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John "Fireball" MacNamara
(c. 1750-1836)

Today MacNamara is one of the most numerous names in Co. Clare. The Irish form of the name, MacConmara, means "Hounds of the Sea". They were an influential clan in Thomond. The numerous castles built by them are an indication of their power and influence.

Sioda Cam MacConmara rebuilt the great Franciscan Abbey of Quin where many members of this great clan were subsequently laid to rest. One such member has entered into the folklore traditions of the district - Sean Buidhe Mac Conmara, more commonly known as John "Fireball" MacNamara. He is remembered because of his daring exploits and his flair for the dramatic which has since featured in verse and in story. Much of what we know of his life and deeds is questionable and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

John "Fireball" MacNamara was the grandson of Colonel John MacNamara who had been prominent in public life. John's father was Colonel Francis MacNamara, who was M.P. for County Clare (1790-1798) and a member of Clare Grand Jury (1784-1798). This branch of the MacNamaras lived at Moyriesk House near Clooney. From his cradle John MacNamara gave indication of future association with battle. It is reported that he received his first morsel of food from the point of a sword, held before his mouth.

His family were large land-owners but young John showed little interest in running the estate. He was drawn, like other young men of his class, to sport and pleasure and more boisterous activities. It seems that he was commissioned in the French Army at a young age and soon acquired notoriety. Within a short time he had fought some thirty duels, killing two of his fellow officers who had teased him about his Irish ancestry. He was forced to flee France to avoid court-martial. First in Flanders and later in the armies of southern European states, he continued his career as an expert swordsman and lethal pistol shot - with a total of fifty-seven duels recorded, many of them fatal to his opponents. During these years he apparently acquired the nickname "Sean Buidhe" (Yellow John), referring to the dark tan he developed from exposure to the Mediterranean sun.

John MacNamara returned to County Clare. His fiery temperament led him into difficult situations, most often resolved by a duel, an exercise which he entered into in a fearless fashion. He named his duelling pistols "Bas gan Sagart" - Death without a Priest. Although a Protestant, he espoused the cause of Catholic Emancipation. He once stood at the door of the old parish Catholic Church in Chapel Lane, Ennis, and defied the authorities to come and stop the bell being rung for Mass. This restriction which prevented the ringing of the church bell was greatly resented by the Catholic community. His challenge to the authorities appears to have been ignored.

His general hell-raising caused him to be known as "The Fireball", and resulted in the loss of his family's estates. He reputedly fought at the Battle of Vinegar Hill in 1798 and suffered a gunshot wound in the thigh. From this event on, details of his life are unclear. He is reputed to have been present in 1815 at Bishops Court, County Kildare, along with his father as second, at that highly publicised affair of honour when John D'Esterre challenged Daniel O'Connell to a duel which had tragic consequences.

Some reports claim that "Fireball" went to England after the Battle of Vinegar Hill, where he became the darling of trendy society and a special favourite of the high-born and wealthy young ladies. However, his presence was noted by the authorities and he was taken into custody and charged of highway robbery. Ten of his lady admirers and two European ambassadors petitioned the Queen for his pardon but no mercy was shown. He was convicted and hanged.

However, a conflicting report says that he ended his days, forlorn, in a thatched cottage in the village of Quin. We do know that John "Fireball" MacNamara is buried in the Lady Chapel of Quin Abbey. His memory is perpetuated by a fine Celtic Cross which bears the inscription "Erected by Clan MacNamara to the memory of Sean Buidhe "Fireball" MacNamara, Chief of Clan and a 1798 Patriot. He was the last of the MacNamara chieftains, a direct descendant of the man who built Quin Abbey.

Michael Hogan, the Bard of Thomond, composed two poems in his memory - "Fireball MacNamaras Address to his Pistols" and the moving in memoriam "The grave of Sean Buidh MacNamara". In this poem Hogan captures well the legend that lives on not only in the MacNamaras but in all the Dalcassian tribes of Clare:

"Behold yon gray moss-covered stone
Where Thomond's maids shed drops of sorrow
There Sleeps Sean Budh - cold, low and lone,
The great and glorious MacNamara
The heart and nerve that never shook
The hand that left no mark unstruck."

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Quin Abbey