Daniel O’Connell and the Night of the Big Wind

In Liberator: the life and death of Daniel O’Connell 1830–1847 [Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 2010], the second volume of his biography of O’Connell, Patrick M Geoghegan writes

On 5 January 1839 a scandal engulfed the [Precursor] society, and O’Connell suffered one of the greatest betrayals of his life. He had spent the day with [Peter] Purcell [the most important mail-coach operator in Ireland and later founder-chairman of the Great Southern & Western Railway] at the Corn Exchange, attending various committee meetings, and afterwards they walked arm-in-arm in friendly conversation back to O’Connell’s home at Merrion Square.

O’Connell begged Purcell to join him and his family for dinner, but Purcell excused himself and the two men ‘parted at the door as friends part, who expect to meet next day’. There was some time before dinner, so O’Connell entered his study, where he picked up that day’s Freeman’s Journal.  He began reading it and was astonished to find a letter from Purcell exposing financial irregularities in the Precursor Society and threatening to resign unless they were resolved.

Purcell had discovered that the funds of the society had been lodged in O’Connell’s name in the National Bank, and implied that O’Connell had turned a political movement to his own pecuniary advantage and had used ‘the garb of patriotism’ for his own ends. Demanding a full investigation, Purcell called for the money to be placed in the hands of publicly appointed treasurers.

The source cited is John O’Connell Recollections and experiences during a parliamentary career from 1833 to 1848 2 vols London 1849 (although O’Connell did not, as far as I could see, give a date for the incident.

In fact, the date given is wrong. The Freeman’s Journal for 5 January 1839 contains no letter from, or information attributed to, Peter Purcell. His letter was written on 5 January, a Saturday, but was published on the following Monday, 7 January 1839.

O’Connell’s account is seriously misleading. The affecting scene in which the Liberator walks home arm in arm, all unconscious that his companion has just betrayed him, and only discovers the betrayal on chancing to read a newspaper shortly afterwards, is utter nonsense. He might have walked home with Purcell (who lived on the north side of Dublin) on Saturday 5 January, but he could not have read the letter on that day. He could, clearly, have read the letter on 7 January, but I think it utterly impossible either that he and Purcell would have been working all that day at the Corn Exchange or that they would have strolled to Merrion Square afterwards.

That’s because Sunday 6 January 1839 was the Night of the Big Wind. Admittedly, by daylight on Monday, the storm had “sunk back into a steady and heavy gale from the SW” but it “continued throughout the remainder of the day” [Freeman’s Journal 8 January 1839]. The whole city was “a scene of general devastation, houses unroofed, and windows broken in every direction”. Chimneys fell into the street or into the buildings; some houses lost their front walls.

In Stephen’s-green, Merrion-square, and Fitzwilliam-square, there were few houses which escaped the general desolation. Those of the two former localities suffered in particular, stacks of chimnies [sic] being thrown down in every direction, and crushing the roofs beneath them, the streets below being literally covered with slates and brick. But it has as yet been impossible for us to ascertain the remotest approximation to the extent of the damages, or the innumerable injuries which must have been inflicted in the interior. […] The stately trees which ornamented the lawn in front of Leinster-house, in Merrion-square, were almost all torn from their roots, leaving but a few of the smaller ones standing, and that enchanting spot has lost its beauty for ever.

If Daniel O’Connell and Peter Purcell were strolling arm in arm through that lot, they were better men than I am, Gunga Din. In fact, unless O’Connell’s house escaped damage, I doubt if he would have been sitting quietly reading the paper in his study while waiting for dinner: I’m sure he’d have been up on the roof with a tarpaulin, a hammer and a bag of nails from B&Q.

But that is the less important, if more amusing, respect in which John O’Connell’s account is inaccurate. He entirely misrepresents the nature of Purcell’s letter. Purcell said nothing to suggest that he believed O’Connell to be guilty of “peculation under the garb of patriotism”; indeed he explicitly said the opposite:

[…] I consider so sacred a fund as that which has been collected from the hard earnings of a confiding peasantry should not only be secure (which I fully believe it to be in the hands of Mr O’Connell), but that it should be so placed as to be above suspicion, even in the minds of our political enemies.

