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James Patrick "The O'Gorman Mahon": His Early Life and Influences
by Declan Barron


Chapter 1: The Family Background

On 4 February 1798 Patrick Mahon of Snugville married Miss Barbara O'Gorman of Mill Street, Ennis.11 She brought with her a dowry of £2,000.12 This union connected two of the most powerful and influential Catholic families in County Clare at that time.13 This chapter traces the background of the two families and discusses how they fared during the eighteenth century when Catholic families like theirs had to endure the penal laws.

Both families claimed to be the senior branches of their septs, giving them the right to use the titles "The Mahon" and "The O'Gorman".14 Patrick's grandfather, Edmond Mahon, was described as a "humble man who lived on the confines of Mount Callan".15 During the eighteenth century many dispossessed Catholic landowners became middlemen for relatives who managed to hold on to their estates. Many of these middlemen, even though they could afford better, were still living in single-storied thatch cabins. The reason for this was possibly over-cautiousness to avoid unwanted notice from the establishment.16 It might be the case that Edmond appeared as a 'humble' farmer but was in fact quite comfortable acting as a middleman in that area.

Map of County Clare with townlands shown in italics

Map I. Map of County Clare with townlands shown in italics

The Mahon family prospered in the second half of the eighteenth century. From the will of Edmond's son (also named Edmond), written in 1794, we know that there were at least three sons and two daughters in this family, namely Edmond, William (James's grandfather), Patrick, Eleanor and Mary, with Patrick being deceased.17 This son, Edmond, prospered as a farmer and moved to the townland of Kilcloher in the parish of Kilmaley where, in 1728, he built a "commodious" house, which he named Snugville (see Map I, above).18 Snugville House was described, in 1840, as "a neat house 3 stories in the centre of a nice demesne."19 He and his wife Margaret had only one child, a daughter Mary, who eloped with a poor farmer named Henry Greene.20 Edmond was still in Snugville in 1764 but by the time of his death in 1794 he was described as being "of Cragleigh", in the parish of Drumcliffe.21 His wife Margaret died in 1802.22 Mary and Henry reconciled with her father before his death and one of their children was Edmond Greene who took on the name Mahon and inherited a large property said to be worth £2,000 a year.23 They had at least four other children, a son "in His Majesty's service" and three daughters, Mary, Margaret and Abigail, who married Robert Tate24

Little is known of James's grandfather, William, except that he was appointed as Tithe Collector for several parishes in the Baronies of Burren and Corcumroe by the Rev. Archdeacon James Kenny, who had been appointed their Rector by the Marquis of Thomond. This position would have meant additional income for William, enabling him to provide a better future for his sons James and Patrick.25

This James Kenny seems to have been related to these Mahons.26 He was born a Catholic, the son of Edmond Kenny and a Miss De Lacy. Not being the eldest son he would not have been in line to inherit much from his father and was sent to Erasmus Smith's School in Ennis to receive a good education. He attended as a day pupil and stayed with relatives, the Mahons, (a Church of Ireland family) in Mill Street. He became friends with their son Charles and accompanied him to Trinity College. In 1773 he converted and became a Church of Ireland minister and through the influence of his friend Charles he was granted the rectorship of six or seven parishes in North West Clare by the Marquis of Thomond.27It was for these parishes that William Mahon became Tithe collector.

Miss Barbara O'Gorman was the daughter of James O'Gorman, born circa 1707, who in 1760 married Susanna Mahon, of Limerick.28 Susanna was a sister of Nicholas Mahon (c.1746-1841), of Merchants Quay, Dublin, an influential woollen merchant, in business since the late 1760s.29 Nicholas and Susanna were descended from Col. Nicholas Purcell, who commanded a regiment of Jacobite cavalry at the Battle of Aughrim in 1689, and was one of the negotiators and signatories of the Treaty of Limerick. Col. Nicholas was also at the negotiations and signed the Treaty of Limerick.30 James O'Gorman's family were from Kilkenny, his father was a clothing manufacturer who eloped with the daughter of Sir Richard Butler and fled to Ennis. While here in Co. Clare his mother died and his father and grandfather reconciled their differences but James stayed in Ennis and set up, in Mill Street, as a clothier and dyer, introducing the clothing trade to the county. The business prospered, at one time having several hundred looms continually operating at the rear of his business in Mill Street.31 During James's youth there was a noted rise in the fortunes of middle class Catholics (contrary to the image usually portrayed of all Catholics being cruelly oppressed by the Penal Laws).32 After the Act of Union in 1800 all this had changed. With their protective tariff restrictions lifted, many of the industries of Ennis and throughout the country got into financial difficulties and went out of business.33 James married first a Miss O'Gorman from West Clare but they had no family, it was late in his life when he married Susanna; they had four children, James, Nicholas Purcell, Richard and Barbara.34 When James died in 1787 he left most of his property to his eldest son and heir, James. This included an estate in West Clare with an income of about £700 a year. His second son, Nicholas received £2,000, the third son, Richard, also received £2,000 and his daughter was left her dowry of £2,000.35

The families of both Patrick and Barbara had a history of involvement in political and administrative affairs. Patrick's uncle Edmond Mahon was listed as a member of the Ennis Volunteers in 1778, who were a part-time force formed in that year to keep the peace and fight off a possible invasion, while the regular army was away fighting in the American War of Independence.36 It was in this year the Catholic Relief Act lifted restrictions on property ownership for Catholics.37The formation of the Society of United Irishmen and the reformation of the Catholic Committee in 1791 worried the government that they might loose their control resulting in major concessions in 1793. One of these concessions resulted in Edmond becoming the first Catholic Justice of the Peace in Co. Clare.38 Edmond socialised with the Protestant elite and welcomed them to come hunting on his lands.39

