The Life of
James Napper Tandy
Birth & Background
James Napper Tandy was born in the Cornmarket region of Dublin and was baptised in St. Audoen’s Church on February 16th 1739. The son of a Church of Ireland ironmonger, whose family held lands in County Meath, Napper Tandy was educated at the famous Quaker school in Ballitore, Co. Kildare. He then followed his father into the merchant classes of Dublin serving an apprenticeship alongside his five brothers.
Marriage and Career
Like most protestant merchants of that era, Napper Tandy followed the pattern of securing a suitable marriage, which was then considered an essential prerequisite to successful career prospects. The Freeman’s Journal of February 26th 1765 states that he married Anne Jones, “an agreeable lady with a large fortune.” Availing of his wife’s fortune, Napper Tandy became a flourishing merchant trading from No. 16 Dorset Street and was elected a member of the Guild of Merchants. Displaying an admirable work ethic, and a great aptitude for business, Napper Tandy took shares in the new Grand Canal Company in 1783 and became a founder member of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in the same year. In 1791 he was elected a trustee of the Royal Exchange (now City Hall) on Parliament Street. Up to this point in his life, his career trajectory was decidedly upwards but the propagation of his political convictions would soon change this.
Politics and Napper Tandy
Napper Tandy’s baptism into national politics commenced in the late 1760s when he became involved with Charles Lucas and was elected the President of the Dublin Society of Free Citizens. This was a citywide campaign that encouraged establishment freeholders to assert their independence over their landlords. In 1777 he was elected a member of Dublin Municipal Council as a member of the Merchant’s Guild. The seeds of rebellion were already sown in Napper Tandy at this point as he sympathised with the ideals of the American War of Independence. He angered many loyalist Protestants in Dublin by taking an anti-war stance in arguing the British should not go to war with the American revolutionaries.
The Dublin Volunteers & Free Trade
Napper Tandy had joined the Dublin Corps of Volunteers in 1778, whose chief objective was the peaceful attainment of Free Trade with Britain. At this point a major injustice existed in that British goods could enter Ireland without tariffs, whereas Irish goods in so far as they competed with British goods, were subjected to duties in Britain. This protectionist policy on British goods became a major issue for Napper Tandy. He called for a total boycott of British goods and led an infamous demonstration of Dublin Volunteers through College Green on November 4th 1779. This protest greatly angered the authorities and his peers on the Dublin Municipal Council. This led to Napper Tandy being expelled from the Volunteers on April 23rd 1780. He responded by founding his own Dublin Independent Volunteers.
Politics to Agitation
Agitating for a reform of parliament, Napper Tandy then led a demonstration that invaded and disrupted the Irish Parliament on College Green. He demanded the non-consumption of foreign produce until Irish goods were treated fairly. Along with John Binns and William Arnold, he continued to agitate throughout the 1780s against the discriminatory trade laws that applied to Ireland. Becoming increasingly radical, Napper Tandy joined the United Irishmen in 1791, and was elected its first secretary. From a British perspective, he was now considered a most dangerous man.
The Winds of Revolution
Along with Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, Napper Tandy had totally supported the ideals of the French Revolution in 1789. He hoped Ireland would immediately follow suit. On the second anniversary of the revolution (July 14th 1791), Napper Tandy led 200 volunteers through the streets of Dublin. Becoming increasingly attracted to the method of violent revolt, he became more and more absorbed in the cause of the United Irishmen. However, at that time, he lost considerable support within the Municipal Council in calling for Catholic Relief, a cause that was an abomination to most members of the Protestant Ascendancy.
Insult and Duel
In 1792 when Tandy introduced a pro-catholic motion before the chamber, the Solicitor General, John Toler, made an insulting remark about Napper Tandy’s personal appearance and this led to duel being called between the two. Accurate historical accounts of this incident are both biased and sketchy as the authorities of the age clearly wanted to portray Napper Tandy in the worst possible light. One account states that Toler challenged for the duel and Napper Tandy refused escaping through a window of the chamber. However, it appears more likely that Napper Tandy had called for the duel, and as this behaviour was in breach of Member’s privilege, the House Speaker issued a warrant for his arrest. Napper Tandy then evaded arrest by escaping from the house. He managed to elude the warrant until its validity expired on the prorogation of Parliament. This account is clearly validated by subsequent historical events as Napper Tandy later took proceedings against the Lord Lieutenant for issuing the warrant.
The Road to Revolution
Along with Wolfe Tone and Russell, Napper Tandy continued to court the downtrodden catholics and revitalise the volunteers. He soon became involved with the Defenders, an organisation the authorities considered to be “a clandestine movement of lower class catholics.” Napper Tandy swore their oath, which by law was a capital felony. Through a network of informers, the British soon became aware of this and planned to trap him. On February 16th 1792 Napper Tandy was summoned to appear before Dundalk assizes on lower charges, but realising this was a front to charge him with felony, he fled the country.
