A Story of the ’98
Adoption of a child is not a new creation in Ireland, for the Irish peasant was known for the care that they would take of others in difficulty, even if not in their community. Considering all that happened to the Irish peasantry, this comment may come as a great surprise to you. Nevertheless, there is no feature of human nature that was surrounded in so much mystery, or less understood, than the very strong bond of affection that existed between the humble Irish peasant and his adopted brother, especially if that adopted brother is from a family that had social-rank or respect for the community. This peculiar relationship, though it may to a certain extent have been mutually felt, it was not normally regarded as being equal in its strength between the two parties. While there may have been instances of equality of feeling experience teaches us that such equality is to be found in the humbler of the two parties. We should stop there since we are getting into areas of psychology and philosophy in which I have absolutely no experience. Perhaps we can just simply agree that what I have stated is fact. In the history and tradition of our country we have enough material from which we can obtain clear and distinct proofs that the attachment of habit and closeness in these instances far transcends that of natural affection itself. Even today there are very few instances of one brother laying down his life for the other, and yet examples of such high and heroic sacrifices have occurred in the case of the foster-brothers. It is certainly impossible to attribute this wild but indomitable attachment to the force of domestic feeling. While we Irish insist that family affections among our people are stronger than those held in any other country, there are occasions when this almost inexplicable devotion have occurred in those persons we know that have very feeble domestic ties.
It is fact that the human heart has many moral peculiarities associated with it and we are not yet totally acquainted or comfortable with any of them. They constantly come at us in a great variety of wayward and irregular combinations, none of which operates in a manner that employs any of the known principles of action. It is more likely than unlikely that we shall ever completely understand them. There is another peculiarity in Irish feeling, which, as it is similar to this, we cannot neglect to mention it. It is said that when the ‘Dublin Foundling Hospital’ was in existence, the poor infants who were consigned to that gloomy and soul destroying place were often sent to different parts of the country, where they would be taken care of by the wives of those peasants who were employed as day-labourers, cottiers, and small farmers, who also cultivated from three to six or eight acres of land. These children were either abandoned or were orphaned and were usually supported by a tax upon the parish in which they were born. To the local peasants they were known as ‘Parisheens’ and were accompanied by an upkeep grant paid to the foster parents.
You might think that such deserted and orphaned children might have been sent to people who may have seen them as servants and slaves, to be neglected, ill-treated and given little comfort. There were, undoubtedly, some of the foster parents who did such things, but there were as many more who showed themselves to be more honourable, generous and affectionate toward those placed in their care. In many cases they received the same care, affection, and tenderness that these foster parents showed to their own children. Even when they reached an age at which they were free to leave their foster home many of these stayed with the foster families, preferring the love and affection they had been shown in their lives this far to anything else that life might offer them. This, of course, is a natural reaction by anyone to someone that feeds, clothes and shows affection towards him. Over the years of being treated as a member of the family it would not be unusual for foster-brothers to form a very strong emotional attachment. As by way of an example of these attachments I will relate to you a story that I have recently heard and believe to be true, which took place over two hundred years ago during the 1798 rebellion.
Andrew Moore was a gentleman of some note in the district and he had a young daughter, who was renowned for her beauty and her accomplishments. In fact, such was the fame of this young lady that men often drank to her health as if she was the pride of her native county. A woman so beautiful had many suitors, of course, but among these there were two men who were particularly noteworthy for the thorough attentions they showed her, and their intense efforts to secure her affections. Henry Corbin was a man of means and held strong loyalist views, as did the young lady’s own father. To him the father had given his consent to win over the affections of his daughter with a view to marriage. The other suitor, unfortunately for Henry, had already gained the young lady’s affections but was considered totally unsuitable by the father. This young man was leader and, therefore, deeply involved on the side of the insurgents, known as ‘United Irishmen.’ These facts had become known to Andrew Moore some time before the breaking out of the rebellion and, because of his republican views, the man was forbidden to come to Moore’s house, and he was told not to communicate with any member of the Moore family. But, before this banishment, the young man had succeeded getting Miss Moore’s assistance to ensure that his foster-brother, Frank Finnegan, was employed as butler to the Moore family. The young lady was fully aware of the young man’s republican principles and knew that such an arrangement would never have been permitted if her father had known of the peculiar bond of affection that existed between the young men. Mr. Moore, fortunately for Frank, had no idea of the bond between him and his foster-brother. He was totally unaware that by allowing Finnegan into his family home he gave the forbidden suitor an advantage to forward his affections for the girl.
