Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Oct/Nov 2014 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
In 1760 a Catholic Committee was formed to lobby for the relaxation of the Penal Laws that had been a source of grievance amongst Irish Catholics since the beginning of the century. After three decades, however, the Committee’s efforts had met with only modest success, and in 1792 it was decided to summon a Catholic Convention for December of that year in the hope that a heavy weight deputation would be appointed to directly petition King George III and the British Parliament to grant full emancipation.
A difficulty in the way of convening a truly representative gathering was that the Catholic gentry of Galway and Mayo were standing aloof, and so the Committee was decided to send two of the most active members, Theobald Wolfe Tone, father of Irish republicanism, and his friend, Thomas Braughall, on a mission to persuade the Connacht aristocracy to fall into line. Braughall was a 63-year-old prosperous Dublin merchant, well-educated and something of an intellectual, at whose house in Eccles Street Tone was a frequent dinner guest.
Then, as now, important and influential people congregated in Ballinasloe during the October Fair Week, and this was to be the destination of the two friends who set from Dublin in a post chaise (a light carriage used for private hire) at 8 o’clock on the evening of Friday 5th of October 1792, Tone having taken the precaution of loading and packing his pistols in anticipation of trouble. He hadn’t long to wait, for near the Phoenix Park Gate they were held up by three highway men who backed off when Tone decided to face them down, which he successfully did without having to fire a shot.
A further adventure was in store for the travellers. The roads were in dreadful condition after weeks of torrential rain, and their chaise broke down in Kinnegad at 3 o’clock in the morning. Tone’s clothes and person got thoroughly bedaubed with grease and mud when he was obliged to act as a human jack while a wheel was being changed.
Following a four-hour rest, they resumed their journey and arrived in Ballinasloe late on Saturday. Accommodation was at a premium because of the fair, and it was only with great difficulty that they secured lodgings. Tone was in a foul mood after the trip and found nothing to his taste: the food was bad, the wine poisonous, and his bed “execrable”. He passed an uncomfortable night in a poky room without a window or a fireplace, and to add to his torments someone upstairs continued to play the bagpipes throughout the hours of darkness, a drunken party in an adjoining room never left off singing, while a couple of stentorian snorers outside his door contributed to their general cacophony.
Sunday’s breakfast consisted of fried steak smothered in onions, which produced a predictable and audible effect on Tone’s digestive system. The parish priest, Fr. Larkin, drew his ire by failing to arrange for anyone to meet himself and Braughall. Eventually they made contact with two men who promised to set up a meeting with some Mayo people after 12 o’clock Mass. Shortly an invitation arrived to dine with the Catholic gentry, whose after-dinner horsey conversation Tone was to find insufferably boring.
Moreover, he entertained grave misgivings about the effectiveness of both his own and his companion’s oratorical performance on the occasion. Nevertheless, their hearers were swayed by the arguments of the two Dubliners and agreed to nominate Sir Thomas French ad Christopher Bellew as delegates to the Convention.
Much to Tone’s displeasure, more steak and onions was served for breakfast on the Monday morning. He went out to see the fair and declared it to be “the greatest cattle fair in Europe except for one in Hungary” and “was glad to have seen it as a matter of curiosity, but on the whole disappointed, as every man will be who expects extravagantly”. About 70,000 sheep had been sold, though “it was thin fair for cattle, but with smart prices”.
Next day he was presented with the bill for the use of his room – food and drinks were extra – which came to one guinea. Tone reckoned he had been ripped off, but for the want of transport they had to stay put until the morrow, hoping to get seats in the mail coach due at noon on Wednesday. To while away the time they took a walk around the town, Tone acting as a crutch to Braughall who was lame. Luckily the coach arrived empty. Greatly relieved, they occupied their places and set off. After an uneventful journey they reached Dublin at 9 o’clock the following morning.
Their mission had been a success, tough Tone was scarcely cheered by the result. One of his biographers has described his dyspeptic comments as reflecting “the narrowness of his eastern, urbanised experience”. Incidentally, a plaque on a house at the end of the Main Street, opposite the Bank of Ireland, inaccurately gives the date of his sojourn as 1796. It’s unclear how this building, identified as Cuff’s hotel, came to be associated with Tone’s visit since he never specified any inn or hotel in his diary, apart from his landlady as Miss Colohan.