The Duke of Wellington’s drunken Dublin years

Long before he introduced Napoleon to his Waterloo (200 years ago on June 18th), the idle young duke-to-be could be found carousing the hot spots of his native Dublin. Let’s take the tour


Ah, Dublin: coddle; Old Mr Brennan; Molly Malone; Bang Bang; field marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

We don’t tend to think of the first Duke of Wellington as a Dubliner, although he was born here, lived here and inspired the Wellington boot, which is, let’s face it, part of our national costume.

On the other hand, he also supposedly said of his Irishness that “being born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse”.

“He never said that,” corrects Prof Patrick Geoghegan, TCD historian and presenter of Newstalk’s Talking History. Daniel O’Connell, Geoghegan explains, said that line of Wellesley to disparage his Irishness at a monster meeting in 1843.

The notion that Wellesley said those words “damaged him more than anything else”, says Geoghegan. “The reason the Irish don’t accept him is that it looks like he rejected us first.”

Here is a tour of some of his Dublin haunts.


6 Merrion Street (now 24 Merrion Street, part of the Merrion Hotel)

Wellesley’s family home was Dangan Castle, Co Meath (now a ruin), but the Dublin newspapers announced his birth as May 1st, 1769, at No 6 Merrion Street, now 24 Upper Merrion Street and part of the Merrion Hotel. He was the third surviving son of the first Earl of Mornington.

I go there with my friend, the historian and walking tour guide Dr Kevin McKenna. “The only reason they would have had a house in Dublin was because they’d come here for the season for parliament,” says McKenna. Up until the mid-18th century, the fancy parts of the city were north of the river. Then James Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, built Leinster House.

When asked if he was worried about being so far from “society”, the earl replied: “Wherever I go, society will follow.”

“And this was society following,” says McKenna, pointing at the Merrion Hotel. There’s a plaque proclaiming it to be the duke’s birthplace. Inside there’s a Wellesley Room, a Dangan Room and a Wellington Room. On the stairs is a bust of Wellington. “I’d spot the nose a mile away,” he says.


Whyte’s Academy on Grafton Street

We wander up to Bewley’s on Grafton Street (currently closed for renovations), the site of Whyte’s Academy, where young Arthur went to school.

“Samuel Whyte was probably considered the greatest educationalist of the day,” Patrick Geoghegan tells me, when I meet him earlier that morning. “He believed in a truly broad curriculum. They would have taught things like fencing, oratory, and the difference between a comic speech and a serious speech and how to deliver them.”

As a man plays saxophone to an electronic beat, Kevin and I read a plaque on the wall listing some of Whyte’s illustrious alumni, including the Duke of Wellington, Thomas Moore and Robert Emmet.

Wellesley wasn’t here very long. In 1781 he was shipped off to Eton, which he hated, although he supposedly said that the battle of Waterloo was “won on the playing fields of Eton”.

In fact, he didn’t, says Geoghegan. “I don’t even think Eton had playing fields at the time. I think that’s another of those inventions.”


Dublin Castle

I like the sound of young Arthur Wellesley. His older brother Richard described him as “perfectly idle”, bought him a commission in the army in 1787, and then got him a job as aide de camp at Dublin Castle 1788.

Dublin was “all about connections,” Geoghegan says. “And the military was the route for a younger son. Nothing marked him out, but he was important enough that he was aide de camp to two viceroys.”

McKenna and I go up to Dublin Castle, where the woman at the ticket office tells me they have nothing on display about Wellington, although we do find a portrait of the duke in a book on the castle’s artworks.

Aides de camp didn’t have that much to do, really. (One of the vicereines referred to them as “the awkward squad”.) So Wellesley had plenty of time to double-job.


Irish Parliament (Bank of Ireland, College Green)

In 1790 Wellesley became an Irish MP for Trim, where his family lived. “It would have been a rotten borough,” says McKenna. “Pocket borough was another word for them. You had it in your pocket . . . He was there as part of a voting bloc.”

The parliament is now Bank of Ireland. In the House of Lords are tapestries featuring the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry, as well as four uncaptioned busts looking down from above: one of Lord Nelson with his pinned sleeve, one each of Georges III and IV, and one of the Duke of Wellington.

His early political career wasn’t that distinguished. He spoke against Henry Grattan, leader of the Irish Patriot Party, becoming a “freeman” of Dublin. Then, in what has become a tradition for Irish politicians, there’s no record of him speaking for three years.

Was it not an exciting time to be an MP, at least? “Yes,” says Geoghegan. “You had a pro-Catholic viceroy in 1795, and for 100 days it looked like Catholic emancipation would be granted. You have [the French landing in] Bantry in 1796.” He pauses. “I think it was exciting if you were actually engaging with it. Which he wasn’t.”


