Family History Notebook

The Duel

(Chapter 1 of the "The United Irishmen, their lives and times" by Richard Robert Madden, published by J Madden and co 1846)

I AM chiefly indebted to the only surviving sister of the late General Corbet, Mrs. Lyons of Cork, for the materials which enable me to present this memoir to the public, of one of those Irishmen who were driven from their country in 1798, and who rose to honour and distinction in the service of another.

William Corbet was born of respectable parents, at Bally Thomas in the county of Cork, in August, 1779. His father was a classical teacher of some eminence ; his mother was of the Purcell family ; and both were members of the Protestant Church. He had three brothers and four sisters. He was educated at Bally Thomas, and entered Trinity College in 1794, being then only 15 years of ago. His elder brother, Thomas, had likewise entered college, - I presume, at an earlier period. William was a distinguished member of the Historical Society, and filled the office of secretary in that Society for some time. He was intimately acquainted with Thomas Addis Emmet, Hamilton Rowan, Curran, and other leading men of the Irish liberal party, of that period. It is stated by Mr. Dodd in his obituary for 1842, in a notice of the life of General Corbet, and likewise in a similar notice published in the Times newspaper in September, 1812, communicated by a gentleman in Paris, that in April, 1797, it was agreed to present an address to the viceroy by the provost, vice-provost, scholars and students of Trinity College, in full academic costume ; that the young men of opposite political sentiments, chiefly members of the Historical Society, had determined on joining the procession of the loyal addressors as far as the Castle gates, and then abandoning the latter, and proceeding to an aggregate meeting of Roman Catholics in Francis-street Chapel ; and in the latter account it is stated that the consequence of this proceeding of the refractory students was the expulsion of several, and, among others, of the Corbets.

In this statement there are some errors. The Catholic meeting in question did not take place in 1797 ; it took place in 1795. The expulsion of the students of Trinity College referred to, did not occur till 1798. The error in the preceding account arose from the circumstance of the writer s residence in Paris preventing him from having recourse to books of reference on the subject of the political movements of that time, and, as he has candidly admitted, from his treating of the matter in question from recollection. I make this observation that the notice of this error may not detract from the value of the other information contained in the valuable sketch he has given of General Corbet's life.

I take the following particulars of the meeting referred to, from

"a report of the debates at the Catholic meeting held in Francis-street Chapel, the 9th of April, 1795, printed in Belfast, at the Northern Star office."

The meeting was convened for the purpose of receiving the reports of the Catholic delegates, Messrs. Keogh, Byrne, and the Baron Hussey, accompanied by the Catholic Committee's agent, T. W. Tone, who bad been sent to England to present an address to his Majesty from the Catholic body, and had returned, having been refused an audience. At that meeting, the boldest language that at that period had ever been used by the Catholic leaders, was given utterance to. It was evident that the refusal of the Sovereign to receive their address — to listen even to the humblest expression of their hopes of justice from his government had made a deep impression on their minds — one which gave a new character to the United Irish system. We find in a short time nearly all the loading Catholics who took a part in that meeting were members of the Society of United Irishmen, amongst them Messrs. Keogh, Sweetman, and Lewins, and two of them members of the executive, namely, Messrs. Macneven and M'Cormick. The report states :—" In the course of Mr. Keogh's speech, a great body of the students of the University, who had been that day to present an address to Mr. Grattan, appeared, and were received with the most enthusiastic acclamations ; every man was eager to inconvenience himself for their accommodation.”….”It was a most interesting spectacle, and " powerfully agitated the best feelings of the heart ; the members shed tears, but they were tears of rapture. When the enthusiasm had somewhat subsided, Mr. Keogh proceeded to congratulate that meeting, and the whole nation, on the glorious spectacle which then presented itself to their view, the strongest proof, the surest pledge of that spirit of union so beneficial to the Catholics, so essential to Ireland."

The idea of John Keogh shedding tears—" such tears as flow down Pluto's iron cheek" — is some-what far-fetched. It must be confessed that the spokesmen of the students talked marvellously in " Ercle's vein" and Pistol's style. Mr. G. Moore, " Chairman of the Meeting of the students of the University," spoke at some length, and assured the meeting, " for himself, for the students of the University, in the name of posterity for ever, he thanked them. He talked of the plains of Pharsalia, of the Rubicon, and said, " there was one boon he asked of Heaven — for himself, might death arrest him ere he saw the day an Union took place for Ireland : might the Atlantic close, and bury it for ever in an unmeasurable gulph !"

Mr. Joseph Byrne, student, said, " The time was " fast at hand when the great God of Reason would  pour forth upon the whole world such a flood of intellectual light as would break and dissipate the dark clouds that had long obscured the human understanding, and concealed, alas! too long concealed from man, the energies of his soul."