Hamburg to America
In 1793 Napper Tandy took ship from Hamburg to America where he made contact with the French plenipotentiary in Philadelphia. Having stated his desire for an armed revolt in Ireland, he was awarded with an invitation to travel to France. Evading the British authorities, he arrived in Paris in March 1797. But his public appearances in France were soon reported to the British.
The Invasion Plans
While in exile from Ireland, much had changed in the United Irishmen. The organisation had now been transformed from a reformist club to a revolutionary movement. Arguing for a direct French invasion of Ireland, Napper Tandy fought with representatives of the movement who were then liaising with the French. Assuring the French that all of Ireland would rise up with them in rebellion against the English, he was commissioned a général de brigade. He was chosen to lead an expedition to Ireland.
Napper Tandy’s Invasion
On September 2nd 1798 Napper Tandy sailed from Dunkirk on the Anacréon, a fast-sailing corvette that made land off Rathlin Island in Donegal. Setting foot on Rathlin, he took possession of the village of Rutland and hoisted an Irish flag. Here he issued a vainglorious proclamation, “Liberty or Death.” But of course the organisation of the United Irishmen had not reached the poverty-stricken islanders, and realising the fate of General Humbert’s landing at Ballinamuck, Napper Tandy re-embarked attempting to set sail for France. Sailing around the north of Scotland, he captured a British vessel, which he took with him to the port of Bergen. But now the British were in hot pursuit determined to bring him to justice.
Betrayal and Capture
Napper Tandy then travelled from Bergen to the free port of Hamburg seeking passports to return to France. But deserters of the Anacréon informed of his whereabouts and a traitor, Samuel Turner, ostensibly a United Irishman, turned him in. A major diplomatic row followed as the British demanded his extradition and the French demanded his release. The British Consul in Hamburg, Sir James Craufund, eventually obtained custody of Napper Tandy on September 29th 1799. Later that year the HMS Xenophon, under Commander George Sayer, brought him and his companions to England to stand trial.
Tried for Treason and Sentenced to Death
Napper Tandy was arraigned before the King’s Bench in Dublin on February 12th 1800. He defended himself by arguing that as a consequence of his illegal arrest in Hamburg he was unable to comply with the British proclamation in Ireland that all rebels should surrender before December 1st 1798. He argued that if he had been allowed to comply with this order, (which of course he had no intention of doing) no charges would be necessary. The British, under law, had no option but to release him but they had already arranged to charge him with high treason for his part in the French Expedition to Donegal. On his release in Dublin, he was immediately rearrested and transferred to Donegal. While imprisoned in Lifford jail, Napper Tandy stood trial for high treason before the Donegal assizes on April 7th. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on May 4th 1801.
Napoleon Returns and Demands Release
All appeared to be going swimmingly for the British until Napoleon returned from his European Wars. He was furious at the Hamburg authorities for having extradited Napper Tandy to England and immediately demanded his release from custody. The British, who at this time were negotiating the Treaty of Amiens with France, did not want to incur the wrath of Napoleon. They secretly sent word to Lord Cornwallis in Ireland not to execute Napper Tandy.
Skulduggery and Release
While the British had assured the French he would be released, they publicly intended to make an example of Napper Tandy in order to discourage any future unrest in Ireland. Firstly, they offered him a pact that if he turned informer, he would be released. If he had agreed, they intended to make public his surrender and thereby discredit him and the entire Rebellion. But Napper Tandy refused. Now changing tactics, the British offered him a choice between immediate execution and transportation. Again, they intended to discredit him if he accepted. But Napper Tandy refused once more. Finally, they decided to quietly release him to appease the French.
Napper Tandy Arrives in Bordeaux
Sailing on the Favourite Nancy, Napper Tandy landed in Bordeaux on March 14th 1802 to a hero’s welcome. Nationally, he was acclaimed by the French and given the rank of Général de Division by Napoleon. He was also given a French pension of 3,000 livres per annum. He loved life in Bordeaux and was very active in all aspects of French social and commercial life. While living there, he became very friendly with Hugh Barton, (the founder of Barton & Guestier French Wines) with whom he intended going into partnership. With the tacit support of the French, Napper Tandy was also working on plans for a new invasion of Ireland.
Napper Tandy had not seen his wife or family – except on prison visitation - since he first left Ireland in 1793, but his son James is known to have visited him in Bordeaux. Napper Tandy died at his French lodgings, 2 Rue Moncheuil, on August 24th 1803, aged 64 years. His years in British captivity had clearly left their mark on his health. He was accorded a full military funeral in France with national recognition. During his short time in Bordeaux, he had a son by his French mistress, Marie Barrière, to whom he left the residue of his estate. This was disputed by his family in Ireland. There are unconfirmed and unsubstantiated accounts that his body was later re-interred in a family plot at Castlebellingham in County Louth.