That Damn’d Thing Called “Honour”: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860, by James Kelly

Second paragraph of third chapter, with table:

Many factors contributed to the growth in enthusiasm for duelling in Ireland in the late 1760s and 1770s. The social and attitudinal effects of economic prosperity, already referred to,’ were at work a fortiori by the end of the 1760s; while the disinclination of the authorities to use the law to confine the enthusiasm for duelling meant that there was little by way of legal obstacles in their path. Table 2.6, which summarises the response of the law to the recorded duelling incidents that constitute our sample for the years 1716-70, indicates that there was an identifiable decline in the proportion of duellists taken to court in the mid-eighteenth century. By the 1760s the authorities no longer prosecuted duellists as a matter of course, even in cases in which there were fatalities, if the duel was deemed to have been conducted within the code of honour, because judges and juries routinely returned verdicts of manslaughter in self-defence which ensured the defendant’s prompt release.

I got this because I remain very intrigued by the reported incident of about 1723 when one of my 5x great-grandfathers, John Ryan Glas of Inch, Co Tipperary, was killed in a duel in Dublin by another of my 5x great-grandfathers, John White of Leixlip, Co Kildare, in a property dispute that escalated. Kelly doesn’t refer to that in his book, but it’s still a very interesting analysis of socially sanctioned extrajudicial violence in a society which was going through many transitions.

Although the dates given are 1570 to 1860, most of the recorded duels are from the eighteenth century. I do have a family connection with one of the earliest of them, however, the 1583 trial by combat between two of the O’Conors of Uí Failge (Offaly, as we now call it), held in the yard of Dublin castle at the command of my ancestor Sir Nicholas White, Master of the Rolls.

But basically the formal duel came into its own in the aftermath of the Williamite settlement, when the rule of law was weak but the concept of honour remained strong, and intensified in the later part of the century as political change began to build. Indeed it’s striking just how many of the leading politicians of the day were involved with duelling, right up to Grattan and Flood, and the young Daniel O’Connell.

I also realised that I had forgotten whatever I once knew about the complexity of eighteenth-century Irish politics, with the corrupt but stable “undertaker” system during the mid-century upset by the Castle v Patriot dynamic towards the end, which led to autonomy from 1782, failed rebellion in 1798 and Union in 1801. These political struggles were not only carried out verbally. But at the same time, quite a lot of duels were resolved without either combatant being killed, and no major figure lost his life in that way (unlike Alexander Hamilton).

So, plenty to chew on. You can get it here.

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