The O'Gorman family had a reputation as a family "that ever glorified being Irish and Catholic.40 Barbara's uncle, Nicholas Mahon was one of the few Roman Catholics to be a member of several public bodies in Dublin during the second half of the eighteenth century.41 Her brother, James, commonly called "The O' Gorman" was born in 1765. From an early age he took an active part in local and national politics.42 In 1791 he became a member of the Freemasons in Ennis. The Freemasons at this time had close ties with the United Irishmen.43 He was one of the founding members of the reformed Catholic Committee, which was seeking Catholic Emancipation, and it was in this role he attended the Catholic Convention at Taylor's Hall, Dublin in 1792.44 His uncle, Nicholas Mahon, was also present.45 More commonly known as "The Back Lane Parliament" this meeting brought together delegates, both Catholic and Protestant, from all over the country in the hope of persuading the Crown to repeal the rest of the Penal laws and restore voting rights and trial by jury to all the people of Ireland.46 Here James would have more than likely come in contact with the future rebel leaders, Wolfe Tone and Napper Tandy but no proof of this could be found in existing records.47 In 1793 he was one of the committee of nine that voted on whether a compromise could be reached short of full emancipation, voting against accepting the offer of the government. This side lost saying they could not accept if there was not "unqualified equality with their fellow subjects".48 In 1793 Parliament granted voting rights to Catholics and two years later James became the first Catholic to ever address a constituency in Ireland by doing so in Co. Clare, but felt it was fruitless to try put himself forward with some of the penal laws still in place.49 Also that year, as secretary of the Catholic Committee in Clare, he published an address thanking his Protestant brethren who were in favour of Emancipation.50

In the late 1790s James was an active member of the United Irishmen but he was too cute to publicise this role. At a meeting of thirty two Magistrates in Ennis courthouse, in 1797, a resolution was made opposing the progress of the United Irishmen, and the signature of James O'Gorman stands out because he was at the same time involved in the running of that organisation.51 He was arrested in January 1799, released on bail and after appearing in court in mid-March, and although evidence was given that he credited himself as being the first person in Ennis to administer the United Irishman oath, he was discharged.52

Political involvement extended through the family. The two younger brothers, Nicholas Purcell (born circa 1777) and Richard (born a year later) were also involved in the United Irishmen movement, Richard with his brother James in Ennis and Nicholas, in the Dublin branch while studying law at King's Inns.53 In October 1798 Nicholas was expelled from King's Inns because of his membership, he fled back to Clare and hid in the Miltown Malbay area. The commander of the Kilrush Yeomanry, John Ormsby Vandeleur was asked to arrest him. Nicholas evaded capture and on hearing of an amnesty for fugitive rebels issued by Lord Cornwallis, he went to Galway where he surrendered himself to Brigadier-General Meyrick. In November he received a 'Certificate of Protection' and returned to Ennis to the surprise of the local magistrate. On 4 January 1799 a small number of United Irishmen rebelled in County Clare and the local magistrates suspected the involvement of the O'Gorman brothers, they arrested Nicholas on 11 January and he was imprisoned in Limerick Jail. The authorities were worried that if he was held in Ennis a rescue might be attempted. Richard, his brother, was also being held by the authorities at this time and when they both appeared at court they were, to the great surprise of some of the local gentry, were "discharged by Proclamation".54 Patrick Mahon is also reputed to have taken an active part in this rebellion although no details of his involvement could be found.55

Barbara's family remained Catholic during the eighteenth century but this was not so in Patrick's case. His father William, possibly seeing how James Kenny's life had changed as a result of converting, decided that this was the future for his son James and had him convert as an infant.56 At this time the state offered maintenance for children of Catholics who converted.57 So many more opportunities were open to a member of the established church than to a Catholic due to the penal laws. It is possible that the other Mahon family in Ennis, descended from James who converted in 1750, could have influenced Patrick's decision.58 During the eighteenth century many Catholics converted, not for religious motives, but for material reasons. Between 1750 and 1778 many Catholics holding land leases found it necessary to find ways of hiding their improving fortunes. Conversion was one way of avoiding this attention.59 No evidence has been found that might suggest that at this time relatives, friends or even tenants had any less respect for those who converted, in fact in many cases they approved if it meant they could hold onto their lands.60 County Clare had more than the average number of conversions. It has been suggested that one of the reasons for this may have been because many of the pre-Cromwellian families were still landowners here and they had close ties with their tenants and subsequently Catholics in these areas had more to protect.61 Barbara's family, being merchants, would not have been under the same pressure to convert as the penal laws affecting trade were not as severe and were just a minor impediment to their conducting business.62

Both families were educated. We know that Patrick's uncle Edmond was able to write from his signature as a witness on a land deed.63 As Patrick's brother James had converted, he could avail of a full education, which he did, and after his primary education in the hands of a Mr. Kennedy he entered Trinity College in 1791.64 Barbara's brother Nicholas Purcell was also an alumnus of Trinity College. He got his early education from a Mr. Purcell (about which noting else is known) and entered Trinity in 1794 just after the religious restrictions had been lifted.65 The careers of Barbara's other two brothers would suggest they too were well educated.

In the eighteenth century marriages between the Catholic landholders and the merchant class were highly desirable.66 Merchant's families were able to help those of the landholders by providing them with credit, passing bills of exchange and giving him greater access to markets. The landholder's family could reciprocate by providing status and security to the merchant's.67 Although with many of the penal restrictions lifted, Patrick and Barbara's marriage might not have been as important to the two families as it would have earlier in that century, it would still have been seen as very favourable to both families.



Chapter 2