Tag Archives: Peter Purcell

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.

 

 

 

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.

William Dargan on the Dublin–Blessington–Carlow road

1580 Is there an engineer employed to oversee the works on the Blessington Road? — There has been a surveyor, a Mr Dargan.

1581 From the commencement of the Trust? — From the commencement of the Trust.

1582 At what salary is Mr Dargan employed? — About £100 a year.

1583 Is he still in the employment of the Trust? — He is nominally so.

1584 Does he receive a salary at present? — He does not.

1585 But he is still in the employment of the Trust? — He is.

1586 What was the reason, if the Trust continue to employ him, that they should take away his salary? — At that meeting in Baltinglass, in November, there were very general complaints as to the quality of the materials then lying on the road, and also of the quality of materials that had been expended on the road during the year; this induced me to ask the question, whether the surveyor, to whom we paid so high a salary, had attended; and upon further inquiry, I could not ascertain that he had done any duty, or taken any active part whatever in the management of the road, for the twelve months previous; upon which I entered on the books of the Trust a notice, that at the ensuing meeting I would move for the dismissal of Mr Dargan from that situation altogether. At the subsequent meeting I brought forward this motion, when there was a proposal sent in from Mr Dargan, in which he offered to do the duty for £50 a year. Upon further pressing the matter, his friends at the Board stated that he would withdraw all claim whatever for salary, would not ask what he might do for the last half year, and that he would be obliged to us if we would allow him to remain nominally as our surveyor, and pay him as we would any other surveyor when we had occasion to employ one. This was a proposition that I thought only reasonable, and I consented to it, and it was so entered upon the books, and I did not further interfere or further press the proposition that I had originally brought forward.

1587 In any further accounts that were laid before the Board, did any charge appear on the part of the treasurer for a sum of £50 to be paid to Mr Dargan after he had refused to receive any salary? — There was; the very first item in the treasurer’s account was a claim for a credit of £50 for salary to Mr Dargan, which he himself had conscientiously refused to take; so that we were, in fact, putting £50 into Mr Dargan’s pocket, whether he would take it himself or not.

1588 What was the proceeding of the Board upon that item appearing on the accounts of the treasurer? — It was, I presume, a mistake.

1589 Was it actually paid? — I never heard; but the moment I heard that it was a mistake, not to go to the credit of the treasurer, I said no more about it. It is not the loss of £50 to the funds. I only mention it to show the willingness to dispose of the money of that Trust.

[…]

1656 Can good materials be obtained? — As good as possible; there are as good materials on that road as on any in Ireland.

1657 Then you conceive that the putting on of bad materials was the cause of the bad state of the road ever since? — I do; repairs are eternally going on; it is not permanent. They do not screen it properly, so that it is literally drawing on mud and drawing off mud; for this gravel is not properly screened; the consequence is, that what they draw on to-day they draw off to-morrow.

1658 Do they ever employ an engineer? — Mr Dargan is professedly an engineer.

1659 Did not that engineer give directions as to the materials to be employed? — He may have done; but his directions were not attended to, if he gave them.

1660 Still he received his salary? — Still he received his salary.

Evidence of Peter Purcell in Report from Select Committee on Turnpike Roads in Ireland: with the minutes of evidence and appendix Ordered, by The House of Commons, to be Printed, 26 July 1832 645

 

 

A concession to new technology

It appears that these new-fangled railways are here to stay, displacing the passage-boat and the mail-coach, the Scotch cart and the lumber boat.

Accordingly, I have rearranged my small number of railway-related pages under a top-level heading of their own.

I have added a new railway page, about the Lundy Island Railway and Colonization Company, from the Dublin Evening Mail of 2 May 1845. Gerald M King has produced stamps for Lundy, including Railway Parcel Stamps, but it is not clear whether they depict any of the engines or rolling stock described in the Mail and there are few other sources of information about the railway.

I have tried to explain as many of the references as I could, but some are still obscure to me and I would welcome comments from those expert in Irish religious conflicts of the 1840s (as well as those knowledgeable about railways and other technology of the period).