sample of 306 Irish duels fought between 1771 and 1790, there were 65 instant deaths and 16 mortal wounds; less than a third ended without injury. At least 19 Dublin companies were making duelling pistols in the early nineteenth century.
Some years ago I worked on a project involving the Irish parliament of 1695–1800, and compiled a fair bit of information on duelling and much else. Here is some of it: more will follow in a second post.
MPs quite often died at each other’s hands, as duelling was a common practice: gentlemen were keen to uphold an exaggerated sense of rank and honour, or to defend their electoral interests. Duels were a popular spectacle, and often drew large crowds, including the officials whose business should have been to prevent them. They continued even after the Knights of Tara, a society intended to provide alternatives, was founded in 1782 – in fact 22 duels were reputedly fought during the parliamentary election for Cork the following year.
The most notorious duellist of his day was Beauchamp Bagenal (1741–1802, MP for Enniscorthy and Co. Carlow), a wealthy, wild and ungovernable man who apparently had a penchant for duelling in a churchyard so that he could steady himself by leaning against a tombstone. Within his power base, Bagenal so frightened political opponents that, according to one observer, they came to worship him ‘as the Egyptians do the Sacred Cow’. By 1788 Bagenal must have realised that his duelling days were over, as he accused his neighbour, a man called Weld, of challenging him to a duel (Bagenal had cropped the tails of Weld’s trespassing pigs). At the Carlow assizes, Weld was sentenced to a month in jail and fined £70.
Richard Martin (MP for Jamestown, Lanesborough and Co. Galway) is quite well known today as one of the founders of the RSPCA – George IV called him ‘Humanity Martin’. An earlier appellation, though, was ‘Hairtrigger Dick’ – Martin was a notorious duellist. In 1785 he quarrelled with his cousin, James Jordan, who then challenged him. Martin apologized, and arrived at the ‘appointed place’ without his pistols. However, Jordan could not be placated, and was killed with one of his own weapons. Martin never ceased to regret killing his closest friend (they had travelled together in Europe and America, and spent a few years together in Jamaica), and was often heard to comment ‘unconsciously’ at the dinner table, ‘I could not have missed him.’
After a non-fatal duel, the participants would sometimes shake hands (honour having been satisfied) and part as friends. This was the outcome when Jonah Barrington (MP for Ballynakill) fought a duel with a Mr Gilbert at Maryborough in 1759: ‘It was fought on horseback before a great concourse of persons, with holster pistols and broad-bladed swords, both combatants receiving slight wounds, but escaping with life.’
Sir Edward Newenham (MP for Enniscorthy and a noted duellist) fought a duel with John Tucker, a Dublin sheriff in 1774: ‘After they had fired a case, Sir Edward Newenham drew his sword and advanced on Mr Tucker, which the seconds perceiving, interfered and obliged Sir Edward to put up his sword; the gentlemen afterwards breakfasted together at Clontarf.’
Charles Coote (former MP for Co. Cavan) was the butt of unkind humour when he was wounded in the groin during a duel with Lord Townshend (Coote acknowledged in his will six illegitimate children by four mothers).