I have placed here a PDF of the text of Purcell’s letter, transcribed from the Freeman’s Journal of 7 January 1839, with paragraphing and punctuation adjusted to suit my tastes.

It seems clear to me that Purcell did not accuse O’Connell of dishonesty. He was instead objecting to two things:

  • O’Connell’s blurring of the line between the personal and the organisational
  • O’Connell’s refusal to honour his own promises, promises which had led Purcell to mislead others about the future management of the funds.

O’Connellites successfully defended their leader against an accusation that Purcell had not made: they showed that he had not helped himself to the money and pretended that there was therefore nothing to worry about.

Afterwards, O’Connell and his supporters, especially the increasingly insane Thomas Steele, constantly attacked and insulted Purcell. However, Purcell achieved far more in the remaining few years of his life [he died in 1846] than O’Connell did [he died in 1847], and I suggest that the incident of the Freeman’s Journal letter shows why.

O’Connell was a tribal chief, requiring loyalty to himself and seeking to build a dynasty rather than an organisation. In his last years he alienated many who might have made alliances with him, even if they would not have supported him, and when his country’s need was greatest, in the Famine, he had no influence that he could wield to help it.

Purcell, on the other hand, was a modern business man: he had built a huge and successful operation (and ran several ancillary businesses too) and, when he lost his mail-coach business, he built another and even more enduring organisation, the Great Southern and Western Railway. It was the most successful railway in Ireland and its descendant, CIÉ, is still with us. Getting it off the ground (as it were) required cooperation with people of very different backgrounds and views, balancing the advice of a range of technical experts, seeing off competitors and opponents and managing extremely large amounts of money.

O’Connell by 1840 had made himself into a single-issue, single-constituency chief; Purcell was (to echo Brian Farrell’s terminology) a supremely competent chairman. Had O’Connell listened to Purcell in late 1838 and early 1839, they might have built a powerful and lasting organisation that united rather than divided Irish interest groups. But that prospect had blown away before the Night of the Big Wind.

 

 

 

Dromineer

Not that many pubs, surely.

Solving Brexit

The Grauniad has the solution: a home for Brexiteers.

Ireland’s mystical waterway

Mystical logo

Perhaps you’ve noticed an outbreak of strange stickers on Shannon hireboats, proclaiming that the river is “Ireland’s mystical waterway”. Cynics will dismiss this as just more marketing bollocks, in this case associated with the claim that the Shannon, which is in the middle of Ireland, is part of something called “Ireland’s Ancient East“. I do wish that, when marketing dudes get these brainwaves, they’d keep them to themselves.

But wait! What if we’re all wrong? What if the Shannon really is a mystical waterway? After all, wasn’t there recently a miracle in Athlone?

Mind you, you may need an encounter with spirits yourself after reading that lot: the spirits that come in 70cl bottles.

 

Steam and the British Protestant Constitution

On Friday 23 February 1827 Viscount Lorton, holding a Petition in his hand, addressed the House of Lords.


My Lords, in rising to request permission to lay upon your Lordships’ table a Petition from the Protestants of the county of Sligo, I shall beg leave to say a very few words upon the subject matter it contains.

In the first place, I must premise by observing, that it has the signatures of nearly (or entirely) the whole body of the resident Gentlemen, and in the strongest but most respectful language prays that no further concessions may be granted to the Roman Catholics of Ireland. With my countrymen, my Lords, I most decidedly concur; but at the same time think it necessary to stand forward as an advocate for Emancipation, though not exactly for the description of persons who have for so many years been urging claims hostile to the Constitution in no very qualified terms.

No, my Lords, those for whom I would claim this boon are the Protestants of Ireland, who, I do not hesitate to affirm, are at this moment the most oppressed portion of the British subjects. In fact, they are a proscribed people, and if some strong measures are not adopted for their relief and security, all who are capable must leave the country, and we may expect to hear of the remainder being annihilated in one way or another.

