August 25, 2011

Illuminations: A Sodden Irish Duel


This watercolor satire is not in fact Irish, but instead from a German students

With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

As mentioned last week, the Illuminations for The Duel by Alexander Kuprin contain a collection of fiction and poetry that in most cases are all individually titled “The Duel.”  This also includes chapters titled thus. In this spirit, the second to last  selection from the Illuminations for Kuprin’s sobering tale is an 18th century Irish yarn that is, without a doubt, soaked through and through.

Here is chapter XXXII of Irish Tales, a novel by Michael Banim (1796-1874). Despite being a bestselling author in his time, Banim is better known for his role in editing and writing portions of his brother John Banim’s very popular O’Hara Tales. Published in 1866, this slapstick chapter was given the title of “The Duel.”

In answer to the “hallo!” that had made him bound, Tom O’Loughlin proceeded to discharge his mission. I should remark that the decayed gentleman’s manner was much altered during his present conference with the Half-pay. Somewhat of the spirit and demeanour of his early days returned to him,—of those days when he was a pleasant, hearty fellow, with money to waste, and no prevoyance of future pauperism.

“I come on a rather unpleasant business, Colonel,” he said.


“This day, Colonel,—I regret I was there to witness it,—you publicly degraded our mutual friend, Mr. Richard O’Meara.”

“Whaled him—well?”

“You struck him with your stick, on the public bridge of this town.”

“He’ll get—more—if—” the Half-pay did not finish this sentence.

“It is scarcely necessary for me to say, Colonel, that a public insult of this nature must be as publicly acknowledged and apologized for,—or the offending party must—”


Tom O’Loughlin bowed, and then looked at the Half-pay with an air by no means cringing.

“As the friend of Mr. O’Meara, Colonel, I am here to require that you will make a public apology for the public insult given.”


Then, Colonel, it only remains for me to act as Mr. Richard O’Meara’s friend. I have not the honour, Colonel, of knowing your name, I presume you will have no objection to give it me?”


While pronouncing these words the Half-pay whirled around; he allowed his cudgel to fall, and wielded the sledge-hammer with both hands.

Paddy—WHACK!” he shouted. And at the word “Whack,” which surname he assumed for the occasion, he stove in the head of the keg Bridget Scallon had placed on the bench.

“Paddy—Whack!” he continued to shout out. And at every repetition of the euphonious surname, he dealt his blows vigorously on the bodyguard of black bottles—until not one remained unbroken.

From keg and bottles a united stream of poteen flowed about the yard, thence into the sewer, and from the sewer into the river. The atmosphere was redolent with the stinging effluvia of poteen;—and Toby Purcell assured me that the water of the river was converted into grog, and that an angler then engaged in his pastime filled his panmer in a twinkling, so heedless and giddy had the fish become by the influence of the admixture. “In fact,” Toby Purcell affirmed, “the trouts became royally drunk, every one of them.”

The astonishment, the more than astonishment of Tom O’Laughlin and Bridget Scallon was excessive. It was a mingled sensations of horror and grief that overwhelmed them. The grief of both was however thoroughly selfish. Tom O’Loughlin looked on with a melancholy visage while the inspiriting principle of his existence, that raised him nightly from his shivering sense of pauperism to forgetfulness and spreeishness, was wantonly wasted. And Bridget Scallon saw with a sad heart the never-failing strengthener of her tea gurgling away,—if we take Toby Purcell’s authority, to tipsify the fishes.

“Oh, Colonel, Colonel,” said Tom O’Loughlin, “you have destroyed—”

“The Devil!—Not—drunk—again,—you—he!”

And the Half-pay pointed in the direction of Richard O’Meara’s cottage. Tom O’Loughlin sighed deeply.

“Well, well, Colonel!—permit me now to finish the affair that has brought me here. You decline to apologize?”

“I do.”

“Then be good enough to refer me to a friend with whom I may arrange the preliminaries of the meeting. Who is to be your friend, Colonel, for the occasion?”


“Colonel! I am here as Mr. O’Meara’s friend. It would give me pleasure to discharge the like duty for you on another occasion. But, as you perceive, I cannot do so now.”


“Oh, Colonel, permit me to point out to you—”


The Half-pay hastened off. From a compartment of his mysterious portmanteau he took out, carefully covered in woolen casings, two long-barrelled pistols, linked together by a strap. These he flung across his shoulder. From the receptacle he extracted a small powder flask, having a bottom to screw off, in which were bullets and caps. Thus provided for, he presented himself before Richard O’Meara’s friend.

