Thomas (Tom) Steele, engineer and political activist, is born on November 3, 1788 at Derrymore, County Clare, the son of William Steele, gentleman, and Catherine Steele (née Bridgeman).
In July 1805 Steele enters Trinity College Dublin, graduating BA in the spring of 1810. He then studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he graduates MA in 1820, becoming an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the same year. In 1821 he inherits Cullane House, near Craggaunowen, County Clare, on the death of his uncle. Of an enthusiastic and adventurous nature, in 1823 he decides to support the cause of the liberals in Spain who had rebelled against the autocratic rule of Ferdinand VII in 1820. Mortgaging the house and lands at Cullane, he purchases a large quantity of arms and ships them to Spain on board the ship Iris. Commissioned in the Legion Estrenjera of the liberal army, he distinguishes himself in the Battle of Trocadero and the defence of Madrid. He later publishes an account of his experiences, Notes on the war in Spain (London, 1824).
Returning from Spain with his fortunes ruined, Steele begins experiments with underwater diving apparatus, patenting “Steele’s improved diving-bell” in 1825. In the same year he becomes a partner in the Vigo Bay Co., which attempts to recover gold and silver bullion from Spanish ships which sank in Vigo Bay in 1702. After extensive diving operations using Steele’s diving-bell, the company is wound up at an acrimonious meeting of shareholders in September 1826. Despite claims by some of the shareholders that bullion had been found, the scheme is a total failure.
Steele is involved in the Catholic Association and, a close friend of Daniel O’Connell, is active in the emancipation campaign although himself a protestant. In 1828 he seconds O’Connell’s nomination for Clare in the general election of that year. Appointed by O’Connell as ‘Head Pacificator,’ he tours the country collecting weapons and discouraging the rural population from engaging in faction fighting. There is a certain irony in this appointment, as Steele’s own volatile temper is well known. A noted duelist, he fights an inconclusive duel in 1829 with William Smith O’Brien, who had opposed O’Connell’s second candidature for County Clare. In 1828 he is a founder of the Limerick Independent Club.
An associate of the diving pioneers John and Charles Deane, Steele dives on the wreck of the Intrinsic, off the Clare coast in January 1836, using their new diving helmet. He then begins developing equipment to provide underwater illumination, and in 1840 dives with the Deane brothers off Plymouth on the wreck of Henry VIII‘s ship, the Mary Rose. Yet he is in serious financial difficulties, which are not helped by some of his more eccentric building projects. It is said of him that “he seemed utterly incapable of rationally estimating the value of money in his own case.” He begins renovating, at great expense, a ruined castle that stands on his land at Cullane. He also later has a large standing stone, known as the ‘Umbilicus Hiberniae’ (‘Navel of Ireland’), removed from Birr, King’s County (now County Offaly), and taken to his house. At Cullane it is set up as an altar and used for mass whenever O’Connell or members of the Catholic Association visit. It is not returned to Birr until 1974.
Known as “Honest Tom Steele,” Steele is deeply devoted to O’Connell, and is one of his key lieutenants during the repeal campaigns of the 1830s and 1840s. He takes his title and responsibilities as O’Connell’s “Head Pacificator” so seriously and generally expresses himself with such long-winded pomposity that he becomes something of a figure of fun for opponents of O’Connell and for many of the younger men in the Repeal Association. Tried on conspiracy charges after the prohibition of the Clontarf monster meeting, he is one of the six “traversers” imprisoned with O’Connell in Richmond jail from May to September 1844. Strongly supporting O’Connell’s repudiation of physical force, he chairs and takes a prominent part in the peace resolution debates of July 1846 in which the Young Ireland group walks out of the Repeal Association.
After the death of O’Connell on May 15, 1847, Steele falls into a deep depression and, financially ruined, jumps from Waterloo Bridge in London on April 19, 1848. Pulled from the river by a Thames boatman, he survives for a number of weeks. Former political opponents, including Lord Brougham, offer financial help but he refuses. He dies on June 15, 1848, and his remains are taken to Dublin, where he is waked at Conciliation Hall, the headquarters of the Repeal Association, on Burgh Quay. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, beside O’Connell’s tomb. He appears as one of the figures on the O’Connell memorial in O’Connell Street, Dublin.
Steele never marries, but harbours an unrequited passion for a Miss Eileen Crowe of Ennis, County Clare, and is often to be seen standing on a large rock, which comes to be known as “Steele’s Rock,” on the banks of the River Fergus in Ennis as he tries to catch a glimpse of Miss Crowe, who lives across the river.
(From: “Steele, Thomas (Tom)” by David Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie | Pictured: (L to R) Thomas Steele, Daniel O’Connell and O’Gorman Mahon by Joseph Patrick Haverty)