The Story of Napper Tandy – Foreword

By way of introduction, some words on the state of Ireland in general and Dublin in particular in the second half of the 18th century, the backdrop against which much of this story is painted, may be of interest.

It was in many respects a lawless place, quite literally, for there was no effective police force until well into the 19th century. And yet they were an extremely litigious crowd, those Georgian Irish. They fought with their tongues and their pens with great skill. But equally they fought with their swords and their pistols too. It was quite common for two barristers to retire from the courtroom and settle a dispute in this way.

They seem not to have been all that roficient as marksmen, though, because there were far fewer injuries than duels. One such occurred at the Assizes of Waterford when Kelly and Egan fell out over a point of law. They crossed the River Suir in a boat so as to be in a different County, Kilkenny, and were taking their positions when a Justice of the Peace for Kilkenny, a large man by the name of Harry Hayden, interposed himself and instructed them to desist. They told him to remove himself or they would shoot him, and then break every bone in his body. He declared his authority as a Justice of the Peace. They said it would make no difference if he were St. Peter himself. The Justice decided that discretion was the better part of valour, the barristers exchanged shots, missed, and returned to the court. They found, as expected, the bench, jury and spectators quietly waiting to hear if one of them was killed.

There were many, many such occasions. Curran, later Master of the Rolls, and Fitzgibbon,  later Lord Chancellor and Earl of Clare, fought with enormous pistols, 12 inches long. Both appear in our story. Then there was Bully Egan, Chairman of the Dublin Quarter Sessions who fought more duels than anyone, including Kelly of the Waterford story. Scott, later Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench and Earl of Clonmel, fought Lord Tyrawly over his wife and the Earl of Llandaff over his sister, and many others. The list of big name duellists is very long, and even includes Grattan and O’Connell.

And they drank! How they drank. In Thomas Street, close to Napper Tandy’s business, nearly every third house was a pub – 52 licensed premises out of 190 houses. Sir Jonah Barrington, the judge and author, recollected a pre-Christmas weekend when the weather was too bad to hunt: ‘A hogshead of superior claret was therefore sent to the cottage of old Quin (sic) the hunter, and a fat cow, killed and plundered of her skin, was hung up by the heels. All the windows were closed to keep out the light. One room, filled with straw and numerous blankets, was destined for a bed-chamber in common, and another was prepared as a kitchen for the use of the servants. Claret, cold, mulled, or buttered, was to be the beverage for the whole company, and in addition to the cow above mentioned, chickens, bacon and bread were the only admitted viands. Wallace and Hosey, my father’s and brother’s pipers, and Doyle, a blind but a famous fiddler, were employed to enliven the banquet, which it was determined should continue till the cow became a skeleton, and the claret should be on its stoop.’

A dozen partygoers were said to have been at this debauch. A Hogshead is 381 bottles, which works out at an incredible 31.7 bottles per person! Rutty, the contemporary Quaker historian and author, wrote that 8,000 tuns of wine were imported in 1763, the bottles alone being valued at £67,000. A tun is 1,236 litres, or 13,184,000 bottles of wine. The habit was universal among the Ascendancy classes, the aristocrats and gentry, and among the poorer people. But while the rich drank mainly claret, the poor drank whiskey and beer, much of from Guinness’s brewery. The excesses of the rich were truly appalling. If you are interested enough, have a look at Sketches of Ireland Sixty Years Ago, Chapter 5.[1]

Their idea of sport was of the same order – cockfighting, bull-baiting, or just plain fighting. To go out after dark without protection was to risk assault and robbery, if not death. Gang wars were a common sight. Gambling was an addiction. People from all walks of life gambled on everything, from cards to the size of a load of turf, and when the National Lotteries were introduced in 1784 the gambling fever know no bounds. People gambled their very clothes in the certain knowledge that next time they would win. It was a licentious town.

Transport was developing apace in Ireland at this period, radiating out from Dublin. The first of the canals in Ireland, the 165 mile long Grand Canal, was started in 1756 and completed in 1803. It linked Dublin in the east to the River Shannon in the west, and was built largely to move grain and peat (peat is widely used in Ireland for heating) to Dublin. It was also a Godsend to Arthur Guinness, who used the canal to transport his beer and to transport the raw materials to his brewery which was just starting at the time. He even used the water of the Grand Canal for brewing. This stretch of the Grand Canal is still used today by the Guinness Company, though not, one hopes, for the Guinness! Lest we become conceited, it is worth pointing out that the Grand Canal in China was 1,114 miles long and completed over a thousand years earlier!

