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


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Death of William Rokeby, Statesman, Cleric & Archbishop of Dublin

William Rokeby, a leading statesman and cleric in early sixteenth-century Ireland, dies at Kirk Sandall, near Doncaster in South Yorkshire, on November 29, 1521. He holds the offices of Bishop of Meath, Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Chancellor of Ireland. He is commemorated in the Rokeby Chapels in two Yorkshire churches, St. Oswald’s Church, Kirk Sandall, and Halifax Minster.

Rokeby is born at Kirk Sandall, eldest of the five sons of John Rokeby (died 1506). His younger brother, Sir Richard Rokeby (died 1523), is Comptroller of the Household to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and later Treasurer of Ireland. He retains a deep affection for Kirk Sandall and returns there to die. He goes to school at Rotherham, studies at the University of Oxford and becomes a fellow of King’s Hall, later Trinity College, Cambridge. He becomes vicar of his home parish in 1487 and is transferred to Halifax, another town for which he has a deep attachment, in about 1499. In 1507 he is made Bishop of Meath.

On the death of Walter Fitzsimon in 1511, Rokeby becomes Archbishop of Dublin. It has been suggested that his elevation is due at least in part to his English birth, as the Crown is anxious to place Englishmen high up in the Irish hierarchy. No doubt his brother’s close connection to Wolsey also plays a part. He is Lord Chancellor of Ireland from 1512 to 1513 and from 1516 to 1522.

Writer Roderick J. O’Flanagan believes that Rokeby is a good and diligent Lord Chancellor, although he does not leave behind many written judgments. He is clearly a trusted servant of the Crown; in particular, Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, the Lord Deputy, Surrey, with the approval of Henry VIII, choose Rokeby in 1520 as mediator in the feud between Maurice FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Desmond, and Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, which has become exceptionally bitter.

As Archbishop Rokeby makes a reputation as a peacemaker, settling a long and bitter dispute between the Dean and Chapter of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He gives permission to Gerald FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, for the original foundation of Maynooth College, which is suppressed in 1535. He is frequently at the English Court, so often indeed that he is accused of neglecting his official duties back in Ireland. He participates in the christening of the future Queen Mary I in 1516 and the ceremony by which Wolsey receives his cardinal’s hat.

As Archbishop of Dublin, Rokeby is best remembered for the Synod of 1518. The Synod prohibits the use of any tin chalice at Mass, and the disposal of Church property by laymen; and attempts to regulate the procedure for dealing with intestate estates, the payment of tithes and burial fees and the rules for admission to the clergy. Rather comically, he strictly forbids clergymen to play football.

Rokeby is appointed Archdeacon of Surrey on March 27, 1519. By 1521 his health is failing, and he retires to Kirk Sandall, where he dies on November 29. In his will he leaves £200 to rebuild St. Mary’s Church, Beverley, whose tower had collapsed the previous year.

Rokeby makes elaborate provisions in his will for the disposal of his remains. In accordance with his wishes, his body is buried in St. Oswald’s Church, Kirk Sandall, but his heart and bowels are buried in the Church of St. John the Baptist, Halifax (now known as Halifax Minster). Mortuary chapels are erected at both spots, which still exist today.

O’Flanagan praises Rokeby as a good man, a good bishop and, so far as we can tell from the scanty records, a good judge. Irish author F. Elrington Ball, while acknowledging his good qualities, suggests that he was a failure as Irish Lord Chancellor, due partly to his frequent absences in England.

(Pictured: Halifax Minster, where Rokeby’s heart is buried)


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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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House of Lords Votes for the Acts of Union

The House of Lords votes on February 10, 1800 for the Acts of Union which sees Ireland lose its own parliament, direct rule is imposed on Ireland, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is created. The acts come into force on January 1, 1801, and the merged Parliament of the United Kingdom has its first meeting on January 22, 1801. Both acts remain in force, with amendments, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but have been repealed in the Republic of Ireland.

Before these Acts, Ireland had been in personal union with England since 1541, when the Parliament of Ireland had passed the Crown of Ireland Act 1542, proclaiming King Henry VIII of England to be King of Ireland. Since the 12th century, the King of England had been technical overlord of the Lordship of Ireland, a papal possession. Both the Kingdoms of Ireland and England later came into personal union with that of Scotland upon the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

In 1707, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland were united into a single kingdom: the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Irish Parliament at that time was subject to a number of restrictions that placed it subservient to the Parliament of England and, following the union of England and Scotland, the Parliament of Great Britain. Ireland, however, gained effective legislative independence from Great Britain through the Constitution of 1782.

By this time access to institutional power in Ireland was restricted to a small minority, the Anglo-Irish of the Protestant Ascendancy, and frustration at the lack of reform among the Catholic majority eventually led, along with other reasons, to the Irish Rebellion in 1798, involving a French invasion of Ireland and the seeking of complete independence from Great Britain. This rebellion was crushed with much bloodshed, and the subsequent drive for union between Great Britain and Ireland that passes in 1800 is motivated at least in part by the belief that the rebellion was caused as much by reactionary loyalist brutality as by the Society of United Irishmen.

Furthermore, Catholic emancipation is being discussed in Great Britain, and fears that a newly enfranchised Catholic majority will drastically change the character of the Irish government and parliament also contributes to a desire from London to merge the Parliaments.

Complementary acts have to be passed in the Parliament of Great Britain and in the Parliament of Ireland. The Parliament of Ireland had recently gained a large measure of legislative independence under the Constitution of 1782. Many members of the Irish Parliament jealously guard this autonomy and a motion for union is legally rejected in 1799.

