Dueling has taken many forms throughout history, from the Roman legend of the Horatii brothers who epically fought the Curiatii brothers in a ritual duel to gentlemen fighting with swords over the hand of a lady. And most famously portrayed in movies, gun slinging cowboys drawing at dawn in the Wild West of America.
By the mid-1700s, defending your honour by dueling was a widespread practice among the Irish gentry and nobility. Having custom made dueling pistols was a highly prized status symbol. To uphold ones honour was vital and failure to do so may have resulted in you being shunned by upper-class society. Although it was technically against the law, it was the final resort for many Gentleman and in a number of cases, even Women, up until the mid 1800s.On January 21st 1748, a duel took place between Robert Millar and John Brown at Turin Castle, County Mayo. After a failed discussion to resolve their issues, the two men separated. Suddenly, without warning Brown turned and shot twice at Millar. He then threw his pistol at the wounded man and left quickly on his horse. Millar died of his wounds four days later.
Brown was subsequently convicted of manslaughter in Dublin.Due to the high-profile tragedy of the Miller- Brown duel, it prompted calls for a regulatory code to be issued. This transpired at the Clonmel Summer assizes of 1777 where the ‘code duello’ was introduced and later adopted throughout Ireland and the WorldThis code comprised of 25 rules which the participants had to adhere to. They were so strict about this that all gentleman were required to keep a copy in their pistol cases. Although some of the rules are what you might expect in regards to dueling some are very much of their time such as;“Rule 10. Any insult to a lady under a gentleman’s care or protection, to be considered as, by one degree, a greater offence than if given to the gentleman personally, and to be regulated accordingly”But we know from history, that some women were very much capable of defending their own honour.
There are documented incidents of women dueling with not just other women but also men. One of the more well-known examples took place in London at the end of the 1700s between Lady Almeria Braddock and a Mrs. Elphinstone. According to sources, Mrs. Elphinstone insulted Lady Braddock by insinuating that she was much older than she claimed to be. This resulted in Lady Braddock challenging Mrs. Elphinstone to a duel in Hyde Park. Both ladies chose their pistols and fired, thankfully none were injured in the process but even so both women decided to switch to swords. Lady Braddock, managed to strike and cut Mrs. Elphinstone’s arm, it was at this point both women laid down their weapons. Mrs. Elphinstone apologized for her comments and the two became fast friends once again.Duels were not only the last resort for personal disputes but also for political clashes among many high ranking individuals both here and in the UK.
One of the more unlikely participants throughout history was Daniel O’Connell- a man who would rather fight with words than violence. In the year 1815 he was challenged to a duel by John Norcot D’Esterre in the hopes that if O’Connell refused his people would see him as a coward and lose their respect. O’Connell was very much aware of the motive and even with the knowledge that D’Esterre was a renowned shot, he accepted. On the morning of the duel both men arrived, O’Connell in good spirits and D’Esterre a little nervous according to reports. Both men took their shot, D’Esterre surprisingly missed while O’Connell hit his target. Surgeons were unable to locate the bullet which had passed through D’Esterre’s bladder and hit his spine, he died some two days later.Even though O’Connell was quite despondent after the death of E’Esterre, which was not his intention, this did not deter him from challenging Robert Peel to a duel some months later. Twice his challenge was stopped by magistrates.
It was only in 1816 that O’Connell, after returning to his Catholic faith saw the error of his ways and vowed to never partake in a duel again- a vow he never broke. In the following decades, his straight up refusal to duel cemented the idea that he was nothing more than a coward and a scoundrel in the eyes of the British. They were infuriated that he was able to voice his opinion on various matters and people but yet not accept the challenge of a duel in response. His reply to the idea of dueling was that it was ‘“a practice inconsistent with common sense, and a violation of the divine law”.The image below shows a fire arms license which was issued to Richard Burke of Carrick-On-Suir.
Make sure you pop in to the Museum to see some of the pistols, revolvers and rifles we have on display.