Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Steele, Thomas (1788-1848)

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STEELE, THOMAS (1788–1848), Irish politician, was born at Derrymore, co. Clare, 3 Nov. 1788. He belonged to an old Somerset family which had settled in Ireland in the seventeenth century. His father, William Steele, who died while he was an infant, was the younger brother of Thomas Steele of Cullane, the owner of a very considerable property in co. Clare, to which Steele succeeded at an early age. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated B.A. in 1810, and subsequently at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he graduated M.A. in 1820, after being incorporated B.A. in the same year. A man of ardent and even quixotic disposition, his whole life was one of action and adventure. In the Spanish war of 1823 against Ferdinand VII, he joined the patriot army, and impoverished his estate by raising 10,000l. on mortgages to provide military stores for the insurgents. He was present at the battle of the Trocadero, and it was not until the evacuation of Cadiz by the French that he abandoned a hopeless contest. In 1824 he published an account of his share in the struggle entitled ‘Notes of the War in Spain’ (London, 8vo).

On his return to Ireland Steele threw himself with fervour into the agitation for catholic emancipation. Although a protestant, he was one of the earliest members of the revived Catholic Association. He seconded O'Connell's nomination for Clare in 1828, and it was largely by his advice that the great agitator was induced to stand on that occasion (Wyse, History of the Catholic Association, i. 373). Steele opened the electoral campaign in Clare by expressing his readiness to fight any landlord who should conceive himself aggrieved by his interference with his tenants. His position as a protestant landlord made him peculiarly valuable to O'Connell, and Sheil considered that he contributed more largely than any other individual to the return of O'Connell on 5 July (Sheil, Sketches, ii. 108). He was appointed by his leader to the position of ‘head pacificator,’ an odd post for a man of his character; and was often instrumental in preventing outrages among his followers. John O'Connell, being asked ‘Why did Dan make a semi-lunatic his head pacificator?’ is said to have replied ‘Why, indeed! Pray, who the devil else would take such a position?’ (Duffy, Four Years of Irish History, p. 399). At O'Connell's second election for Clare, Steele challenged and fought William Smith O'Brien [q. v.], who had not then embraced popular principles, for asserting that O'Connell was not supported by any of the gentry of Clare.

After the passing of catholic emancipation Steele took a less prominent part in politics, though he remained a staunch adherent of O'Connell, to whom he was personally devoted, declaring that if the latter ordered him to sit on a mine he would obey the mandate. He was one of those arrested and tried with O'Connell in 1843. In the dissensions between O'Connell and the Young Irelanders, he took the side of his old chief. Shortly after O'Connell's death Steele, who was much distressed by that event, and whose fortune had been completely wasted by his sacrifices for the causes with which he was associated, attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Thames off Waterloo Bridge. Though rescued from drowning, he died at Peele's coffee-house, Fleet Street, a few days later, on 15 June 1848. Lord Brougham was among those who attended his deathbed. His remains were brought to Ireland, and buried beside O'Connell's in Glasnevin cemetery. Steele's is one of the most picturesque figures in the history of Irish popular movements. Though his actions were often wild and his principles extreme, he appears to have been a man of absolute sincerity, and was known through his career as ‘Honest Tom Steele.’ He took much interest in his property and in the condition of the people, and in 1828 published a book entitled ‘Practical Suggestions for the Improvement of the Navigation of the Shannon,’ in which there are passages of vivid, if florid, description. It marks the oddity of Steele's character that in the same volume he published an animated essay on the widely different subject of the treatment of the Irish catholics after the treaty of Limerick. He was also the author of ‘An Analytical Exposition of the Absurdity and Iniquity of the Oaths, when taken by Protestants, that the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Invocation of Saints are superstitious, idolatrous, and damnable,’ London, 1829, 8vo.

[O'Neill Daunt's Ireland and her Agitators; Fitzpatrick's Correspondence of Daniel O'Connell; Torrens's Memoirs of Sheil; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography; Gent. Mag. 1848, ii. 207.]

C. L. F.