Text here…On the banks of the river Fergus in Ennis, County Clare stands a stone known as Steele’s Rock. On this, supposedly, in the early 19th century sat a man called Thomas Steele who used it as a vantage point from which to gaze on a nearby house called Abbeyfield (today a garda station, see: In need of TLC « The Irish Aesthete). Therein lived a young lady, Miss Crowe, with whom Steele was much in love but his passion was not reciprocated and, it seems, she never even troubled to notice her putative suitor. This tale is only one of many told about Thomas Steele, certainly one of the more colourful characters living in Ireland at the time. Born in 1788 to a gentry family, he had been raised by his uncle and namesake at Cullane, a house built just a few years before his birth and beautifully sited on the western shore of Lough Cullaunyheeda: following his uncle’s death in 1821 he inherited the property. Most country gentlemen would have settled down to enjoy their estate, but Thomas Steele was never wont to behave like most country gentlemen. A classical scholar of note, throughout his life he was inclined to become involved in a variety of different projects. In 1825, for example, having undertaken experiments with underwater diving apparatus, he patented ‘Steele’s improved diving-bell.’ and around the same time became a partner in the Vigo Bay Co., which was trying to recover gold and silver bullion from Spanish ships sunk in Vigo Bay in 1702. A complete failure, the company was wound up somewhat acrimoniously in 1826, but this didn’t deter him: an associate of the English diving siblings John and Charles Deane, in 1836 Steele used their new diving helmet to explore the wreck of the Intrinsic soon after he had sunk off the County Clare coast. Interested in developing equipment to provide underwater illumination, four years later he dived with the Deanes to look at the wreck of Henry VIII’s great ship, the Mary Rose, off Portsmouth. But prior to these enterprises, in 1823, he had decided to go to Spain and join rebels fighting against the absolutist monarch Ferdinand VII. Accordingly, he mortgaged the house and land at Cullane for some £10,000, using the funds raised to buy arms and shipping these to Spain. Once there, he joined the Legion Estrenjera of the rebel army, distinguishing himself in the battle of the Trocadero and the defence of Cadiz. Following the liberals’ defeat, he returned to Ireland and published an account of what he had witnessed,, Notes on the war in Spain (1824).
A couple of years after returning from Spain, Thomas Steele found another cause with which to become involved: Catholic Emancipation. Which is not to suggest he planned to become a Roman Catholic: he had previously written a letter to the elderly Pope Pius VII urging him to convert to Protestantism. But after meeting Daniel O’Connell, Steele had become an ardent supporter of the latter’s Catholic Association and was soon appointed its Vice-President of the Association. Although he never converted from the Established church, on his land at Cullane he erected an outdoor altar, so that mass could be said there any time O’Connell visited: the ‘altar’ was actually a dolmen cap stone that had previously stood at what was believed to be the dead centre of Ireland near Birr, County Offaly: it has since been returned to its original site). In 1828 Steele seconded O’Connell’s nomination for election in County Clare and was with him with the Catholic Relief Bill of 1829 passed. Strongly supportive of his hero’s repudiation of physical violence and despite being called the ‘Head Pacificator’, Steele was a noted duellist who that same year fought an inconclusive duel with William Smith O’Brien over what he believed to be a personal slight from the latter. More importantly, his total belief in O’Connell, and his personal disregard for money, led him to be popularly known as ‘Honest Tom’. Once Catholic Emancipation had been achieved, he continued to give his support to the next great cause: the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union. Following the government’s prohibition of the Clontarf monster meeting in October 1843, Steele was tried on conspiracy charges and imprisoned with O’Connell in Richmond jail. So closely was he allied with O’Connell that he never recovered from the latter’s death in May 1847 and the following April, suffering from depression and facing financial ruin, he jumped off Waterloo Bridge in London. Although rescued from the water, he never received and died in June 1848. His body returned to Ireland, he was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, beside O’Connell’s tomb.
A date stone at Cullane is market 1799, but the house is thought to date from the early 1780s. Of two storeys over basement, the three-bay facade has a central breakfront with fan-lit doorcase on the ground floor and tripartite window above; between the two there used to be a carved stone bearing the Steele coat of arms, but this has been removed. On the eastern side, and overlooking the lake, the house is of three storeys, with a great central bow and tripartite windows to left and right of the ground floor. No interior decoration survives. Since Miss Crowe of Ennis refused to acknowledge or return his ardour, Thomas Steele had never married, and after his death the Cullane estate was inherited by a niece, Maria Wogan, married to Charles FitzGerald Studdert of Newmarket House. Their descendants continued to live there until 1954 when the place was sold to the Land Commission and the house left to fall into its present state of ruin, a sad end for what had once been the home of one of Daniel O’Connell’s most ardent supporters.