I’ve recently been reading the colourful memoirs of Jonah Barrington, an Irish lawyer, judge and politician from the eighteenth century. Barrington was a vocal opponent of the 1800 Act of Union that closed the Irish Parliament on College Green, and his published memoirs in the early nineteenth century were often humourous but also frequently cutting of his opponents. They give good insight into the life of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, not only inside the corridors of political power but socially too.
One interesting subject that emerges is the hobby of pistol dueling, with Barrington writing:
It is nearly incredible what a singular passion the Irish gentlemen (though in general excellent tempered fellows) formerly had for fighting each other and immediately becoming friends again. A Duel was indeed considered a necessary pieces of a young man’s education, but by no means a ground for any future animosity with his opponent: – on the contrary, proving the bravery of both, it only cemented their friendship.
Curious for more information, I stumbled upon an interesting article on the subject of dueling in Irish history by James Kelly, who noted that the Phoenix Park enjoyed a particular popularity in the city as far as the hobby went:
In the early and mid-eighteenth century, Dublin city was the dueling epicentre of the country, and the Phoenix Park emerged as the kingdom’s preferred killing field. The appeal of the Park lay in its size as well as its proximity to the city of Dublin. Duelists and their seconds could go there secure in the knowledge that they had an opportunity to blaze away free from interruption but within convenient access of the city should urgent medical help prove necessary.
The Phoenix Park wasn’t the only spot it seems a duel could be observed in eighteenth century Dublin. J.T Gilbert in his classic history of the city wrote about Lucas’s Coffee House on Cork Hill, writing that “the yard behind which was the scene of numerous duels; on such occasions the company flocked to the windows to see that the laws of honour were observed, and to lay wagers on the probable survivor of the combatants.” Right beside Dublin Castle, Lucas’s was demolished, along with The Eagle Tavern, for the construction of the Royal Exchange, which is now City Hall. James Kelly has noted that at least seven encounters, two of which ended in fatalities, occurred at the rear of Lucas’s between 1748 and 1758. If the Phoenix Park offered an ideal location for a duel, the taverns of the city offered the very opposite, and Kelly has noted that “because of space restrictions, duels with pistols in such confined environments could not be fought at the recommended distance of ten or twelve paces, and the closer the combatants the greater the risk of serious injury.”
St. Stephen’s Green witnessed some violence too, and Desmond McCabe has noted that in March/April 1718 there were two deaths in duels at the park, “arising out of strong or insulting language.” The last duel in the park was won by Captain William Whaley, of the notorious Whaley family who lived at 86 St. Stephen’s Green, forever associated with Dublin’s Hellfire Clubs. Whaley shot Counsellor Dennis Kelly dead in July 1790.
Padhraig Higgins’ assessment that “personal honor and public reputation were central to the identities of gentlemen in Ireland” in this period gets to the heart of just why dueling was so common place among Dublin’s elite, and politicians were often found participating in the fun and games. Henry Grattan was at the centre of one of the most interesting duels in the history of the city, motivated by political disagreement on the Act of Union, which Grattan vigorously opposed. Issac Corry and Grattan had verbally torn lumps out of each other inside the doomed Parliament, and when Corry challenged Grattan to a duel at Ballsbridge the challenge was accepted. Corry represented Newry in the Irish Parliament, and it seems the planned duel between the men aroused the suspicion of the authorities. Frank Hopkins has noted that “the sheriff attempted to have the duel stopped but was pushed into a ditch by Corry’s second.” Grattan succeeded in wounding Corry in the arm. Politics was a rather different game back then!
Not all of the Protestant elite in eighteenth century Dublin were in the business of shooting one another. Arthur Guinness, the celebrated brewer, was a member of a society known as the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick. This body was firmly opposed to dueling, and frequently met at the Rose Tavern, which was one of the most notable taverns of Dublin, though only a stones-throw away from Lucas’s Coffee House! Dueling remained something of a hobby for the elite in the early nineteenth century, albeit largely beyond Dublin. Even Daniel O’Connell got in on the act, and we’ve previously looked at his last duel in 1815 on the site before.
The memoirs of Jonah Barrington are available to read here.