Then, forming a spur to the south at Athy, came the Barrow Navigation which was the canalised River Barrow, partly canal and partly river, established in 1792, 42 miles long.  Also starting in Dublin, The Royal Canal served Maynooth and Mullingar before joining the Shannon system 50 miles north of the Grand Canal, near Longford, in 1817.

There were many more – the Newry canal, the Coal Island Canal, the Upper and Lower Boyne, the Ulster Canal, the Ballymore and Ballyconnell, and others, and of course the great Shannon River system itself. Canals were big business in the first half of the 19th century.

Apart from freight, the canals also offered barge-like ‘passage boat’ and ‘fly-boat’ passenger services. The journey from Dublin to Tullamore could be done in less than 9 hours by 1834 in a fly-boat, an average of 7 miles an hour which was faster than most coaches and a great deal more comfortable! They  were long ‘narrowboats’ with covered seating for passengers. They were usually towed by two horses (often galloping!) and travelled much faster than any other boats on the canal. They had ‘right of way’ over other boats, which had to release their towlines to let the fly-boat pass. They could also go to the front if there was a queue of boats at lock gates.

There was terrible poverty in Dublin then. One house, No. 6, in Braithwaite Street for example, contained 100 people. That was in the Liberties to the west of the city and south of the Liffey. In Whitelaw’s 1798 census of Dublin the census officer writes ‘Into the backyard of each house, frequently not ten feet deep, is flung, from the windows of each apartment, the ordure and other filth of its numerous inhabitants; from whence it is so seldom removed, that I have seen it nearly on a level with the windows of the first floor; and the moisture that, after heavy rains, oozes from this heap, having frequently no sewer to carry it off, runs into the street, by the entry leading to the staircase . . . When I attempted . . . to take the population of a ruinous house in Joseph’s Lane, near Castlemarket, I was interrupted in my progress, by an inundation of putrid blood, alive with maggots, which had, from an adjacent slaughter-house, burst the back-door, and filled the hall to the depth of several inches. By the help of a plank, and some stepping stones, which I procured to the purpose (for the inhabitants, without any concern, waded through it), I reached the staircase. It had rained violently, and, from the shattered state of the roof, a torrent of water made its way through every floor, from the garret to the ground. The shallow looks, and filth of the wretches, who crowded round me, indicated their situation, though they seemed insensible to the stench, which I could scarce sustain for a few minutes.’

But in stark contrast, Dublin’s Northside became during the century a beautiful city. Building development in the 1700’s started with the Old Library building of Trinity College, begun in 1712, followed by the Printing House and the Dining Hall. And then, around 1720, came Luke Gardiner. He had built the family’s fortunes as a banker. He was also what today would be called a Property Developer and had bought large areas of Northside Dublin, north of the river Liffey. His first major enterprise there was the construction of Henrietta Street. It was named after the wife of the new Lord Lieutenant in 1720, Charles FitzRoy, the 2nd  Duke of Grafton and one of the descendants of Charles II of England.  It was built as an enclave for the rich and famous, and so was not a street which led anywhere. There was no way out. It was a cul-de-sac ending with the Inns of Court, and still is. Architect to the first six of the houses was a descendant of the 17th century rebel leader Rory O’More, Edward Lovett Pearse, a name which appears again and again in Dublin. He was an exponent of the Palladian style of architecture, developed in Italy from Roman and Greek temple designs, and much admired and used by Thomas Jefferson in the United States later in the century. (Jefferson, aside from being a lawyer and the 3rd President of the United States, was also an accomplished amateur architect). As a commercial venture it was brilliantly successful, and when completed it was occupied by five peers, a peeress, a peer’s son, a judge, a member of parliament, a Bishop and two wealthy clergymen as well as Luke Gardiner himself. These were classical Georgian houses, with their regular structure and porticoed doors. Dublin City, or the leading citizens anyhow, promptly gravitated towards Henrietta Street and the new developments north of the Liffey, and the area now known as Northside was born. O’Connell Street was constructed in the 1740’s, and was originally called Gardiner’s Mall. That’s where the houses were, the up-market residential area which in later times would be called ‘Georgian Dublin’. Public buildings were still just on the south side, though not far from the river, so they were readily accessible to the new Northside residents. The new Parliament Building in College Green started in 1729 was one. It was another Edward Lovett Pearse building, and is now the Bank of Ireland. St. Patrick’s Hospital for ‘idiots and lunatics’, near Kilmainham, paid for by funds bequeathed by Jonathan Swift, was another.

That was the Ireland into which Napper Tandy was born.


[1] http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AFAuAAAAMAAJ.

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