Andrew’s interference in the affair had, in fact, come too late to prevent the growth of a relationship between the young lovers. Before he issued his prohibition to Thomas Houston, the young man and his daughter had exchanged vows of mutual affection with each other. The rebellion that broke out forced Hewson to assume his place as a local leader of the rebellion. Naturally, by assuming such a role, it appeared that he had placed an insurmountable barrier between himself and the object of his affections. In the meantime, Andrew Moore, who was the local magistrate and a captain of yeomanry, took a very active part in putting down this rebellion, and in hunting down and securing all those who had chosen to rise-up against the government. Henry Corbin showed his zealousness in following the footsteps of Mr. Moore in hunting down the rebels, because he wanted to prove himself as the best choice for a future son-in-law. The two men acted in unison against the rebellion and, on occasion, the measures employed by eager Mr. Corbin were such that Andrew felt it necessary to rein-in the young loyalist’s exuberance. Such efforts to control the worst of Corbin’s impulses were, however, kept hidden from the younger man. But, since Corbin always seemed to be acting under the orders of his friend Moore it was, naturally, believed that every harsh and malicious act that was committed, was either sanctioned or suggested by Andrew Moore. It was as a consequence of these beliefs that Moore was considered to be even more vile and odious than Corbin. While the younger man became considered only as a rash and hot-headed loyalist zealot, the older man was thought to be a cool and wily old fox, who had ten times the cunning and cruelty of the senseless puppet whose strings he was pulling. In holding such views, however, they were terribly mistaken.
In the meantime, the rebellion went ahead and there were many acts of cruelty and atrocity were committed by both sides of the conflict. Moore’s house and family would have been attacked and most probably the house ransacked and its occupants murdered if it were it not for the influence that Thomas Houston held with the rebels. On at least two occasions Houston succeeded, and with great difficulty, in preventing Andrew Moore and his entire household from falling victim to the vengeance of the insurgents. Although Moore was a man of great personal courage, he would often underrate the character and bravery of those who opposed him. His caution, it must be said was not equal with his bravery or zeal, for he had been known to rush out at the head of a party of men to seek out the enemy, and by doing so left his own home, and the lives of those who were in it, exposed and defenceless.
On one of these expeditions he happened to capture a small group of rebels who were under the leadership of a close friend and distant relative of Thomas Houston. As the law in those terrible days was quick to punish the wrongdoers, the rebels who had been taken openly armed against the King and the Government were summarily tried and executed by a court-martial. As a result of this action, the rebel forces swore to reap a deep and bloody vengeance against Andrew Moore and his family. For a considerable period of time thereafter the rebels, lay in ambush for their target, to ensure that Moore got his just reward for his atrocious actions.
Houston’s attachment to Moore’s daughter, however, had been known for many months, and his previous interference on behalf of the old man had been successful because of that fact. Now, however, the group’s plan of attack was agreed without his knowledge, and they all swore solemnly that none of them would repeat the plan to any man who was not already familiar with it, which included Houston. They were convinced that if he should learn of their plan he would once more make earnest efforts to prevent them taking their bloody revenge. But, with this plan made and agreed, the group reduced their activities in the county to try and put Moore off his guard, because since his execution of the captured rebels he had felt it necessary to ensure his house was strongly and resolutely defended against rebel attack. The attack against Moore was postponed for quite a while until the concerns created by his recent activities would finally disappear, and his enemies could proceed with their plans to inflict bloodshed and destruction.
Eventually the night for taking action was decided upon and preparations were made. Each person’s role in the assault was explained to them in detail and the necessary weapons were made ready. A secret, however, when communicated to a great number of people, even under the most solemn promise not to reveal it, is more likely to be revealed. This is especially true during a civil war, where so many interests of friendship, blood, and marriage, bind the opposing parties together despite those principles which they publicly profess and under which they were to act. In this case it was Miss Moore’s personal maid whose brother, together with several of his friends and relatives, had been selected to assist in the planned attack. Naturally, he felt anxious that she should not be present on the night of the assault in case her relationship with the assailants might prove to be dangerous to them. He, therefore, sought an opportunity to see his sister and earnestly plead with her to stay away from the Moore house on the night that had been chosen for the attack. The girl was not at all surprised by any of his hints to her because she was completely aware of the current state the countryside was in, and the enmity that most of the people felt for Moore and Corbin, and all those who were acting on behalf of the government. She replied to him that she would follow his advice and she spoke in such a manner that he decided there no longer any need maintain the secrets to which he was privy. The plot was, therefore disclosed, and the girl warned to get out of the house, both for her own sake and for that of those people who were about to wreak their vengeance on Andrew Moore and his family.