Lower Ormond Quay

So what was Wellesley doing instead? He was lodging on Lower Ormond Quay in the house of a boot-maker, living the life of a dissolute young rake and getting deeper and deeper into debt. “He would bet on almost anything, including the time it might take him to walk from Cornelscourt outside Dublin to Leeson Street,” writes Lady Jane Wellesley, one of his descendents in her book Wellington: A Journey Through My Family (2008).

She also references accounts of her ancestor being fined for breaking into a woman’s house and for “beating a Frenchman and seizing his stick in a Dublin bawdy house”.

“Drinking and carousing and bad behaviour were considered part of the lifestyle almost,” says Geoghegan. “Part of it was that you could show you could afford the lifestyle of a rake and someone who drank a lot and gambled.”


The Kildare Street Club (Alliance Française) 

What sort of places might Wellington have frequented? Possibly Daly’s Club on Dame Street, which was apparently linked by tunnel to the Houses of Parliament. “That was a gambling den, essentially,” says McKenna as we walk down Dame Street. “Temple Bar would have had a lot of bawdy houses. The Eagle Tavern, around where the IFI is now, that’s where the rebels and rakes would be hanging out. It’s where the society of the United Irishmen was founded . . . It’s very likely he crossed paths with these people . . . If you were able to follow him around for just one day, you’d have enough for a book,” he adds wistfully.

Wellington was definitely a member of the Kildare Street Club, a slightly more respectable establishment that was founded in the 1780s. The existing building dates from after Wellesley’s time, but there are little stone monkeys playing billiards at the bottom of one of the pillars. It’s now the Alliance Française.

“Poor Wellington,” I say, as we stare at it. “His club is now filled with Frenchmen.”


Wellington Bridge (Ha’penny Bridge)

Wellington’s indebtedness and low prospects led to him being rejected by the family of his future wife, Kitty Pakenham. In 1796 he went off to fight for the empire in India. He returned to marry Kitty with his prospects renewed.

He spent time in Ireland again as chief secretary in 1807, but was probably here very little for the remainder of his life.

Immediately after the victory at Waterloo, Wellington’s name was attached to lots of places around Ireland and the UK. There are Wellington roads in Dublin and Cork and a Wellesley Place in Dublin.

And there was the Wellington Bridge, the tolled pedestrian bridge built the year after Waterloo, colloquially known as the Ha’penny Bridge and officially named the Liffey Bridge from 1922.

These days there’s nothing very Wellingtonian about the Ha’penny Bridge. “Maybe we should hang an old welly boot off it,” says Kevin McKenna as we cross it.


Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park

There are still two monuments to Wellington. One is a statue in Trim, subject of a bomb scare in 2011. And then, in the Phoenix Park, there’s the Wellington Testimonial, the tallest stone obelisk in Europe.

The bronze plaques on the side include depictions of Waterloo and Wellesley’s Indian campaigns and are made from cannons captured at Waterloo. Local lore has it that a party in a secret room in the base was followed by a sleeping drunkard being bricked up alive within.

Work began on the obelisk in 1817. “There was such a hysteria of celebrations [after Waterloo], it would almost be impossible not to be caught up in it,” says Geoghegan. “But they ran out of funds in the 1820s and it wasn’t finished until 1861. I think that reflects a lack of enthusiasm.”

But doesn’t its very existence suggest people loved him? No, says Geoghegan. This “cold, aloof, stubborn man” wasn’t popular.

Though he was prime minister at the time of the Catholic Relief Act (he was PM twice), “Daniel O’Connell extracted it from him . . . He’s seen as the enemy of Catholic rights from the 1820s on. There’s a hostility there that goes on in the 1830s and 1840s.” O’Connell reappropriated Waterloo as a battle won with betrayed Irish blood (about one-third of the army were Irish).

Today the obelisk is surrounded by people picnicking and playing football, and a few men are drinking on the steps. The panels have been embellished by latter-day graffiti artists (“Gav 97,” proclaims the plaque about India).

Should we reclaim the Duke? He certainly wouldn’t have seen himself as a Dubliner, says McKenna. “Being gentry was about your land and your family seat. A landed aristocrat would never have considering himself as coming from a city. That was for the great unwashed.”

Would the duke have thought of himself as Irish? “He never rejected Irishness,” says Geoghegan. “He just had a different sense of Ireland within the British empire. He certainly wouldn’t have been ashamed of his Irish birth, but he would have seen himself as an imperialist, as a figure within the empire.”

Nowadays, that’s anathema to any sense of identity, in Ireland or Britain. McKenna can’t imagine their ever being a “Wellington Day” in this country.

He pauses.

“You know those welly-throwing competitions at rural fairs, where you see who can throw the welly farthest? I think that would be the nearest thing.”

  • Kevin McKenna runs historical walking tours of Dublin, Patrick Geoghegan can be heard on Taking History every Sunday at 7pm on Newstalk
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