The students' address to Mr. Grattan, and the reply of the latter, were communicated to the meeting, and read by the secretary, Mr. Richard M'Cormick. A series of resolutions were passed, and one in honour of the adhesion of the students to the Catholic cause—" an omen of success, which convinced them that " their most malignant and bigotted oppressors must speedily give way to THE UNION, irresistible as it is " natural, of letters with liberty, of wisdom with " justice, and of science with truth." There was one resolution well deserving of attention, to the following effect :—" That they were sincerely and unalterably " attached to the rights, liberties, and independence " of their native country, and pledged themselves " collectively and individually to resist even their own " emancipation, if proposed to be conceded upon the " ignominious terms of a union with the sister " kingdom."

The Corbets were at the meeting, but took no part in its proceedings. No doubt, the students who attended it became " marked men," but it is not the fact, that their attendance was the cause of the expulsions which took place nearly two years subsequently, when William Corbet was amongst the number of the expelled. In the month of February, 1798, Lord Chancellor Clare held a Visitation which lasted three days, and terminated in the expulsion of 19 students and the reprimand of four: amongst the former were William Corbet, Messrs. Power, Ardagh, Robinson, Slattery, Carroll, Russell, Emmet, &c. The Chancellor was assisted by the ferocious bigot, Dr. Patrick Duigenan, Judge of the Prerogative Court. The suspected students were called before the Chancellor, and such as attended were examined upon oath. Many declined to submit to any arraignment or examination, amongst which number was William Corbet. The names of those students, however, were called over. morning after morning, but, not appearing, they were declared contumacious, we are told by Mr. Moore, and sentence of expulsion was pronounced against them ? Tone, in his diary of the 20th of May, states that he has seen a long account of the Visitation in the English papers, taken from the Dublin Journal, in which the suspension of his friend Whitley Stokes for three years is mentioned.

" His crime was, having given to Sampson, who had communicated to Lord Moira, a paper which he had previously transmitted to the Lord Lieutenant, and which contained the account of some atrocious enormities committed by the British troops in the south of Ireland."' One of the charges, against this excellent man and eminent scholar, was brought forward by Duigenan, in language worthy of that gen­tleman. He said that Stokes went about the town wearing away his old shoes, showing French letters, on political subjects, to people. The letter, which fur­nished the grounds for the charge, proved to be one, in relation to the contest about the nature of Phlogiston, which was then carried on between the celebrated chemists L.avoisier and Kirwan. The doctor argued, like the sagacious person in Henry VI., against his adversary, " He can speak French, and, therefore, he is a traitor." On such a charge, and that to which Tone refers, Whitley Stokes, was interdicted from sitting at the board of fellows for three years.

The principal charge, against the students who were expelled, was one of a much more serious nature than attendance at any public meeting — it was of having attended a meeting of a Society of United Irishmen that had been formed within the walls of the college, and held, on the occasion in question, in the rooms of William Corbet. My informant is a Protestant clergyman, the Rev. Mr. H—n, who had been the college companion and intimate friend of Robert Emmet, though not a member of the political society referred to, nor I believe of any other.

It appears that the meetings of the young men were held at each other's rooms, and that politics and conviviality were mingled on such occasions. At a supper meeting, in Corbet's rooms, a song was sung, and a toast was given, which were fixed on as trea­sonable matters, and by some one of the party were reported to the government. Lord Clare held the visitation in February in consequence of this information. He endeavoured to establish a charge, for which there was not a shadow of foundation, namely, that an Assassination Committee had been organized in the college. Of this fact I was likewise informed by the Rev. Mr. Macartney, the Vicar of Belfast, who had a thorough knowledge of every thing con­nected with this subject. The name of a Mr. Macartney was scandalously mixed up in the Press newspaper, with the suspicion that attached to various students who were either present at the meeting, or in the secrets of those who were there. I am firmly persuaded that the information never came from Mr. Macartney.

The late Dr. M'Cabe, of Dublin, was, with one exception, the only individual who was present at the meeting in Corbet's, who was not either examined by the Chancellor or expelled after examination. Dr. M'Cabe accounted for his escape in the following manner. He had occasion to leave the party at Corbet's at an early hour in the evening, as he was in the act of going out, there was a knock at the outer door, M'Cabe stepped back and stood behind the inner one, the doors of the rooms being double, to allow the person to pass him who had knocked : a fellow student, Mr. S., (subsequently a barrister and writer of some celebrity,) entered without noticing M'Cabe, and the latter concluded that the information came from that person in which information he had fortunately escaped being included, in consequence, as he imagined, of having been unseen by Mr. S. The song that was sung on that occasion the burden of which was, " Turnips will grow in the Royal Exchange, and cabbages all down Dame Street," was said to be the joint composition of Messrs. Power and Ardagh, it forms one of the songs in the collection called Paddy's Resource.

