Child of the Slieve Blooms
Hollywood blockbusters have been made about men far less remarkable than Edward Despard. He was one of the most extraordinary Irish men in modern history, and one of the most remarkable characters in the Georgian world. The account of his execution from The Morning Chronicle newspaper gives an indication towards the infamy that surrounded the man. But Despard’s story, which saw him fight in the American War of Independence, command forces in British Honduras, and become involved in a great plot that could have changed the course of world history, all began on the gentle slopes of the Slieve Blooms.
Edward Marcus Despard was born in Coolrain in 1751. There is much academic discussion as to the whereabouts of Despard’s birth. Indeed with such a legacy, albeit a little known legacy, it is unsurprising that so many areas wish to claim him as their own. One account in the mid-1990s stated that he was born ‘not too far from Mountmellick’. One of the most pre-eminent scholars of Despard’s life, Professor Peter Linebaugh, explicitly places Despard’s first home as Donore House, on the banks of the River Nore near Kilbricken, outside Mountrath. This is supported by some accounts of Despard’s life from other 19th Century sources including Richard Madden’s The United Irishmen, Their Lives and Times. However, the most recent biographer of Despard, Mike Jay, determined that most of the Despard family records state that the original family home was in Coolrain. Indeed, the current holder of the records of the Despard family, Richard Despard, has confirmed that Despard did indeed hail from Coolrain and hopefully this book will lay to rest other claims to the ‘Unfortunate Colonel Despard’.
A tale in the Folklore Collection in University College Dublin states that the leader of the first Norman invasion of Ireland told his crewmen as they crossed the sea, that the first Englishman to touch the soil of Ireland could have it all for themselves. When they were nearly at the shore, one man cut off his arm and threw it overboard onto the beach. Someone who witnessed this said ‘now, there’s a ‘despart’ man’. And, so the story goes, this is where the Despards got their name! Unfortunately, the true origin of the name is a little more mundane. The family are of French origin and were originally D’Espards.
The Despards had a long tradition in the wider-Mountrath area. They initially came to Ireland as part of Charles Coote’s entourage in the 1640s. In 1692, one of the first two Despards to enrol in Trinity College was William Despard, son of Henry Despard, from Rushin. Around 1670, William Despard of Coolrain married Elizabeth Armstrong, a niece of Sir Thomas Armstrong who was executed for treason in 1684. Edward’s grandfather, William Despard, was born in 1715. He was a member of the Irish Parliament for Thomastown. His son, also William, was the High Sherriff of the Queen’s County.
As his family history suggests, the young Edward had little in common with his Coolrain neighbours. It is likely that he had no contact whatsoever with the locals bar the occasional unwelcome encounter. When Edward was born in 1751 the Despards found themselves in the midst of a vastly changing environment. Over a century had passed since the great tumult of the 1641 rebellion and the subsequent Cromwelian conquest that forced the native Irish into forced tenancy, destitution and squalor. Subsequent generations made the best of their poor lot, but whatever meek industry and agriculture they could manage was put in danger when, in 1759, Irish cattle were allowed to be exported to Britain. Seeing the opportunity to flourish, wealthy landowners and landlords began to enclose common land and turn arable land into pasture. It was around this time that much of the hedgerows that criss-cross rural Ireland today were originally planted. Their initial purpose was to act as a means of enclosure and was later legislated for by the British authorities. The hedgerow became a symbol for the disaffected natives of everything that was wrong with the ‘improvements’ being made to the landscape.
Bands of Ribbonmen, secret rural societies, were set up around Camross to vent their fury against their neighbours, whom they viewed as being responsible for the destruction of their agrarian way of life. Nocturnal bands of scores of people, dressed in flowing white sheets with white badges, pulled down the fences and hedgerows enclosing the commons. In anonymous letters to landlords they wrote;
We, levellers and avengers for the wrongs done to the poor, have unanimously assembled to raze walls and ditches that have been made to enclose the commons. Gentlemen now of late have learned to grind the face of the poor so that it is impossible for them to live. They cannot even keep a pig or a hen at their doors. We warn them not to raise again either walls or ditches in the place of those we destroy, nor even to inquire about the destroyers of them. If they do, their cattle shall be houghed and their sheep laid open in the fields.
The Ribbonmen of Camross and the wider Slieve Bloom area were dealt a huge blow when sixteen of their members were caught and hanged. However, just before this blow they lay siege upon the landlord class, including the Despards. One of Edward’s nieces recalled the terror inflicted upon the family by the marauding bands of masked men; ‘Living one winter in terror, we were driven away by rebel whitefeet or blackfeet; lost all our plate which had been placed in a neighbouring town for safety; the house we lived in set fire to and burnt and my poor father received only £50 damages from the country. We were moved then to Mountmellick for protection and afterwards to Mountrath’.
