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Folk, fables and foibles the guidebook forgot to mention
  • Fergus Manor

11. Honest Thomas Steele ...

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

I know I’m wandering into the world of fantasy when I start to give some of our more recognisable political figures nicknames that suggest they might be remembered for being trustworthy, virtuous and bone fide. I know, but that’s what it’s like living in a parallel universe ...

But here in County Clare there used to be a personage, a political figure no less, who seemed to warrant the sobriquet ‘honest’. Everyone knew him as Honest Tom Steele.

If you read about his life it is full of all the virtuous sentiments that are the stuff of obituaries, the sorts of thing that is turned out day in, day out, whether or not the sentiments are deserved. A passed rogue and a passed ‘saint’ are often indistinguishable in their death notices.

But there are exceptions and Clare’s own Honest Tom Steele seems to be one of them. If you look past the platitudinous epithets—it matters not whether he was a ‘good-looking man’ or was ‘one of action and adventure’ or a ‘keen sportsman’—a man emerges who, in any age or culture, would put today’s political heavyweights to shame.

His virtuous deeds as a benevolent rather than brutal landlord and as a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Constitutional Army, the so-called Patriot Army on the side the Spanish people in revolt against Ferdinand VII in 1823, are well documented. He even wrote a detailed book about the latter experience, ‘Notes on the War in Spain’.

His main claims to fame however relate to his political endeavours and his love-life, or lack of it. The latter was probably the reason why he went off to Spain in the first place and we’ll look at that strange episode further down the page.

His political life flourished after his return from Spain and was dominated by his support for the cause of Catholic Emancipation and devotion to Daniel O’Connell. For a Protestant landlord, Steele’s stance was unusual—though not unknown—and he not only became attached to the O’Connell cause but was also O’Connell’s devoted and constant ally for over 20 years.

In pursuit of these endeavours Steele all but bankrupted himself but always stuck by his man even when O’Connell’s star was fading. (If mention of O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation throws up more questions than answers, then the internet will fill in the gaps with a mountain of information.)

Daniel O’Connell, of course, is the guy atop the lofty column, or the ‘Height’ as it’s known locally, on O’Connell Street (formerly Gaol Street) in Ennis town centre; on one side of the plinth there is a reference to Steele’s part in securing O’Connell’s election as MP for Clare in 1828. (Why do they put people away up there when you can’t see what they look like, unless you’re a pigeon of course?)

Also in Ennis is Steele’s Rock, at a bend in the river Fergus by the Law Courts and opposite the Tom Steele pub and, even better, on the main road into Ennis from Ardilaun. The Rock, emblazoned with the Steele family coats of arms is on the slope between the river and the kerbside wall which itself has a small plaque explaining the rock’s significance:

‘The rock is named after Honest Tom Steele (1788-1847), a prominent landlord and politician in County Clare, It was here on this rock that he sat and waited to catch a glimpse of Eileen Crowe who lived in the house across the river. She never acknowledged his presence.’

Though this episode in Steele’s life pre-dated both his Spanish adventure (perhaps was even its catalyst) and his political endeavours, it seems to be the one that springs into the mind of most people when they hear his name.

As far as I can ascertain there are no details about how long Steele’s obsession with ‘Eileen’ lasted ... a week, a month, a year? Even more confusing is that in almost every retelling of the story, except for the plaque itself, Ms Crowe is called ‘Matilda’ and not Eileen.

And, to add to the confusion, the name Eileen Crowe does not appear in the Church of Ireland, Drumcliff parish register nor is there any mention of the baptism of a Matilda Crowe although her 1837 marriage to Scotsman, James Johnston is recorded. However, her death certificate indicates that Matilda was born around 1816 and would have been no more that seven when Thomas was supposedly sitting across the river on his rock straining to get a glimpse.

Whatever the age and name of the woman who was the focus of Thomas Steele’s gaze, his yearnings were not reciprocated, assuming she even knew about them. “Mum, that guy’s sitting on the rock again”, I can almost hear her saying.

Honest Thomas Steele never married and, the month after the death of his friend and colleague Daniel O’Connell, penniless and distraught, Honest Thomas Steele threw himself into the Thames from a bridge. Although he was taken alive from the river, he died a few days later.

A tribute to him in the London Standard read. ‘Fare thee well, noble, honest Tom Steele! A brave spirit in a gentler heart never left earth’.

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