As #anniversaries has featured some interesting duels and duellists of late – some random thoughts on the practice of ‘gentlemen’ attempting to kill each other in ‘affairs of honour’.
Before pistols became widely available in the 17th century ‘affairs of honour’ between gentlemen were usually settled with the sword as the weapon of choice. But Irish playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was clearly on to something in 1775 when he created the bellicose Irish squire, Sir Lucius O’Trigger, in his celebrated play The Rivals. (Although, in the play itself, despite his name, Sir Lucius fights a duel with swords.)
In 1777, with pistols now far more frequently used than swords, a new ‘code duello’ was adopted at the summer assizes in Clonmel ’by the gentlemen of County Tipperary, County Galway, County Mayo, County Sligo and County Roscommon and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland.’ The Irish code soon gained wide acceptance in Britain and North America. Under the new code fatalities tended to increase as the use of pistols was more dangerous than the more benign regime of sword-play to ‘first blood’. Also, under the Irish code the practice of firing into the air or the ground to avoid wounding an opponent was discouraged.
Duelling, which was a 17th century import from Britain, was endemic in Ireland in the 18th century. Such was its popularity that nineteen companies in Dublin alone made or sold dueling pistols. The death rate in such encounters in Ireland was 1:4 whereas in England it was 1:14. The spread of the practice was assisted by supportive attitudes even within the judiciary and the legal establishment. John Scott, (aka Copper-faced Jack), Ist Earl of Clonmel, was an Irish Attorney General, Solicitor General and Lord Chief Justice between 1777-98. But he himself fought four duels and defended the practice, observing that …
‘There are cases where it may be, and when it is prudent for a man to fight a duel – cases in which the law does not afford him redress – cases of preserving malignity, cases of injured honour, cases of a wounded spirit; and a wounded spirit who can bear? In cases of this complexion the courts will never interfere with its discretionary authority against a man.’
The duel became increasingly socially unacceptable as the nineteenth century progressed, but in Ireland at least it remained an appropriate response to an insult until well into the 1820s. Prominent Irish politicians and aristocrats fought or threatened duels. In 1807, for example, William Congreve Alcock shot and killed John Alcock in a duel in Wexford. Both were contenders for the Wexford parliamentary seat. Alcock accused Colclough of attempting to steal voters to which he felt he was entitled. (www.soundcloud.com/irishhistory)
The duel was used by far more prominent politicians than Alcock and Colclough as a potential means of ridding oneself of inconvenient opponents. Before the passage of the Act of Union in 1800 a pugnacious supporter of the Irish Parliament pledged to challenge sufficient supporters of the Union to swing the vote against the template of Pitt and Castlereagh. In 1815 then Irish chief secretary Robert Peel challenged the leader of the Roman Catholic Irish opposition, Daniel O’Connell, to a dawn meeting (with pistols) in Ostend. The future Prime Minister made it to Belgium but O’Connell was arrested en route. Peel, naturally, accused O’Connell of having engineered his own arrest in order to avoid the confrontation. O’Connell, just as naturally, accused the chief secretary of having arranged his arrest for the same reason.
In February 1815 Daniel O’Connell fought a duel with a unionist member of Dublin Corporation, John d’Esterre in which d’Esterre died. Thereafter, so mythology has it, when he attended religious services, O’Connell always wore a white glove over his hand as a sign of penitence. O’Connell’s second on that occasion and subsequently on of his most prominent supporters in the 1828 Clare election, the O’Gorman Mahon, was an inveterate duelist. He is rumoured to have fought dozens and to have adopted the duel as ‘his favoured method of conflict resolution.’ Thackeray based his truculent character ‘The O’Mulligan’ (Mrs. Perkins’ Ball) on Mahon.
In the 1840s James Shields, an Irish born Illinois politician, who went on to represent three states in the U.S. Senate, challenged Abraham Lincoln to one-to-one combat over an alleged slight. The two actually faced each other (Lincoln, who towered over Shields, wisely chose swords rather than pistols) but the matter was resolved by the seconds before any blood was drawn. (www.soundcloud.com/irishhistory)
Even in the 1880s (1881 to be precise) – a time when duelling was supposed to have died out completely – when former Hussar William O’Shea first became aware that Charles Stewart Parnell was involved in an affair with his estranged wife he issued a challenge. However, when Parnell accepted O’Shea backed down. The duel was eventually fought out in the London divorce courts in November 1890, to Parnell’s detriment.
By the early 19th century it appears that duelling in Ireland had become a form of adventure sport for a bored aristocracy and an infinite resource for the ‘gentleman’ who doubled as an aristocratic bully. For example an Irish landlord who delighted in the name of Hyacinth O’Rorke, ‘was accustomed to take his walks abroad with a pistol in one hand and a horsewhip in the other’. After numerous duels and horse-whippings he met his match at the hands of a courageous magistrate, Phillip ‘Caoch’ Perceval, who had the good fortune to shoot him in the head in an encounter. The fact that ‘caoch’ is the Irish for ‘blind’ suggests that Perceval was exceptionally fortunate in killing the inveterate duellist with the florid name.
James Kelly, ‘That Damn’d thing called honour’: duelling in Ireland 1570-1860 (Cork University Press, 1995)