Only Anglicans are permitted to become members of the Parliament of Ireland, though the great majority of the Irish population are Roman Catholic, with many Presbyterians in Ulster. In 1793 Roman Catholics regain the right to vote if they own or rent property worth £2 per acre. The Catholic hierarchy is strongly in favour of union, hoping for rapid emancipation and the right to sit as MPs, which is delayed after the passage of the acts until the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829.

From the perspective of Great Britain, the union is desirable because of the uncertainty that followed the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the French Revolution of 1789. If Ireland adopted Catholic Emancipation, willingly or not, a Roman Catholic Parliament could break away from Britain and ally with the French. Also the Irish and British Parliaments, when creating a regency during King George III‘s “madness”, gave the Prince Regent different powers. These considerations lead Great Britain to decide to attempt merger of the two kingdoms and their Parliaments.

The final passage of the Act in the Irish Parliament is achieved with substantial majorities, in part according to contemporary documents through bribery, namely the awarding of peerages and honours to critics to get their votes. Whereas the first attempt had been defeated in the Irish House of Commons by 109 votes against to 104 for, the second vote in 1800 produces a result of 158 to 115.

In the first Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the members of the House of Commons are not elected afresh. By royal proclamation authorised by the Act, all the members of the last House of Commons from Great Britain take seats in the new House, and from Ireland 100 members are chosen from the last Irish House of Commons: two members from each of the 32 counties and from the two largest boroughs, and one from each of the next 31 boroughs (chosen by lot) and from the University of Dublin. The other 84 Irish parliamentary boroughs are disfranchised, all being pocket boroughs, whose patrons receive £15,000 compensation for the loss of what is considered their property.

(Pictured: Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1952 used by Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI)


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Poisoning of James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond

James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, is poisoned in London on October 28, 1546. He is the son of Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, and Margaret Fitzgerald, Countess of Ormond. In 1535 he is created Viscount Thurles, and is confirmed by Act of Parliament on November 6, 1541, in the Earldom of Ormond, as 9th Earl with the pre-eminence of the original earls.

About 1520 Butler joins the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who praises him as a young gentleman “both wise and discreet.” In early 1522, it is proposed by King Henry VIII that he marry his cousin Anne Boleyn, who is the great-granddaughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormond. This is to resolve a dispute her father Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire has with James’ father over the Ormond inheritance and title. Wolsey himself supports the proposal. The marriage negotiation, comes to a halt for unknown reasons. Butler subsequently marries Lady Joan Fitzgerald in December 1532. Lady Joan is the daughter and heiress of the other great Munster landholder, the James FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Desmond and his wife Amy O’Brien. Their marriage produces seven sons.

During the early 1540s Butler gradually restores the Butler dynasty to their former position of influence, leading to antagonism from the quarrelsome Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Anthony St. Leger. St. Leger gives Butler command of the Irish forces in the Anglo-Scottish War of 1544. On the face of it this is an honour, but allies of Butler accuse St. Leger of deliberately sending him into danger. Butler himself demands an inquiry into claims that St. Leger had planned his murder, and the matter is thought to merit a Privy Council investigation. The Council finds in favour of St. Leger and he and Butler are ordered to work together amicably. Key Government allies of Butler like John Alan and Walter Cowley are removed from office, and Butler is struggling to maintain his standing when he is poisoned.

On October 17, 1546, James goes to London with many of his household. They are invited to dine at Ely Place in Holborn. He is poisoned along with his steward, James Whyte, and sixteen of his household. He dies nine days later, on October 28, leaving Joan a widow in her thirties.

It is surprising, in view of Butler’s high social standing, that no proper investigation into his death is carried out. Who is behind the poisoning remains a mystery. His host at the dinner, John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, though he could be notably ruthless, seems to have no motive for the crime, as he is not known to have had any quarrel with Butler. A recent historian remarks that it would be an extraordinary coincidence if St. Leger had no part in the sudden and convenient removal of his main Irish opponent.


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King Henry VIII Marries Anne Bolen

henry-viii-anne-bolenEngland’s King Henry VIII, Lord of Ireland and self declared King of Ireland, marries Anne Boleyn on January 25, 1533 after a secret marriage November 14, 1532. On May 23, 1533, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, declares Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be null and void. Five days later, he declares Henry and Anne’s marriage to be valid.

Soon thereafter, Pope Clement VII, who had refused to annul the marriage of Henry and Anne, decrees sentences of excommunication against Henry and Cranmer. As a result of this marriage and these excommunications, the first break between the Church of England and Rome takes place and the Church of England is brought under the King’s control.

Anne is crowned Queen of England on June 1, 1533, and on September 7, she gives birth to a daughter who is christened Elizabeth, in honour of Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, and who becomes the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry is disappointed to have a daughter rather than a son but hopes a son will follow and professes to love Elizabeth.

The king and queen are not pleased with married life. The royal couple enjoys periods of calm and affection but Anne refuses to play the submissive role expected of her. Henry dislikes Anne’s constant irritability and violent temper. After a miscarriage in 1534, Henry sees her failure to give him a son as a betrayal. As early as Christmas 1534, Henry is discussing with Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, his chief minister, the chances of leaving Anne without having to return to Catherine.

In January 1536, the Henry is thrown from his horse in a tournament and is badly injured. It seems for a time that the king’s life was in danger. When news of this accident reaches the queen, who is again pregnant and aware of the consequences if she fails to give birth to a son, she is sent into shock and miscarries a male child that is about 15 weeks old. This is seen by most historians as the beginning of the end of the royal marriage.

Anne’s downfall comes shortly after she has recovered from her miscarriage. Henry has Anne investigated for high treason in April 1536. On May 2, she is arrested and sent to the Tower of London where she is tried before a jury of peers, which includes Henry Percy, her first husband, and her own uncle, Thomas Howard. Anne is found guilty on May 15 and is beheaded on Tower Green at 8:00 AM on May 19, 1536, at the age of 36.