Daniel's deadly duels
Although a crack shot himself, Daniel O’Connell preferred to use words rather than bullets to win his arguments – until he was left with no choice
During Daniel O’Connell’s lifetime, two British prime ministers fought duels while in office. In 1798, William Pitt exchanged shots with another MP, after having accused the opposition of sabotaging the defence of the country. Neither man was hit, and both emerged with honour intact. In 1829, the Duke of Wellington fought a duel with Lord Winchelsea over Catholic emancipation; one fired wide, the other into the air.
The period between these two encounters marked the golden age of politicians duelling. In 1809, two cabinet ministers,
Lord Castlereagh and the future prime minister, George Canning, exchanged shots following various underhand manoeuvres to
remove Castlereagh from office. Their first
shots missed, but on the second attempt Castlereagh wounded Canning in the thigh.
During the passing of the Act of Union, O’Connell’s childhood hero, Henry Grattan, fought a duel with a pro-Union MP, Isaac Corry, and wounded him in the arm.
The victory was said to have raised Grattan’s standing considerably throughout the country. In 1804,the vice-president of the United States, Aaron Burr, killed one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, in an encounter that was viewed more as an assassination than an affair of honour.
ON DECEMBER 6th, 1838, the former president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, took to the floor of the House of Representatives, to expose a conspiracy against the life of Daniel O’Connell. His intervention followed a spectacular clash between the United States ambassador to Britain, Andrew Stevenson, and O’Connell that summer, which had almost resulted in a duel.
O’Connell had offended Stevenson by denouncing him as “a slave breeder, a man who traffics in blood, and a disgrace to human nature”. Furious, Stevenson demanded an apology and considered sending an immediate challenge. But O’Connell refused to back down. More importantly, he refused to entertain the idea of fighting a duel. As O’Connell’s political opponents in Britain had come to learn in the 1830s he viewed duelling with profound contempt, “a practice inconsistent with common sense, and a violation of the divine law”.
O’Connell’s refusal to duel infuriated his enemies in Britain and was seen as the ultimate proof that he was a scoundrel. It was considered unforgivable for a gentleman to abuse all around him freely, but then decline to provide satisfaction when challenged. And O’Connell was the master of invective, abusing his enemies in and out of parliament with a ferocity that has rarely been equalled.
During one debate, the dipsomaniac Lord Lyndhurst staggered to his feet to attack O’Connell, but was put down with the devastating one-liner: “I would advise the gentleman to hold his liquor.” Likewise, the well-fed, Lord Alvanley, in another debate, was dismissed as “a bloated buffoon”. But every time a challenge was offered, O’Connell refused to accept it and worse, refused to moderate his conduct or his language. Duelling may have been in decline by the 1830s, but O’Connell’s refusal to accept the conventions of the time offered one more reason for his enemies to despise him.
IT HAD ALL BEEN very different when O’Connell was a young man, studying to be a lawyer in London. Then, aged 20, he had written in his diary that although duelling was a vice, he couldn’t help but reflect on its “certain charm”, and “the independence which it bestows on a man”. At the time he was considering fighting a duel.
O’Connell had attended a dinner party on December 17th, 1795, and had been attracted to one of the young women there. However, he had a rival for her affections, Douglas Thompson, who reacted angrily when O’Connell interrupted his advances. Considerably taller than his opponent, O’Connell was not intimidated and accused Thompson of being a rascal, prompting a letter demanding an apology the next morning, the first step in a duel.
Deciding to confront Thomson in person, O’Connell called to his house, and after a heated conversation Thompson grabbed his cane and struck O’Connell three times. Even though he was carrying his own cane, O’Connell did not respond. Later that day, he tried to send a challenge, but Thompson reported everything to the magistrates and O’Connell found himself embroiled in a troubling legal case. Worse, for weeks afterwards he was consumed with self-doubt about why he hadn’t struck back and he worried that this signified a lack of courage.
