14 January 2020
Wellington: the Irish hero at Waterloo
who introduced Catholic Emancipation
For a generation, or even two, ‘Waterloo’ is probably associated with Abba’s Eurovision winning song in 1974, or the 1967 hit ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by the Kinks. However, some years ago we also marked the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, on 18 June 1815, won by an Irish-born general who attended Drogheda Grammar School.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, has received a bad press in the past, and is often accused of denying his Irish identity by saying: ‘If a gentleman happens to be born in a stable, it does not follow that he should be called a horse.’
But, in fact, Wellington never said anything of the sort. Instead, it was Daniel O’Connell who in 1843 tried to cast doubts on Wellington’s Irish credentials, saying: ‘The poor old Duke! what shall I say of him? To be sure he was born in Ireland, but being born in a stable does not make a man a horse.’
The Duke of Wellington was born plain Arthur Wesley 250 years ago on 1 May 1769 in Mornington House on Merrion Street, Dublin, close to Leinster House and opposite what is now the Taoiseach’s office. Mornington House took its name from Mornington, Co Meath, near Drogheda, which also gave the family a title. The family was originally named Colley, and can be traced back to Walter Colley, who moved from England to Drogheda about 1500.
Inheriting an estate
The duke’s grandfather, Richard Colley Wesley (1690-1758), 1st Baron Mornington, was born Richard Colley. In 1728, he inherited the estates of Dangan and Mornington, Co Meath, on the death of Garret Wesley, the husband of a distant, childless cousin, and within weeks he changed his surname to Wesley.
The estates were first offered to a distant English relative, then a schoolboy at Westminster, Charles Wesley, brother of the great Methodist John Wesley. This offer was unaccountably refused, and the inheritance passed instead to Richard, who was MP for Trim, Co Meath (1729-1746), until he was given the title Lord Mornington.
The duke’s father, Garret Colley Wesley (1735-1781), 1st Earl of Mornington, was born at Dangan, near Summerhill, outside Trim. He was MP for Trim (1757-1758) until he succeeded to his father’s peerage, and in 1764 he became the first Professor of Music at Trinity College Dublin.
The young Arthur Wesley was educated in Trim and at Drogheda Grammar School before going to Eton. He entered the British army as an ensign at 18, and he became an aide-de-camp in Dublin Castle to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Buckingham. He was elected MP for Trim in 1789.
As a young officer, he met Catherine ‘Kitty’ Pakenham, but their marriage was blocked by her brother, the Earl of Longford, because young Wesley was in debt and had poor prospects.
He was elected MP for Trim again in 1795, but he turned down an offer to become Surveyor-General and left with his regiment for India, where his elder brother, Lord Mornington, became Governor-General.
He was still known as Arthur Wesley until 1798, when he and the other family members changed their surname to Wellesley. When he returned to Ireland as Sir Arthur Wellesley, Kitty Pakenham’s brother changed his mind, and the two were married in Saint George’s Church, Dublin, on 10 April 1806.
Meanwhile, he was elected Tory MP for Rye in 1806. A year later, he was elected MP for Tralee but decided instead to take his seat as MP for Newport on the Isle of Wight. He became the Chief Secretary for Ireland (1807-1809) and during this time in Ireland promised to work for the abolition of the remaining Penal Laws and for Catholic Emancipation.
By 1815, following his successes in the Peninsular War, he was regarded as Britain’s foremost general, making him a natural choice to command the campaign against Napoleon.
Irish officers and soldiers
Many of Wellington’s generals, offices and soldiers at Waterloo were Irish too. The Irish formed a large proportion of Wellington’s army, and they may have numbered many thousands. Three regiments with Irish names fought at Waterloo: the 27th (Inniskilling) Foot Cavalry, the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons and the 18th (King’s Irish) Hussars. The 7th and 18th Hussars were known as the ‘Drogheda Light Horse’ or the ‘Drogheda Cossacks’ because a former regimental colonel was the Earl of Drogheda, at one time an MP for the Kilkenny constituency of Saint Canice.
The Irish generals at Waterloo included Major-General Sir Denis Pack (1775-1823), from Kilkenny, who commanded the 9th British Infantry Brigade. His father, the Very Revd Thomas Pack, was Dean of Ossory (1784-1795).
The most high-profile Irish officer to die at Waterloo was Major-General Sir William Ponsonby (1772-1815), who commanded the 2nd Cavalry Brigade. He had been MP for Bandonbridge, Co Cork (1796-1798), Fethard, Co Tipperary (1798-1801) and Derry (1812-1815). During a charge, he rode his horse into a muddy ploughed field, where he was attacked by French lancers and speared to death, although his Irish aide-de-camp, Major George de Lacy Evans, narrowly escaped death. His brother, Richard Ponsonby, later became Bishop of Killaloe.
Their cousin, Lieutenant-Colonel (later Major-General Sir) Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783-1837), was from Bessborough, Co Kilkenny, and was MP for Co Kilkenny (1806-1826). He was commanding the 12th Light Dragoons when he was unhorsed and left helpless on the battlefield until the following morning. In the agonising interval, a French lancer spotted him and ran his lance through his back. Insults were added to Ponsonby’s injuries when pickpocketing passers-by robbed him of his last remaining personal valuables.
