Pistol, double-barrelled, once owned by the O'Gorman Mahon
Stainless steel coloured, doubled-barrelled pistol
Tom Steele, better known as “Honest Tom Steele”, was born in Derrymore, Co. Clare, on November 3rd, 1788. He was the only child of William Steele and Catherine Bridgeman and his father died when Tom was only an infant. He was a descendant of the Steeles of Somersetshire who served in Monmouth’s Regiment during the reign of Charles II. For “distinction” in the army the family was rewarded with lands in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. Early in the eighteenth century a branch of the family, including Thomas Steele, grandfather of “Honest Tom”, moved into Clare, and came into possession of a large amount of property.
Tom Steele received his elementary classical training from Rev. Dr. Fitzgerald at Ennis Grammar School. He was educated at Trinity College Dublin and Magdalene College Cambridge. He graduated with an M.A. in 1820. He was said to be one of the best Greek scholars of his day, and was also an engineer of some note. He designed a more efficient type of diving bell, in which he descended off the coast of Wexford. He also thought up a scheme for making the Shannon more navigable.
In 1821 he inherited the Cullane property from his uncle and namesake, Thomas Steele. On this land stood Craggaunowen Castle. Tom carried out some restoration work on it and he preferred to spend his time here than at nearby Cullane House.
Tom Steele was tall with dark hair, said to be a “good-looking man”. His life has been described as “one of action and adventure”. He was a keen sportsman and very interested in horseracing. He never settled down to professional work. He was an idealist and his vision was one of free peoples and happy homes. He was a colourful character whose company was much sought after. He dreamed of romance and “cherished an ardent sentiment of attraction” for Miss Matilda Crowe of Abbeyfield House, Ennis. He was convinced that she held similar feelings for him, despite the advice he received from his friends. He would stand or sit on a rock, now known as Steele’s Rock, on the bank on the river Fergus opposite her house, merely to catch a glimpse of her as she passed by the windows. Sadly for him, she never acknowledged his presence.
Unsuccessful in love he set out for Spain. Tom Steele always had a sympathy for the oppressed and the downtrodden. So, in 1823 when the Spanish people revolted against Ferdinand VII he joined the Patriot Army, mortgaging some of his lands and fighting at Cadiz and Trocedero. He later wrote an account of his Spanish activities entitled “Notes of the War in Spain”.
Upon his return to Ireland he threw himself whole heartedly into the agitation for Catholic Emancipation. Although a Protestant, he was one of the earliest members of the revived Catholic Association and became its vice-president. In 1828 he seconded Daniel O’Connell’s nomination for Clare against Vesey Fitzgerald. Steele’s position as a Protestant and a landlord made him particularly valuable to O’Connell. In that election O’Connell defeated Fitzgerald by 1,820 votes to 842 votes. The first round in the fight for Catholic Emancipation was won and Tom Steele had a major part in the victory.
Daniel O’Connell named Tom Steele as “Head Pacificator”, with the duty of quelling faction-fighting. Secret societies and faction fighting were preventing the possibility of any united effort being made by the people towards securing emancipation. After the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act the landlords sought to consolidate their strength by establishing Brunswick Clubs throughout the country. O’Connell formed the Liberal and Independent Clubs. Tom Steele was the founder of the Limerick Independent Club in August 1828.
Tom Steele was an eccentric. One of his exploits was the moving of an ancient stone from Birr, Co. Offaly, to his home at Cullane in December 1833. The stone was thought to mark the centre of Ireland and legend also connected it with Fionn MacCool. He often dressed as an undertaker and drove a hearse drawn by six black-plumed horses. He generally carried a coffin marked “Repeal” in the hearse when he attended political rallies. He also had a strong objection to gloves and never wore them. His trousers, often mud-spattered, scarcely came halfway below his knees. Occasionally he would stop on the streets of Ennis and address a speech to his followers, to which they would loudly cheer and applaud. Before his involvement with the Catholic Association he wrote a letter to the Pope, expressing a desire to convert him to the Protestant faith.
Tom Steele toured the country encouraging the people to unite. He addressed hundreds of after-mass meetings. The Press of the day was mainly on the side of the Ascendancy, so he met with many opposing statements. When William Smith O’Brien, then a Unionist, passed the remark that O’Connell was not supported by any of the gentry of Clare, Steele challenged him to a duel . They fought but fortunately no blood was spilled and “honour was satisfied”. Tom Steele had a total disregard for the value of money and his involvement in politics meant his financial ruin. His transparent sincerity earned him the name “Honest Tom Steele.”
In 1843 dissention arose between Daniel O’ Connell and the “Young Irelanders”. Steele took the side of his chief and a split occurred in the united movement he had worked so hard to develop. By 1847, when his great friend Daniel O’ Connell died, Ireland was a country of fever and famine. Tom Steele was broken-hearted and penniless. Under great strain in London in 1848 he threw himself into the Thames off Waterloo Bridge. He was rescued and taken to Peel’s Coffee House in Fleet Street. He died a few days later on June 15th, 1848.
“Honest Tom Steele” is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, beside his life-long friend, Daniel O’Connell. A tribute to him in the “London Standard” reads-
“Fare thee well, noble, honest Tom Steele! A brave spirit in a gentler heart never left earth”.
[clarelibrary.ie, accessed on 13th September 2022]
Collection: De Valera Museum