Newswire » Local History » Dueling In Ireland – A History

Dueling In Ireland – A History

Dueling In Ireland – A History – Craig O’ Reilly takes an interesting look into the history and weirdly gentleman etiquette of dueling in Ireland 

While the phrase “pistols at dawn” may bring to mind a Hollywood movie, or “dueling with a rapier” makes you think of the film Rob Roy, what you may find if you look into the history of battles to the death is just how polite some of them were. Reading commentators of the time you find that there were actually all kinds of rules laying out the proper etiquette for challenging your mortal enemy.

John Lyde Wilson actually published a code of honour for the practice; filled with many details that would make even the staunchest defender of political correctness roll their eyes:

When you are insulted, you are to be silent on the matter, and speak to no-one about about it but a trusted friend (your second).

Use every effort to sooth and tranquilise your enemy. Assure them that they simply misunderstood the situation. Try not to defame them or call them a liar.

You are encouraged to put your objections into writing and send it as a private little note.

All of the above seems reasonable enough, however, the etiquette can become somewhat more exacting, if you are on the receiving end of a note that is abusive, you must decline it on the grounds it was ungentlemanly. Or if someone insults your messenger it will be grounds for a challenge. This must be where the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” comes from.

Towards the end of the handbook, Wilson includes The Irish Code of Honor, as agreed at Clonmel in 1777 by the gentlemen delegates of Tipperary, Galway, Mayo and Roscommon, and prescribed for general adoption throughout Ireland. It declares that in a duel “if swords are used the parties engage till one is well-bloodied, disabled or disarmed; or until after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.”

If already you are getting the idea that these rules of etiquette were not always followed you would be right. In his two volume work on the history of dueling, J.G Milligan comments lamented the fact that : in Ireland, to this day, in many of its wild districts, a pugnacious ruffian will drag his jacket after him, and fight unto the death any spalpeen who ventures to touch it.”

While it seems a bit unfair to single out the Irish when dueling was in fact a widespread practice in many European countries, our small island seems to have excelled at dueling just as much as any other art we put our mind to. The Irish dueling scene is full of many interesting characters, whose exploits could easily be made into a blockbuster action movie.

Take Daniel O’Connell for instance, the renowned orator and great political leader of Ireland. Although he was against the use of violence, as a young man he was involved in and won a duel  against royal marine John D’Esterre, who took offence to O’Connell calling members of the Dublin Corporation “beggerly”.

It was widely believed O’Connell would lose against the more experienced D’Esterre who was renowned for his marksmanship. Many in Dublin Castle were hoping O’Connell would be killed, since he was seen as a major thorn in the side of the establishment. It was an upset then, when the man who would later come to be known as “King Dan” wounded his opponent, who died two days later of blood loss. Although he had not being the one to make the challenge, the fact that D’Esterre had been destitute deeply affected  O’ Connell’s conscience, and he paid an allowance to the man’s daughter for thirty years afterward.

Not all were so afflicted however. Some people lived for getting involved in duels. Beauchamp Bagenal was called the handsomest man in Ireland, a young buck who fought duels in Paris and scaled the walls of a convent in Lisbon. His reputation for shooting his own guests however, seems even among his own contemporaries, a little far-fetched. He did not shoot ALL of them, just some.

The list of Irish characters involved in the practice of dueling is long, but perhaps when it comes to sheer eccentricity, none is more famous or remarkable than George Robert Fitzgerald. Legend has it that this man, who went by the moniker “Mad Fighting Fitzgerald” was involved in twenty six duels before his twenty-sixth birthday. Always getting in altercations, he relished the opportunity to fight anyone to the death.
Fitzgerald lived in Merrion Square having returned after blowing his wife’s fortune on gambling. One day, he got into such a row with his father over money that he handcuffed the man to a dancing bear. While this incident may seem just another part of the legend, Fitzgerald was actually sentenced and went to prison for the crime. The only surprise is that he did not insist on challenging the judge himself to a duel. He certainly would have since on another occasion he had challenged the future King of France Charles X after the monarch had him thrown out of a gambling den. Luckily for the future King, “commoners could not challenge Charles”.

One of Fitzgerald’s more infamous duels took place in Castlebar. His opponent was Irish Politician Richard Martin, an animal rights activist who had survived two ship-wrecks and over a hundred duels. Not really one to mess around with. His nickname was “Humanity Dick”, given to him by King George IV. Despite the name, Richard Martin was also viewed as a harsh landlord in Ireland. He and Mad Fitzgerald engaged in a duel that would probably rival anything from the Star Wars movies; starting near the bridge at the bottom of Main Street, the two jumped from one side of the street to the other smashing into market stalls and causing a huge ruckus that eventually finished on Ellison Street. Amazingly, aside from losing a fair amount of blood, no-one was seriously injured, and Fitzgerald had to settle for a draw.

Unfortunately, handiness with a rapier or a pistol could only get you so far in the 1700s. Though he had a reputation of being charming and courteous when he was not dueling, Fitzgerald was ultimately hanged for conspiracy to murder his father’s attorney in 1786, thus ending a long and adventurous career.

By the time of World War 1, dueling had been made illegal throughout the Western world, due in no small part to the fact that it was mainly between officers. Like so many practices throughout history that drift out of fashion, it waned because beyond all moral objection it was becoming a financial liability. It may be said however, that in modern times the ability to verbally abuse your enemies online by way of a short 280 character note is more in vogue than ever before on social media, so perhaps it’s lucky pistols and rapiers are not necessary to settle disputes, otherwise we’d all be in major trouble!

Leave a Reply

© 1991-2014 Fountain Resource Group Ltd. · Registered Company Number: 193051C · RSS · Website designed by Solid Website Design