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Dubs’ Deadly Duels

A brace of US dueling pistols dating from about 1815 and similar to the firearm used by Daniel O’Connell in his famous duel in that year.



Dubs’ Deadly Duels – Patrick Ryan takes a look at the history of dueling and Dubliners’ love affair with the deadly method of upholding honour.

Combat with a sword or firearm to decide matters of honour and reputation between gentlemen is an essential element in romantic tales, and also integral to the the development of Dublin, with some of her most storied sons quick to pick up a sabre or pistol when offended.
This is particularly true in the Liberties which for better or worse enjoys a gloriously gory place in the history of these deadly deciders.

Political debates have long lead to heated interactions but In his book A history of the city of Dublin published in 1861, Sir John Thomas Gilbert explains that at Lucas’s Coffee House on Cork Hill, near where our City Hall now stands, the fists waved in the air gripped the stock of a rapier or pistol long before our councillors were getting stuck into each other in the chambers.
Gilbert notes “the yard behind…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.”

Historian James Kelly of St Patrick’s College, DCU had found at least seven encounters at the Cork Hill yard between 1748 and 1758, two of which left men dead, while the nearby Eagle Tavern was even more notorious since a lack of space obliged the gents to merrily blast away at less-than-usual 10 paces, greatly increasing the combatants’ chances of prematurely meeting the Grim Reaper.
St. Stephen’s Green was another popular spot for such risky encounters, the last of which involved local resident Captain William Whaley, closely linked to the infamous dens of debauchery that were the Hellfire Clubs, who shot Dennis Kelly dead in a duel at at the park in July, 1790.

Of course across the Liffey the far larger Phoenix Park was another handy option for any offended elite. No shortage of space, not too far from a surgeon if you got wounded, and as the authorities began to take a dim view of duelling, a far greater chance of the engagement running its course.
Duels developed from knights’ trial-by-combat and by the Renaissance formal codes were laid down in France and Italy, the outcome being less important than the principle of a gentleman obtaining satisfaction and maintaining his honour by being prepared to kill, and be killed.
“In effect, it provided each individual with a code of behaviour by which he should live,” explains James Kelly in a piece on honour and duelling for History Ireland.

By 1777 the summer assizes in Clonmel, Tipperary drew up a 26-point code for Irish duels which all gentlemen were urged to copy and keep with their brace of pistols, and which urged Seconds to do all in their power to obtain an apology before the shooting started.

Swordsmanship almost guaranteed serious injury and depended a lot on skill and athleticism, so in this part of the world pistols soon became the weapons of choice. The Principals and their Seconds ensured fair play as reputations were at stake and adhering to a code offered protection against any later criminal prosecution.
“If the premise is that duelling is a quasi-legal institution to remedy a conflict, it would be a problem if the outcome is based on who’s a better shot,” explains Professor Paul Shea of Bates College in Maine, who has written about the practice in the Southern USA.

It’s often claimed that canny gunsmiths designed exquisitely crafted duelling pistols to be as as inaccurate as they were ornate and the lack of a rifled barrel and heavy recoil were indeed severe drawbacks, as was the distance at which the parties took aim, generally about 10 paces (roughly 30 feet) where even modern marksmen would struggle. However experts today using the old weapons are still able to hit targets accurately and consistently, with practice.

Your chances of being mortally wounded in a pistol duel were less than 10 percent but it’s worth remembering police and military typically opt for 9mm sidearms rather than a modern .45 calibre handgun. By comparison duelling pistols often fired .52 (13 mm), .58 (15 mm) or even .65 (17 mm) balls and shooting your mouth off in public about another gentleman carried a real risk of him trying to shoot your head off and being able to walk away without fear of arrest.

According to the noted 18th century Irish barrister and politician Jonah Barrington this was a key part of a youth’s education.
“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.”
The practice might have been condemned by the churches and criticised by everyone from Arthur Guinness to George Washington but Irishmen like Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Henry Gratton and Richard Martin, nicknamed “Humanity Dick” for his animal rights campaigns (and who was involved in at least 100 such encounters) all fought duels and added to their reputations through them.
Surprisingly even Daniel O’Connell was willing to take up arms if sufficiently offended, including against the Prime Minister of the day.

Though famous now for his rejection of the physical force republicanism of the Young Irelanders, O’Connell was frustrated by what he called the “beggerly” treatment of his cause by Dublin Corporation. Enraged, one of their members John D’Esterre, a Protestant former Royal Marine who was a crack shot and almost bankrupt challenged O’Connell, setting-out with a horsewhip to publicly lash his opponent in the street, loudly declaring him a coward.
Two years earlier the Kerryman had himself called out a fellow barrister – whom he alleged had kicked him under a table in court! – to a duel but reached a compromise and shook hands at the very last moment, to the dismay of his family who feared the stain an apparent show of cowardice might leave on the O’Connell name.

D’Esterre made a grave error in challenging O’Connell, who had been quietly practising for such an eventuality for some time, to a duel, which took place at a private estate in Bishopscourt, Kildare on February 2nd, 1815 using firearms bearing notches from previous kills. Inexplicably the former Marine’s shot missed while O’Connell’s nerve and aim held as he put a round through the groin of the Dublin Corporation member, who died two days later.
Just a few weeks before Napoleon escaped Elba delighted Catholics in Dublin were lighting bonfires to welcome O’Connell home but privately the man they idolised as “The Liberator” was deeply distressed and offered half his income to D’Esterre’s pregnant wife, who refused though she accepted his offer to pay for the upkeep of her daughter, who like her widowed mother later married a member of the Guinness family.

In the decades that followed O’Connell often wore a glove or wrapped a handkerchief around the hand that fired the fatal shot while in a church or when he passed the door of D’Esterre’s widow, yet in the immediate aftermath only his arrest avoided further bloodshed when on two different occasions he came close to duelling with Prime Minister Robert Peel, whom he nicknamed “Orange Peel” for his support for Protestant institutions at the expense of Catholics.

O’Connell never duelled again and his opposition to a practice which was technically attempted murder was mirrored in society by the 1840s, with the newspapers decrying that one law existed for the rich and another for the poor who would face the hangman in similar circumstances.

Yet Abraham Lincoln came close to duelling after a serious argument at that time, and by the Civil War the US Navy had lost almost as many officers to duels as to combat at sea. Even a young Mark Twain narrowly sidestepped when his Second cleverly managed to convince his irate opponent of the writer’s prowess with a pistol.
Of course duelling, of sorts, would soon be synonymous with America’s Wild West thanks to new firearms and though God made all men Sam Colt now made all men equal.

Few legendary gunfighters were of noble birth but many started out as professional card players, and just as the in Liberties a century earlier, political insults or accusations of cheating often ended in bloody face-offs allowing winners to avoid the hangman and undertakers to avoid the poorhouse.

Whether on Boot Hill or Cork Hill, ultimately everyone in a graveyard votes the same.

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