The poor girl, wanted Andrew and his family to escape the danger that was coming and she revealed the plane to Miss Moore, who immediately informed her father. Andrew Moore, however, did not make plans to escape, but took measures to gather around his home a large and well-armed force from the closest military garrison. The maid, who was known as Peggy Baxter, had developed a close relationship with Hewson’s foster-brother Finnegan, and the two had become lovers in every sense of the word. Peggy knew that the love she felt for Finnegan would be worth nothing if he was to be overcome by the danger that was approaching. Immediately after her revelation to Miss Moore, Peggy went to her sweetheart to confide the secret to him, giving him several hours to escape. Finnegan was totally surprised by this revelation, especially when Peggy told him that her brother had said that Houston had been kept oblivious to the plan because of his feelings toward the young Miss Moore. There was now obvious means of stopping the plan from going ahead, unless contact could be made with Houston. Finnegan knew that such a task would be dangerous but, being a ‘United Irishman’ himself, he knew that he could get to Houston without any real danger. As quickly as he could, Finnegan left the house to seek out his foster-brother and soon crossed his path. When Houston heard what his foster-brother had to say he was stunned and angry that this action was about to go ahead without him being told by his comrades. His task completed, Finnegan left to return to his post, but before he reached the house the darkness had already set in. On his arrival Finnegan sought out the kitchen and the many comforts it contained. All this time he was ignorant, as were most of the servants, that the upper rooms and out-houses were already crammed with fierce and well-armed soldiers.
Matters were now reaching the crisis point. Houston was aware now that there was little time to be lost and collected a small party of his own immediate and personal friends. Not one of these men, because they were his friends, had been privilege to the plan for the attack upon Moore’s home. Determined to be ahead of the attackers, he and his friends met at an appointed place and from there they went quickly to Moore’s house with as much secrecy as possible. It was his plan to let Moore know about what was about to happen to him and his family and then to escort them all to a place of safety. Not expecting to find the house defended by armed men, Houston’s party were unprepared for an attack or sally from that direction. In a few minutes two of Houston’s group were shot, and most of the rest, including Houston himself, were taken prisoners on the spot. Those who managed to escape the scene told the other insurgents about the strength of troops which were defending Moore’s house and the planned attack was postponed rather quickly.
Thomas Houston maintained a dignified silence, but when he saw his friends being escorted under guard from the hall to a large barn he asked that he should be put with them. “No!” Moore shouted at him, “Even if you are a rebel ten times over, you are still a gentleman and should not be herded in a barn with them. Furthermore, Mr Houston, with the greatest of respect to you, we shall put you in a much safer place. The highest room in the highest part of the house is where we will put you, and if you escape from there then we shall say that you are an innocent man. Frank Finnegan, show Mr. Houston and those two soldiers up to the observatory. Get them some refreshments and leave him in the soldiers’ charge. You men will guard his door well because you will be held responsible for his appearance in the morning.”
In obedience to Moore’s orders the two soldiers escorted Thomas to the door, outside of which was their guard station for the night. When Frank and Thomas entered the observatory, the former gently shut the door, and, turning to his foster-brother he spoke hurriedly but in a low voice saying, “There is not a moment to lose, you must escape.”
“That is impossible,” replied Houston, “unless I had wings and could use them.”
“We must try,” urged Frank; “we can only fail in our efforts. The most they do is to take your life and, mark my words, they’ll do that.”
“I know that,” said Houston, “and I am prepared for the worst.”