[One of the authors, of the song referred to, is now the Vicar of M-, in the county Meath. The United Irishmen were indebted to Trinity College for no small portion of the songs and odes which are to be found in the columns of " The Press," and in the rebellions pages of Paddy's Resource. Many of the writers made very excellent Protestant divines.
In strains of another kind, where humour and drollery, and not politics prevailed, we are equally Indebted to gentlemen of the same cloth; one of the most amiable and Christian Protestant pastors in Ireland, the Rev. Mr. H-- a, is the author of that truly Hibernian ballad
" Jenny put the kettle on,
Paddy blow the bellows strong."

We find the subject of the expulsions, in 1798, and their consequences, thus noticed in the Press newspaper :


" Treason, Sedition, and Union, are the order of the day ; and the curse of Swift has fallen upon some of the brightest ornaments of the nation. They have been discovered to be men of talents, and Irishmen. Like Swift, they are persecuted and proscribed. A promising scion, of the system of disunion, has sprung up, emulous of the fame of Dutton and M'Dermot ; and has become like them, the benefactor of the King and constitution. He has put his ear to the chink, he has prostrated his body on the floor, to drink in the sounds of convivial relaxation ; he has heard a toast given, he has heard a song sung ; he has heard a midnight joke, a repartee, a pun ; he has denounced the traitors ; he has stipulated for reward and honourable secrecy. Without confrontation, his rival has been expelled. Ile has refused the call of honour, or the satisfaction of a gentleman ; yet he glories in his disgrace — he triumphs in his shame ; he sees how Dutton rose from the station of a lacquey to a military preferment ; he proposes him as the model of his emulation.

" He scorns Newell for his abjuration of his office, and burns to succeed him in his emoluments. Two generous sons of science and of virtue, have already felt his power, and been expelled ; eighteen more are marked for the same fate. Thus does the hornet who frets and goads this nation, fix his venemous sting even in the bosoms of its tender youth."— The Press, Feb. 27, 1798. Dublin.

" Yesterday morning a duel was fought in a field adjacent to the canal bridge, on the Rock road, between Mr. A—gh and Mr. M—t—y, both of the Col­lege. The cause of the duel was the expulsion of the former gentleman from the University, on the information of M—t—y, touching political principles.

" A case of pistols was fired on each side, and Mr. A. desiring to proceed, when the seconds were going to charge, the affair was quashed for the present by a magistrate, whom Mr. M. had the prudence to bring with him to the ground.

" The seconds were—

"John Keogh, Esq. Jun., of Mount Jerome, on the part of Mr. A.
“ — Burton, Esq. of College, on the part of Mr. M."—
The Press, Dublin, March 1st, 1798.


" As your attention has lately been attracted by the expulsion from the University of our amiable and much regretted companions, Messrs. Ardagh and Power, I feel it my duty, as a friend to oppressed, calumniated, and insulted virtue, to mention a circumstance, which will give you an idea of the character and motives of the informer, upon whose testimony those beloved and respected young men were treated with such unde­served severity. On Friday night, the 1st of December, Mr. Macartney thought proper to declare, that he had it from the highest authority, that there had been within the period of that week, three extra-ordinary meetings of the Board of Senior Fellows, on an information against the United Irishmen of the College, and asked the gentlemen present whom did they think was the informer. Each person named some infamous character. Mr. Macartney being at length called upon to name his man, let them know they were all mistaken, and, with an injunction of secrecy, and a repetition of the dependence that might be had on the authority from which he derived this knowledge, assured them that I was the informer. In consequence of this calumny, my character was lacerated throughout college in the companies of all those who did not well know me, on account of the pledge of secrecy with which this denunciation passed front mouth to mouth. I remained in utter ignorance of my situation until Monday morning, the 4th of December, when it was communicated to me by a friend, who, by that time, had come to the knowledge of it, and had most fortunately discovered the conversation held by Mr. Macartney on the preceding Friday evening.