It may be unnecessary for me to inform your Lordships, that a Roman Catholic Parliament has been permitted to sit in Dublin, from nearly the period of passing an Act in this House for putting down the late Roman Catholic Association, and that it is of a much more dangerous nature, in as much as it combines the entire mass, from the highest to the lowest. At first the higher order seemed to stand aloof, but no sooner did the founders of this tremendous engine contrive to enlist under their banners the clergy, than all ranks, from the highest peer downwards, were put into requisition, and from that time have exhibited as much zeal in the cause as the most furious demagogue in the land: such is their infatuation, and such, my Lords, is the very extraordinary power and controul that the Pope maintains over the hearts and understandings of those who belong to his church.

Having said thus much of the Dublin Convention, I must further observe, that, at its sittings, the most bitter denunciations are uttered against every thing that is Protestant, both as to the public institutions as against individuals, who, in the most cowardly manner, are held up to the detestation of the Romish peasantry, by the propagation of every species of the most malignant falsehood, and are thus marked as fit subjects for assassination, when a proper opportunity may occur.

My Lords, the philippics of Messrs O’Connell and Sheil are, no doubt, familiar to most of your Lordships, but more particularly the base and dastardly observations of the latter person, when our late Illustrious and lamented Commander-in-Chief was lying on his death-bed!

My Lords, it is difficult to think or speak upon the subject with patience; the speeches of these people have so excited the country, that the general opinion is a rebellion must take place. Should such a calamity befall the land, I trust, my Lords, the strongest measures will at once be taken to prevent any of the leaders of the Roman Catholic Association from leaving Ireland, for no doubt they will be among the first who will endeavour to make their escape from the mischief they have occasioned. But, my Lords, they should be forced to fight it out, and should not be permitted to leave their poor deluded victims to the just vengeance of the Government.

Some of these bitter enemies to the British Protestant Constitution have pointed out in the most exulting manner, that the invasion of Ireland by a foreign foe would now be an easy matter, in consequence of the perfection that the navigation by steam had been brought to. But here, my Lords, they have shewn their ignorance nearly in as strong a manner as their malignity; for never was there a discovery made which so completely secures Ireland from being taken by surprise by a hostile power, in as much as hundreds of thousands of gallant British soldiers could be landed and set in motion against an enemy in the course of from ten to twenty hours; and it should also be told these threatening boasters, that one British Company possesses more steam vessels than all Europe besides.

[cont p94]


From the Morning Post 24 February 1827

The good old English plan

Browsing the Dublin Morning Register of 1 August 1828, I came across this item, taken from the Waterford Mirror:

On Tuesday, John Purcell Fitzgerald, of London, Esq, entertained his numerous tenantry of this neighbourhood at dinner, at his ancient castle at the Little Island, in the river Suir, about two miles below Waterford, on the good old English plan, a plan which we would by no means be sorry to see in more general imitation in Ireland. About five hundred sat to table.

Here is Little Island in the Suir estuary below Waterford:

Waterford Castle (OSI 6″ ~1840)

 

 

It is now a hotel with activities (shooting, archery, croquet and the unmentionable (which involves mashie-niblicks, joggers and cleeks)).

Waterford Castle car ferry (some years ago: I think there may be a new one now)

John Purcell Fitzgerald was born John Purcell, son of a Dublin doctor; he became a Fitzgerald when his already-wealthy wife became even wealthier on inheriting her father’s estates. His main achievement was fathering Edward Fitzgerald, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Neither of them, though, was half as important as John’s brother Peter, the greatest mail-coach operator in Ireland, hotelier, coachbuilder, promoter of agricultural improvement, lobbyist for Catholic emancipation and against slavery, supporter of innumerable charities and first chairman of the Great Southern and Western Railway. He was one of a generation of supremely capable Irish transport entrepreneurs who managed the transition to steam power on land and water.