“Listen to me, for God’s sake,” said the other; “I will come up a little later with refreshments, say in about half an hour. You ensure that you are stripped when I come, because we are both the same size. Those guards at the door don’t know either of us very well and it would be possible for you to go out in my clothes. Say nothing,” he added, seeing Houston about to speak; “I have been here too long already, and these fellows might begin to suspect something. So, be prepared when I come. Good bye, Mr Houston,” he said aloud, as he opened the door; “It’s sorry I am to see you here, but that’s the consequence of deciding to rebel against King George, and all glory to him — soon and sudden,” he added in an undertone. “In about half an hour I’ll bring you up some supper, sir. Keep a sharp eye on him,” he whispered to the two soldiers, giving them at the same time a knowing and confidential wink. “These same rebels are as slippery as eels, and they will slide easily through your fingers given a chance. And the devil knows you have a good in there;” and as he spoke, he pointed over his shoulder with his inverted thumb to the door of the observatory.
Just about the time he had promised to return, a crash was heard upon the stairs, and Finnegan’s voice in a high key exclaimed, “Damn you for a set of stairs, and to hell with every rebel in Europe, I pray to God this night! My bloody nose is broken because of you having me running about like an eejit!” He then stooped down, and in a torrent of bitter swear words he collected all the materials for Houston’s supper and placed them again upon the tray. He then continued up the stairs, and on presenting himself at the prisoner’s door, the blood was streaming from his nose. The soldiers on seeing him, could not avoid laughing at his sorrowful appearance and this angered him quite a bit. “You may laugh!” he said to them, “but I’d bet that I’ve shed more blood for his majesty this night than either of you ever did in your lives!” This only increased their laughter as he entered Houston’s room. Once inside the two men exchanged clothes very quickly, before the laughter of the soldiers died down.
“Now,” said Frank, “go. Behind the garden Miss Moore is waiting for you, for she knows all. Take the bridle-road through the broad bog and get into Captain Corry’s estate. Take my advice too, and both of you get yourselves of to America, if you can. But, easy. God forgive me for pulling you by the nose instead of shaking you by the hand, and I may never see you again.” The poor fellow’s voice became unsteady with emotion, although there was a smile on his face at his own humour. “As I came in here with a bloody nose,” he proceeded, giving Houston’s nose a fresh pull, “you know you must go out with one. And now God’s blessing be with you! Think of one who loved you as none else did.”
The next morning there was uproar, tumult, and confusion in the house of the old loyalist magistrate, when it was discovered that his daughter and the butler were missing. But when they examined the observatory, they soon discovered that Finnegan was safe and Houston was gone. There are no words to adequately describe the rage and the fury of Moore, Irwin, and the military. You might already have some idea as to what happened next. Frank was brought in front of a hastily formed court-martial and sentenced to be shot where he stood. But, before the sentence was executed, Moore spoke to him. “Now, Finnegan,” said he, “I will get you out of this, if you tell us where Houston and my daughter are. I swear on my honour and in public that I will save your life, and get you a free pardon, if you help us to trace and recover them.”
“I don’t know where they are,” Finnegan replied, “but even if I did, I would not betray them to you.”
“Think of what has been said to you,” added Irwin. “I give you my word also to the same effect.”
“Mr Irwin,” he replied, “I have but one word to say. When I did what I did, I knew very well that my life would pay for his, and I know that if he had thought so, he would be standing now in my place. Carry out your sentence. I’m ready”
“Take five minutes,” said Moore. “Give him up and live.”
“Mr Moore,” said he, with a decision and energy which startled them, “I am his Foster-Brother!” He felt now that he had said enough and he silently stood at the place appointed for him. He was calm and showed no fear, and at the first volley of shots he fell dead instantaneously. In this way he passed from this life.
Houston, finally realised that the insurgent cause was becoming increasingly hopeless. Being urged by his young wife he escaped, after two or three other unsuccessful engagements, to America. Old Moore died a few years later, having survived all the resentment he had earned. He also succeeded in reconciling the then government to his son-in-law, who returned to Ireland, and it was found by his will, much to the anger and disappointment of many of his relatives, that he had left the bulk of his property to Mrs Houston, who had always been his favourite child, and whose attachment to Houston he had originally encouraged.
In an old, lonely churchyard there is to be found a handsome monument, which has the following passage inscribed upon it, i.e. “Sacred to the memory of Francis Finnegan, whose death presented an instance of the noblest virtue of which human nature is capable, that of laying down his life for his friend. This monument is erected to his memory by Thomas Houston, his friend and foster-brother, for whom he died.”