By Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections and Content, Maynooth University Library
Cataloguing and preparing our archival collections is a time intensive endeavour. One of the consequences of this is a delay from the time at which we acquire a collection to when it becomes available for consultation. This is a challenge, not least for the staff who are desperate for such wonderful items to be available, but are equally conscious that to do so before they are ready puts them at risk. The upshot of this is that we have, at any time, a number of ‘undiscovered gems’ waiting to step into the sunlight of the researcher’s benevolent gaze!
One such collection is that of the Howe Peter Browne, 2nd Marquess of Sligo. Browne was the only son of the first Marquess of Sligo, who had received this ennoblement after he voted for the Act of Union in 1800. While in many ways his life gives the impression of the classic ‘Regency Buck’ his energy and enthusiasm for travel and adventure led him to live a remarkable life, roaming over Europe. His later life is, in many ways defined by one significant act; his attempt, while governor of Jamaica to free the slaves of that island.
The archive held in Maynooth University Library focuses on the earlier part of his life and contains a remarkable array of fascinating anecdotes, historical facts, interpretations of significant events and insights into some of the great characters of the era.
The first tranche of correspondence, dating from 1809-1811 consists of forty-three letters written by him, mainly to his mother, as he travelled from Cornwall to Gibraltar, to Malta, to Sicily, to Greece and finally to Constantinople between 1809 and 1811. Browne already had a love of travel and realised as he wrote to his mother that he was very privileged to be able to do so ‘It would be a capital stroke to see France, Italy, Switzerland, Prussia, Russia at a time when very few of my countrymen, I may almost say none, can see them’ (Letter from Falmouth, January 6, 1810).
An intrepid traveller, he gave consideration to taking the overland route through Europe and requested his mother to contact the Duke of Wellington who would in turn request Napoleon for a passport for Sligo to travel through France an her territories; despite the fact of war!
In the end, he opted for alternative travel arrangements, and writing from Gibraltar, February 12, 1810, Sligo asked his mother to buy a particular vessel for a mere £2000, with the defence that:
‘am so certain of her absolutely being essential to the pleasant spending and safety of my tour that I have no hesitation in requesting you if you really have the money remaining over to buy her and send her off immediately to me to Malta.’
This option came to nothing, but he subsequently purchased a brig which had previously brought Lord Byron to Greece, reassuring his mother that ‘she is perfectly safe both from gales of wind or an enemy’s chase’ (Letter, Valetta, May 3, 1810)
This view contrasted however with that of Byron who noted less enthusiastically that ‘…Sligo has a brig with 50 men who won’t work, 12 guns that refuse to go off, and sails that have cut every wind except a contrary one’
The second tranche of letters covers 1813-1814 and offers an insight into some vital moments of the last days of the Napoleonic Wars.
Sligo seems to have been one of the first exponents of what might now be termed ‘war tourism’ and he found himself a bystander at the crucial battle of Leipzig, making sure to send home a map of the battlefield, <see image> complete with description. He also offered insights into several of the major players noting:
“I saw this morning the Emperor quite close and I think him the finest looking fellow I ever saw. The King of Prussia also was moving about in a most shabby old dowager like coach. He never has been done justice to in England by the portraits of him as he is really a very handsome young man” (Letter from Frankfort on Maine, November 20, 1813)
He continued to follow the Allies as the battled Napoleons forces, and made sure to be back in France for the return of the king to Paris, which he described in some detail:
“I have just come back from the procession which was most affecting indeed: Women going into hysterics etc in every quarter, at least I saw two or three that did so.The King was so fatigued by the ceremony that he went to bed the moment he got in: the Duchess of Angoulesme, the Prince de Condé & Duc de Bourbon were in an open Phaeton with him.’ (Letter to his mother, May 3, 1814).
The collection is an interesting complement to some others in our holdings, notably the Littlehales Archive, although sadly, it is not complete, with complementary holdings in several other repositories. Despite this, it remains a unique insight into not just a remarkable period of history, but also the life lived by those lucky enough to afford it and is suffused with vignettes of famous characters and events, in a wonderfully singular voice.
For further information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
 Lord Byron’s Correspondence, Vol. 1, ed. John Murray, London, 1922, p.10)