By the time he retired from the House of Commons in 1852 William Nugent Macnamara, the long-serving MP for County Clare, was in his late seventies and had taken no practical part in parliamentary business for the previous three years. His failing abilities in later life were in stark contrast with the younger days of the man once known as ‘Fireball’ Macnamara, always ready to settle disputes with a duel.
A Protestant landowner and militia officer, Macnamara came from a family with deep roots in Ireland. His father Francis had represented County Clare in the Irish Parliament as a supporter of Catholic emancipation and was himself a noted duellist: his meeting with a Mr. Fitzgerald at Highgate in May 1798 resulted in the wounding of both parties. Like his father, Macnamara supported the Catholic cause, having witnessed extreme sectarian violence during his time as a young militia officer in Armagh, which culminated in the ‘Battle of the Diamond’ in September 1795. He became a popular country gentleman, earning a reputation in county Clare as ‘the poor man’s magistrate’, and was said to have been a universal favourite due to his ‘winning cordiality’ and ‘raciness of utterance’.
In January 1815 Macnamara played a leading role in one of the most memorable events in the career of Daniel O’Connell, when he acted as second to O’Connell in his duel with John D’Esterre, who was defending the honour of Dublin corporation, which O’Connell had insulted as ‘beggarly’. D’Esterre had a reputation as a ‘deadly marksman’, but in this encounter he was fatally wounded by O’Connell, who was said to owe his life to Macnamara’s expertise as a duellist. Not only did Macnamara win the toss which gave O’Connell the choice of position, but he also advised O’Connell to remove his white cravat, which prevented D’Esterre from taking advantage of this when regulating his aim. Given his prowess in this field, it was not surprising that O’Connell originally wanted Macnamara to accompany him to Ostend that September when he expected to take part in a duel with Sir Robert Peel.
In contrast with the gentlemanly code of conduct associated with the settlement of matters of honour in a duel, Macnamara demonstrated that there was a coarser side to his nature when he was prosecuted in 1821 for helping his brother, Richard, to violently assault Thomas Wallace in Sackville Street, Dublin. Later a Liberal MP for Carlow, Wallace was the prosecuting counsel in a lawsuit against Richard for breach of promise of marriage. Macnamara was subsequently accused of publishing a letter which libelled Wallace with the intention of provoking a duel.
Macnamara, who had been suggested as a candidate for County Clare at the 1826 general election, made another important contribution to O’Connell’s career when he (and other liberal Protestants) declined to stand for the constituency in April 1828, leaving the way open for O’Connell to secure his famous by-election victory there. At the 1830 general election Macnamara was returned to Parliament for County Clare (O’Connell was elected instead for County Waterford), but only after a violent quarrel with the O’Connells during which he rebuffed a challenge to a duel from O’Connell’s second son, Morgan. Another duel seemed likely in 1831 after Macnamara fell out with his friend The O’Gorman Mahon, one of the other candidates for County Clare, during an election contest which saw ‘unlimited use of the Billingsgate language’ between the contending parties.
Happily, however, the storm blew over. Having topped the poll at Clare in 1830 and 1831, Macnamara repeated this in 1832, one of six contested elections he fought in that most volatile of constituencies. He was personally popular in the county, where he was considered ‘every inch a king’. In contrast with his fiery personality, his appearance was ‘portly, dignified and handsome’, with ‘profusely-powdered and highly-frizzled’ whiskers. With his penchant for ‘the regal fashions’, he was said by his fellow Irish MP Richard Sheil to have made ‘a very fine effigy’ of George IV. However, his reputation as a duellist was not forgotten by one observer at Westminster, who described him passing Sir Robert Peel – a political opponent and no stranger himself to a duel – in the lobbies. After Peel gave him ‘one of his most honeyed smiles’, Macnamara reciprocated ‘as blandly as if he had him at twelve paces on Wimbledon Common, with surgeons for two, and a coffin for one ordered at the adjoining public house’.
- S. Farrell, ‘Macnamara, William Nugent’, HP Commons, 1820-1832, vi. 291-5.
- O. MacDonagh, The Hereditary Bondsman. Daniel O’Connell, 1775-1829 (1988), 134-8.
- R. Sheil, Sketches of the Irish Bar (1854), ii. 266-70.
- J. Kelly, That Damn’d Thing Called Honour: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860 (1995).