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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Thomas Steele, Engineer & Political Activist

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)


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Birth of James Patrick Mahon, Journalist, Barrister & Parliamentarian

Charles James Patrick Mahon, Irish nationalist journalist, barrister, parliamentarian and international mercenary, is born into a prominent Roman Catholic family in Ennis, County Clare, on March 17, 1800.

Mahon, the eldest of four children, is the son of Patrick Mahon of New Park, who took part in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and Barbara, a considerable heiress and the only daughter of James O’Gorman of Ennis. He studies at Clongowes Wood College, where he is one of the earliest pupils, and at Trinity College Dublin, where he takes his BA in 1822 and his MA in law in 1832. Following his father’s death in 1821, he inherits half the family property and becomes a magistrate for Clare.

In 1830, Mahon marries Christina, the daughter of John O’Brien of Dublin. She is an heiress and has property valued at £60,000 in her own right, which gives him the resources to seek election to parliament. The couple spends little time together, and she dies apart from him in Paris in 1877. They have one son who dies in 1883.

In 1826, Mahon joins the newly formed Catholic Association. He encourages fellow member Daniel O’Connell to stand for election at the 1828 Clare by-election. O’Connell’s election, in which Mahon plays a large role, persuades the British Government to pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, which finalises the process of Catholic Emancipation and permitted Roman Catholics to sit in the British Parliament.

As a result, when Mahon is elected for Clare at the 1830 United Kingdom general election, he is entitled to take his seat. However, during the election campaign he quarrels with O’Connell, and after his election he is unseated for bribery. He is subsequently acquitted, and stands again at the 1831 United Kingdom general election, but is defeated by two O’Connell-backed candidates, one of whom is his old schoolfriend Maurice O’Connell, Daniel O’Connell’s son. He gives up on politics, becomes deputy lieutenant of Clare, and captain of the local militia.

Mahon becomes a barrister in 1834, but the following year, he leaves for Paris. There he associates with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, becoming a favourite at Louis Philippe‘s court and working as a journalist. He travels the world, spending time in both Africa, where he befriends Ferdinand de Lesseps, engineer of the Suez Canal, and South America, before returning to Ireland in 1846.

At the 1847 United Kingdom general election, Mahon is elected for Ennis, and declares himself a Whig in favour of Irish Repeal. However, he opposes the Young Irelanders, and narrowly loses his seat at the 1852 United Kingdom general election.

Following his defeat in the 1852 election, Mahon returns to Paris, then travels on to Saint Petersburg, where he serves in the Imperial Bodyguard. During this period, he journeys through lands from Finland to Siberia. He then travels across China, India and Arabia. His finances largely exhausted, he serves as a mercenary in the Ottoman and Austrian armies before returning to England in 1858. Late that year, he leaves for South America, where he attempts to finance the construction of a canal through Central America.

After exploits abroad Mahon returns to Ireland in 1871 and is a founding member of the Home Rule League. Nearly ruined by his ventures, he even ends up at the Old Bailey as a consequence of his dealings, but is acquitted. He is defeated in Ennis at the 1874 United Kingdom general election, and also at the 1877 Clare by-election. Finally, he wins the 1879 Clare by-election and holds the seat at the 1880 United Kingdom general election.

Mahon is a close associate of Charles Stewart Parnell, who he successfully nominates for the leadership of the League in 1880, but is dropped in 1885 as a party candidate because of his age and his tendency to vote with the Liberal Party in Parliament. He is also embroiled in a court case disputing the will of his son.

Parnell personally ensures Mahon is a candidate at the 1887 County Carlow by-election, which he wins at the age of 87 as a Liberal. By this point, he is the oldest MP in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. He dies at his home in South Kensington, London on June 15, 1891 while still in office.

Mahon had served alongside William O’Shea as an MP, and the two were close friends. He introduced him and Katharine O’Shea, his wife, to Parnell. After Parnell is named in the O’Sheas’ divorce case in 1890, Mahon splits with Parnell, siding with the Irish National Federation. However, Parnell attends Mahon’s funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery a few months later.

(Pictured: Caricature of James Patrick Mahon by Sir Leslie Matthew Ward under the pseudonym “Spy” published in Vanity Fair in 1885)


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Death of Captain William O’Shea

william-o-sheaCaptain William Henry O’Shea, Irish soldier and Member of Parliament (MP), dies in Hove on the south coast of England on April 22, 1905. He is best known for being the ex-husband of Katharine O’Shea, the long-time mistress of the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell.

Born in Dublin in 1840, O’Shea is a captain in the 18th Royal Hussars of the British Army.

Around 1880, O’Shea’s wife, Katharine O’Shea, enters into a relationship with the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, with whom she has three children. O’Shea, who is already separated from his wife, is aware of the relationship.

In 1882 when the Liberal Government is secretly negotiating with Parnell for the terms of his release from Kilmainham Gaol where he is being held on suspicion of “treasonable practices”, the President of the Board of Trade Joseph Chamberlain chooses O’Shea as its intermediary, unaware of Parnell’s affair with Mrs. O’Shea or of the fact that the newly born first child of their liaison is dying. O’Shea spends six hours negotiating with Parnell in the prison, extracting the surprising concession that Parnell would tacitly support the Government after his release. It has been suggested that O’Shea won this concession, which reflected well on him, by threatening Parnell with public exposure of his affair with Mrs O’Shea.

In 1886, following insinuations of the Parnell affair and O’Shea’s complicity in it appearing in The Pall Mall Gazette, O’Shea abstains from voting on the Irish Home Rule bill and resigns his parliamentary seat the following day. However, he only files for divorce in 1890 after his wife’s aunt, from whom he is expecting a large inheritance, dies in 1889 leaving her estate in trust for his wife, thus allegedly violating the terms of O’Shea’s marriage contract. However, that will is overturned upon appeal, and the aunt’s legacy is shared among Katharine O’Shea’s siblings.

After the divorce the two surviving children of Parnell and Katharine O’Shea are given into Captain O’Shea’s custody.

O’Shea is MP for Clare from 1880 to 1885 and Galway Borough for a short period in 1886. Although supported by Parnell, he is never a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party.