(27)  Thomas Stephen Copinger


Thomas Stephen was known as "Catholic Tom" and his cousin Thomas John was known as "Protestant Tom."  The two cousins being distinguished from each other by taking as second names those of their fathers.

Thomas Stephen possessed Carhue in 1776, but he was a Catholic, and by the penal laws a member of a Catholic family on becoming a Protestant and filing a bill of discovery, could compel the estate to be broken up and go by gavelkind.  Under this law his cousin, Thomas John Coppinger, filed a bill in 1777 against him and obtained possession of half the estates of Carhue.  It was the last time in Ireland that the operation of the penal laws, in their more severe form, was put in force.  Thomas Stephen was disseised of the demesne lands of Carhue and built a mansion at Leemount.  He was a very interesting character, being a most accomplished gentleman, a scholar, and a traveller. At the time the bill was filed against him for being a "Papist," it was likely the law would be repealed, and some friends recommended him to conform to the Established Church for a brief time, but he refused to do so, and said that "he would sooner be a victim to the law than an apostate to his conscience."[1]

The following interesting account is taken from Mr. D. Owen-Madden's Revelations of Ireland in the Past Generation. 

So late as 1779, Thomas Stephen Coppinger was possessor of the estates of Carhue.  He was, in direct line, the great‑great‑grandson of the first purchaser of the property.  He was in the possession of some fourteen hundred pounds per annum or thereabouts.  He had been educated at Bordeaux, where he had passed some time in a merchants office, the only kind of education left open to the Catholics, who were then excluded from the Bar, and from Dublin University.  He resided at his forefather's seat at Carhue, built in one of the most romantic parts of the scenery which diversifies the Lee.  The place is one of those old and gloomy residences which look as if they had a history connected with them.  The house is built on a sort of natural terrace, commanding an extensive lawn, at the foot of which runs the Lee, winding through a wood.  There is a good deal of timber on the demesne, which is laid out in the old style.  Here Mr. Coppinger lived, having married a relative of his own, a member of the ancient family (now extinct) of O'Huolahan.  His education in France had refined and enlarged his mind, and in acquirements he was superior to most of his neighbours; he had a strong constitution, and was remarkable for his agility and skill in all field sports, being noted for his horsemanship.

By the tenth clause of the bill, passed in 1703 the estate of a "Papist," not having a Protestant heir, was ordered to be gavelled or divided in equal shares between all his children.  In 1709, an Act, imposing additional severities, was passed, the first clause of which provided that no "Papist" should be capable of holding an annuity for life; the third clause enacted that a child of a "Papist" on conforming, should at once receive an annuity from his father; the fourteenth and fifteenth clauses secured jointures to the wives of Catholics, who should conform; the sixteenth prohibited a "Papist" from teaching, even as assistant to a Protestant master.

The proprietor of Carhue was not a little surprised when his cousin-german, Thomas John Coppinger, announced his intention, in the year 1776, of laying claim to half the estate, and requiring that the property left by the grandfather should be gavelled.  Thomas John conformed to the religion of the State, and threatened to file a bill of discovery against his Catholic cousin, Thomas Stephen.  His friends gathered round the latter, and many of them advised him to go through the ceremony of conforming.  In similar cases, there were several who, as it was profanely said, "consented to swallow their scruples and the sacrament together."

But Mr. Coppinger steadfastly refused to compromise his religious principles.  He was a man who would have gone to the stake for his opinions, though without a tinge of fanaticism.  His cousin persevered in his claims; the case was brought before the courts of law, and attracted much attention at the time.  In 1777, it was argued before the courts in Dublin, and it was not a little singular, that the counsel for the Catholic defendant should be Duquery, whose grandfather had been driven from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  Thus the counsel and the client were both sufferers by religious persecution - to Catholic despotism in France, and to Protestant tyranny in Ireland. 

Judgement, as a matter of course, was given in favour of Thomas John Coppinger.  The estate was divided into equal portions, and with his half he received the demesne of Carhue.  The sudden acquisition of the property made him reckless and improvident.  What was easily got was rapidly spent.  He lived far beyond his means, and, in the old Irish fashion, maintained an open house.  He kept a pack of hounds, and several hunters.  His residence was well known to the members of the Munster Bar, several of whom he always invited after the Summer Assizes at Cork.  His means, in a few years, became exhausted, and he was beset with difficulties.  He was obliged to give up his place of Carhue to his son, and for many of the last years of his life lived in retirement.

In the very year after the Coppinger estates were gavelled the law was altered on the motion of Luke Gardiner, afterwards Lord Mountjoy, a name dear to the lovers of religious toleration.  Thomas Stephen Coppinger bore the loss of his property with the greatest equanimity.  He built a handsome house on the portion of his property left to him, and brought up a large family there.  He was greatly respected by all the gentry of his neighbourhood, and, in the agitation for Catholic emancipation, was active and zealous. His eldest son was for many years secretary to the Catholics of Munster.  He lived to a very advanced age, and when his corpse was carried to the grave, there was an extraordinary concourse of persons anxious to do honour to a sufferer for conscience.

With the Protestants of his neighbourhood, Mr. Coppinger was always on the friendliest terms.  At a time when religious bitterness divided society in Ireland, Mr. Coppinger never lost the society of one of his Protestant friends and neighbours.  I may add, that between the children of the two cousins there was always the closest friendship.  It would be hard, indeed, if the descendants should be held responsible for the acts of an ancestor.

Another instance cited by Mr. Owen-Madden is that of the MacMahon estates, held by another branch of the Copinger family - the late William Coppinger, of Barryscourt, Co. Cork.[2]


[1] See Ireland and its Rulers, vol. ii., p. 201.



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