If you type the words ‘I met with’ into a Google search, in Ireland at least, an obliging or very prescriptive algorithm will add the words ‘Napper Tandy’ immediately. I haven’t tried this in the UK, the USA, Uzbekistan or the Falklands so I’m not quite sure if it works there as well. Maybe if you’re listening on the web you might give it a try and get back to us.
All of which goes to show that Google has obviously engaged the services of a number of Irish Republican algorithms, because the phrase ‘I met with Napper Tandy’ comes from one of the great rebel tunes The Wearing of the Green. The song starts with the patently ridiculous assertion that ‘the shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground’, goes on to claim that there is a law against ‘the wearing of the green’ – presumably it was just out of fashion at the time – and goes on to observe that ‘I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand and he said ‘How’s poor old Ireland and how does she stand’ – which scans very badly indeed as you have to extend the ‘how’ to a ‘how-ow’ to make it work.
The song was a Dublin street ballad about the failure of the 1798 rebellion and the bloodletting that followed. The version that includes the reference to Napper Tandy was written by the playwright Dion Boucicault for his 1864 play Arrah na Pogue, set in Wicklow during the United Irishmen’s insurrection of 1798.
But who was the remarkable Mr. Tandy?
Well, like a lot of the United Irishmen, James Napper Tandy was a Protestant, Irish Republican revolutionary, born in 1739 who went to the same Quaker school as Edmund Burke. He became a Dublin City councillor, railed and fought against municipal corruption, and advocated an Irish boycott of British goods in retaliation for tariffs and restrictions imposed by the British government on Irish products. Except, of course, they didn’t call it a boycott back then because he didn’t happen for another century or so.
In 1784 he became involved in a major spat with the powerful Irish Attorney General John Fitzgibbon. Fitzgibbon, provoked by Tandy’s support for parliamentary reform, accused him of being unable to pay his debts and of being responsible for riots in Dublin . Tandy, in response, took out an advertisement accusing Fitzgibbon of lying. It was tantamount to challenging the Attorney General to a duel. Just in case Fitzgibbon didn’t get the message Tandy strapped on his sword and paraded up and down College Green, in front of the Irish parliament building. Fitzgibbon haughtily chose to ignore the challenge on the basis that Tandy was ‘not a gentleman’. Ouch!
Tandy was always to the fore when it came to radical causes, he was, for example, strongly influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution, and equally supportive of the American colonists in their struggle for independence. In 1791 he, along with Theobald Wolfe Tone, became one of the founding members of the Society of the United Irishmen. None of this endeared him to the authorities and in 1792 he fell foul of his second top lawyer, John Toler, the Solicitor General. Toler made a reference in a parliamentary debate to the fact that only Tandy’s own mother would have found him physically attractive. [Based on the attached portraits you can decide for yourselves!] Rather than issue a challenge, which Toler indicated in advance that he would be happy to accept, Tandy sought an explanation for the derogatory remarks. His fear was that, as the insult had been made under parliamentary privilege, if he fought and won a duel against Toler, he would be sentenced to death for murder. The episode did little for his reputation until the issuing of a challenge led to Tandy’s arrest. He ended up spending barely an hour in jail but his brief inacareration went some way towards rehabilitating his reputation as a radical firebrand.
He also had a short career as an architectural critic, albeit more muscular than the current Prince Charles, when he led a mob against the building works taking place at the new Custom House, designed by James Gandon. This particular riot was conducted on behalf of the inhabitants of the area around the older model whose trade would be affected when the new building was finally commissioned. Later, fearing arrest for having taken the oath of the Catholic secret society, the Defenders, Tandy fled to the USA. When he fetched up in Boston the Freeman’s Journal waspishly noted the fact and warned the people of the city of the imminent threat from Tandy of ‘plague, pestilence and sedition’, suggesting that he was capable of some primitive form of germ warfare while rousing a mob to violence.
Tandy returned to Europe in 1798 and was all at sea during the United Irishmen’s rebellion, having been given command of a French ship which landed in Donegal. It left rather hurriedly, without achieving very much, after the defeat of General Humbert’s invading French force in Mayo. He was later arrested in Hamburg and handed over to the British authorities. He was sentenced to death for his brief Donegal vacation but was freed under pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte himself, and fled to France.
Radical United Irishman, James Napper Tandy, who never quite managed to fight a duel with anyone very interesting, died of dysentery in Bordeaux two hundred and fifteen years ago, on this day.