Called to the bar back in Ireland in 1798, O’Connell quickly established himself as one of the leading barristers in the country, intimidating judges with his fierce aggression, and bewildering opposing counsels with his legal dexterity, superb oratory, and ingenious stratagems. In 1813, he acted in a case in Limerick, and outwitted his opposing counsel, Maurice Magrath, to such an extent that a frustrated Magrath kicked him surreptitiously under the box. Enraged, O’Connell grabbed his brief bag and struck Magrath across the face with it.
Afterwards, O’Connell was still not happy, and sent a challenge, and the two men met at 6am the next day to fight a duel. But, on the field, O’Connell allowed for a compromise to be agreed, the men shook hands and the duel was averted. O’Connell’s own second, the man responsible for arranging the details, resigned in protest, and for two years afterwards the whole affair cast a shadow over O’Connell’s character. It was not considered honourable to withdraw from the field of battle without exchanging shots, and rumours circulated that O’Connell was a coward who would never match his verbal aggression with physical force.
By 1815, O’Connell was the acknowledged Catholic champion, and his enemies decided to break his power for ever. A member of Dublin Corporation, John Norcot D’Esterre, was encouraged to challenge O’Connell to a duel, confident that if O’Connell refused he would be labelled a coward and lose the support of the people, and if he accepted he would lose his life. For D’Esterre was a crack shot, and it was said that he could snuff out a candle from 10 paces. The provocation was remarkably mild: O’Connell had dismissed Dublin Corporation as “a beggarly corporation”, but this was nothing more than a deliberate attempt to assassinate O’Connell and his reputation. D’Esterre set-out with a horsewhip to reprimand O’Connell and declaimed loudly that O’Connell was a spiritless coward who would never fight him. Faced with no alternative, O’Connell engaged the services of a second, Major William McNamara, and accepted the challenge.
A huge crowd gathered at Bishop’s Court, in Co Kildare, on February 1st to watch the encounter. O’Connell was in high spirits, joking with the crowd and appearing supremely confident. D’Esterre arrived late, and was visibly nervous. McNamara came from a duelling family (his son was also a noted duellist and called his pistols, “Bas gan sagart” – “Death without a priest”) and proceeded to give O’Connell detailed advice. But O’Connell raised his hand and made one request. He begged McNamara not to say another word, until the duel was over. Both men took two loaded pistols and they were placed on the ground. D’Esterre fired first and missed, the bullet entering the ground before O’Connell’s feet. O’Connell aimed low and took his shot. The bullet hit D’Esterre. He bent a little on his right leg, turned round, and fell on his face.
A loud triumphant cry from the crowd echoed across the ground. The surgeons rushed to help D’Esterre but were unable to find the bullet, which passed through the bladder to the lower part of the spine. The injury was fatal and he died two days later.
On the journey back to Dublin O’Connell was despondent. He was a crack shot and had aimed low to avoid killing, but he knew from the way D’Esterre had fallen that the wound was serious. That night there were wild celebrations in Dublin. Word of the result reached Daniel Murray, the soon-to-be Archbishop of Dublin, and he exclaimed in triumph: “Heaven be praised! Ireland is safe!”
THE KILLING OF D’Esterre did not turn O’Connell against duelling, at least not in the short term. He immediately followed it up by insulting the chief secretary, Robert Peel, and went out of his way to fight a duel with him. Twice he was prevented by magistrates (the second time in England), and the duel could not proceed. It was only in 1816 that O’Connell realised he was wrong, following his return to the Catholic faith. He accepted that “the heat of blood”, and “the vanity of a criminal obedience to a more than criminal custom” had blinded his judgment and he made “a vow in heaven” never to fight another duel. In the years ahead, no matter what the provocation, no matter what polite society in England thought, it was a vow which he never broke.
Patrick Geoghegan is the author of King Dan: the rise of Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829, published by Gill and Macmillan and co-presents Talking History on Newstalk 106-108. He will be speaking on the life of O’Connell to the National Library of Ireland Society on Wednesday, March 11th.