But in spite of the terror and grave danger that Edward and his family faced as a result of native insurgency, the young man developed an unlikely affinity with the poor of the locality. The same niece who described the Despard’s flight from their home described how the young Edward would listen for hours to the stories of a ‘Gaelic storyteller’ brought in for the entertainment of the children. He also loathed activities that set his family apart from the rest of the people. Afternoon coffee and reading the scripture aloud to an elderly grandmother were seen as pointless to the young man, in stark contrast to hearing of tales of the Gaelic order that his ancestors had helped bring to their knees a century earlier.
Despite his apparent fondness for the ordinary people of Ireland, Edward was destined for a career as a military commander. Indeed five of the six Despard boys joined the British Army, the eldest stayed at home to inherit the estate. Despard’s indoctrination into the military way of life began at the age of eight when he was sent out as page to Countess Hertford, whose husband Francis Seymour-Conway, was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time. At the age of fifteen, Edward joined the Fifth Regiment of the British Army. Whatever sympathy towards the landless Catholic Irish that Edward had developed in his youth lay dormant for years as he embarked on a remarkable military career.
Jamaica, the invasion of Nicaragua, and British Honduras
In 1766, Edward landed with his regiment on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. The situation that he faced in Jamaica was not too dissimilar to what he had viewed in his youth but it was compounded by the vile vice of the day; slavery. Sugar cane was the product of much of the Caribbean’s slavery. A small class of British sugar planters lived on Jamaica alongside over 200,000 African slaves. There was tension in the air on the island as Despard arrived. A slave rebellion had just been cruelly put down and in his first two years on the island three further rebellions were crushed. Gallows and makeshift crucifix-like structures with the decaying remains of rebel leaders were strewn along the landscape to remind the slaves of their place.
Despard advanced in the army quickly. Within six years he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Gifted with a mathematical mind, he helped design the shore batteries and fortifications of Kingston and Port Royal, the headquarters of the British navy in the Caribbean. With the help of African women ‘minders’, who tended to the medical needs of the Europeans, he overcame the usual illnesses that befell a newcomer to the island and despite being part of the class of the slaver and planter, Edward earned the respect of the slaves and labourers alike through his fair treatment of those under his command.
In 1775 the American War of Independence began. Were it not for the fact that Despard’s regiment was crippled with illness at the time, he would likely have joined several of his brothers on the American mainland. Instead, Despard was tasked with hampering Spanish involvement in the War. In 1779 the Spanish Empire officially joined France against Britain in the American war. Despard was tasked with raising a military expedition to sail to Nicaragua where they were to effectively split Spanish America in two and create a British land link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Despard’s plan was to land on the Nicaraguan coast and lay siege to Fort Immaculada before securing the land around Lake Nicaragua. This would be no easy task. 600 miles of open sea lay between Jamaica and Nicaragua. Once there, they would have to fight an encamped force in tropical conditions in the height of the wet season. But he took on the task with vigour and managed to raise a force from a mixture of existing regiments and an ‘irregular’ band of sailors and vagrants. One of Despard’s colleagues described the Jamaican ‘irregulars’ as they lined up to depart on their mission as follows;
They stood in a ragged line, half-clothed and half-drunk, they seemed to possess the true complexion of buccaneers and it would be illiberal to suppose their principles were not in harmony with their faces. A hundred of them were collected together and seemed so volatile and frolicsome, I thought it good policy to order ten guineas for them to be drunk in grog on board their transports and embarked them with three cheers to the great satisfaction of the town of Kingston’.
The expedition was launched in two phases and Despard was integral to both. The first phase was a great success. Despard led his men up St. John’s River and defeated the Spanish garrison at Fort Immaculada. Beside Despard at all times during their daring success was a young English soldier from Norfolk with whom Despard had developed a great friendship, Horatio Nelson. The second phase of the expedition, however, was an unmitigated disaster and would lead to the worst British disaster of the war. As the weather deteriorated, locals upon whom the soldiers relied upon began to desert them and Despard grew reliant upon ‘Black River Negroes’ who were boatmen from the nearby Mosquito Shore. They brought scant supplies to the soldiers which was just enough for them to maintain their garrison. However, when one of their leaders died, the Black River boatmen deserted them, leaving Despard in a wholly unfortunate position. He wrote that his garrison was ‘so extremely weak that there are not men sufficient to keep up the necessary guards. The negroes of the Corps, I have been obliged to keep in the Fort constantly to prevent their desertion, as well as to have them ready to work when necessary, and for some time past they have not had much spare time—five men deserted one night, four of the Volunteers and one of the Legion and took a [boat] with them.’ The writing was on the wall for the Nicaraguan garrison after this desertion and they abandoned their post for Jamaica. Despard, showing his true leadership skills, was the last man to leave the garrison. He ensured that his friend Nelson, who was delirious with fever, was taken away and cared for before departing. This act no doubt saved the young man’s life and ensured that he would go on and lead a great military career which would culminate in the Battle of Trafalgar twenty-five years later. Despite the desertions and abandonment of the local people, Despard was still held in the highest esteem in Nicaragua, as he was with the slaves in the sugar plantations.