This is how the Dublin Weekly Nation of 30 May 1846 announced Purcell’s death:

DEATH OF PETER PURCELL ESQ

We regret to announce the death of this gentleman, which took place at his house, 3, Rutland-square, on Friday morning. He was a man of kind and generous nature; a good landlord, a liberal and considerate employer, and a practical philanthropist. His enterprise did nearly as much as that of Mr Bianconi in supplying facilities of intercourse on a great scale to this country.

He was the greatest coach proprietor, and one of the largest railway shareholders, in Ireland. The Agricultural Society, the Testimonial to Father Mathew, and other national projects in which he was engaged, and the liberal spirit in which he sustained similar movements, are evidences that he had a real and unselfish interest in the prosperity of Ireland.

He was an active member of the Precursor Society till his unhappy quarrel with O’Connell, to which this is not a moment to allude further. In the estimation of his fellow-citizens he occupied a creditable place, and the grief for his death is deep and general.

The Mail of last night, generously oblivious of the political differences between it and Mr Purcell, says:

“As a man of business, whether as a government contractor, or as a proprietor and cultivator of land, he bore the character of a man of energy, enterprise, and honesty; punctual in his engagements — liberal in his expenditure — judicious in his management — a great employer of labour — a charitable benefactor of poverty and distress.

“In the private relations of friendship and family affections, he won all hearts by the homeliness and sincerity of his manner — the unaffected simplicity of his tastes — the hospitality of his table — and the genuine kindliness of his domestic dispositions.

“Strong good sense and natural good humour were his distinguishing qualities in his intercourse with the world. Many a good joke we have run upon him as a public man, in this journal; and we must do him justice to say, they were taken by him, as meant by us, as effusions of a tolerant spirit, which, while it must condemn the exertions of opponent parties, is still willing to soften the acerbities of political strife by as much good humour as can be thrown into the political cauldron.

“We wish we had many such to deal with as Peter Purcell — was.

“We write the word with sorrow. He departed this life — we trust for a better — at an early hour this morning, at his residence in Rutland-square.”

And a few lines from the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent of the same day:

From Mr Purcell we differed in political opinion, and we have frequently in this journal felt it our duty to comment with freedom on his public conduct, but we never did, and never could deny that he was a fair, straightforward, honorable, and manly opponent, to whose personal character no exception could be taken, and whose sincerity in whatever views he advocated was unquestionable.

Purcell — who worked for Catholic Emancipation but did not want the Act of Union to be repealed — was, for a few years, active in local politics in Dublin. His quarrel with Daniel O’Connell came when he found that the funds of the Precursor Society were lodged in O’Connell’s own bank account. O’Connell promised Purcell several times that he would put them under the control of the society’s trustees but did not honour his promise. Purcell eventually felt that he had no option but to resign and to make public his reasons for doing so.

There is a memorial to Peter Purcell (by John Hogan) in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.

Woodman, don’t spare that tree

I have updated my recent post about the overgrowth of trees on the Shannon–Erne Waterway to welcome today’s news that “tree trimming and hedge cutting will be carried out at various locations on the Shannon-Erne Waterway” between September 2018 and February 2019.

I hope that “trimming” is a polite understatement and that the trees will be cut right back to, or beyond, the edge of the waterway.

 

Imperial measure

Rule for ascertaining the weight of hay stacks

Measure the length and breadth of the stack; then take its height from the ground to the eaves, and add to this last one-third of the height from the eaves to the top. Multiply the length by the breadth, and the product by the height, all expressed in feet; divide the amount by 27, to find the cubic yards, which multiply by the number of stones supposed to be in a cubic yard (viz in a stack of new hay, six stones; if the stack has stood a considerable time, eight stones; and if old hay, nine stones), and you have the weight in stones.

For example, suppose a stack to be 60 feet in length, 30 in breadth, 12 in height from the ground to the eaves, and 9 (the third of which is 3) from the eaves to the top; then 60 X 30 X 15 = 27000; 27000 ÷ 27 = 1000; and 1000 X 9 = 9000 stones of old hay.

