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  • Dumb Duels #1: Finn vs O’Hara November 4, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    duelling pistols

    Duelling? What an absolutely charming idea. Two men and occasionally two women resolve problems with recourse to combat. But doesn’t this make for rather boring history? After all, the two meet, the two shoot/cut and one apologies or dies. There just isn’t that much potential for things to go bizarrely wrong? Well, apart from that most sorry variable of all human nature, consider the other variables: there is the question of the weapons to be chosen, there is the question of the seconds (the helps), there is the question of the format for killing or wounding, then there is also the possibility of an intervention from the local forces of law and order. In short there are many things that can give a twist to the tale. Beach has very occasionally dealt with duels in the past, not least an insane collective duel in the Scottish Highlands that still chills his blood. But what about this effort? The last duel in Irish history in the early nineteenth century: at least they went out with a bang.

    It was just about the year 1838 that a duel – one of the last, if not the last, in this country – was fought, of which a Mr Ireland, then at the Irish Bar, gave me the following account:

    Let’s skip the cause, a joke and get straight to the meeting of O’Hara and Finn. Ireland was invited to come along as the judge: he was a friend of both. Their great coats were thrown on the sand at the North Bull and ‘on them Ireland took his seat’.

    It was arranged that one of the seconds, who had had some little previous experience in affairs of honour, should give the signal for the combatants to fire. When they were in their places, twelve paces apart, this second, standing between them, proceeded to give them instructions as to how the fight was to be conducted. ‘The only signal will be,’ he said, ‘the words, ‘Ready – fire.’ At the word ‘fire’. Finn, in his nervous excitement, raised his pistol, pointing it towards the second. ‘Be quiet, will you?’ said he. ‘Do you want to shoot me?’ Having retired a few paces to be out of danger, he went on to say, ‘Neither of you is to attempt to raise your pistol till I give the word ‘ready’, nor to attempt to shoot till I give the word ‘fire’. At the word ‘fire’ Finn again lost his head, pulled the trigger of his pistol, which was pointed downwards, and lodged the bullet in the calf of his own leg. O’Hara, thinking that Finn had taken a shot at him, immediately took aim at him, while Finn hopped off as fast as his wounded leg would let him, crying out, ‘For God’s sake don’t fire; it was all a mistake!’ But O’Hara did fire, and his bullet struck the ground close to Finn, and sent the sand flying over Ireland and the coats. At that moment four constables appeared on the ground with warrants for the arrest of the whole party, who were quickly captured, placed in the carriages in which they had come, and driven back to Dublin, Finn’s leg the while dangling out of the carriage window to keep it cool.

    The wits in Dublin came up with this beauty: ‘Finn had gone to the Bull, got cow’d and shot the calf!’

    Other dumb duels? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    5 Nov 2013: First up is the great Mike Dash with a couple of classics. Two encounters spring immediately to mind: one fatal, the other rather deliberately not so. To take the fatal example first: Lord Camelford was one of the great hell-raising aristocrats of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the subject of Nikolai Tolstoy’s book The Half-Mad Lord. I have taken quite an interest in him over the years as he was the most direct precursor of the Marquis of Waterford, who was chief suspect in the Spring-heeled Jack scare of 1837-38, and the lurid anecdotes about his behaviour are legion. Crucial to understanding of the duel story, however, is that Camelford had a reputation for being not merely extremely fearsome, but absolutely fearless. There is for example a tale told of his behaviour when the celebrations that attended the Peace of Amiens (1802) occurred. The whole of London was ablaze with lights in honour of the affair, but Camelford’s Mayfair windows remained conspicuously unlit. A disgruntled mob assembled outside and began to remonstrate with Camelford’s servants, at which Camelford himself issued forth. He had armed himself with cudgels (apparently he habitually kept a selection of weaponry, from bullwhips to clubs and swords, handily available in brackets above the fire in his living room) and immediately charged into the assembled multitude, concussing several before he himself was inevitably brought down by a blow from behind. With this sort of reputation to defend, Camelford was highly sensitive to any slight upon his honour. As Tolstoy, and several contemporaries, tell it, a certain Mrs Simmonds – a lady with whom Camelford had lived with for a while – felt slighted when her escort for the evening, a Captain Best, refused to accompany her home. She responded by swearing to “set Lord Camelford on his back,” then went to Camelford and told him that Best had spoken disrespectfully of him. Camelford immediately issued a challenge to a duel and this went ahead despite Best’s earnest attempts to convince Camelford that he had said nothing of the sort. Camelford apparently believed him, but, as Best had the reputation of being the best shot in the entire kingdom, felt he would be thought a coward if he withdrew the challenge. The duel thus went ahead on a meadow in Kensington on 7 March 1804. Camelford fired first, and missed, but Best lived up to his reputation and put his ball into Camelford’s spine. Lord C lingered in great agony for three days before dying. He left a will insisting that he was to blame for the duel and asking that Best not be charged with his murder. More ridiculous is the story of Sir William Petty, the seventeenth century “father of economics” whom I believe I first encountered in Stephen Pile’s Book of Heroic Failures. The story here is told variously by those two great diarists, Aubrey and Evelyn, who have Petty involved in tackling challenges dating to 1645 from (probably) Sir Hierome Sankey and Sir Aleyn Brodrick respectively. The basic details, however, are the same: Sir William, like Lord Camelford, was not disposed to refuse the challenge in order to preserve his honour. However, he was shortsighted and also no match for his opponent in terms of strength or viciousness. A solution suggested itself: by the customs of duelling, it was Sir William’s right as the challenged to chose the venue for the encounter and the weapons to be used. He chose a pitch-black coal cellar and a pair of carpenter’s axes so huge that neither man could lift them. This, Aubrey reports, “turned the knight’s challenge to ridicule, and so it came to nought.” *** Judith of Zenobia fame writes: It’s not just the dumb Irish duels of yesteryear that tickle but the duels to come of Senator Aqua Buddha (as Charles Pierce jovially calls him) Rand Paul [R-Ky]: /”And like I say, if, you know, if dueling were legal in Kentucky, if they keep it up, you know, it would be a duel challenge. But I can’t do that, because I can’t hold office in Kentucky then.”/ Details of future dogfights. Oh to be Rachel Maddow’s second! *** Thanks Zenobia and Mike!