“Ready?” he shouted.

As a matter of course, Tom O’Loughlin declined to be a party to such precipitancy. Nor would he consent to fill the part of second to the challenged as well as to the challenger. The Half-pay insisted on it, however, and the decayed gentleman departed to consult his principal.

Richard O’Meara, not free from the excitement of drink, and yet determined, as he professed, “to send the disabled old ruffian home on a door, stiff and stark,” was tickled by the oddity of the Colonel’s proposal, and he also decided that Tom O’Loughlin should discharge the unprecedented office in the history of dueling, of a go-between to both combatants. Tom, for good reasons of his own, had no mind to come to a misunderstanding with either, and so be finally agreed.

The sun, not yet risen from his couch, was but glancing upwards with eyes half open, when Richard O’Meara, accompanied by the decayed gentleman, was on his way to the “sod.” The spot selected was, in this instance, misnamed “a sod,” there being no sod whatever. The reencounter, from which the Half-pay was to be “sent home stiff and stark,” was to take place beyond the “village of the Bornochs,” close by the sea-side, on a strip of smooth sandy beach. The battle-ground was chosen because of its seclusion, the affair being conducted with the greatest privacy, that the deadly intent of the challenger might not be interrupted.

The decayed gentleman and his original principal had but partially slept off the previous night’s debauch, and they blinked like owls overtaken by the light of day. The little sandy beach they had to gain was more than two Irish miles distant from “The town of the Cascades.” It was yet grey morning when they reached it. Even at that very early hour, there stood the Half-pay, as erect, and as immovable as a post.

Over his shoulders hung his pistols, still in their cases; and he had provided himself with a flat stone on which the muzzle of his leg rested, to prevent it from sinking into the yielding sand.

“The Colonel is no flincher, I see,” Richard O’Meara carelessly remarked. “The quicker we proceed to business the better.”

Tom O’Loughlin was soon busy as the manager of the performance. He shook the Half-pay’s hand warmly, in answer to his salutation of “Maw, maw!” He loaded the Half-pay’s pistols with the skill of a veteran duelist. Scanning the ground with experienced eye, he saw that his principal Number Two was unfavourably placed; there was a rock behind him that imparted too much of the character of a target to the present object of his arrangement. The Half-pay removed without objection of his arrangement. As he went along his leg sunk deep, and with some difficulty he drew it up at every step. Tom O’Loughlin did not fail to appreciate the utility of the flat stone, and he adjusted it as before. Tom O’Loughlin proved by his conduct that he was the soul of honour and fair dueling, and were such decayed gentleman available on all similar occasions, I see no necessity why one person more than is really necessary should be engaged to arrange a dueling rencounter.

Taking the Half-pay as his starting post, Tom stepped twelve paces, an exact yard to each pace. It was not his first essay, and he could step three feet accurately. At twelve paces distant from the Half-pay, Tom placed his principal Number One.

The Second, or, more properly in this instance, the Third, was of course to give the word and make the signal for attack. He retired somewhat out of the range of bullets.

“Ready—Present—Fire!” he cried, in a loud, distinct voice, and he dropped his glove.

Enter both had fired at the exact same instant, or there had been but one shot. Tom glanced from combatant to combatant. They both stood erect; neither faltered. He saw the Half-pay hastily raise his hand to his cheek, look at it, and then flourish his cudgel above his head. Tom subsequently discovered that the ball from Richard O’Meara’s weapon had passed so close to his opponent’s jaw, that a gap, marking its course, was cut through the umbrageous whisker that covered it. The Half-pay had barely escaped his threatened fate of being sent home on a door.

Startled by the report of the pistol, the gulls in a neighbouring cliff flew about screaming. One more inquisitive and bolder than the others came sailing over the head of Tom O’Loughlin’s principal Number One. The Half-pay raised his arm rapidly and fired. The bird fell dead at Richard O’Meara’s feet. Little doubt could there be that had the same bullet been sped against his opponent, the Half-pay would not have been the party doomed “to go home on a door.”

The duel, according to all the laws of honour, so called, was terminated. The Half-pay had stood the fire of his opponent, and had not returned it. And so, neither of the decayed gentleman’s principals went home “on a door.”

For the last post featuring the Illuminations within our new HybridBook series, we will look at the “greatest hits” of the rich tradition of dueling in Russian literature.