The Irish Code Duello

Brawling and fighting is surely as old as the history of man himself. Even in this, however, the aristocracy of the 17th and 18th centuries sought to set themselves apart from the common man. While the uncivilised engaged in criminalised street fights, gentlemen fought duels.

Arthur Wellesley, while Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, met the Earl of Winchilsea in a duel on Battersea Common in March 1829. Their argument centred on Wellington’s support for Catholic Emancipation, in the course of which political debate the Earl insulted the Duke. Honour dictated a duel be fought. Duels were distinguished by the set of rules which governed them - the 26 commandments.

The Code Duello was formally laid out in the summer of 1777 in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary at a meeting of the Assizes, by a group of gentlemen collaborators. This Irish code was adopted worldwide. Thus, according to the code, an insult paid was a challenge earned and from there the duellists or principals delegated their seconds (a trusted representative) to deal with the minutiae as the Code Duello dictated. The place, usually an open area without trees or other structures which might help in setting aim, the number of paces the duellists would stand apart, the time and date were all agreed between the seconds. Spectators assembled and doctors at the ready, the seconds final duty was to inspect the weapons. The quantities and dryness of the powder established, the guns were loaded, the duellists paced, turned and fired. Deaths were a common occurrence and prosecutions rare. After all, it was a gentleman’s agreement.

Wellington was not alone as a man of prominence in fighting a duel. Daniel O’Connell, the architect of Catholic Emancipation had himself fought a duel, with a deadly result. O’Connell, the great orator and populist, accused the corporation of Dublin of being ‘beggarly’. A mild insult in today’s political arena, it was seized upon by one Captain D’Esterre, a corporation member and the challenge issued. They met 13 miles from the city in February 1815. The hothead D’Esterre missed, but was wounded in the thigh by O’Connell and died a few days later. O’Connell, loathed by the ruling establishment, was not prosecuted.

Across the Atlantic, in the newly independent United States of America, the Irish Code Duello ruled the deadly encounter between the serving vice president, Aaron Burr and the First Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. The long time protagonists met at dawn in July 1804 and two shots were fired.  Hamilton fell and died the next day. Burr returned to work, completing his term as vice president.

Duelling was outlawed in Britain in the mid nineteenth century, though the time honoured method of settling gentlemanly disputes was not unknown after that. As to the Duke and the Earl - despite his military credentials, Wellington was a bad shot and missed. Winchilsea kept his arm down, never firing at all.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 27th August 2013