Fascinating life of genius behind heavenly gardens

By david looby

Published 28/07/2015 | 00:00

Alan Ryan, (left), manager of the project with workers David Power and Tim Kinsella at the site in September 2010
Alan Ryan, (left), manager of the project with workers David Power and Tim Kinsella at the site in September 2010
Alan Ryan, (left), manager of the project with workers David Power and Tim Kinsella at the site in September 2010

THE colourful Colclough Walled Gardens are fittingly matched by the colourful and rich history of its creators, one of whom was killed in a political duel two days before an election, while the other lived a life straight out of The Count of Monte Cristo.

For a man who loved fruit gardens, it was fitting that a piece of rhubarb enabled one of the architects of Colclough Walled Gardens to escape from Napoleon Bonaparte's clutches.

Caesar Colclough, pictured, lived a fascinating life. Having studied at Trinity he had to leave college early due to his father's profligate spending. He escaped from penury in Wexford to London for a legal education, but while in Paris in 1792 working as a journalist during the French Revolution, he was arrested and made a 'prisoner of state'. He escaped to Lausanne in Southern France and although he had meanwhile succeeded to his encumbered estate, decided to remain on the continent, leaving his brother John to manage and remit him £600 per annum, while he dabbled in 'mechanical experiments' for future redemption, and perambulated central Europe.

In December 1804 Colclough's brother John applied to him to come home and stand on the 'popular' interest for Wexford as an MP. A year later he agreed to do so.

His decision turned out to be 'the greatest misfortune that ever befell me'. No sooner was he returned in absentia, after a contested by-election in which he received the support of the Grenville ministry, in May 1806, than he was taken hostage by Bonaparte. He was therefore unable to take his seat. At the ensuing general election his brother John, who had been his election manager, was returned in his place, only to be shot dead defending his seat at the election of 1807. The election campaign had been a bitter one. Polling was due to take place on June 1 but with just two days to go his rival Alcock took exception to what he alleged was an attempt by Colclough to steal the support of tenants obligated to vote for him. He challenged Colclough to a duel and in the encounter that followed Alcock shot his political opponent dead. As the MP for Athlone, George Tierney observed tartly, 'that's one way of getting an election'. As duelling was still socially acceptable in early 19th century Ireland Alcock was acquitted of murder and allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons, but he was not to continue in office for long - two years after the duel he was committed to an asylum.

Meanwhile, while imprisoned, Caesar Colclough's family sent him food provisions. Caesar had them write in 'invisible ink' (lemon juice) exactly what was in the basket on the back of a letter and he read this by candlelight to ensure nothing had been purloined.

While imprisoned, Bonaparte gave him the opportunity to earn his freedom. He went before a committee on useful inventions and presented a model of a threshing machine he had seen in use in County Wexford.

During this period of release from prison he devised a plan to change his passport and identity. Using oxalic acid from a rhubarb stalk, he altered his passport, changing his identity from a man to a woman. Dressing up as a woman, he escaped France in 1814, returning to Wexford to see to his estate. By the spring of 1817 he decided to contest the county and served as an MP for many years. Around this time £80,000 was stolen from his estate and it has been rumoured that a Kennedy was behind this and that the money was used to take the famous Kennedy's to America.

He continued to live frugally, hoping to recover the properties alienated by his father. He died on August 23, 1842.

Wexford People

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