" Need I describe how my feelings were wounded by so base, so cruel, an accusation? An informer—and of all informers the most infamous—the sapper of confidence, of union, and truth. No, my countrymen, I glory in being an Irishman, and, as an Irishman, you will always find me ready to shed my blood, if requisite, or to sacrifice my existence. But see how villany has recoiled on itself. In four short months he is detected in the mire of guilt wherein he would have smothered my fair fame—he stands convicted, an undisguised traitor, an avowed informer. On receiving the above intelligence, I immediately went in search of my friend, Cornelius Keogh, Esq., of Mount Jerome, who accompanied me to College, and went from me to fix a meeting between Mr. Macartney and me. Mr. Keogh first demanded to know whether Mr. Macartney avowed his having traduced my character in the manner I have described. Confounded with shame and guilt, he took the resolution of denying all, and laying his hand upon his heart, solemnly protested he had not. My friend required to have this declaration under his hand, which he complied with, and signed the following, which lies at the Press Office, for the inspection of any person to whom it would be satisfactory to peruse the original.

' I declare upon my honour, as a gentleman, that ' I have never made use of any expression tending to ' convey that Purcell O'Gorman, Esq. had given in formation to the Board of Senior Fellows concerning ' United Irishmen.'

(Signed)             A. C. MACARTNEY.' ' Trinity College, Dec. 4, 1797.'

" From this relation you might doubt whether malice or cowardice was the leading feature of his character, until his treachery has superseded them both, in the case of Ardagh and Power. If Mr. Macartney shall deny any part of this statement, and his having aspersed my reputation by the calumny which he afterwards disavowed upon his honour, and under his hand, I shall refer to the gentlemen who were present at the time, and who, from motives of delicacy, I forbear to name. I am influenced in this publication in no manner by personal motives, for I disdain to resent when submission disarmed me from punishing. I act purely from the dictates of public spirit in exposing to contempt the assassin of the character of my friend.


Trinity College, March 2, 1798."

 "We certainly could not refuse insertion to this letter, which denotes its author, in the most honourable accep­tation of the word, an Irishman. Mr. Macartney is the son of the Rev. Dr. Macartney, who prosecuted William Orr, and afterwards so conscientiously made an affidavit, and repaired in person to Dublin to lay it before the Lord Lieutenant, in the hopes of preventing the prosecution of that man, who triumphed in the hour of death. One would have hoped that the specimen given by Mr. Wheatley of the nature and office of an informer might have prevented the son of Dr. Macartney from adopting that calling.

" We have authority to say that the statement which appeared in Faulkner's Journal, relating to the duel between Messrs. A—h and M—y is a gross mis­representation. It is true that the affair was put an end to without any concession on either side, but not by the interference of both gentlemen, as stated in that paper. Both gentlemen fired together. Mr. A—h's first pistol missed fire ; after the second discharge, a  gentleman of the name of W., who loaded his pistols in Mr. M—y's carriage, came forward in the capacity of a magistrate, and prevented Mr. A— from firing again, he then requested the gentlemen to shake hands, which Mr. A. refused, he also asked Mr. A. whether he was satisfied. Mr. A. denied that he was, and said that three shots to two would be fairer than two to one ; it is for Mr. M. to determine whether this gentleman is his friend, or the save all of his character. Mr. A—h disclaims any acquaintance with him whatever. With respect to the insinuation of that Journal, that Mr. M—y was only supposed by Mr. A—h to have been the informer, we can only say, that Mr. M—y acknowledged to Mr. A—h's friend that he was the informer, and acted in that, as well as in the first refusal of the challenge, by the advice of his friends.

" The young gentleman of the college who adroitly collected evidence against his co-disciples, is to be rewarded with a degree of______ Master of Arts."

The Press, Dublin, March 3, 1798.

" Yesterday morning a duel took place, on the Strand, near Sandymount, between John Keogh, Esq., jun., and — Burton, Esq., seconds in the affair between Messrs. Ardagh and Macartney, on Wednesday last, which concluded, after discharging a case of pistols each.

" The cause of this dispute, we understand to have arisen from a refusal, on the part of Mr. Keogh, to sign a statement of that affair, drawn by Mr. Burton, and which produced a message from the latter gentleman."—The Press, Dublin, Tuesday, March 6th, 1798.

There is nothing in the correspondence, or the comments of the Press, to induce me to alter the opinion I have expressed, that Mr. Macartney was not the informer.

Thomas Corbet was not expelled ; on the contrary, by the account I have received from his family, he was not accused of being implicated in the affair. In 1796 and 97, the name of Thomas Corbet appears in the Irish army list, as one of the lieutenants of the college yeomanry corps.

His cotemporaries, at college, state that at the visitation, in 1798, the Lord Chancellor, after paying him a very handsome compliment, on the brilliancy of his college career, took occasion to express a hope, that he would remain to follow up his successes ; but he declined doing so, stating that he preferred con­tinuing the protection he had afforded his younger brother, and whatever his fate or fortunes might be, he desired to share them.