Such is the weakness of man, it seems, that even the mighty Daniel O’ Connell may have succumbed to the allures of the fair sex, committing an indiscretion in his youth, which came back to haunt him in later years when he and his wife Mary shared ‘abiding affection’.
Following the death of Daniel’s uncle, Muirís a Chaipín, their immediate financial difficulties were resolved, and they were living in his home at Derrynane House. The last six years of Mary’s Iife were probably their happiest together, and they were rarely apart despite a pamphlet published by Ellen Courtney, stating that Daniel O’Connell was the father of her illegitimate son. His enemies leapt on the story with joy, and no doubt it was avidly read by the whole of Ireland, and beyond.
To offset the negative coverage, Mary, despite her poor health at the time, accompanied her husband on a political tour of England. She died October 31 1836 and was buried at the O’Connell tomb on Abbey Island.*
But the public controversy about O’Connell’s possible illegitimate child pales into insignificance when forty five years before Ireland read with relish the intimate details of the carrying-on between William Petrie, and the vivacious Eliza Vesey, the wife of the well known Richard Martin of Dangan House, Galway, and Ballynahinch, an estate of some 200,000 acres, in Connemara.
Eliza, whom Richard adored, and with whom he had nine children (three of whom survived ), and who was his starring partner in the plays they produced together at his Kirwan Lane playhouse, had eloped with Petrie, a merchant.
Martin, the High Sheriff of Galway, the local MP, colonel of the Galway Volunteers, and feared duelist (and later known as ‘Humanity Dick’ ), sued Petrie for ‘criminal conversation’ with his wife, and demanded an absolutely eye-watering sum for the time, that of £20,000.
Newspaper reports of ‘criminal conversation cases’ revealed intimate details of adulterous couples’ furtive activities. Domestic servants and hotel employees were summoned to court to testify about what they had seen. The were asked to outline the most intimate details of what the couple were up to (sexual intercourse had to have taken place ), and in the Petrie case readers were presented with Martin’s personal valet, a character that could have come straight from Central Casting, the ubiquitous Joseph Casteaux, who saw it all.
A new beginning
Then affair began against the background of the French Revolution which had the whole world mesmerised that the people could rise up against their king, the wealthy and powerful nobility and a corrupt clerical hierarchy, to sweep them aside, and to replace them with an elected national assembly.
The year 1790, one year after the fall of the hated Bastille prison, was a period of relative calm, and tourists flocked to Paris to see things for themselves. Among them were the Martins of Galway, Richard, Eliza, their children and servants. But no sooner there than an election was called in Galway and Martin hastily returned to Ireland with instructions that his wife and family were to follow. But Eliza wrote pleading to remain in Paris to witness the elaborately planned Fete de la Fédération on July 14, when the French nation would celebrate a new beginning: the people and it’s king together.**
Martin agreed and sent his valet Joseph Casteaux to help them to make arrangements to return later in July.
Supper for two
When Joseph arrived at their hotel he found his mistress in the company of a Mr Petrie, ‘a small, rather ugly Englishman, and much her senior.’ The valet handed Mrs Martin a letter from her husband but was surprised to see that, instead of going through it with the usual affectionate concern, she flung it down on the table half-read.
As preparations were being made for the return to Galway Joseph noticed that Petrie was constantly in Eliza’s apartment: ‘where he sometimes stayed alone with Mrs Martin until three or four in the morning’. The table for supper was laid for two, and Mrs Martin insisted no one was to disturb them until she called.
Joseph could not fail to observe what was happening. ‘Mrs Martin’s bedroom was connected by a door with the supper-room’. One evening the door happened to her ajar. Candles were burning in the room next door, and there he saw his mistress lying on a sofa. Petrie, kissing her, had one arm around her neck, while the other lifted her skirts…..Another time he saw them in bed together.
Joseph dared not tell Martin what was happening. Once he confronted Mrs Martin and said he would not tell his master what had happened if she agreed to return alone to Ireland. She refused.
At last on August 20 they set out on their journey home. Mrs Martin did not travel in her own carriage, but in Petrie’s chaise. The couple constantly separated themselves from the group and again, when they all arrived at Noyons, and stayed at the inn, Joseph saw them in bed together.
Arriving in London Mrs Martin dd not stay with her relations as was planned, but stayed with Petrie at the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall.
Her brother, an army officer just returned from America, met Eliza and Petrie and was clearly alarmed that the couple took little care to disguise their liaison. He insisted his sister return at once to Martin. This only sparked a further crisis. Petrie now alarmed that he would lose her, planned an elaborate elopement where a series of coaches would whisk them from London to some secret hide-away.
When their disappearance was discovered Joseph returned immediately to Galway and told Martin the whole unsavoury story. Martin was incredulous. His first reaction was to try to save the situation citing the excellent relations he had with her family the Veseys, of Hollymount, Co Mayo; while the children were more than ordinarily cherished because they had been born after so many disappointments. But at the end, he had no choice but to sue Petrie, while, forgivingly, accepting his wife’s weakness: “ I supposed Mrs Martin had been betrayed into ruin by arts such as the weakness of humanity was unable to resist.”
To be continued……
* O’Connell’s great achievement of Catholic Emancipation, securing the right for Catholics to be elected to the House of Commons, and his brilliance as a parliamentarian in an era of reform, his advocacy for the abolition of slavery, his support for Jewish emancipation and his great desire to repeal the Act of Union and return of parliament to Dublin, eventually took its toll on his energy and judgement in his last years.
Ten years after the death of Mary, the young bloods of a more ambitious Ireland, demanding direct action to achieve their political ambitions, increasingly criticised his leadership for lack of progress. As the country sank into the misery of the Great Famine, O’Connell, distressed and exhausted, set out on a pilgrimage to Rome in late March 1847. He died, aged 72 years, in Genoa on May 15. His body was returned to Ireland, and buried within an impressive Round Tower mausoleum at Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin. At his request, his heart remains in Rome, at the Sant’ Agata dei Goti, then the chapel of the Irish College.
Among the tributes from all over the world William Gladstone described O’Connell as ‘the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen.’
** The Fete de la Fédération was a moment of false hope for a peaceful revolution, consisting of speeches in favour of the new constitution, high Mass celebrated, in a new form, by the crafty and cynical Talleyrand, after which the king spoke encouraging words, and his queen showed the Dauphin to adoring crowds.
Quotes taken from Humanity Dick, by Shevawn Lynam, published by Hamish Hamilton 1975, The Freeman’s Journal, and Burke’s Connaught Journal December 29 1791.