Samuel Salt Statistics and Calculations essentially necessary to Persons connected with Railways or Canals; containing a variety of information not to be found elsewhere 2nd ed Effingham Wilson, London 1846

You too can possess a copy of this invaluable book, which has much useful information about railways and canals

The Lough Gill Steam Company

Annual report of the Lough Gill Steam Company

Rev Thomas M’Keon, in the Chair

According to the Deed of Settlement, the Accounts are now laid before the Shareholders, and your Committee have the pleasure of recommending a dividend of 7 per Cent, still leaving a balance on hands as a surplus fund. This being her maiden year, during the first six months very few people travelled by the Steam Boat, the people being deterred by superstitious stories; but your Committee are enabled to state, that for the last six months, the passenger traffic has increased 350 per cent, with a prospect of a still further increase.

Lough Gill (OSI 25″)

Most of the passengers come from Drumkeerin, Doury, Dabally, and the country beyond the River Shannon, who are enabled by this conveyance to go to the Sligo Market, and return home the same day, thus travelling upwards of 50 Irish miles. From Manorhamilton and Glenfarn few passengers have as yet come, but it is hoped they will find this the best, cheapest, and quickest route, the fares for nine Irish miles being only 6d in cabin, and 3d on deck. If the contemplated road to Glenfarn by Gurtermore was opened, a passenger trade from Enniskillen (in 4½ hours from Sligo), Blacklion, Glenfarn, almost equal to her present trade, might be fairly expected. The Committee recommend all means to be used to get this road, about 3½ miles long, to be opened.

The number of passengers for six months ending October were:

Cabin 3240        Deck 12932

Your Committee would advise a system of Tickets for Passengers. The improvements of the Shannon are rapidly progressing, and when finished (in about 2 years) will, in conjunction with the Athlone Railway, open an immense passenger traffic on this line, the City of Dublin Company having offered to run powerful Steamers in conjunction with this Company to the Railway, bringing all the passengers between Sligo and Dublin.

The thanks of the Company are due are hereby to given [sic] C W Williams Esq of the City of Dublin Steam Company for his promptitude in attending to the wishes of the Company, and to James Heartley [recte Hartley] Esq for running a Car in conjunction with the Steamer and Dublin Day Coach, and his reduction of Fares on the Line, Passengers getting from Sligo to Dublin for 13s.

Your committee have to thank the Public generally for the support they have received, and they trust by the attention of their officers to serve the Public, that the Public in return will serve them, and hope at the next Annual Meeting to be able to declare a dividend of 14 per cent.

The Lady of the Lake leaves Sligo at 4 Evening, and Dromahair at ½ past 9, Morning

For Carrick and Dublin Per Steamer, Car, and Day-Coach, 13s.

The Lady of the Lake has ceased to ply on Sundays.

Company’s Office, Dromahair, 10th Oct 1844

The Champion, Sligo 12 October 1844

Esquires

Thom’s Directory for 1850 [Thom’s Irish Almanac and Official Directory, with the Post Office Dublin City and County Directory, for the year 1850 Alexander Thom, Dublin 1850] lists the more important employees of the Grand Canal Company:

Secretary John M’Mullen esq
Bankers D La Touche & Co esqrs
Superintendent of Trade and Passage Boats Samuel Healy esq
Land Agent and Paymaster Thos J Thornhill esq
Book-keeper Francis Bray esq
Collectors: at James’s-street Richard Davis esq, at First Lock Mr Thomas M’Ghee
Accountant Mr Thomas Brady
Storekeeper Mr William Talbot
Broker Mr William Warham.

So the Collector at James’s Street, like all those listed before him, was an esquire but his colleague at First Lock, like all those listed after him, was a mere mister.

Wikipedia’s nineteenth-century definitions of “esquire” are of interest. The Grand Canal Company might have sung with the Gorbals Die-Hards …

Class-conscious are we, and class-conscious wull be

… but perhaps not the next line

Till our fit’s on the neck of the Boorjoyzee.