An ancient oil painting sits above the fireplace in our dining room. The subject is a man with whom I share a fair bit of DNA and two names. His life, legacy and the tumult of Irish politics 200 years came to mind recently when I took delivery of a 32-bore, seven-shot, hand-rotated carbine, made in 1838 by William & John Rigby of Dublin.
Lord Edward FitzGerald was an early proponent of Irish independence from the British Empire. This was quite embarrassing for the authorities as he was the brother of the first Duke of Leinster and, thereby, a member of the most important dynasty of Anglo-Irish aristocracy.
Edward had a distinguished army career, including surviving serious wounds inflicted at the Battle of Eutaw Springs in 1781, while fighting rebellious colonists in South Carolina.
It is thought he took inspiration from the success of American revolutionaries in forming his theories about how the Irish could one day break free in similar fashion.
He joined the United Irishmen in 1796, after successful expeditions in North America and Spain and having resumed his seat as a Member of the Irish Parliament. Increasingly, Edward became convinced that military struggle was the only action likely to bear fruit.
When the authorities learned of his part in the conspiracy, a reward of £1,000 was placed on his head and he went into hiding in rooms above a Dublin pub.
There, he was discovered by a party led by Major Henry Sirr and entreated to surrender quietly. Despite suffering from a fever, Edward leapt out of bed, attacked and mortally wounded Captain Daniel Ryan and stabbed Captain William Swan before he was shot in the shoulder by Major Sirr.
Thrown into Dublin Castle without treatment, he died of infection at the age of 34 on 4 June 1798. Major Henry Sirr was also a significant figure in Rigby’s history. It was he who almost cost the first John Rigby his business when he raided the shop at around the same time he shot Lord Edward FitzGerald, in 1798.
Rigby’s entire stock, including weapons in storage for his customers, was seized and what was eventually returned was badly damaged. The state paid no compensation, despite never formally accusing John Rigby of any wrongdoing.
Ireland remained tormented by political unrest for the next 200 years. In 1923, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were in the middle of a campaign of burning down the houses of Anglo-Irish landowners.
When one such mob arrived at the FitzGerald’s seat, Carton House, intent on destruction, the family came to the door with a portrait of Lord Edward and told the commander that they were about to burn the house of a great Irish patriot. Carton was left alone and stands to this day. 199 other country houses were razed to the ground. These events help explain the concept and commission of this remarkable Rigby weapon of self-defence. It was ordered in 1838 by Samuel Crosthwaite, owner of Lodge Mill in County Carlow, which made and exported potato starch.
There was a failure of the potato crop in 1838/9, resulting in widespread hunger, and public unrest threatened. Poor laws were enacted to mitigate the effects. Perhaps that was the reason Mr Crosthwaite felt the need for a radical multi-shot-side-arm to protect himself from the ravages of the potentially revolting peasants.
The gun is a smooth-bore carbine of 32-bore, with six barrels arranged around a seventh central barrel, 11-inches long. It cost Mr Crosthwaite 34 pounds and 13 shillings. In addition to the seven barrels, it has a spring-loaded bayonet.
The stock is well figured walnut and it has a butt trap with ramrod inside. It is decorated with scrolls and the maker’s name and remains in remarkable original condition, with appropriate patina for a gun of 185 years of age.
To make it function, the user must load each barrel with powder and ball, then put a percussion cap onto each nipple. The hammer is manually pulled back and the barrel hand rotated to bring the next nipple into view. That can then be fired and the cock/rotation process repeated for all six barrels in the outer circle.
The central (seventh) barrel fires simultaneously with the sixth, delivering two balls into your last adversary. With ammunition exhausted, the bayonet can then be deployed, if necessary.
The carbine was procured for the Rigby collection from a Belfast auction in 2023 and now forms part of a growing inventory of important and representative guns, pistols and rifles made by Rigby, between 1775 and the present day.
The style of the company as ‘W & J Rigby’ reflects the period of ownership by the founder’s two sons, William and John Rigby, from 1820 until 1858. The company reverted to ‘John Rigby’ when it was inherited by the founder’s grandson; son of John and the third of his name. It was this, third, John Rigby who would take the firm to London, in 1865 and substantially increase its prosperity.
A very similar carbine was once on display at the Dublin Museum. We have not yet established if this is the same one. If it is, it appears likely that it is unique.
Irish history is fascinating and Rigby, as perhaps the pre-eminent Irish gunmaker of the entire 19th century, was intricately involved with meeting demand for not just sporting guns but for military firearms and, like this fascinating carbine, personal protection weapons.