For his efforts in Nicaragua, Despard was bestowed the honour of Superintendent of the Bay of Honduras (modern day Belize). Moulded by his experiences in Ireland, Jamaica and Nicaragua, Despard was not long in charge of the British colony before he clashed with the established English planters there. Despard was unswerving in his defence of the rights of black slaves who were landing in the colony from other parts of Central America, many of whom he had formed friendships with in either Jamaica or Nicaragua. This did not sit well with the English settlers and they complained to authorities in London that British influence in the region was being undermined by Despard’s actions. These complaints were considered and Despard was recalled to London.
In 1790 Despard landed in England with his wife, Catherine, and son. There is little remarkable about a man who lived abroad for years becoming married and beginning a family. But what caused such a stir when the Despards landed in London was the fact that Catherine Despard was a black woman, possibly one of Despard’s former minders in Central America. Amidst the educated classes in London the Despards found a burgeoning abolitionist movement which they tapped into and sought to bring legitimacy to. Many of the theories being postulated at the time regarding abolitionism were well meant but suffered from British elitist attitudes. All too often, the cause was a mere hobbyhorse for upper-class Londoners who had little idea of the realities of the world. But the Despards brought first-hand experience of slavery as they developed their opinions on the ‘human race’. They combined the well-meant intentions and, more importantly, the funds of those upper-class Londoners to develop the first true strands of abolitionism in Britain.
‘This is the head of a traitor’
Meanwhile, Despard had to face authorities over the accusations levelled against him in British Honduras. He was told that whilst he did not have a case to answer for he would not be reinstated as the Superintendent of the Bay of Honduras. Despard was furious. He demanded compensation for his effective dismissal and during this process he grew bitter towards British authorities. Through a mixture of his growing involvement in the abolitionist movement with his wife, his disenchantment with Britain, and a seething idleness, Despard came in contact with members of the radical London Corresponding Society. He also sought out members of the United Irishmen. He became closely associated with a prominent member of the United Irishmen, William Duckett, who was also a French spy. Through Duckett, Despard became aware of the unfolding plans for an uprising in 1798 in Ireland and the involvement of Wolfe Tone and a potential French fleet of ships. Despard was keen to extend the rebellion to Britain and he negotiated with the United Englishmen, a small secret society with similar ideals to the United Irishmen, to organise an uprising on English soil to coincide with the landing of the French fleet in Ireland. However, two United Englishmen were captured at the late stages of planning and Despard was implicated in the plot and was subsequently arrested and imprisoned.
Despard was lucky to be released from prison in March 1801 and he returned to the midlands with his family and he vowed to never become involved in politics again. The prospects of rekindling a career with any branch of the Crown were at an end due to his arrest and he settled to seeing out his days on the foot of the Slieve Blooms living off his accumulated savings and his family’s purse. But his resolve lasted mere months as he began to appreciate what had happened in Ireland following the 1798 rebellion and the introduction of the Act of Union. Following the rebellion the United Irishmen were reduced to a small centralised military body who had been pushed even further underground than before. One of the most senior members of the depleted Society was William Dowdall. It was Dowdall who convinced Despard to return to London to see if another attempt to ferment a popular uprising in England could be achieved.
When he returned to London he found conditions ideal for a revolution; food shortages were common and there were huge levels of industrial unrest, not to mention huge numbers of disaffected Irish labourers who were bearing the brunt of both of these problems. Despard met with dozens of Irish soldiers stationed in Windsor and London and also met with Irish and French emissaries as he formed his plot. Indeed, he had to hold back individuals who wished to embark on a rebellion on 6 September 1802. Despard urged them to wait for a more spectacular offensive. Despard allegedly plotted a full scale coup d'état on the day of the opening of parliament in November 1802. The plot involved the assassination of King George III as he travelled to Westminster and to seize key sites around the city such as the Tower of London and the Bank of England building. Had they have been successful it would have sent shockwaves around the Empire and changed the course of British and Irish history.
But their plot was foiled and Despard was arrested in Lambeth on 16 November 1802. Given the rumours that circulated following the arrest, his trial generated huge interest across the Empire. He was tried alongside his co-conspirators; Charles Pendrell, James Sedgewick Wrattin, William Lander, Arthur Graham, Samuel Smith, John McNamara and Thomas Broughton.
 Leinster Express, 15 Jul 1995.
 Personal correspondence between author and Mike Jay (2-4 March 2015), and Richard Despard (17 – 28 April 2015).
 Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London, 2003), p. 256.
 Richard L. Greaves, ‘Armstrong, Sir Thomas (bap. 1633, d. 1684)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, pp 256-57.
 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, p. 257.
 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, p. 263.