Major-General Sir John Ormsby Vandeleur (1763-1849), who had family roots in Co Laois and Co Clare, commanded the 4th Cavalry Brigade. He later retired to Merrion Square, Dublin.
Many of the battalion and regimental commanders too were from Ireland. Lieutenant-Colonel John Millet Hamerton from Orchardstown, Clonmel, Co Tipperary, commanded the 2nd Battalion, 44th Foot. When he was wounded, his command passed to Major George O’Malley from Co Mayo. Colonel Hamerton is buried in Rathronan churchyard. Major Edwin Griffith, who was also from Clonmel, was killed on the battlefield.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Andrew Barnard, from Fahan, Co Donegal, commanded the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles. Major Arthur Rowley Heyland from Co Derry was killed at the close of the battle leading the 1st Battalion, the 40th Foot. The 2nd Battalion, 69th Foot, had at least three Irish officers, while the 13th Light Dragoons had an Irish commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Doherty, and at least four other Irish officers.
Junior Irish officers included Captain Harry Ross-Lewin, from Ross Hill, Co Clare, of the 32nd Foot; his younger brother, Lieutenant Thomas Ross-Lewin; Captain Edward Thomas Fitzgerald from Co Mayo; and Captain Henry Edward Keane (1783-1866) of the 7th Hussars, a son of Sir Richard Keane of Cappoquin, Co Waterford.
‘Donnybrook Fair was nothing’
In a letter home, Captain Edward Kelly of the 1st Life Guards, from Portarlington, Co Laois, described the ferocity at Waterloo: ‘Donnybrook Fair was nothing to the fight we had here.’
Many Irish soldiers earned distinction at Waterloo. Private Patrick Molloy of the 52nd Light Infantry, from Co Wexford, was severely wounded in his right arm. When Corporal James Graham from Clones, Co Monaghan, died in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in 1845, he was described as ‘the bravest of the brave at Waterloo.’ David Carroll, a tailor from Kilkenny who enlisted in the 42nd Highlanders – the ‘Black Watch’ – was wounded in the right leg at Waterloo.
One Irish officer who earned an unhappy reputation at Waterloo was John Dawson (1781-1845), 2nd Earl of Portarlington, who lived at Emo Court, Co Laois. He was a colonel in the 23rd Light Dragoons, but on the eve of battle he absented himself from his regiment and went to Brussels.
By the time he returned to Waterloo, the battle was under way and his regiment had gone into action without him. He then attached himself to the 18th Hussars and fought with bravely. Nevertheless, his reputation had been damaged.
Wellington after Waterloo
After Waterloo, Wellington became an increasingly influential Tory politician, and he resigned as Commander-in-Chief to become Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830.
The highlight of his office was Catholic Emancipation, and his speech in the House of Lords in favour of it was one of his best. Although Catholic Emancipation is identified with Daniel O’Connell, it was Wellington who pushed the Catholic Relief Act through Parliament despite opposition within his own party, and it passed with a majority of 105 only with the help of the Whigs. Wellington also threatened to resign as Prime Minister if King George IV did not give his Royal Assent.
Wellington returned as Prime Minister for a short period of four weeks in 1834. When he died on 14 September 1852, aged 83, over a million people crowded to see his funeral in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where he is buried in the crypt alongside Lord Nelson.
Wellington Barracks, which was built near Buckingham Palace in 1833, was named in his honour, and when the former Richmond Prison in Dublin became a barracks in the 1890s it was renamed Wellington Barracks.
The Wellington Column in Trim was erected in 1817. Work began on the Wellington Monument in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, that year, but due to a shortage of funds it was not completed until 18 June 1861. This 62-metre obelisk has bronze panels celebrating the highlights of his career, including Waterloo, India, the Peninsular Campaign and Catholic Emancipation.
For much of the 19th century, the area in the Phoenix Park around the Wellington Monument was the venue for an annual military review on Waterloo Day, 18 June. The fact that the monument lies in a sleepy hollow in the Phoenix Park rather than in a prominent place in the city centre may have unwittingly aided its survival.
In the post-independence haste to wipe out memories, Wellington Barracks in Dublin was renamed Griffith Barracks in 1922. Today it is Griffith College Dublin – no-one ever dreamed of calling it Wellington College.
His name survives too in Wellington Bridge, Co Wexford, Wellington Road, Cork, and Wellington Quay, Dublin, and in a cluster of street names in Ballsbridge, including Wellington Road and Waterloo Road. A new bridge in Dublin was named the Wellington Bridge at its opening in 1816, a year after Waterloo, but it has been known ever since as the Ha’Penny Bridge.
‘Waterloo 200,’ the official committee that oversaw the bicentenary programme in 2015, noted that Wellington’s campaign was a ‘milestone in European history’ and described the bicentenary as a ‘unique international project’ that involves ‘people from many nations.’
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, and a former lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.
This is Chapter 4 in Drogheda Grammar School, 1669-2019, ed John McCullen and Hugh Baker (Drogheda: Drogheda Grammar School, 2019, xii + 236 pp), pp 31-37