Irish elections can be boisterous and violent affairs but none more so than the Co.Wexford election to the British House of Commons in 1807, just a few years after the Act of Union.
Among the contestants (who, unbeknownst to himself included the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan) were two local grandees William Congreve Alcock and John Colclough. Colclough’s brother, who gloried in the traditional Irish monicker of Caesar, had been the local MP but was a prisoner of war in France. The Colclough’s, who were generally popular landlords, had lived at Tintern Abbey, a former monastery, since the mid-16th century.
The election campaign was a bitter one, polling was due to take place on 1 June but with just two days to go Alcock took exception to what he alleged was an attempt by Colclough to steal the support of tenants obligated to vote for him in what was, by today’s standards, a slightly democratic election. In what appears like a piece of egregious over-reaction, he challenged Colclough to a duel and in the encounter that followed Alcock shot his political opponent dead. As the MP for Athlone, George Tierney observed tartly, ‘that’s one way of getting an election’. As duelling was still socially acceptable in early 19th century Ireland Alcock was acquitted of murder and allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons. But he was not to continue in office for long – two years after the duel he was committed to an asylum. The Irish judge and memoirist, Jonah Barrington wrote of Alcock that ‘alas! the acquitted duellist suffered more in mind than his victim had done in body. The horror of the scene, and the solemnity of the trial, combined to make a fatal inroad on his reason! He became melancholy; his understanding declined; a dark gloom enveloped his entire intellect; and an excellent young man and perfect gentleman at length sank into irrecoverable imbecility.’
But there is an interesting postscript to this sad tale. Not all those affected by the duel came out of it badly.
Colclough’s estate at Tintern Abbey was managed by his steward, one James Kennedy. Because of the absence of Caesar Colclough in France Kennedy continued to run the estate until his Caesar’s return in 1815. During that period something of the order of £80,000 disappeared. Nobody could pin it directly on the steward but in 1818 Kennedy was dismissed at the behest of Caesar Colclough’s wife, Jane Stratford Kirwan. The money remains unaccounted for. There are, however, persistent rumours that at least some of it may have been used a generation later to fund the migration to the USA of the Kennedy family in the 1840s, and perhaps even to set up the Boston saloon that became the basis of the family fortune. A descendant of James Kennedy, by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, went on to become President of the United States of American in 1961.
Was the Kennedy fortune based on the tragic outcome of a tragic confrontation between two Irish aristocrats? Perish the thought.
William Congreve Alcock shot his opponent John Colclough dead in a duel 207 years ago, on this day.